Suppose that I steal your laptop on Friday afternoon. As the weekend sets in, I begin to be plagued by guilt. Initially, taking your laptop seemed like a great idea. I need a new computer, and yours is much nicer than mine. It is newer, has a faster processor, more memory, a bigger screen, etc. I had imagined with great anticipation how much better life would be with a nice, new, up-to-date laptop. But now–now that I must live with having committed the theft–every time I open the computer, every time I so much as look at it, I am overcome by intense feelings of remorse. After a few days of this agony, on Monday morning I decide that I cannot live with myself unless I admit my wrongdoing and try to make amends. What should I do?
Presumably one of the things that I ought to do is apologize. For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s grant that an apology is a verbal expression of sorrow that consists of three elements: (1) an acknowledgement that I (the apologizer) have done wrong; (2) an attempt (by me) to make amends (i.e., an offer to compensate or make up for, if possible, the wrong that I have done); (3) my promising to avoid engaging in such wrongdoing in the future. [Perhaps you disagree with this account of apology. Perhaps you have your own preferred account, which you believe is superior in some way. No matter. The point I am making depends not at all on my getting the concept of apology correct. All that matters, with respect to the point I want to make, is that there are instances in which a person might decide to do (1), (2), and (3) and that in some such instances, doing (1), (2), and (3) is morally appropriate.]
So, to whom do I apologize? For what do I apologize? And, how should I offer to make amends?
I contend that divine command theory (DCT) gets the answer to these questions wrong. The answers surely depend upon the answers to two other questions: First, whom did I wrong? And second, what makes it the case that what I did was wrong? That is, since I ought to apologize to the person that I wronged, the question of to whom I should apologize depends on whom I wronged. Further, since I ought to apologize for that which I did in virtue of which what I did was wrong, what I should apologize for depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. And, since my offer to make amends ought to consist of an offer to compensate for the wrongdoing that I have done, how I ought to offer amends depends, again, on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong.
On divine command theory, what makes it the case that any instance of wrong-doing is wrong is the fact that it is a violation of divine command. So, on DCT, the answer to the second question (for what do I apologize?) is: I should apologize for doing something that violates a divine command. And the answer to the first question seems to be: God. I should apologize to God because it is his command that I violated and it is in violating his command that my wrongdoing consists. How we should answer the third question is less clear. It is not clear how I can compensate God for the wrongdoing that consists of my violating his commands. However, it is clear what I ought to do to find out what, if anything, I can do to make amends: I should ask God. I should say, “God, I have violated your command and for that I am truly sorry. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make it up to you.” Further, since God is the wronged party, if I offer a sincere promise to refrain from so-acting in the future, the person to whom that promise is directed ought to be God.
Let’s say that the person to whom we should offer apology when we have engaged in wrongdoing is the object of our moral concern. On DCT, it seems clear that the object of my moral concern, with respect to the wrongdoing consisting of my stealing your laptop, is God.
That is the wrong answer. When I have stolen your laptop, the proper object of my moral concern is you. You are the person I have wronged and it is to you that I owe an apology. What I should apologize for is taking something that belongs to you without your consent. Furthermore, the person to whom I should offer amends is you. I ought to return your laptop to you and ask if there is anything else I can do to make it up to you. And it is to you that I should offer my promise to never again engage in such wrongdoing. Therefore, DCT misidentifies the object of moral concern.
A defender of DCT may respond to the above argument thusly: It is true that, on DCT, God is an object of moral concern. On DCT, every time that a person engages in wrongdoing, that person owes an apology to God. But this does not imply that God is the only object of moral concern on DCT. Nothing prevents the divine command theorist from saying that, in addition to God, the person from whom you stole the laptop has also being wronged, and is therefore, an additional object of moral concern.
This response is devastating for DCT. Once we acknowledge that, in some instance of wrongdoing, there is someone other than God that has been wronged, it becomes untenable to claim that what makes any instance of wrongdoing wrong is the fact that it violates divine command. Presumably, if what makes you a proper object of my moral concern is the fact that I have wronged you, then it is possible for me to have wronged you even if I have not also wronged God by violating his command(s). But if it is possible to wrong a person without wronging God by violating his command(s), then it cannot be that what makes each and every action wrong is the fact that it violates God’s command(s).
Think again about the above questions: to whom do I apologize? for what do I apologize? how should I offer to make amends? If I have wronged you, then I ought to apologize to you. But for what should I apologize? The answer to this question depends on what makes it the case that what I did was wrong. Again, on DCT, what makes it wrong is that it violated God’s command. But does violating God’s command wrong you? And is that what I should apologize to you for? Should I say,
“I sincerely apologize for taking your laptop. I know that in doing so I violated God’s command and for that I am truly sorry.”
No. This gets the nature of the wrong wrong. I might have, in some sense, wronged you by violating God’s command. But that is not the proper locus of my doing wrong to you. Rather, what I have done to you is taken a piece of your property without your consent. That is what makes my taking your laptop wrong; the failure to respect your autonomy by seeking your consent before I took your laptop. The wrong-making feature here is something that I have done to you, not something that I have done to God. If this is the correct analysis of the nature of the wrong that I have committed, then it is clear that it is possible to commit wrongdoings even in the absence of divine commands. This is because there are wrong-making features that have nothing to do with violations of divine command. It cannot be, then, that, for all wrongdoings, what makes the action wrong is that it is contrary to the commands of God.
Furthermore, my offer to make amends is misplaced if it is an offer to God to make up for violating his commands. To make amends for the wrong I have done (the wrong consisting of the taking of your property without your consent), I must make an offer to you. The obvious offer to make is to return the laptop (and/or purchase a new one to replace it) and to compensate you for the time, effort, and worry that you experienced during your stressful efforts to deal with the theft of your laptop. Offering to compensate God cannot compensate you; my offer of compensation must be to the wronged party.
Notice that, to make sense of the idea that you are an object of my moral concern and to properly identify both that which I need to apologize for and how I ought to go about attempting to make amends, we need to allow that what makes my action wrong has to do with harms that I have inflicted on you. What makes my theft wrong has everything to do with violating your autonomy and has nothing to do with violating God’s commands. Even if I had not violated any divine command (because, e.g., there are no divine commands), I still would have done something wrong because I still would have done something that has a wrong-making feature (namely, the feature of being an action that violates your autonomy). Let me be as clear as possible: I am not denying that, in stealing your laptop, I have wronged God. What I am saying is that this cannot be the only wrong that I have committed. I have also wronged you. And this wrong (the wrong to you) has nothing to do with having violated God’s commands. Therefore, if the divine command theorist acknowledges that you are a proper object of my moral concern, this is a tacit admission that there are wrong-making features other than the feature of being contrary to the commands of God. Accordingly, DCT is false.
Here, again, are the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
I have written five parts in this series about the Euthyphro Dilemma, the overarching aim of which has been to show that the dilemma provides the basis of a decisive objection to the metaethical divine command theory (MDCT). In previous posts, I have explained what must be done to establish this:
(A) Show that the two options of the dilemma are mutually exclusive. (This was accomplished in Part 1)
(B) Show the two options are exhaustive (i.e., that these are the only options available) (This was accomplished in Part 4.
(C) Show that both options imply devastating problems for metaethical divine command theory.
i. Show that option (I) implies that MDCT is false. (This was accomplished in Parts 1 and 4).
ii. Show that there are serious and devastating problems associated with option (II) which (individually or collectively) indicate that MDCT is false.
In defense of claim (Cii), I have said that option (II) just is the MDCT and that there are four problems associated with it: (1) The contingency problem (2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem (3) The arbitrariness problem (4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
In Part 5, I looked in detail at problems (1) and (2) and argued that, while these are serious problems, an objection to MDCT based on them is not decisive. In this current post, I will examine problems (3) and (4) and argue that an objection to MDCT based on them is decisive. Problem (3): The Arbitrariness Problem
In Part 4, I described the arbitrariness problem as follows:
If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.”
