bookmark_borderThe Object of Moral Concern Problem for Divine Command Theory

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.

bookmark_borderDo our reasons depend on our desires?

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
I have been writing about reasons, what they are, and what they do. This is an important topic because, as I have argued, reasons play a central role in issues of morality and the meaning of life. The reason for talking about such issues in a philosophy of religion blog is that many religious apologists have argued that, if there is no god, there are no objective moral truths and that if there is no god, life is meaningless. Both of these assertions are false but understanding why they are false requires a good understanding of the nature of reasons and the connection reasons have to morality and meaning.
In a previous post, I argued that at least some reasons are objective. One consideration that is commonly relied on to argue that reasons must be subjective is that reasons are dependent on desires. David Hume famously said, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[1] Exactly what Hume intended to be saying here about the nature of reasons is a matter of some controversy. He has, however, been widely interpreted as claiming that reason is only a matter of selecting the best means of satisfying our ends. On such a view, reason can recommend no ends. We have our ends on the basis of our desires and passions, but these ends are not rationally evaluable. We have reasons only once we have chosen an end, and then the reasons that we have are to do the things that effectively satisfy that end. This view, regardless of whether it is Hume’s real view, is consistent with a position that I have previously called the Desire-Based Reasons Thesis (DBR):
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, Φ, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that Φ-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
I strongly suspect that DBR is false and I want to provide some examples that serve to undermine it. First, though, I think we should acknowledge the intuitive appeal of DBR. DBR fits in very nicely with a certain conception of rationality that is often called “means-ends-rationality.” This conception can be well illustrated via the following example:
Pizza: Sue wants to have a pizza delivered to her house. Given that calling the local pizza place, Pizza Yurt, and ordering a pizza will efficiently promote the satisfaction of Sue’s desire, Sue has a reason to call Pizza Yurt to order a pizza. Further, she only has this reason given that she has this desire. A person who does not have the desire for pizza to be delivered to their home does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery.
This seems right, at least at first glance. Despite this appearance, I will later argue that the above account of why Sue has the reasons she does is completely wrong. Now, though, I want to acknowledge the way in which the account is intuitively appealing. It seems true that anyone who does not want a pizza does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery. Thus, the natural conclusion is that Sue’s reason for calling Pizza Yurt is that she wants to have a pizza delivered. Certainly, if we assume (i) that Sue wants a pizza, (ii) that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying this desire, and (iii) that Sue knows that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying her desire, it seems clear that if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational.
It is important to note that we now have before us two different claims: One is that Sue’s reason to call Pizza Yurt is dependent on her desire; the second is that, given this desire plus her belief that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient way of satisfying that desire, if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational. I think that the second claim is true, but the first is false.
It is important to distinguish claims about what reasons an agent has from claims about the agent’s rationality. These claims are different as can be revealed by a common example:
Snake/Rope: I am walking through the desert; I look down at my feet and see a snake-like object coiled in the path immediately next to where I am walking. I immediately form the judgment that there is a snake in my path. My pulse quickens, I immediately feel fear, and quickly leap away. In reality, the object is not a snake but a coiled length of rope.
Now, let’s ask whether I had any reason to fear and whether I had any reason to jump away. The natural response to such questions is that, given that it was not a snake, I had no reason to fear. Similarly, my daughter has no reason to fear the non-existence monsters under the bed even though she firmly believes in them. Further, I had no reason to jump away in fear since there was nothing to be afraid of. However, given that I believed that there was a snake on my path, my fear-response and avoidance behavior was completely rational. The Snake/Rope example shows that we can behave rationally even when we are not responding to reasons.
In this post, I will be making claims about reasons rather than rationality. In particular, I will argue that reasons are not dependent on desires. I will not be defending any view about rationality. However, the view that I find attractive is that, as Derek Parfit has put it, our reasons are provided by the facts, what is rational for us to do depends on our beliefs.
While DBR seems to make sense of Sue’s reasons in the Pizza example, I think that this appearance is deceiving and that a proper understanding of Sue’s reasons show that they are not at all dependent on her desires. To understand why, I need to explain why I doubt DBR. Let’s look at three cases that present possible counterexamples to DBR.
(1) Gin/Petrol
This example comes from Bernard Williams who is a defender of DBR [2]. Williams’ view is that the reasons that an agent has are dependent on the agent’s motivational set. Your motivational set includes your desires, intentions, positive attitudes, etc., (henceforth, I will use ‘desire’ to refer to all of these kinds of states) which have the tendency to motivate you to act. Importantly, this entails that the existence of a reason for an agent requires the presence of an appropriate desire.
