Divine Command Ethics: Ontology versus epistemology

Ethics Philosophy of Religion


As readers will know, I think the moral argument for God’s existence is a good argument. As those same readers will also probably know, I’m very sympathetic to a divine command theory of ethics. One thing that I’ve said from time to time, at the blog, in the podcast and elsewhere, is that sometimes critics of the moral argument or of divine command ethics confuse the ontology (or perhaps metaphysics – the terms sometimes overlap) of morality with the epistemology of morality. If, as I say, some people miss this distinction, what does it boil down to and where is the confusion going on? That’s what this blog post is about.

When I talk about the ontology of morality (or of anything for that matter), what I’m trying to refer to is the factual state of affairs that is morality, regardless of whether or not anybody knows about that state of affairs. When I talk about God’s commands being closely related to morality in an ontological way, for example, there are a few things I could mean. I might mean that the property of moral rightness is the same thing as (i.e. is identical with) the property of being commanded by God. That’s an ontological or metaphysical claim because I’m talking about a thing’s identity. Alternatively, I might be saying that moral states of affairs are caused or brought about by God’s commands. That’s a claim about causation, which falls under the heading of metaphysics. Those are two examples. When we ask about the ontology of moral facts, we’re taking moral claims and saying, “how could these be true?” The moral argument for God’s existence seeks to establish the conclusion that God exists because ontologically, the existence of moral facts requires something like God in order to exist.

When I talk about the epistemology of morality, however, I’m talking about something very different. Epistemology is all about knowledge and belief formation. When we ask how to account for some moral truth epistemically, we’re not asking “how could these claims be true?” Instead, we’re asking “how do people find out about these truths?” There are a number of ways, perfectly compatible with divine command ethics and the moral argument, that people can find out about moral truths. According to ethical intuitionism, under the right conditions there are moral truths that we intuitively grasp in much the same way that we have immediate experiences of the world through sight. Other ways of arriving at moral truth might involve a kind of reflective equilibrium, where we take the moral truths that we are more certain about and try to ensure that our other moral beliefs are compatible with them. Some might even believe that moral truths are secretive things that only those who belong to their religion can receive, imparted directly via some sort of unique special and personal revelation. The point is just that all of these are about ways of arriving at moral truths, and they are not about the moral truths themselves and what makes them so.

Given the fundamentally different categories described here, it’s surprising how often they are confused. I was speaking to a student group at the University of Auckland earlier this year and was asked to give some summary reasons for believing in God. One of the reasons I gave was the moral argument – God makes best sense of the existence of objective moral truths, moral duties, moral values, call them what you will. The immediate reply was: “Surely you don’t think that atheists can’t know what is right or wrong, and can’t therefore live decent lives!” The very first thought that entered a listener’s mind was one that confused ontology with epistemology. What I had given was a statement about the ontology of morality. I hadn’t said anything about epistemology at all, and yet her question was about epistemology. Of course atheist can know what is right and wrong, just like other people can. The moral argument claims that they can’t give an adequate account ontological account of moral truths. Just what are moral facts? Why are they what they are?

In a recent discussion over at MandM with a visitor there the same thing happened. Matt Flannagan is also sympathetic to a divine command theory of ethics. The visitor, an atheist, was pretty sure that talking about divine commands was a waste of time. Since he could figure out what’s right and wrong, and since he probably used the same method most Christians used, divine commands didn’t even need to enter the picture. Divine commands, he said, are “superfluous” for this reason. But notice that this is all about epistemology. Yes, it’s true that many atheists will find out what is right and wrong the same way many Christians do – all without making an appeal to divine commands – but that doesn’t make reference to divine commands superfluous, since divine commands are not presented as an epistemological answer to the question: “How do we all find out what’s right and what’s wrong?” It may well be that God’s command or will are what ontologically grounds divine commands, but that God has provided us with the epistemological means to figure out what is right and wrong (or put differently, to figure out what God has commanded, if they are the same thing) without even knowing that God exists.