Defenders of divine command theory have attempted to address this problem in two distinct ways. Some divine command theorists argue that God’s commands are grounded in (or are expressions of) God’s essential nature. In his contribution to the volume, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough, William Lane Craig, for example, says,
On the theistic view, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. (Garcia and King, 30)
Let’s call this response to the arbitrariness problem, the Essential Divine Nature response (EDN). Other divine command theorists offer a response that is importantly different from EDN. This second response involves using the distinction between axiological value and deontic value. Those who rely on this response emphasize that MDCT is a theory specifically of deontic moral value rather than a theory of all moral value. Given this, they claim, the axiological value of actions can provide God with reasons for his commands. Let’s call this response the Axiological Value response (AV). I will evaluate these responses separately.
EDN does not resolve the problem because is not actually a response to the arbitrariness problem, but to the contingency problem. Thinking that it is a response to the arbitrariness problem is a result of failing to properly distinguish these two problems. I made this point in Part 2 of this series using the following example:
Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.
That Craig, for one, confuses the problem of arbitrariness and the problem of contingency is made clear in his response to the criticisms (printed in the volume mentioned above) of his position that were offered by Louise Antony and William Sinnot-Armstrong:
The arbitrariness horn of the dilemma . . . is avoided by rejecting voluntarism in favor of God’s commands being necessary expressions of his nature.
. . .
God’s commands are not arbitrary in the sense that he could have commanded the opposite of what he did command.” (Garcia and King, 173)
The worry that God could have commanded the opposite of what he did command is not the same as the worry that his commands are not grounded in reasons. The former is the contingency problem, and while this problem is addressed via the claim that God has his nature essentially, as my comments above (from Part 2) demonstrate, that commands are expressions of an essential nature does not imply that those commands are grounded in reasons
Given the confusion between the arbitrariness problem and the contingency problem that this response involves, EDN is hopeless as a response to the arbitrariness problem. Let’s turn, then, to the second sort of response, AV. As I have indicated, AV claims that the axiological value of actions provides God with reasons for his commands. Baggett and Walls offer a version of this response in their Good God:
If “God is good” is true both as a predication and identity, a typical reason that God issues the commands he does is that the actions he commands are good. (Baggett and Walls, 126)
In his God and Moral Obligation, C. Stephen Evans offers a very similar response to the arbitrariness problem:
Restricting the account to moral obligations allows the defender of DCT to escape the dilemma implicit in the Euthyphro question. If asked, “Are moral obligations duties because God commands them?” the proponent of DCT answers yes. However, this does not imply that God’s commands are arbitrary. God’s commands are aimed at the good and therefore are certainly not arbitrary. (Evans 90)
A common way of responding to AV is to point out that if God has reasons for his commands, then these reasons will also be reasons for us to do what he commands and so his commands are superfluous. I discussed this issue in some detail in Parts 2 and 3, so I will not do so here. Instead, I want to consider a different but related issue.
Let’s begin by noting that there seems to be no reason to command things that are merely good. It is good to buy flowers for your mother on her birthday, but this does not seem to be a reason to command that you do so. For a command to be reasonable, it seems more is required than that the commanded action is good.
Of course, the DCT theorist can point out that she is not relying on mere goodness but on axiological value, which, it is plausible to suppose, comes in degrees other than simple goodness and badness. Some acts have higher/more or lower/less axiological value than others and it is only those acts that have very high positive axiological value that God has reason to command that we perform and only those that have very negative axiological value (or value lower than some threshold) that God has reason to command that we not perform.
But once this point is made, it becomes plausible that God’s commands would be superfluous. If some action is so (axiologically) bad that God has reason to command that we not engage in it, then, it seems, its badness is enough to give us reasons to not engage in it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command. And if some action is so (axiologically) good that God has reason to command that we perform it, then its goodness is enough to give us reasons to perform it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command.
The DC theorist must push back against this argument; she must insist that axiological value alone is not sufficient to ground moral obligations. On MDCT a divine command is necessary for making an action morally obligatory. This can be true only it divine commands add something normatively significant. Thus, MDCT is only viable if commands are not normatively impotent. In other words, the response to the arbitrariness problem we’ve been evaluating succeeds only if there is an adequate response to problem (4).
To get a better sense of this, let’s consider a specific action, say a gratuitous pummeling of Carl. Call this act, Pc. Let’s consider the act in two different contexts. Context 1 (C1), in which Pc is committed when there is no divine command to not commit it; context 2 (C2), in which Pc is committed when there is a divine command to not commit it.
On the view we are currently considering, Pc has axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc, but these axiological properties are not sufficient to make it the case that it is morally obligatory to refrain from committing Pc. Importantly, Pc has the same axiological properties in C1 as in C2. This must be the case if these axiological properties are to provide God with reason(s) to command that we not commit Pc. For the axiological properties to provide God with reasons, it must be that these axiological properties are prior to and independent of any divine command with respect to Pc. Thus, Pc has these axiological properties even in contexts when there is no divine command with respect to Pc.
The axiological properties of Pc, we can assume, include not just the intrinsic value (positive or, more likely, negative) of the act itself, but also the axiological properties of the consequences of Pc. Thus, it is reasonable to assume, the axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc include the negative value of Pc intrinsic to the act itself, and the negative value of the consequences of Pc. Let’s use the designation ‘VPc’ to refer to the total axiological value of Pc (it’s intrinsic value and the value of its consequences) The view under consideration has it that VPc (or some subset of VPc) provides God with reason(s) to command that we not commit, Pc but that the entirety of VPc is not sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from committing Pc.
The defender of MDCT can acknowledge that VPc provides reason(s) for us to refrain from committing Pc; she must maintain only that any such reasons do not make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from Pc (since only a divine command can make an action morally obligatory).
For this to be the case, God’s command with respect to Pc must add something of normative significance that is not otherwise present. Another way of saying this is that MDCT implies that C2 contains something of normative significance that C1 lacks, namely the command of God to refrain from committing Pc. But for this to be so, divine commands must be normatively significant. I will now attempt to show that they cannot be. Problem (4): The normative impotence of commands
Here is what I wrote about this problem in Part 4:
A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.
The DCT gets its plausibility from two consideration: first, since God is perfect, he will only command us to do what he has good reason to command that we do; second, that, as the creator of all that is, we owe obedience to him. But to understand the problem with option (II) we must think very carefully about the contribution (if any) that God’s commands make to the deontic status of an action. This means that we need to isolate the commandedness (so to speak) of an action from other features, such as that there are good reasons for God to command it or that we are obligated to do it in virtue of being obligated to obey God. The effort to isolate the commandedness is what lies behind the call to consider obviously arbitrary commands.
Consider the possibility that God commands that we floss our teeth in the morning rather than the evening, so that the act of flossing in the morning has the property of being commanded by God. How could this factor make a contribution to the deontic status of flossing in the morning? Could this fact make any contribution? Arguments against DCT that are based in the Euthyphro dilemma capitalize on the intuition that no command could make such an act morally obligatory. But it is worth exploring the basis of this intuition. Why is it that the bare commandedness of such an act cannot make a contribution to its deontic status?
The answer to this question has to do with the fact that commands are the acts of rational beings and that rational beings act (at least frequently) on the basis of reasons. We can only understand a speech act as a command if we presuppose that the commander takes him or herself to have reasons to issue the command. A command is a directive to some person or persons that they engage in some action or course of action. A command has a subject—the person(s) to whom the directive is issued—and an object—the performance of the specified action (or course of action) by the subject. To take oneself to have reasons to issue a command is to take it that there are features of the object that count in favor of issuing the command. (This point is directly related to what I have previously called the action feature constraint. See Part 2.) In other words, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are features of the subject’s performance of the specified action that count in favor of directing this person to perform this action. But to say that there are features of the subject’s performance of the action that count in favor of that performance is just to say that there are reasons for the subject to perform the action. Thus, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are reasons that count in favor of the subject’s performance of the specified action.
A defender of option (II) can accept this much. What she must say, however, is that the features of the object of the command (the subject’s performance of the specified action) that count in favor of the subject’s performing (or refraining from performing) the specified action do not make it morally obligatory (or morally wrong) for the subject to perform the action. Saying otherwise would contradict claim (II). If so, then a divine command must add something of normative force to the reasons that exist prior to the command. That is, a defender of (II) must assert:
(DC-Add) A divine command that some subject, S, perform act A adds something of normative significance to the reasons for S to A.
Before explaining why DC-Add is false, I want to distinguish between two types of reasons. As I used the term above, the object of a command is the subject’s performance of the specified action. Thus, an object-given reason is a feature of an action that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action. A command-given reason is any feature of a command (or the issuance of a command by a commander) that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action.