Williams presents the following example as a reason to amend his view: Suppose Jim is sitting at a table on which is a bottle of clear liquid. Jim wants to have a gin and tonic and believes that the stuff in the glass on the table is gin. Suppose, though, that the stuff in the bottle is not gin but gasoline. Does Jim have a reason to mix the stuff in the bottle with tonic and consume the concoction? Williams points out that we are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems natural to say that since the stuff in the glass will make Jim sick, he does not have a reason to drink it and has a reason to not drink it. On the other hand, if Jim does drink the gasoline, there is a natural explanation for why he did so: Jim thought that the stuff in the bottle was gin.
Williams’ conclusion is that we shouldn’t think that the fact that we would have an explanation for why Jim would drink the stuff entails that Jim would have a reason to do so. In fact, according to Williams, even though he believes that the stuff is gin, Jim does not have a reason to drink it. This requires that Williams amend his view. He does so by claiming that an element, d, of an agent’s motivational set will not provide a reason to the agent if d is based on a false belief (see Williams, 293).
Williams is right, in my view, that Jim does not have a reason to drink the stuff in the bottle despite the fact that he has a desire to drink it.  However, I think that the example poses a bigger problem for his view than he realized. The problem is that it is difficult to square the claim that desires that are based on false beliefs do not generate reasons with the view that desires generate reasons.
Williams’ view seems to be that some desires generate reasons and some do not. But, having asserted that all reasons depend, for their existence, on desires, his view provides no basis for claiming that some desires do not generate reasons. Let’s call the capacity to generate reasons, which, on Williams’ view, at least some desires have, “reason-generating power” (or “rg-power” for short). On Williams’ view desires have rg-power unless those desires that are based on false beliefs. But what is it about this class of desires that makes them impotent to generate reasons? Why would a false belief interfere with a desire’s rg-power? Why does a desire lose its reason-generating capacity just because it is based on a false belief? Williams provides no answer.
This example does not refute DBR, but despite Williams response, I think it should cast some doubt on the thesis. Unless we have some basis for thinking that desires that are based on false beliefs cannot generate reasons, the Gin/Petrol example suggests that desires do not generate reasons.
(2) Agony
This example is inspired by Parfit’s Agony Argument.[3]
Suppose Sally want to experience excruciating pain. She realizes that stabbing herself in the eye with a metal fork will satisfy this desire. Does Sally therefore have a reason to stab herself in the eye with a fork? I don’t think she does. The fact that Sally will experience horrendous and needless suffering is a reason for her to not stab herself in the eye with a fork regardless of her desires.
Suppose that Ryan does not have a desire to experience excruciating pain but also does not want to avoid it. Does Ryan have a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a metal fork? On a view according to which an agent only has reasons to engage in actions that satisfy his desires, Ryan does not have such a reason. This is implausible. Ryan has a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a fork (and to avoid any activity that will cause horrible suffering) regardless of whether he has any desire to avoid pain/agony.
(3) Radio
This example is an adaptation of one originally provided by Warren Quinn in his paper, “Putting Rationality in its Place.” [4]
Suppose you have a friend, Tom, who engages in the following behavior: When Tom enters a room with a radio that is turned off, he immediately turns the radio on. He does not tune the radio to a specific station; he seems content merely to have the radio on, even if it is playing static. Tom does this consistently. When you ask him why he does this, he says that he wants radios to be turned on. He does not cite a desire to hear music or sound of any kind. He merely says that he wants that radios are turned on.
Does the presence of such a desire make Tom’s behavior reasonable?  I think it is natural to say that Tom’s answer to the question of why he is always turning on radios makes his behavior seems even more unreasonable since the desire itself is irrational. Quinn’s point, I take it, is that the mere presence of this desire cannot give Tom a reason for turning on radios. What would rationalize Tom’s behavior, according to Quinn, is Tom’s belief that by turning on radios, he is achieving something good. If Tom was turning on the radio to listen to good music or to hear the news, this would make his behavior reasonable. But the mere presence of a desire that radios be turned on does nothing to make this action reasonable.
These three examples, taken together, cast a great deal of doubt on the DBR thesis. I will not claim that they effectively refute the thesis, but merely that they strongly suggest that it is false. There are many other arguments against DBR. If you are interested, I highly recommend Jonathan Dancy’s book, Practical Reality, which mounts a sustained criticism of DBR.
Let me return, briefly, to the Pizza example. If we reject DBR, how are we to account for Sue’s reasons? More importantly, if we reject DBR, how are we to account for the fact that Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but a person who has no desire for pizza (apparently) does not have such a reason?
Here is my answer: Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but this reason is not generated by and does not depend on her desire to have a pizza delivered to her home. What gives Sue a reason to call Pizza Yurt, I believe, is the following collection of facts: Sue is hungry, eating pizza is a good way of satisfying that hunger, Sue likes the taste of pizza, and calling Pizza Yurt is an efficient way of getting a pizza delivered to her home. What about those who lack a reason to call for delivery? For such people, it (currently) will not be good to have a pizza. Either such people are not currently hunger or do not enjoy the taste of pizza or else having a pizza delivered would in some other way be bad.
What reasons we have depends only on what is good and what is bad. It does not depend on our desires.