Perhaps a scientific analogy might help. There are things called stars (stars here are serving as an analogy of moral truths). Ontologically, what are stars? I’m no astrophysicist, but basically stars are dense balls of really hot gas. Try to imagine how an informed astrophysicist (or anyone with a basic knowledge about stars) would react upon witnesses the following discussion:

Scientist: Stars are dense balls of hot gas.
Ken: Hot gas? That sounds like a lot of hot air. I don’t even believe in balls of hot gas.
Scientist: Well, there are some pretty comprehensive bodies of work on the subject that give really good reasons for believing that stars are dense balls of hot gas actually…
Ken: I don’t need to read all that “work.” You can write work on any silly theory and call it scholarship. Tell me, how do you figure out that stars exist? I know they exist just by looking at them, and I don’t need to make reference to this “hot gas” stuff.
Scientist: Well that’s really not the point, I’m talking about what they’re made of, not how we find out they exist.
Ken: Now you’re just being evasive. Stop jelly wrestling and tell me how you know that stars exist. How did you find out they were there?
Scientist: This is silly. I found out that they exist they same way you did, I suppose. I just looked up into the sky and there they were.
Ken: See? I look up into the sky and see stars. You look up into the sky and see stars. Neither of us needs to prattle on about dense balls of hot gas. Dense balls of hot gas are completely superfluous to stars.
Scientist: I want the last minute of my life back…

This fictional character Ken is obviously muddling up the ontology of stars – what they are, perhaps how they got there, what they are like and so on – with the epistemological question of how we find out that stars exist. This is a most unhelpful confusion which holds us back from actually learning anything interesting about stars themselves (except for what many of them look like).

As it is for stars, so it is for morality.

Glenn Peoples

Similar Posts:

If you liked this post, feel free to help support this project.

{ 55 comments… add one }
  • Roy October 21, 2011, 12:34 am

    Many years ago a star led people to Jesus …. Hmmm. I love Christmas time and getting blog posts is like getting Christmas presents!

    Glenn have you listened to the Craig vs Law debate? A lot of the debate focuses on the moral argument. It would be great to see how you engage with Law’s question which WLC doesn’t clearly address
    I listened to the debate twice and still not completely sure why Craig believes in a good God rather than an evil God. Apart from the resurrection it’s not clear to me we can know of God’s moral character.

  • Paul Baird October 21, 2011, 2:48 am

    As you well know I have some interest in this area and I’m open to but I have some issues with DCT.

    If you are correct and morality is grounded in a god but we do not need to know that there is a god in order to discover moral truths then what detriment or advantage can there be in accepting or denying the existence of god ?

    Further, and more seriously from my point of view – if moral good is grounded in god and we discover those moral truths why is it that the human condition so readily permits the actions that are in opposition to those moral truths ?


  • Sean Mac October 21, 2011, 4:57 am

    The debate at MandM reminds me of the fruitful explanation from Descartes’ meditations and replies of an atheist geometer’s knowledge. As Sosa makes a similar distinction, the difference between cognitio and reflective knowledge.

  • Garren October 21, 2011, 7:31 am

    Apt analogy.

  • Jason October 21, 2011, 9:29 am

    If you are correct and morality is grounded in a god but we do not need to know that there is a god in order to discover moral truths then what detriment or advantage can there be in accepting or denying the existence of god ?

    Because the existence of God gives force to moral truth claims. There is someone who sets the standard, values the standard and enforces the standard. Someone who is so far above us that arguing the toss is entirely pointless. If you believe that morals are just conventions of society, or the beliefs of a man, and you want to challenge those morals then you simply change the society or kill the man in order to contradict them. If you believe they are rooted in God then you don’t have those options. You can rebel, you can reject, but you cannot change.

    Further, and more seriously from my point of view – if moral good is grounded in god and we discover those moral truths why is it that the human condition so readily permits the actions that are in opposition to those moral truths ?

    It’s called the Fall. Haven’t you noticed that the central message of Christianity is not that human beings are basically good, or even neutral, but that we are fundamentally flawed. We are rebels from birth, and our primary concern is benefiting ourselves. Sometimes we do transcend that, but never by enough that it matters, and the greatest saints are all aware of their great failings.

  • Rodney October 21, 2011, 9:38 am

    “This fictional character Ken…” – ha ha!

  • Glenn October 21, 2011, 12:35 pm

    If you are correct and morality is grounded in a god but we do not need to know that there is a god in order to discover moral truths then what detriment or advantage can there be in accepting or denying the existence of god ?

    Paul, two things come to mind.

    Firstly, if God exists (as is suggested by the existence of moral truths), then this opens up the possibilities of some specific moral truths that could not otherwise exist, namely obligations to intentionally glorify God and the like.

    But more importantly, the point of the moral argument is to argue that God does exist. God’s existence is the conlcusion of the argument. If an atheist claims that there’s no advantage in believing in God when it comes to being able to be moral, it doesn’t follow that there’s no reason to believe that God exists. If the moral argument is sound, then God does exist. We don’t affirm propositions as true or false only if doing so gives as some practical advantage, surely. We care about what’s true, I thought.

    As for your second question, I put it to you that actually we have far more moral argeement than moral disagreement, suggesting that if this agreement is on things that really are moral truths, God hasn’t made it nearly as hard as you seem to suggest.