So, if there are object-given reasons for the commander to issue the command, then there are reasons for the subject of the command to perform the specified act. Importantly, a command itself cannot be one of the features of the object that counts in favor of issuing the command. This is because the features that count in favor of the command must be prior to the command. This just means that the fact that an action is commanded by God is not an object-given reason to perform the action.
One more bit of terminology: I will use the expression “reasons already present” to refer to the reasons that there are to perform a specific action (in a given context) and that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands.
Option (II) (and, hence, MDCT) implies that God’s commands add something normatively significant to the reasons already present. But examples that involve arbitrary commands or horrible commands show that a command, by itself, cannot add to the reasons that are already present. A command that we torture an infant cannot add or subtract to the reasons already present to refrain from torturing an infant. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot add to the reasons (or, rather, lack of reasons) already present. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot change the fact that we have no reason to do it. Thus, examples involving arbitrary commands and horrible commands show that DC-Add is false. In the case of an arbitrary command, there are no object-given reasons to perform the action. If we agree that the arbitrary command does not make it obligatory to perform the action, we are agreeing that the command does not add anything of normative significance to the object-given reasons. But this just means that, in the case of an arbitrary command, there are no command-given reasons. In the case of a horrible command, there are object-given reasons to refrain from performing the action. The command does nothing to change this. And so, the command adds nothing of normative significance. But, again, this just means that, in the case of horrible commands, there are no command-given reasons.
The reasoning from the above consideration about arbitrary and horrible commands to the rejection of DC-Add is as follows: If a divine command added something of normative significance, then even arbitrary commands and horrible commands would add something normatively significant. But neither arbitrary nor horrible commands add anything normatively significant. So, it is false that divine commands add something normatively significant.
A defender of (II) might want to insist that while arbitrary commands and horrible commands add nothing of normative significance, when there are object-given reasons to perform some action, a divine command does add something of significance. But such a view is untenable. To evaluate the claim that divine commands add something of normative significance, we have to isolate whatever normative force might be contributed by a divine command. And this requires considering commands in isolation from the normative force of other considerations (such as object-given reasons). When we isolate the contribution of divine commands (as we can when we consider arbitrary and horrible commands), we find that they make no normative contribution whatsoever.
Consider: If a divine command made a normative contribution, then in a situation in which there are no object-given reasons to perform an action (or one in which the object-given reasons that count in favor of performance are exactly balanced by object-given reasons that count against performance) a divine command to perform the action, in virtue of making any normative contribution whatsoever, would be enough to tip the balance of reasons and thus make it the case that the action is morally obligatory. But a divine command cannot do this.
There are no object-given reason to utter the sentence “The cute kitty cat came walking and sleeping and uttering utter nonsense last Tuesday evening at sunrise and bit the orange dog’s corpus callosum in the banana tree” once a month, every second Monday at 5:00 am. Nor does there seem to be any reason not to do so. A divine command to utter this sentence cannot make it the case that it is morally obligatory to do so. This implies that a divine command to utter this sentence makes no normative contribution whatsoever. If divine commands made a normative contribution, then since there are neither object-given reasons that count in favor of nor object-given reasons that count against performing the action (and thus the balance of reasons is precisely neutral), a divine command could make it obligatory to utter the sentence. Since a divine command cannot do so; and this just means that the command itself cannot add to the reasons already present. So, a divine command would not add anything of normative significance.
At this point you might be thinking that there are social contexts in which a (non-divine) command can give a person reason to perform some action, which reason is not present prior to the command. When a commanding officer in the military, for example, gives an order, his subordinates are obligated to obey. And, arguably, children are obligated to obey when their parents tell them to do something. So, when a military officer commands that his subordinate perform some action, the subordinate has, just in virtue of that order, reason to perform the act (which reason was not present prior to and independent of the command). Thus, we might be tempted to say, given that we are obligated to obey God, when God issues a command, that command adds to our reasons, i.e., it provides additional reason(s) that were not present prior to the command.
This response will not help MDCT. The response just outlined assumes that, just as a subordinate is obligated to obey his or her commanding officer, we are obligated to obey God. But such general obligations (to obey superior officers or to obey God) exist prior to and independent of any command. The source of such general obligations is not a command, but something else. In the case of the military, it is plausible to suppose that a subordinate’s obligation to obey the commands of their superior officers is grounded in an oath that all military officers take. In the case of the children of children to obey parents, it is not as obvious in what the obligation is grounded. But the source of such obligations is not relevant to the point I am making. What is relevant is that the source must be something independent of and prior to the commands themselves.
By analogy, then, the response currently under consideration implies that we are under a general moral obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command. But that is incompatible with MDCT. The view according to which we have a general obligation to obey God is known as the Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT). (I have covered the distinction between MDCT and NDCT previously, in Part 2, and here.) According to metaethical divine command theory, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. Thus, such a view is inconsistent with the existence of a general obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command.
We are now in a position to state what I take to be a decisive objection to MDCT: MDCT takes option (II) and, given this, it follows that the reasons that God has for his commands cannot be what makes an action morally obligatory or wrong (i.e., on MDCT, in the absence of God’s commands, the RAP do not make any action morally obligatory or morally wrong). On MDCT, what makes the action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. But this cannot be correct because commands are morally impotent; by themselves, they add nothing of moral significance. A divine command might be a response to the reasons already present (which count in favor of the performance of the action), but the command does not generate any new reasons.
Baggett, D. and Walls, J., Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Evans, C. Stephen, God and Moral Obligation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Garcia, Robert K. and Nathan L. King (Eds.), IsGoodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).
 As I say in Part 4: “If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command.” And, if actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, then MDCT is false.  If you think that the length or silliness of the sentence or the energy needed to utter the sentence is a reason not to utter it, then consider any act such that you are sufficiently satisfied that there are neither reasons to perform it nor reasons to not perform it (perhaps, for example, the act of uttering to oneself the word ‘myrtle’ once a month on either the first, second or third Tuesday, sometime between 5 am and 10 pm).
This is the third in a series of posts about the Euthyphro dilemma. In this series, I am making a case that the Euthyphro dilemma provides the basis of a definitive objection to DCT. This case will take several posts to present fully. In part 1, I explained what the two options of the dilemma are and showed that these options are mutually exclusive. In part 2, I began to consider the problems that arise for any view that, like the divine command theory, takes the second of the two options.
In part 2 of this series, I considered the Arbitrariness Argument (AA), which serves as an objection to DCT:
Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.
Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).
Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.
Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.
Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.
As I pointed out, Premises 3 and 4 are the controversial ones. In the previous post, I made a case for Premise 3. In this post, I will make a case for Premise 4. There are two aspects of Premise 4, which are important to treat separately as much as possible. They are: (A) the reasons for our actions (which, importantly, are independent of and prior to God’s commands) ground our moral obligations; and (B) God’s commands (which are grounded in these reasons) do not ground our moral obligations. I will make a separate case for each of these aspects.
Recall that part of my case for Premise 3 involved what I called the Normative Independence Thesis (NIT):
(NIT): There are normative reasons (for action) that exist independently of and prior to God’s commands.
As I argued in part 2, in order to avoid the arbitrariness problem, DCT must accept NIT. Since, in order for God’s commands to be non-arbitrary, there must be normative reasons that favor his commands, a defender of DCT who insists that God’s commands are non-arbitrary is committed to the existence of normative reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands.
This is a highly significant result and in addition to supporting Premise 3, it serves as an entry point into a compelling case for Premise 4. What it tells us is that normative relations are independent of divine commands. If God’s commands are to be non-arbitrary, there must be such divine-command-independent normative relations. Since moral reasons are a species of normative relation, if normative relations can exist independently of and prior to divine commands, then it is reasonable to suppose that moral reasons can as well.
We can thus make the following concise case for (A): When we are morally obligated to do something, there are strong reasons of a particular kind to do that thing. So, plausibly, being obligated is just a matter of having reasons of the right kind and strength. Sure, it is not the case that anytime that I have reasons to engage in some action, I have a moral obligation to engage in that action. But reasons come in differing degrees of strength and, plausibly, when I have a moral obligation, I have it in virtue of having reasons that are particularly strong, so strong as to be binding.