[1] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (
[2] Williams B., “Internal and External Reasons” reprinted in Shafer-Landau and Cuneo (eds.) Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[3] In Parfit, D. On What Matters, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See pp. 73-82 for Parfit’s Agony Argument.
[4] Quinn, W. “Putting Rationality in its Place” in his Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

bookmark_borderThe sense in which pain is objectively bad

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
It is not uncommon for defenders of the objectivity of moral value to point to the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. But it is also not uncommon that the claims that pleasure is objectively good and pain is objectively bad to be ambiguous and thus misunderstood (see, for example, this Twitter thread from Sam Harris and this video response to Harris’s argument). I think such ambiguity and misunderstanding can be avoided if we are careful and so I want to carefully explain the sense in which pleasure can be thought to be objectively good and pain objectively bad.
Good, Bad, and Reasons
The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have single meanings; they can be used in several distinct ways to indicate different things. For example, we might say that some object is good in the sense that it satisfies some set of criteria, as when we say of a particular bloom on a rose bush that it is a good specimen of its variety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can also be used to merely express one’s own approval or disapproval, as for example when we say something like “This wine isn’t very good” merely as a means of expressing our dissatisfaction with the selection. But neither of these senses has any direct relevance to morality. The morally significant sense of these terms is normative in character. The normative sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is equivalent to what Derek Parfit calls the reason-implying sense. In this sense, something is good when there are reasons to want it, pursue it, preserve it, etc.; something is bad when there are reasons to want that it not occur, to avoid it, etc. A more careful account of what Parfit means by good and bad in the reason-implying sense is as follows:
To say that something Φ (an object, event, state of affairs, state of mind, etc.) is good in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond positively to Φ (i.e, to want that Φ occur, to try to bring Φ about, to preserve Φ, to choose Φ, etc.).  To say that something Φ is bad in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond negatively to Φ (i.e., to want that Φ not occur, to try to prevent it from coming about, to try to eliminate it, to avoid it, etc.). [Parfit discusses this sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in volume one of On What Matters (see esp. pp 38-42).]
It is in this sense that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The nature of pleasure gives us reasons to pursue it and to want that it occur. The nature of pain gives us reasons to avoid it and want that it not occur. Importantly, this does not imply that we can never have reasons to avoid pleasure and want that it not occur or reasons to pursue pain and want that it occur. This is because something can have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something is intrinsically good when we have reasons to want it for its own sake. Something is instrumentally good when we have reasons to want it, not for its own sake, but because of the things it brings about. Something is instrumentally bad when we have reasons to want that it not occur because of what it brings about. When we want pleasure, at least typically, we want it for its own sake. We don’t want pleasure, again typically, because of the effects that pleasure has; we want it just because of what it is. Since the nature of pleasure gives us reasons to want it for its own sake, pleasure is intrinsically good. Money, on the other hand, is good because it is useful, i.e., the goodness of money consists in the fact that with money we can acquire other things that are good. We have reasons to pursue money because it allows us to achieve these other good things.
The Badness of Pain
Pain is intrinsically bad. It is a bit odd to say that it is for its own sake that we want that pain not occur. Perhaps more intuitively, we can say that pain is intrinsically bad because its nature gives us reason to want the cessation of pain for its own sake. Nonetheless, at least in some circumstances, pain is instrumentally good. Pain plays an important role in the motivational architecture of biological creatures; it motivates us to avoid damage to our bodies. Because pain has this effect, we have reasons to want that pain occur. This is shown via the phenomenon of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). People born with this condition do not feel physical pain and as a result, many of them are seriously injured, some fatally, in childhood. This example shows that it is bad if a person cannot feel pain. So, due to the role that pain plays in protecting us from bodily harm, pain is instrumentally good. Notice that the proper conclusion here is that the nature of pain gives us reasons to not want to feel pain but that we also have reasons to want that we can feel pain. This is not a contradiction.
There are other reasons that we might want pain. Pain is sometimes an indication of healthy physical developments, as in the case of the pain associated with exercise. If you go running and experience no physical discomfort, then chances are good that you will not be making much progress toward your health goals. Intense or prolonged experiences of pain can also result in the release of endorphins into the body, which can induce a state of euphoria. When we want pain because of its association with progression toward our health goals or for the euphoric effects it leads to, we want pain not for its own sake but because of its effects. So, the fact that some people sometimes have reason to want pain does not conflict with the claim that the nature of pain gives us reason to want that it not occur. Notice that when pain is instrumentally good, our reasons are not to pursue pain for its own sake, but to pursue things that bring about or are associated with pain. When a runner goes for a long run pursuing a runner’s high, she is not pursuing pain for its own sake. What she wants, for its own sake, is the euphoria that accompanies the rush of endorphins.