  • Nathan October 21, 2011, 3:48 pm

  • Glenn October 21, 2011, 5:27 pm

    Roy – what Nathan said. 🙂 I do plan to get that into a form suitable for publication one of these days.

  • Roy October 22, 2011, 12:36 am

    Ahh the blessed interwebs with answers available before I ask the questions. Good answers at that too 🙂

  • BBB October 22, 2011, 5:37 am


    I’m curious how you divine command theory ground moral duties (ought/should statements). I’ve heard some argue that theism and atheism are in the same boat here, because they must both start with an unexplained ethical ought.

    For example, if your theory says that God’s commands constitute our moral duties, doesn’t this require the underlying claim that we ought to follow the commands of God? But then we have a moral claim for which we have not explained ontologically. Couldn’t an atheist also build a system if he is given one or a few initial unexplained brute ethical oughts?

    If, on the other hand, you simply say that “God commanded X” and “You should do X” are the same thing, couldn’t an atheist also define moral oughts into existence (for a simplistic example…say that “this causes unnecessary pain” is equivalent to “you should not do this”).

    So how does theism get that initial ethical ought explained any better than other systems? Thanks for your time.

  • Jared October 22, 2011, 6:24 am


    Would God’s role as the Creator have anything to do with addressing the concern brought by BBB as to how you explain the obligatory nature of obeying God’s commands?

    So, for instance, if I create a computer program, its purpose is to do task X. If it fails to do task X, or does something counterproductive to accomplishing task X, then it is in violation of its purpose. Could an “ought” be tied to purpose? If we suppose that our purpose is (at least in part) is to honor God, and that is one reason he created us. When we dishonor God, then we have failed our purpose and have failed our obligation. Disobeying God’s commands is something that dishonors God. Therefore by disobeying God’s commands, we have failed in our obligations. Does this work? I guess the key here is in tying obligations to purpose.

    (I also wonder about a theme that runs in folklore, from early “Golem” legends of Jewish origin, and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and up to Frankenstein and modern science fiction involving robots or computers that bring catastrophe on their creators. I sometimes wonder about this as a subconscious reflection of the state of mankind in relation to its Creator. These creatures or machines are not living up to their obligations and run counter to their creator’s intentions.)

  • John Jones October 22, 2011, 7:12 am

    There’s a few problems :
    1) To identify God by the fact of morality is to slice up God and throw bits away, it seems. Autonomy is lost, either God’s, ours, or both – it isn’t clear. If a command re-introduces autonomy then we don’t need the moral middleman argument.

    2) Are there “moral facts”? It looks suspiciously like a reductionism, or the name of a description applied retrospectively about behaviour and trotted out to our peers.

    3) A moral fact, if such a beast there be, would introduce the devil as as much as any god.

    4) One wonders what happens when no moral facts are about. Are we in a godless limbo-land when we daydream? Is God an ontological particular that occasionally visits us to make a command? Like a neighbour may occasionally visit us to make us happy? – are we God-occasionals, part-timers?

    5) “Fact” ought not to be a term applied to morals. Morals identify facts, for one thing, facts don’t identify themselves. However, we might argue that moral facts DO identify themselves and that a supernatural source is required for that. And that would be a much better argument than the “moral command” argument for God’s existence.

  • Dan October 22, 2011, 7:29 am

    @John Jones – “1) To identify God by the fact of morality is to slice up God and throw bits away, it seems. ”

    As I understand Glenn’s argument, the existence of God is both a necessary and an exclusive pre-condition to the existence of moral facts. If moral facts exist, those moral facts can only have come about because of the existence of God and through no other means.

    This argument, however, does not claim that moral facts are identical with God or that God is only moral facts and nothing else.

  • BBB October 22, 2011, 8:22 am


    Doesn’t your account assume that we ought to act towards the purpose for which we are created? Given free will and out ability to do otherwise, we don’t have to do so. So why ought we do so?

    I think you still have an underlying unexplained ethical ought, namely, that you ought to act consistently with the purpose given by your creator. I can think of good epistemological reasons to accept this, but that doesn’t explain it ontologically.

  • Jared October 22, 2011, 12:18 pm

    BBB, I think that you’re right that the weak point in my argument is the “purpose = obligation” equation. Not that its wrong, necessarily, but I think more work would need to be done for me to convincingly demonstrate this (or to discover that it is false in the process of trying).

    It seems intuitive to me that purpose entails obligation, but I’m not sure how to develop that. That’s what I was hoping Glenn would comment on.

    However, if we follow the concept of “obligation” all the way up the food chain all the way to God’s commands and then say we can’t substantiate even that as an obligation, then it seems like we end up with there potentially being no such thing as “obligation.” Or at the very least it becomes a brute fact.