A defender of DCT might push back against this argument by observing that a moral obligation is not merely a matter of having reasons. There is a vast difference between having a reason to Φ and being morally obligated to Φ. A moral obligation is binding; it is not a mere suggestion. Further, moral obligations are always obligations to someone. Having reasons is not the same as nor sufficient for being bound to do something for the sake of another person.
These observations are correct and important; there are important differences between merely having reasons and having a moral obligation. But the differences do not amount to an insurmountable gulf. As I noted above, in my concise case for (A), reasons come in differing degrees of strength. Some reasons amount to little more than suggestions, others are so powerful as to be overriding and demanding. Some reasons concern the welfare of sentient beings; other reasons are fairly disconnected from any being’s welfare. Some reasons involve the effects that an action would have on some person(s), some reasons do not. It is plausible that we have moral obligations precisely when there are very powerful reasons to perform some action, which reasons have to do with the well-being of a person (or, possibly, any sentient being).
I will therefore make a case that, once we grant that there are reasons that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, there is no obstacle to granting that some such reasons are strong enough and of the right sort to constitute moral obligations. Before I make this case, I need to make some preliminary points and define some terminology.
First, as I understand them, moral obligations are a special kind of norm. Moral obligations have the following features:
(i) They are binding: when we are obligated, something is required of us, it is not merely suggested or encouraged of us.
(ii) They involve reasons: when someone is morally obligated to do something, she has reasons to do that thing.
(iii) They have a social character: moral obligations involve things we owe to others (and perhaps ourselves). Obligations are always obligations to someone(s).
A reader who is looking for places to criticize my argument might want to start here. I am offering an account of the features must be present for someone to have a moral obligation. We might object that I have left some important feature of moral obligations out or included some feature that not all moral obligations possess. I encourage anyone inclined toward any such objections to let me know in the comments section.
With the above features in mind, let me stipulate some terminology, with the caveat that I am not intending, with the following definitions, to capture standard or common usage. I am stipulating how I will use these terms and am doing so solely for ease of exposition. Nothing in my argument depends on using this terminology, but I have found that this is the best way that I can make the points I want to make. Here is the terminology that I will use:
A welfare reason is one that involves the welfare of a sentient being.
A person-involving reason is one that counts in favor of or against actions that affect the well-being of some person(s).
A recommending reasonis one that counts in favor of (or against) some action, but does not do so strongly.
A demanding reasonis one that strongly counts in favor of (or strongly against) some action.
A moral reason is one that is either a welfare reason or a person-involving reason and that is stronger than a recommending reason.
While I will talk of demanding reasons and recommending reasons, we should not assume that this is a simple dichotomy. Rather, the strength of reasons exists of a spectrum; on one end are reasons that merely suggest (without requiring an action or being binding) and on the other end are reasons that are so strong as to make demands of us.
I will also understand a moral obligation as involving an all-things-considered ‘ought.’ In other words, when we say of someone that she is morally obligated to do something, we are making a judgement that takes all relevant factors into consideration; i.e., it is a judgement that, given present circumstances and all relevant considerations, this is what she ought to do. Claims that a person has (some) moral reason(s) to perform some act, I take to be (at least in most circumstances) pro tanto judgements. They are claims that, to some extent, a person ought to do something; but they are not all-things-considered judgements. As such, a claim that there are some moral reasons to do something is not the same as a claim that it is morally obligatory to do it.
An all-things-considered judgement, as the name suggests, takes into consideration all the relevant considerations. Reasons can conflict with one another. That is, in one and the same circumstance we can often have reasons that are opposed; one reason or set of reasons counting in favor of some course of action, some other set of reasons counting against the same course of action, and yet other reasons favoring an altogether different course of action. Reasons can also support and/or enable other reasons. The way in which reasons combine and interact is quite interesting and complicated, much too complicated to fully account for here. I recommend Jonathan Dancy’s Ethics Without Principles to those readers who want to understand this issue better. What matters for this discussion is just the idea that, an all-things-considered judgement results from the (often complex interactions) of pro tanto factors.
My case for Premise 4 rests on the idea that when we have moral reasons that are sufficiently strong, which are not canceled or counterbalanced by opposing reasons, that is sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated. In other words, if, all things considered, a person has sufficiently strong moral reasons to do something, then, just in virtue of this, she has a moral obligation. If this is correct, then having a moral obligation is just a matter of having, all things considered, reasons of the right kind and strength. Once we grant the existence of reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands (as even defenders of DCT must if the arbitrariness problem is to be avoided) there is no obstacle to granting the existence of reasons of the types I described above. In particular, there is every reason to expect that there are demanding moral and person-involving reasons. But, then, in some instances in which such reasons are present, there will be people who have reasons, the force of which is not canceled by opposing reasons (that is, all things considered), that are so strong as to be binding and that concern the well-being of persons. Therefore, in such situations, these people will have moral obligations.
I think that these claims can be best supported by thinking about some imagined but realistic examples. These examples will all involve people who have reasons and we will be able to make what I take to be fairly obvious comparative claims about the strength and content of these reasons. NEW JOB
Sally has been given a new job offer. It involves similar work and responsibilities to her current job, but has a slightly different compensation package. In addition, the new job is five miles closer to her house than her current job.
The fact that the new job is closer to her home counts in favor of Sally’s accepting the new job. But it doesn’t count very strongly in favor; the amount of time she will save on her commute is of relatively minor importance compared to other considerations, such as how pleasant the work environment will be compared to her current job, whether she will be more fulfilled at the new job, and what her compensation will be compared to her current job. That it is not a significant factor by comparison does not mean that it is no factor at all. The relative proximity of the new job, therefore, is a reason for Sally to accept the new job even if not a very powerful one. This reason is merely a recommending reason. Note also that this reason is not obviously a welfare reason since it is not directly related to the welfare of anyone. Conceivably, Sally’s own welfare might be enhanced by saving a couple of minutes every day on her commute, but any such effect on her well-being is minor. INCORRECT CHANGE 1
Tom is purchasing a small amount of groceries. The total cost is $29.60. He pays the cashier with two $20 bills and receives a $10 bill, a quarter and two dimes. Tom does not immediately see the error that the cashier has made, but as he is walking out of the store, he counts his change and realizes that there has been a mistake.
The fact that Tom has been given five cents more in change than he should have been given counts in favor of his going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Tom to do so. But it is not a very powerful reason. Five cents is not that big of mistake and the supermarket will almost certainly overlook such an insignificant error. In addition, this reason is quite far removed from any person’s welfare. The cashier will not suffer when she realizes that her cash drawer is five cents short. She may briefly wish that it was not, but she will not suffer because of the error. Nor will Tom greatly benefit from the extra five cents he now possesses. INCORRECT CHANGE 2
Susan is at REI purchasing supplies for her upcoming backpacking trip. She buys a new tent, backpack, sleeping bag, clothes, food, and miscellaneous supplies. Her total comes to $1138.50. She hands the cashier twelve $100 bills and receives four $20 bills, a $1 bill, and two quarters in change. Susan is in a hurry and does not notice the error until she gets back to her car, where she looks at her receipt and counts her change.
The fact that Susan has been given twenty dollars more than she should have been given counts in favor of her going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Susan to do so. It is a more powerful reason that that which Tom has in INCORRECT CHANGE 1. In addition, Susan’s reason is more directly connected to some person’s welfare, namely that of the cashier who made the error. A $20 error is not tremendously significant, but it is significant enough that we can reasonably expect the cashier to suffer some (probably minor) consequences. Thus, Susan’s reason to return the $20 is a fairly strong person-involving reason. However, the reason is probably not so strong as to be demanding and it is probable that it can be outweighed by other considerations. WALLET
Barbara is taking a short hike in the local hills. A few miles into her hike she finds a wallet lying on the trail. She opens the wallet and finds $125 in cash, credit cards, and a driver’s license. There is nobody else nearby on the trail .
The fact that Barbara has discovered the wallet counts in favor of her taking it to the nearest police department so that the police can contact the owner and return it to him (or in some other way ensuring that the wallet is returned to the owner). Given the amount of money contained in the wallet, and the importance of a driver’s license and credit cards, this reason is stronger than the reasons present in the previous examples. Further, this reason is more directly related to some person’s welfare than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. If the owner does not get the wallet back, he will lose $125, be forced to cancel his credit cards, and will need to visit the DMV to get a new license. These are merely inconveniences, but they are not negligible and they will have a negative effect on his welfare. Barbara has strong person-involving reasons to turn in the wallet (and thus, she also has moral reasons to do so). DESERT HIKE
John has planned a multi-day backpacking trip through a remote part of the Arizona desert. Three miles into his hike he encounters a small child alone on the trail. The girl is clearly tired and suffering from exposure to the elements. She is sunburned, dehydrated, and malnourished. John tries to communicate with her, but the child is barely conscious and cannot answer John’s questions.