Though the reasons run in opposite directions, there is no contradiction in saying that, in some circumstances, there are both reasons to pursue pain and reasons to avoid it. Think, by way of analogy, about making an important decision, for example, whether you should move across the country to take a new job. When you carefully consider what you should do, you will weigh the factors that count in favor of moving (higher salary, e.g., or a more rewarding position) against the factors that point in the opposite direction (not wanting to be far from friends and family, e.g.). So, we can have reasons for some course of action (or for having some desire) and reasons that count against that same course of action (or against having that same desire). The upshot is that there is no contradiction involved in claiming both that there are reasons to avoid pain and also that there are, in some circumstances, reasons to not avoid pain (and maybe even reason to pursue it). Nonetheless, it remains true that, since pain is intrinsically bad, we always have reasons to want that it not occur and to avoid it. It is just that, in some circumstances, these reasons are overridden by other reasons that we have to pursue things that are painful.
Is the badness of pain objective?
If the badness of pain is subjective, then the badness of pain constitutively depends on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of a subject or subjects. And if the badness of pain is objective, then it does not constitutively depend on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of subjects. To say that something, F, constitutively depends on X is to say that X at least partly constitutes F. In other words, part of what it is to be F is to be X. Suppose we think, plausibly, that our taste preferences are subjective. Then part of what it is for something to taste good is for a subject or subjects to have certain kinds of reactions, desires, or attitudes toward it. [Michael Huemer, whose work introduced me to this notion, has an excellent discussion of constitutive dependence (and how it differs from other kinds of dependence) in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, which I highly recommend.]  For the remainder of this article, when I talk about dependence, I will be talking about constitutive dependence.
Since we are talking about the reason-implying sense of ‘bad,’ if the badness of pain is subjective then the reason we have to want that pain not occur depends on the goals interests, beliefs, desires, or attitudes of subjects. Is this true? Let’s begin answering this question with the following observation: It is certainly not the case that the qualitative character of pain is subjective. By ‘qualitative character’ I mean to indicate the feeling of pain, considered in isolation of its causes, effects, or value. What I am saying is that the qualitative character of pain is completely independent of any person’s beliefs, desires, attitudes, interests, or judgments about it (or anything else, for that matter). When you stub your toe, you have an experience that has a certain qualitative feel to it. That experience, which we call pain, would exist even if no person (including yourself) had any beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. about it. No person’s beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. in any way makes up or constitutes the experience. So, the experience is completely objective.
[A subtle complication. A painful experience is always an experience of a subject (it is my pain or your pain or her pain, etc.). But this does not make the existence of pain subjective in the relevant sense. This is because the conscious experiences of a subject are still objective in the sense that they are not dependent on the goals, interests, desires, etc. of subjects. If I am in pain (or in pleasure, for that matter), my pain does not depend for its existence on the beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. of any subject. States of consciousness (which are states of subjects) are objective in the relevant sense.]
So what about the claim that pain is objectively bad in the reasons-implying sense?  If the badness of pain is subjective, this means that the reason that we have to want that pain not occur (and to avoid it, want it to cease, etc.) depends for its existence on the beliefs, desires, goals, interests, or judgments of subjects. This seems implausible. That I have a reason to avoid pain depends on the qualitative character of pain. The nature of the experience gives me a reason to want that it not occur. This seems true regardless of my (or anyone else’s) desires. Even if I wanted it to occur, for its own sake, this would not change the fact that I have reasons to want that it not occur.
Suppose you meet a person who tells you that he wants to jab a metal fork into his eyeball. When asked, he admits that he expects that doing so will cause tremendous pain and that he will intensely dislike the experience, but nonetheless he still wants to do it. Should we say about such a person that he has no reason to not stab himself in the eye with a metal fork? Should we say that he has a reason to stab himself? It seems to me that the answer to both questions is no. Since stabbing himself in the eye will cause intense pain, he has a strong reason to refrain from doing so. And he has this reason regardless of what he wants.
There are philosophers who argue that all reasons depend on desires (or desire-like mental states). Such philosophers defend a version of what I have previously referred to as the DBR (desire-based reasons) thesis. This is not the place for a full examination of the DBR thesis. In a future article, I will offer some reasons to think that the DBR thesis is false. For now, I will only note that, if DBR is true, then we only have reasons to avoid pain if we have some desire the satisfaction of which requires (or is furthered by) our avoidance of pain. If DBR is true, we have no reason to avoid pain for its own sake.
One final point: The claim that goodness and badness in the reason-implying sense (which is the morally relevant sense) are objective is just the claim that there are reasons to respond positively to pleasure (by wanting that it occur, pursuing it, etc.) and reasons to respond negatively to pain (by wanting that it not occur, avoiding it, etc.) and that these reasons do not depend on the goals, interests, desires, beliefs, or judgments of any subject. The existence of such reasons does not seem to have any bizarre metaphysical or epistemological consequences.