    Next, I might begin to wonder, what, exactly IS “obligation,” anyway? Is it ultimately imaginary, or real? That is something I will ponder…

  • Jared October 22, 2011, 12:22 pm

    Rather than asking the question “Are there moral facts?”, would it be more appropriate to ask “Are there moral obligations?”

  • BBB October 22, 2011, 12:42 pm


    I was thinking about a bit more. I suppose someone can say that the ontological grounding for the claim “you ought to obey God’s commands” or “you ought to follow your purpose” are the commands/purpose themselves. In other words, if our duty to is to follow our purpose, then the grounding for the claim “you ought to follow your purpose” is…well, your purpose. It is your purpose to fulfill your purpose. Or God commands you to follow God’s commands. It sounds weird cause it sounds circular, but I don’t think it is a problem when you realize you’re trying to explain it ontologically, rather than giving epistemological warrant. Any thoughts?

    In any case, I think you’re right. I’m not entirely sure what an obligation is either, and it needs to be defined. Words like should, ought, obligation and the like can only be defined with reference to each other in a circular manner (ought=should, should=ought, you ought= you have an obligation to…). But obligations seem to me to be the most important aspect of morality to explain. It is all very confusing…

  • Glenn October 22, 2011, 2:16 pm

    Jon, I’d be interested in considering those points your aise, but I think you’ll need to shore them up a bit so I can see that the argument is supposed to be in each case.

    1) If we, via the fact of moral duties, identify the fact that God exists, there’s no prima facie sense in which we cut God up and throw anything away. It doesn’t claim that God is nothing other than a moral commander, or something like that. So what’s the actual argument here? Why should my position result in throwing away bits of God?

    2) You seem suspicious of calling anything about morality a “fact,” because you think this looks like retrospective judgement that, you pejoratively say, we “trot out” to our peers. I’m not really sure what the point is here. Restrospective judgements about facts are completely normal. We often decide what the facts are after we have experienced them. Indeed, some people would call it presumptuous to make a habit of the reverse! But I just don’t see what lies at the heart of this worry – unless it turns out to be a denial of moral facts just because one is sceptical about the existence of God.

    3) You say that a moral fact is just as much a reason to believe in the devil as in God. But this claim doesn’t, on the face of it, have anything going for it. So you’ll have to present the argument, and not just the conclusion.

    4) I don’t really know what you’re asking with these comments about God visiting us. But with no moral facts, we would have no moral duties at all. This is tautologically true.

    5) I don’t even know what a “moral command” argument for God’s existence is. Sorry!

  • Glenn October 22, 2011, 2:18 pm


    Doesn’t your account assume that we ought to act towards the purpose for which we are created? Given free will and out ability to do otherwise, we don’t have to do so.

    I think this goes wrong. I think a correct version would say:

    Doesn’t your account assume that we ought to act towards the purpose for which we are created? Given free will and out ability to do otherwise, we might in fact not do so.

    The reason we might not act as God intended is that we might choose not to. But of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t obligated to do so. I see no particular problem in identifying moral obligation in terms of that which God intended us to do – free will certainly isn’t such a problem, because having a divinely grounded moral obligation sacrifices neither autonomy nor free will.

  • BBB October 22, 2011, 3:21 pm


    I didn’t mean to imply that because we can do otherwise we are therefore not obligated.

    My point was that if we say God’s commands constitute our moral duties, we must start with the ethical claim that we are morally obligated to obey God’s commands. Then I asked for the ontological grounding for THAT moral claim, since it seems a bit more awkward to say you ought to obey God’s commands because God commanded you to obey Him.

    I think that if you give an atheist an ungrounded ethical claim or allowed them to simply define a state of affairs as right or wrong, then they could build a moral system. But if theism starts with an ungrounded ethical claim or simply defines a state of affairs as right or wrong (e.g. God commands X = you ought to X), then theism seems to have no advantage in ontologically grounding ethical facts.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Glenn October 22, 2011, 4:56 pm

    BBB, I think you’re taking me to be replying to one of your comments, when actually I’m replying to a different one of your comments.

    You asked what grounds the fact that we are obligated to obey God’s commands. I haven’t yet commented on this.

    Jared then introduced the idea that if God is our creator, then it’s a fact that we have a purpose. I didn’t comment on this either.

    You replied that our purpose can’t be our obligation, since we have free will and could act contrary to that purpose. This is what I commented on. It seems that you would now no longer offer this objection, which is good.