The fact that the child is suffering and will most likely die if she does not receive medical attention is a reason for John to cut his trip short and transport the child to the closest hospital. Given the amount of suffering she is experiencing and the value of her life, this reason is very powerful. Further, it is obviously directly connected to the child’s welfare. This reason is so powerful that it is difficult to imagine any factor that could outweigh or override it. John thus has a demanding, person-involving reason (thus, a moral reason) to render aid to the child. And, all things considered, this is what he ought to do.
The reasons present in DESERT HIKE are much stronger than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. Consider NEW JOB: Plausibly, if Sally ignores the fact that the new job is five miles closer than her current job, she has not done anything morally wrong. Sally is under no obligation to take this factor into consideration when she is deciding whether to accept the job offer. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 1: Plausibly, if Tom decides to refrain from returning the extra five cents to the grocery store, he has not done anything morally wrong. Tom is not under a strong obligation to correct such an insignificant error. Even those of us who think Tom is under some obligation to return the five cents, we will think that it is not a very strong obligation. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 2: Plausibly, if Susan decides to refrain from returning the $20, she has done something wrong. Plausibly, Susan has at least some obligation to correct the error. However, whatever obligation Susan is under, it is not a powerful obligation. If, for example, Susan decides not to return the money because she needs to get to an important appointment and correctly foresees that she will be late to the appointment if she returns the money, it is plausible that her decision is both understandable and forgivable. She will have committed no serious moral violation. On the other hand, John’s reason to help the child is very powerful, it is certainly stronger than a mere recommendation. Further, it is stronger than any other reason that I identified in any of the other scenarios. It seems reasonable to say that John has reasons to help the child that are so strong as to be demanding. If John fails to render aid for some reason, say, for example, because he does not want to cut his trip short, he will have done something very morally wrong.
My case for Premise 4 is something like an existence proof: by describing the above realistic scenarios, I am demonstrating how the existence of reasons in certain circumstances can make it the case that a person has a moral obligation. In DESERT HIKE John (a) has reasons to render aid to the child, (b) has reasons that are so strong that they constitute requirements; i.e., they are not merely suggestions, and (c) owes something to someone, namely, John owes it to the child to try to save her life. Thus, in DESERT HIKE, we have a situation in which the elements of a moral obligation are present and are present solely in virtue of the existence of reasons of the right sort. So, it is plausible that John’s moral obligation in DESERT HIKE is fully constituted by the reasons that he has to render aid to the child. Much the same can be said about many other cases of moral obligation.
The points that I have made thus far strongly support the claim that reasons of a certain strength and type are alone sufficient to ground moral obligations. But we will not be able to accept this conclusion if we think that God’s commands add something essential to the equation, something that can only be supplied via those commands. With that in mind, let’s turn to the second aspect of Premise (4), namely, (B): God’s commands, which are grounded in these reasons, do not ground moral obligations.
The suggestion that God’s commands make us obligated is implausible precisely because we know that an arbitrary command cannot make an action obligatory. And why is it that an arbitrary command cannot do so? I suggest that it is because a command is not the right kind of thing that could be what makes an action obligatory. After all, that Φ is commanded (by God or by anyone) is an extrinsic feature of an action. That Φ is commanded by God has nothing to do with (a) the kind of action Φ is, (b) the actual consequences of Φ, (c) the intended consequences of Φ, or (d) the reason Φ was performed.
Consider: Let Φ = John’s act of bringing the lost child to a hospital so that she can receive medical care. Let’s compare two scenarios: In scenario 1, God commands Φ. In scenario 2, God does not exist and so it is not the case that God commands Φ. The only difference between Φ-as-performed in scenario-1 (Φ-ap1) and Φ-as-performed-in-scenario-2 (Φ-ap2) is that Φ-ap1 has the feature commanded-by-God and Φ-ap2 lacks this feature. But Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 share every other features in common; they have the same actual consequences, the same intended consequences, they are acts of the same type, they are performed at the same time, by the same people, in the same location, with the same motives, etc. The one feature whereby Φ-ap2 differs from Φ-ap1 is an extrinsic feature. It concerns attitudes that a rational agent has taken toward the action, which attitudes, it is important to note, must, given that they are the attitudes of a perfectly rational agent, be grounded in reasons (which reasons must themselves must involve features of Φ). Given that the only difference between Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 is an extrinsic feature and that this extrinsic feature is one that is itself reason-responsive, it is implausible that this feature (rather than the reasons it is responsive to) is what makes Φ morally obligatory. Isn’t it more plausible that it is one of the other features that I mentioned above (its actual and/or intended consequences, the kind of act it is, the reasons for it, etc.) that make the action obligatory? How strange it would be if, rather than these other features, Φ is obligatory in virtue of a reason-responsive attitude that a rational agent has taken toward the action. In other words, that Φ is commanded by God is not the kind of feature that could make Φ obligatory.
In the following clip, Dennis the constitutional peasant makes a point similar to the one I am trying to make:
That a strange woman lying in a pond distributed a sword to you cannot be what makes you the supreme executive in the government. But this is precisely what Arthur Pendragon claims as the ground of his executive power. Note what he says: “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water; signifying, by divine providence, that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I’m your King.” The ‘why’ here is not the ‘why’ of reasons but the ‘in-virtue-of’ ‘why.’ When he says, “That is why I’m your King,” he is saying that this is what makes him King. Arthur is claiming that he is King in virtue of the fact that the Lady of the Lake held Excalibur out to him. Dennis claims that this claim is absurd. That a lady in a lake lobbed a scimitar at you is not the kind of thing that can make you the supreme executive.
In making this point, Dennis says the following: “If I went ‘round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.” If, instead of getting angry and using violence to silence his critics, Arthur had calmly explained to Dennis that the Lady of the Lake is perfectly wise and would never hold out a sword to a peasant, or any other person unqualified to be a leader, he would have missed the point. Dennis is not saying that, according to Arthur’s theory of executive power, it is possible for an unqualified person to become King (since it is possible for the Lady of the Lake to give a sword to any person, even an unqualified one). No. Dennis’ point, rather, is that getting a sword from a woman in a lake is not the kind of thing that could make one King.
Similarly, we may say to the divine command theorist that an action’s being commanded by God is not the kind of property that could make the action morally obligatory. And we know this because of the following observations (which, by the way, are agreed to by most defenders of DCT):
The mere fact that Φ is commanded cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, any person could issue an absurd command (e.g., don’t brush your teeth before 7:00 am) and this would obviously not make for an obligatory action.
The mere fact that Φ is commanded by someone powerful cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, powerful people often command horrendous things. That Hitler commanded the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population did not make it obligatory to do so.
An arbitrary command, no matter who it is issued by, cannot make any action morally obligatory.
All of this strongly suggests that being commanded by anyone, even God, is not the kind of feature that could make an action morally obligatory.
It is useful to focus our attention on point (3). We know that if a command to Φ is arbitrary, then no matter who issues it, the command cannot make it the case that Φ is obligatory. This strongly suggests that commands, on their own, are never sufficient to make it the case that a person is obligated to do something. In other words, since a command that is not grounded in reasons cannot make it the case that anyone is under a moral obligation, bare commands are morally impotent. If that is right, then in cases in which a person is obligated to do something that he has been commanded to do, that person must be so-obligated in virtue of something other than the fact that he has been so-commanded.
Undoubtedly, there are cases in which a person that has been commanded do something is obligated to do that thing. One reason that this might be so is that the person is obligated in virtue of something independent of and prior to the command and the command serves as something like a reminder of this independent and prior obligation. But this sort of account will not cover all cases in which a person is obligated to do what she has been commanded to do.