bookmark_borderA Puzzle About Morality and Rationality

NOTE: This post has been edited since it was originally published in light of a very important observation from commenter Angra Mainyu. His comment revealed that I made an error in my original presentation of the puzzle. If you would like more information about this issue, please see the third footnote at the end of this post.
In the comment thread for my post about Derek Parfit, many of us have been talking about whether a person can ever deserve to suffer. In one comment, Keith Parsons made the following very interesting observation:

Aristotle said that no one can claim to be ignorant of the “universal,” that is, the basic principles of right and wrong. Surely, even Assad knows that bombing, gassing, and starving innocent people is wrong, despite any self-serving justifications he tells himself. When people choose to do what they know is wrong, then they are failing to act as rational agents, and we rightly morally censure them.

I am inclined to agree with Keith about this, but I think that his comment suggests a puzzle that is worth thinking about.
Before I get to the puzzle, I need to make some preliminary remarks and clarifications:
Because I think that my points are better made with a fictional person (not to mention that I find Assad’s actions atrocious and don’t really want to talk about them in any context that is not dedicated to condemning and/or stopping Assad), I am going to change the example. My example involves Ralph, a stock-broker who steals money from his elderly clients even though he knows that it is morally wrong to do so. Call Ralph’s immoral act ‘RA.’ [If you don’t like this example, you can let ‘RA’ stand for any immoral action you choose.] So, let’s grant that Ralph knows that RA is morally wrong. Let’s assume what I take to be true, namely, that to say that an action is morally wrong is to say that there are (at a minimum) strong reasons to not engage in the action. And we’ll understand ‘reason’ to refer to any factor that counts in favor of some course of action or inaction. So, to say that Ralph knows that RA is wrong is to say that Ralph knows that there are factors that count strongly in favor of not engaging in RA.
With that out of the way, the following question arises: Why does Ralph do what he knows to be morally wrong? Presumably, as Keith’s comment about self-serving justifications suggests, and given that he is a rational being (by which I mean a being who acts on what he takes to be reasons), Ralph has his reasons. By this I mean that Ralph believes that there are factors that count in favor of his engaging in RA. Of course, that he believes that there are such factors does not imply that he is right, and indeed he is not right; there are no such factors that count in favor of Ralph’s engaging in RA. But, given that Ralph is rational and that he engages in RA, he must believe that there are such factors. So, even though he believes that it is wrong for him to engage in RA, Ralph also believes that he has reasons to engage in RA.
So, what is the puzzle? Well, first notice that it doesn’t seem like we have yet accounted for the fact that Ralph engages in an action he knows to be wrong. We have two claims:
(M) It is morally wrong for Ralph to engage in RA.
(O) Ralph has reasons to engage in RA.***
Ralph believes both (M) and (O). However, (M) and (O) conflict and point to different outcomes. If Ralph is motivated by (M) (or the factors that count in favor of Ralph’s not doing RA), then he will not engage in RA. If he is motivated by (O) (or the factors that, as Ralph believes, count in favor of Ralph’s doing RA), then Ralph will engage in RA. So far, then, we don’t have an explanation for why Ralph engages in RA. We need something else. Presumably we have left something out of our account of why Ralph engages in RA. What we have left out is that Ralph believes that, in his situation, it is permissible for him to engage in RA; i.e. Ralph believes that it is permissible to respond to the reasons that, as he believes, count in favor of his engaging in RA despite the fact that it would be morally wrong for him to engage in RA. Maybe we should say that he believes that his reasons for engaging in RA are stronger than his reasons for not engaging in RA. Regardless, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, I don’t think that we can account for Ralph’s decision to engage in RA unless we attribute some such belief to him. But if Ralph does believe something like this, then he believes:
(P) It is permissible to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting.*
(P) gives Ralph a way of adjudicating the conflicting reasons that, as he believes, are present in his case and which are referred to in (M) and (O). So, if Ralph also believes
(Q) There are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of Ralph engaging in RA.
then he will be motivated to engage in RA.