There are other kinds of cases that we need to consider: cases in which some person is obligated to do something that she has been commanded to do but would not have been so-obligated if she had not been so-commanded. That is, there are circumstances in which the fact that a commander, C, commands someone, S, to Φ implies (in some sense of “implies”) that S is obligated to Φ. Military contexts provide examples of such cases. When a military subordinate is commanded to do something, he is obligated to do what he is commanded to do and, at least in some instances, would not have been obligated in the absence of the command. How do we square this with my above claim that bare commands are morally impotent?
I suggest that when the fact that C commands that S Φ makes it the case that S is obligated to Φ this is because of the existence of a prior obligation to obey C, which S is under. When a military subordinate is obligated to obey the commands of her superior officer, this is because, as a member of the military, she has an obligation (which is independent of the authority of any particular commanding officer) to obey the (lawful) commands of superior officers. In the absence of any such prior and independent obligation, the fact that S is commanded to Φ cannot establish any obligation that S Φ. This is consistent with my claim that bare commands are morally impotent. When commanding officer issues a (lawful) command to a subordinate, the subordinate is obligated to obey the command; but the command does not, all by itself, make the subordinate obligated. It does so only given the prior obligation that the subordinate has, namely the obligation to obey his superior officers. The command, considered in and of itself (and thus outside of a military context), is impotent. And we can see this if we imagine that the command is given, not to a subordinate member of the military, but to me or any other person who is not in the military. If a US Army general orders me to do something, this does not and cannot make it the case that I am obligated to do what he orders me to do. Without the prior obligation to obey the lawful commands of a superior officer, all military commands are impotent in the sense that they cannot make any person obligated to do anything.
If the above is correct, then all commands, no matter who issues them, are morally impotent considered in and of themselves. The only time a command can make a person obligated is when the commanded is under a prior obligation to obey the commander. And this fact will not help a defender of DCT respond to the objection that I am raising against it. If a defender of DCT insists that God’s commands ground moral obligations in virtue of the fact that we are obligated to obey God, then she is defending a version of Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT) rather than Metaethical Divine Command Theory (MDCT). As I indicated in part 2 of this series, my target is MDCT and I am not here interested in raising objections to NDCT. The claim that our moral obligations are ultimately grounded in a basic moral principle, according to which we are obligated to obey God, is an interesting one. But as I have pointed out in other contexts, MDCT cannot rely on such a principle. On MDCT all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands, thus there can be no command-independent obligation to obey God. Therefore, appeals to our obligation to obey God cannot help MDCT here.
The upshot is that, with respect to the factors that make an action morally obligatory, the fact that God commands the action is irrelevant. A command, no matter who issues it, is not the kind of thing that could, in and of itself, make an action obligatory. Thus, God’s commands do not ground our moral obligations.
 Whether moral obligations extend to actions that effect all sentient beings or only persons is an interesting question. But it is one that it is beyond the scope of this essay. My point here is only that it is plausible that moral obligations are grounded in the presence of powerful reasons of the right sort (what sort that is will be determined through careful philosophical reasoning).  This distinction is inspired by Joseph Raz’s distinction between mandatory and non-mandatory norms. See his Practical Reason and Norms.
Dancy, Jonathan (2004) Ethics Without Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Raz, Joseph (1999) Practical Reason and Norms. Oxford:Oxford University Press.
On Saturday (9/22) I was privileged to join Matthew Flannagan for a dialogue about the Euthyphro dilemma. Cameron Bertuzzi of Capturing Christianity hosted the dialogue and livestreamed it from the Capturing Christianity YouTube channel. I did my best to explain why I think that there are some compelling Euthyphro-inspired objections to divine command theory, and Matthew offered powerful and thoughtful responses to these objections. In my humble opinion the conversation was thorough, thoughtful, and friendly. It is one of the most rewarding conversations I have had about the Euthyphro problem.
Many of the regular readers out The Secular Outpost will know that Matthew is an expert in the field of theistic ethics (you can watch one of his lectures about divine command theory and the Euthyphro problem here.) He is the co-author, with Paul Copan, of Did God Really Command Genocide? He and I have had some exchanges about Euthyphro and divine command theory here at the Secular Outpost and also at his blog (see, e.g., here and here). I have always had a great deal of respect for the intellectual rigor he brings to any discussion. I learned a great deal from Matthew during this conversation (as well as in our previous exchanges) and I want to thank him for sharing his considerable knowledge and intellectual talents.
I also want to thank Cameron for hosting this discussion and for the work he does at Capturing Christianity, which brings together theists and non-thesists in friendly dialogue. He regularly hosts very good conversations about topics in the philosophy of religion, apologetics, and counter-apologetics.
You can watch the entire discussion below.
I recently appeared as a guest on an episode of the Real Atheology podcast. The co-hosts, Ben Watkins and John Lopilato, and I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma and its implications for divine command theory. You can listen to the episode below.
Ben and John are great hosts and I want to thank them for inviting me. You can find Real Atheology on Facebook and YouTube; and download and listen to other episodes of the podcast here (or wherever you download podcasts). If you enjoy philosophy of religion (and why else would you be reading this blog?), I highly recommend subscribing to the podcast. Ben, John, and their co-host, Ben Bavar (who does not appear in this episode) are thoughtful, careful, and well-informed and they have terrific guests.
Consider the following version of divine command metaethics (DCM):
Our moral obligations are constituted by divine commands. In particular, F is morally obligatory = God has commanded that we F F is morally wrong = God has commanded that we not F F is morally permissible = God has neither commanded that we F nor commanded that we not F.
On this theory, God’s commands constitute moral obligations and thus, in the absence of divine commands, there are no moral obligations.
Suppose that God exists in the actual world and has issued many commands. Among the commands that he has issued is the following: Thou shalt not torture innocent children.
Now consider a possible world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God exists but has not given any commands. Call this the no-divine-command-world or world-NDC.
Importantly, in world-NDC God has all of the same characteristics that he does in the actual world. This implies that, in world-NDC, God approves of all of the same actions that he approves of in the actual world and that God disapproves of all of the same actions that he disapproves of in the actual world.
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NDC, let’s call him Bill, is trying to decide whether it would be wrong for him to torture a child. Suppose he says the following: “Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering and God strongly disapproves of it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
This piece of reasoning should strike us as very odd. In knowing that the act causes unnecessary suffering and that God disapproves of the act, doesn’t Bill know enough to conclude that it would be wrong for him to torture the child? What could the fact that God commands that we not torture add to the relevant list of facts Bill already knows? However, on the version of DCM that we are considering, Bill’s reasoning is impeccable.
But Bill’s reasoning is not impeccable. It is seriously flawed. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Bill might produce instead: “Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, God strongly disapproves of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
We might respond to Bill’s reasoning as follows: We know that, if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command to not torture have to do with whether torture is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God has or has not issued a command about torture is not a morally relevant fact about torture because it is not even an intrinsic feature of torture. That is, it is a fact about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God has actually commanded that we not torture is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his disapproval tells us about the act of torture. A perfectly loving being strongly disapproves of torture. If this is relevant, it is relevant only because it means that the action has features that give God reasons for disapproving of it. That is enough to tell us that the act has features that give us moral reasons to not engage in it. And that implies that, even in the absence of a divine command, the action has features that make it wrong.
Now consider another possible world—a world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God does not exist. Call this world the no-God-world or world-NG. [I think that world-NG is the actual world, but we are here assuming, for the sake of ease of expression, that God exists in the actual world. Nothing depends on our making this assumption.]
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NG, call him Paul, is trying to decide whether it is morally wrong to torture a child. Suppose he says the following: “Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
According to DCM, this reasoning is impeccable. But this is wrong. Just as with Bill’s reasoning, Paul’s reasoning is seriously flawed. Given what Paul knows about torture, namely that it causes severe needless suffering, he knows enough to know that it would be wrong to torture a child. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Paul might produce instead: “Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, and, if God existed, he would disapprove of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage child torture.”
We might respond to Paul as follows: We know that, if God did exist, he would strongly disapprove of the act of torturing children and that if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command have to do with whether the action is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command or whether God actually disapproves of the act, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God does or does not approve of and has or has not issued a command about torture are not morally relevant facts about torture because they are not even intrinsic features of torture. That is, they are facts about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God disapproves of torture or the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God disapproves of torture and commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God actually disapproves of torture or has actually commanded that we not do it is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually disapproves of something or commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his responses would reveal about the act of torture. What matters is that the object has features that would lead to God’s disapproving of the act and commanding that we not engage in the act. When we know that a perfect God would disapprove of torturing children and would command that we not torture children, we know enough to know that torture is wrong. And this is because what we know is that torture has features in virtue of which a perfect God would disapprove of it and command that we not do it. And these features are what make it wrong, not God’s commands.