But it is hard to read (P) as anything other than a moral belief. That is, the ‘permissible’ in (P) refers to moral permissibility. If that is right, then we have a puzzle. Since we know that Ralph knows that RA is wrong, we know that he believes (M). But if he also believes (P) and (Q), then he believes,
(T) It is morally permissible for Ralph to engage in RA.
So, it looks like Ralph believes both (M) and (T), but then Ralph believes a contradiction since it is impossible for ‘(M) and (T)’ to be true.
You might be inclined to dismiss this as a genuine puzzle because you think that we should not regard Ralph as a fully rational person. But this is actually the point: It looks as if the puzzle arises only when we assume that Ralph is fully rational. This is true, at least, on the account of rationality that I have been assuming in this discussion. What I am assuming is that a rational being is one that always acts on what she believes to be reasons. Thus, when a rational agent acts, she believes that there are factors that favor her action and she acts on those factors.**
So, if we assume that Ralph is rational, we get the puzzle. Here it is again, stated more briefly: Given that Ralph is rational, when he engages in RA, he believes that he has reasons for doing so. The assumption that Ralph believes (M) and (O) [that it is morally wrong for him to RA and that he has reasons to RA] shows us that the fact that Ralph believes that he has reasons to RA is not enough to account for his actually engaging in RA. Given his beliefs (M) and (O), he is at an impasse because he does not know what he should do, all things considered. The best way to account for the fact that Ralph does engage in RA is to assume that he believes (P) and (Q). This allows him to break the impasse and conclude that, once everything has been considered, he should engage in RA. But if he believes (P) and (Q), then he believes (T) and so he believes (M) and (T), which is a contradiction. But it is not rational to believe a contradiction.
So, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, it follows that he is not rational.
I am not convinced that this is a genuine paradox. I think that it is a puzzle that has a solution. The solution that I prefer it to reject the account of rationality that I assumed while generating the puzzle. I think that to be rational it is not enough that a person believes that there are reasons that count in favor of her actions. To be rational, a person must appropriately respond to the reasons that are actually available, regardless of what she believes about her reasons. But I wonder what other people think.

*There are other principles that will do. For example, he could believe (W) It is required to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting. But (W) is not very plausible. Ralph could believe any claim which implies that, at least in relevant circumstances, it is not morally problematic to engage in an immoral act. The point is that Ralph needs some principle that tells him that responding to the factors that, as he believes, favor his engaging in RA even though engaging in RA is immoral.
**She probably also has to believe that these factors constitute good reasons, but I think we can ignore this for now.
***The original version of (O) was as follows: (O) Ralph ought to engage in RA. Angra Mainyu pointed out, I think correctly, that we often use the word ‘ought’ when we are talking about what we should do, all things considered; sometimes this is called the “overall ought.” Since Angra is right about this, my original version of (O) was, at the very least ambiguous and so I need to adjust my presentation of the puzzle. What follows is my account of the problem that I created for myself and how I fixed it.
The upshot of Angra’s observation is that if the ‘ought’ of ‘Ralph out to RA’ is the overall ought, then if Ralph believes that he ought to engage in RA, then he believes that he reasons for engaging in RA that outweigh whatever reasons he has for not engaging in RA. That is, to say that Ralph (overall) ought to engage in RA is to say that, once everything has been factored in, what Ralph ought to do is engage in RA. But if this is the case, then we don’t need (P) or (Q). Ralph’s believing that he ought to engage in RA does the job; that is, it accounts for why Ralph, being rational, engages in RA.
So, we need a version of (O) that does not carry the implication that, all things considered, Ralph ought to engage in RA. My new version of (O), which is Ralph has reasons to engage in RA, does the trick. This is what I had always intended to say, but, since I was a bit sloppy, I ended up saying something ambiguous and potentially quite different from what I intended (not to mention incoherent). I’ve changed (O) in the text above and made some minor changes to the body of the post that were necessitated by that change. My thanks to Angra Mainyu for pointing out the problem.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.

This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_borderPreliminary Remarks Concerning Euthyphro-style Ojections to the Divine Command Theory

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.

bookmark_borderDoes William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

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.

If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right… On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn’t forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.

-William Lane Craig

The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley’s ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what’s right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let’s consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn’t just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can’t have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig’s worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it’s not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that’s necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it’s difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I’ve already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we’re supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don’t just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won’t appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don’t see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn’t think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god’s nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he’s explained in numerous debates, that god’s nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god’s nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god’s nature is consistent with these heinous acts – if he has permitted them to take place – why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky – “without god, everything is permitted” (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it’s actually Dr. Craig’s worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted… just don’t lead others into temptation. Paul’s opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, “ethics is illusory,” Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On th
e contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview. God’s nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we’re to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 

This is why William Lane Craig’s excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god’s nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig’s view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”. As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don’t think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig’s Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and – to bring things back around to where we started – history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist – a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig’s view of morality? It can’t mean that god’s nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can’t mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is “god says no to rape in this instance”. Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview.

bookmark_borderCraig, Koons, and Divine Command Theory

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?
Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, (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 MetaethicsSophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).


bookmark_borderKai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

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.

It’s common to hear theists make the claim that there cannot be a moral law without a moral law-giver. C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and several other prominent defenders of the Christian faith have given voice to this position in their writings and lectures. The association of religion with morality goes back a long ways in history, at least as far as Plato, but the most notable articulator of it in Christian thought is perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century friar and theologian. Aquinas’ view that morality must be grounded in god has been influential in both Catholic and Protestant circles and is reflected in two traditions known as natural law theory and divine command theory.The Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen critiques both traditions in an essay featured in his book Atheism & Philosophy. On natural law theory – the view that we come to an understanding of the good through reason, in accordance with the “eternal law” of god – Professor Nielsen raises four main objections.
1. Natural law suffers from the same problems of justification as other moral theories. Nielsen writes:
For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God’s reason and not man’s that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]
2. Natural law begs the question with regard to what human beings are made for, or what they are in their essential nature – that is, creations of a god. Nielsen notes that this is a background assumption for which science has offered no support. Even if some day we discover that there are, in fact, certain characteristics held in common by all human beings, it does not follow that these must be in place for us to be properly called humans.
3. Proponents of natural law theory contend that conflicts and confusions on what things are good stem from a corruption of our natural inclinations due to sin or to ‘dark habits’. As Nielsen points out, though, we can rightly wonder what criteria are used to determine when a habit is dark or sinful. “What actually happens,” he observes, “is that those moral beliefs that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and as a result are called corrupt and sinful, are simply arbitrarily labeled as ‘unnatural’ and ‘abnormal.'” This shifts the focus from natural law conceptions to some other criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, such as our own personal assessments of human nature or a statistical judgment of what is humanly ‘natural’, bringing us again to the question of what makes any of our natural inclinations right versus corrupt.
4. Natural law fallaciously attempts to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Again, from Nielsen:

To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.

Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn’t think divine command theory – the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good – fares any better.

…a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something’s being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. ‘God is good’ no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so ‘God is good’ still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what ‘good’ means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use ‘God is good’ and ‘God is Perfectly Good.’

To treat the statement ‘god is good’ as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on “Metaphysical Ethics” in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.
As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what ‘good’ means. Even in tautological statements like ‘Wives are women’ and ‘Triangles are three-sided’, we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If ‘god is good’ is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don’t understand what ‘good’ means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: “Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality.”