This post is meant to set the stage for a follow-up post in which I will argue that the Euthyphro Dilemma provides a definitive (or as close to definitive as we can reasonably expect to get) objection to divine command metaethics (even the modern so-called modified divine command theories associated with Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, C. Stephen Evans and others). In this post I want to talk not about divine commands or love or metaethics, but rather supreme executive power, reasons, motives, and arbitrariness. We’ll start with this:
Upon learning how Arthur became King of the Britons, Dennis the constitutional peasant says, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” Dennis is here presenting a democratic theory of the basis of government. Presumably, he would be unmoved even if he were assured that the Lady of the Lake had perfect knowledge of any presumed candidate’s qualifications and only tossed swords to candidates that were well-qualified. After all, defenders of democracy recognize that their preferred system does not always result in the most qualified leadership. Their claim is, rather, that legitimate government is only that which is elected via popular referendum. So, from Dennis’ perspective, the Lady of the Lake’s choice is completely arbitrary with respect to the issue at hand. But notice that his concern is not that it is arbitrary because it is ungrounded in reasons; Dennis does not care whether she had reasons or what those reasons might be (more on this, including an important ambiguity involved in ‘reason’ below). The problem, from Dennis’ perspective, is that the feature of Authur Pendragon, in virtue of which he is King, namely that the Lady of the Lake threw Excalibur to him, is totally unrelated to the task he was chosen for, that is, being King. In that sense, the fact that he was the recipient of Excalibur is just an arbitrary reason to think that he deserves to be King. A basis or ground of something can be arbitrary when the purported ground is completely unrelated to the thing for which it is supposed to be serving as the ground. Here is another example: Suppose that passengers on a damaged aircraft, which is running low on fuel, have determined that the plane stands a good chance of making it to a safe landing spot only if its weight is significantly reduced; and the only way to do that is for one of the passengers to jump from the plane. Since there are no volunteers, the passengers decide to draw straws to see who will have to jump. Bob draws the short straw. Given that Bob agreed to the procedure, he is now obligated to jump. But here’s the thing: Bob does not deserve to be sacrificed just in virtue of having drawn the short straw. Drawing the short straw is not the kind of thing that could make someone deserve to be sacrificed. It is an arbitrary reason to think that Bob deserves to die. It is important to note that there may be a non-arbitrary method for deciding who deserves to die. But time is running out and given the difficulties involved in discovering a mutually agreed upon method, the passengers are better off just going with the arbitrary method of drawing straws. But that the method is expedient does not make it less arbitrary. In this case the ground–drawing the short straw–is not the kind of thing that could serve as the basis for the relevant feature; that is it cannot make it the case that a person should die. This is what makes the method arbitrary. One more point: even if it is true that the Lady of the Lake (LoL) had reasons for her decision to throw the sword to Arthur, that does not mean that her decision was non-arbitrary. To see this we need only remind ourselves that ‘reason’ is ambiguous between ‘motive’ and ‘justifying reason.’ If, when we say that the LoL has reasons for choosing Arthur, what we mean is merely that she has motives for choosing him, then we are not saying that she has a justifying reason for her decision. She can have a motive that would render her decision arbitrary. Suppose, for example, that she is acting on a threat, the ghosts of Arthur’s deceased ancestors have threatened to reveal scandalous information about the LoL’s proclivities for hippo-love; or suppose she is personally smitten with Arthur’s considerable charms. In such a case, while LoL has a motive to choose Arthur as King, she lacks a justifying reason. And (and this is very important) her decision is therefore arbitrary. We will miss this point so long as we neglect the very significant distinction between motives and reasons. We use the word ‘reason’ to talk about both, but this obscures the following important difference: motives explain while reasons justify. One can therefore have a motive without having a reason (in the justifying sense). Therefore the fact that a decision was based on a motive does not make the decision non-arbitrary. Stay tuned for my follow-up post in which I apply some of these lessons to the Euthyphro based objections to DCT.
Last week I had an exchange with Matthew Flannagan on divine command theory (DCT) in the comments section of the post “Does William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?” I raised some standard Euthyphro-type objections and asked for his response. He graciously replied even though he has treated the topic in much greater depth and detail elsewhere, particularly in his book, coauthored with Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books, 2014), and in his article “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” in Philo Vol 15, #1. I hope to respond at much greater length to his full treatment. In the meantime, I cannot resist making a few preliminary points in reply to his challenging comments in defense of DCT.
In my comments I offered the following statement of the “arbitrariness” horn of the dilemma:
“…it certainly seems intuitive for very many that moral goodness is not something that can be established by fiat, not even the command of an all-powerful being. Neither a consequentialist nor deontologist metaethic would countenance the possibility that sheer assertion can make an action morally worthy or unworthy. That bearing false witness, e.g., is wicked is not something that can be established by naked proscription, not even the proscriptive utterance of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. For any such command to have authority, it must have the backing of some creditable axiological basis (e.g. The Categorical Imperative; The Principle of Utility). To deny that commands need such a basis would seem to have the disastrous consequence of making might equal right, that is, the rules we must follow become the ones arbitrarily imposed by those with the power to punish.”
Matt, replies that I have construed DCT as a theory of moral goodness, whereas he intends it as a theory of moral obligation. Actually, I am not sure that these topics are easily separable. Surely, it is necessary that an act be morally good for it to be obligatory. Of course, the moral goodness of an act is not sufficient for it to be obligatory, since the act could be one of supererogation rather than obligation. However, that an act is morally obligatory does appear to entail that it is morally good, and so nothing, not even a divine command, can make an act obligatory if it is not morally good. Therefore, God’s command per se cannot make an act morally obligatory unless, in addition to and independently of that act of command, the act has the quality of moral goodness. So, divine command alone seemingly cannot be the whole story of moral obligation, but let’s see the rest of Matt’s arguments.
Matt is willing to allow my objection to be rephrased so that it addresses the claim that the DCT is a theory of moral obligation. He quotes Wes Morriston’s statement of the arbitrariness dilemma, a statement which I endorse:
“Either God has good reasons for his commands or he does not. If he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation. If he does not have good reasons, then his commands are completely arbitrary and may be disregarded. Either way, the divine command theory is false.”
“I agree the second horn of this dilemma that if God lacks good reasons for commanding as he does they are completely arbitrary. The real bone of contention is the first Horn, and I just think this horn is false.”
So, Matt apparently accepts (second horn) that if God does not have good reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. Put simply, the moral authority of a command, even God’s, cannot issue from the command itself. Rather, the command’s prescriptions or proscriptions must be just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making quality. If, on the other hand, the command lacks such a right-making quality, then it has no moral authority, however august or powerful the commanding agent might be. Thus, the Jim Crow laws of the State of Mississippi fifty years ago, though backed by duly constituted legal authority, had no moral authority since they contravened fundamental principles of justice, arbitrarily reducing nearly half the state’s population to second-class citizen status.
He expresses the first horn of the dilemma, the one with which he disagrees, as follows:
“COND: If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation.”
However, Matt sees the phrase “ultimate ground of moral obligation” as ambiguous and suggests two possible interpretations:
“…’ground of moral obligation’ as I see it this can have several different meanings. Sometimes when we talk of one thing being the ‘ground’ of a moral obligation, we refer to some property, distinct from the property of being morally obligatory, which stands in an asymmetric dependence relationship to this latter property, so that the existence of the latter depends on the former. This is often what people mean when they talk of a right making property. A second use of the phrase ‘ground of moral obligation’ refers to what Mark Murphy calls an explanation in terms of informative identification, such as when ‘we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.’” (emphasis in original)
On the first interpretation of “ground of moral obligation,” an act A can be morally obligatory only if A possesses some property, distinct from being morally obligatory, which, as Matt says, stands in an “asymmetric dependence relation” with the property of being morally obligatory. It is the former property that people normally refer to as the “right-making property.”
Matt says that he accepts that moral obligation must have grounding in the first of the above senses Matt therefore appears willing to accept each of the following propositions:
(1) If God’s commands have moral authority, then God has morally good reasons for his commands.
(2) “…if God has reasons for commanding as he does, then there is a property distinct from the property of being obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”
Matt is willing to accept these propositions because he holds that they are compatible with the claim that moral obligation is also grounded in the second sense of grounding, which he takes as the core claim of DCT. In that second sense, to say that moral obligation is grounded in divine commands is to offer an explanation of moral obligation in terms of informative identification, as we do when we say that water is H2O or that heat is molecular motion. Matt puts it like this:
“DCT doesn’t deny that there can be properties distinct from the property of being obligatory, which ground that latter property in this sense. What a DCT typically claims, or at least in the form advocated by Adams, Craig, Alston and Evan, is that God’s commands ground moral obligations in the sense that moral obligations are informatively identified with Gods commands.”
From (1) and (2) it follows by hypothetical syllogism:
(3) If God’s commands have moral authority, then “…there is a property distinct from the property of being morally obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”
And what might that property be? It cannot be God’s act of command itself. As Matt admits, being commanded, per se, cannot explain moral obligation. An arbitrary or immoral command has no moral authority, and so can impart no moral obligation. Rather, a command has moral authority only if its imperatives are just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making property. In that case, it is not the command, per se that accounts for the obligatory nature of the imperative, but some other property that authorizes the command. If God’s commands have moral authority, then something other than God’s commands must account for that authority.
The upshot that the DCT as Matt construes it is false. What makes an “informative identification” informative? It is that such an identification plays an explanatory role. Identifying water as H2O permits us to explain the observed properties of water, such as the fact that it expands when it freezes, in terms of the nature of the water molecule, its atomic constituents and the bonds that form between them. Likewise, the phenomena of heat are explained by the identification of heat with rapid molecular motion. Similarly, the apparitions of the Morning Star are explained with reference to the constitution and orbit of Venus.
However, identifying moral obligation with divine commands tells us nothing at all unless we are further assured that all of the commands will possess some right-making property (e.g. they will be just, fair, righteous, equitable, etc.). In that case, what does the informing is the adduced right-making property, not the fact of command. When you are told that water is H2O, you have been told everything you need to know to understand the physical properties of water. When you are told that a morally obligatory act is commanded, that alone tells you nothing about why the act is morally obligatory. You must in addition be told what morally authorizes the command.
It appears, therefore, that “The morally obligatory is what is commanded by God” is not an informative identification like “H2O is water,” or “heat is rapid molecular motion.” Therefore, DCT as Matt construes it must be false.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.
In a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig offers his thoughts on a 2012 paper by Jeremy Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? Koons’ paper is another in a growing number of critiques aimed at the divine command meta-ethics advocated by figures like Craig, Robert Adams, and William Alston. Though a simple sort of divine command theory (DCT) received a devastating blow centuries ago from the famous Euthyphro dilemma put forward in Plato, modern defenders have adapted the DCT to resist the challenge presented by the dilemma. If good actions are merely those in accordance with god’s commands, then goodness is arbitrary, since god could command anything and it would be good. However, Alston and others who adopt a modified DCT argue against this arbitrariness on the basis of the perfectly good nature of god. God could no more command infanticide, they say, than he could make a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because it would be in contradiction to his nature as god.
Does this move work? Craig believes it exposes the Euthyphro as a false dilemma, presenting a third option that is not identical to the other two options. Yet adding a third possibility to a dilemma does not necessarily mean the challenge underlying it is broken. It could rather indicate that we actually face a trilemma, which could be just as problematic as the original dilemma. This, I think, is where Professor Koon’s paper is of real value. The question behind it is whether or not this move of DCT works any better than the two options typically posed by the Euthyphro. Craig firmly contends that it is better, but his arguments don’t seem to warrant such conviction.
One of Craig’s main criticisms is that Koons sets up a new dilemma that is just as flawed as the original. He says:
What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.
No doubt, this is what theological non-voluntarists like Craig, Adams, and Alston want to assert. But in his paper, Koons provides a puzzling quote from Alston that almost seems to suggest the opposite:
Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.
Craig seems to interpret the attention Koons gives to this quote as an accusation of contradiction. I don’t think is what Koons is getting at, though, especially since he clarifies shortly thereafter that “Alston’s particularism requires that God’s goodness be logically prior to the goodness of the moral virtues. And we will see that this view is incoherent”. It looks more like Koons is spelling out where he intends to direct his critique, and he directs it precisely where it should be directed, according to Craig.
All the same, Craig tries to resolve the apparent conflict by reference to the distinction Koons draws between explanations-why and explanations-what. Koons uses the contra-factual example of how even if the electron’s negative charge were a brute fact that could not be further explained, it would still be possible to explain what a negative charge is. Thus, explanations-why may run out, but it need not mean there can be no explanation-what. Coming off of this distinction, Craig attempts to argue that this is exactly what divine command theorists like Alston are saying:
When you get to God you’ve reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.
You can keep asking why the good is good, but eventually a stopping point must be reached, for theists and atheists alike. But, says Bill, you can continue to talk about what the good is in relation to the characteristics of god. However, this is where Professor Koons really has a bone to pick with DCT.
Koons observes that when the divine command theorist poses this explanation-what – that god is, per Alston, “good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on” – this reverses the order of explanation employed by defenders of DCT that gets them to knowledge of the goodness of god. Usually, one thinks of god’s characteristics to derive the conclusion that he is the supreme good. It’s because god is loving, just, merciful, and so on that he is perfectly good. Proponents of DCT argue the opposite, that we start by intuiting that god just is all-good, and then derive the goodness of his characteristics from there. The problem with this is that it leaves astoundingly little content to the goodness of god. How do we conclude that god is good before knowing anything about who he is?Craig proceeds to call for a necessary distinction between moral semantics and moral ontology. DCT, he says, is not a semantic theory or a theory of the meaning of ethical sentences, but is rather about the ontological grounding of moral values. Koons has made a category mistake, Bill asserts, because insisting on the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of the good is not a successful way to refute a theory concerned with moral ontology.
It’s well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:
According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good reasons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God’s existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Anselmian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:(S1) ‘God exists.’
(S2) ‘God is omniscient.’
(S3) ‘God is omnipotent.’
(S4) ‘God is morally good. ‘
Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-conditions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory – a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience – would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.
Here we see more of the vacuousness of god’s goodness under DCT. As Koons seems to be driving at, Maitzen argues that divine command meta-ethics can only be trivial in what it accomplishes. If we begin by intuiting the goodness of god, establishing the goodness of any other characteristics of god from that basis looks bleak indeed. The goodness of god would not necessarily mean all god’s attributes are good-making. Is immateriality good because god has it? What about timelessness? Omniscience? These attributes seem non-moral, yet it doesn’t appear that one has any means for distinguishing between them and the allegedly good-making attributes of god. On DCT, we just are not able to talk sensibly of the good-making properties of god, or of how those properties ground moral values.
To an extent, Craig wants to bite the bullet here. Goodness, he explains in the podcast, “is one of these primitives that really ultimately can’t be defined.” This is addressed by Koons in his paper, though, when he notes that this view, which comes from G.E. Moore, “merely meant that one could not analytically reduce the Good to other non-normative or non-moral concepts.” The good is not absolutely inexplicable, but it cannot be neatly reduced in terms of definition to a non-moral proposition. So, the question remains of how effectively Craig, Alston, and Adams have accounted for the goodness of god in their theory, and whether their account is better than any of the competing accounts.It’s interesting to note how tempting it seems to be for theists to explain the goodness of god in light of god’s particular characteristics. Near the end of the podcast, Craig identifies why he thinks god is a plausible explanatory ultimate for a moral theory. God, he says, is “worthy of worship.” But why is this anymore indicative of god’s perfect goodness than is his immaterial nature, his omnipresence, etc? It would not be far-fetched for one to make the case that worship has a moral component to it, let alone what it means to be worthy of worship. So is it perhaps that Craig and Alston are intuiting the goodness of god from his good-making properties, their denials notwithstanding? It certainly looks like a more sensible way of conceiving of the goodness of god than what modern DCT advocates claim to be doing. The alternative essentially seems to rest entirely on the mere assertion of belief that god is good. Who would fault anyone for needing more than that to devote as intimate an act as worship to another being? Bibliography
Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, ReasonableFaith.org (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro?European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Sophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).