    So that pushes us back one step to whether or not it’s plausible to talk about our purpose as being our obligation. And this seems like an eminently plausible suggestion. If we were created by an all knowing, all powerful and intelligent and purposeful being, then it seems pretty obvious that such a being could have made us for a purpose, to function in a particular way. There is some way that we were made to live.

    An analogy with our own creations is helpful: If we build a car that continually backfires, breaks down all the time and routinely catches fire (!!!), then it’s not doing what it was meant to do, and by virtue of that fact it’s a bad car, not a good car.

    Similarly, if we live according to the purpose that we were created for (for example, to know God and to enjoy him forever, as the Westminster catechism sums up our chief purpose), then it’s a matter of fact that we’re living a life that is good, since being a good human being means acting in accordance with our proper function.

    But of course, if naturalism is true then we don’t have a proper end. As Richard Dawkins reminds you, in naturalism, evolution has “no minds eye and no mind.” There is just blind, pitiless indifference. You are what you are, but you can neither live according to your proper end nor fail to do so.

  • BBB October 22, 2011, 5:59 pm

    Thanks, Glenn, for taking the time. Let me know if my replies become tiresome, or feel free to refer me to a book/article.

    I honestly didn’t mean to argue that free will shows that purpose can’t be our obligation in comment 15. It was probably my fault for poorly explaining myself.

    I actually agree that equating God’s purpose for us and our duties sounds plausible. But if you do, what is the explanation for the claim that you ought to follow you purpose? Is there an external basis for that?

    Erik Wielenberg (in his paper “In Defense of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism”) has suggested that both his non-theistic moral realism and divine command theory have to start with a few unexplained, brute ethical facts. For the purpose theory, that initial ethical fact would be that you ought to follow your purpose. Without that fact, the theory doesn’t work, but it is hard to see how you ontologically ground our obligation to act according to our purpose in something external.

    For Wielenberg, one of his initial facts would be “causing pain for fun is morally wrong”, which doesn’t seem totally implausible. He can explain his moral claims by appealing to the initial brute facts, but cannot explain the brute facts by appealing to anything external to themselves. They are the starting point, just like divine command theory has to have an ungrounded starting point. At least, that’s how he puts it.

    In comment 18, i suggested a possible explanation for how theism grounds the initial ought ontologically, but I’m not sure if its any good. I’m actually a theist, but am vexed by this issue.

  • Glenn October 22, 2011, 7:41 pm

    BBB, it’s not clear to me what sort of distinction you’re drawing between “that which we were meant to do” (purpose) and “that which we are meant to do” (duty).

    Can you explain how you think those concepts are different?

    I think Erik is just mistaken when he says that people in my position have to start with some unexplained moral claims. As for whether we can just start with “causing pain for fun is morally wrong,” I submit that the only reason that seems plausible is that we already think it’s true. But as an ontological starting point, it certainly doesn’t have anything going for it.

  • BBB October 23, 2011, 10:38 am

    When you put it that way, I have trouble seeing the distinction too.

    I guess I wasn’t so clear on how to define things like ought, obligation, should, and duty. But it seems you two are right; equating it with purpose does seem to fit much better than the alternatives.

    I think the distinction I had in mind comes from the thinking that just because someone tells you or wants you to do something, it doesn’t mean you have a moral obligation to do it. As a thought experiment… Say an evil genius built a sentient robot too destroy humanity. In such a scenario, the purpose of the robot is to destroy all humanity. In so far as it fails to do so, it is not fulfilling its purpose. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem to be morally good for it to fulfill its purpose.

    This presumes, of course, that sentience and free will can be the creation of malevolent forces. If one believes only God can do so, they may deny that my scenario (or some sort of evil god scenario)is metaphysically possible.

    In any case, it is just a thought experiment. Would a conscious being created for an evil purpose be morally obligated to fulfill its purpose?

  • Glenn October 23, 2011, 1:38 pm

    BBB, in the thought experiment you describe, it would be the proper function of the robot to destroy humanity. But it would not be the proper function of the evil genius to make such a robot, and hence it is not proper for there to be a robot that does such things.

    Another thing to throw into the mix is God’s goodness. I don’t mean moral goodness (because I don’t believe that God is morally good at all). I mean the things that we consider good, like God’s qualities of being loving, kind and so on. If a being gives us commands that are in accordance with our intended function, and we know that this being is all-knowing and perfectly good, then that actually gives us a non-moral reason to do what that being commands. Who could doubt that the commands of a being like that are, in the long run, in our best interests?

  • BBB October 24, 2011, 6:59 am

    I realize that it isn’t good for the robot to be there or right for the evil genius to create the robot, but isn’t it the case in my thought experiment that the robot’s proper function is not its morally obligation?

    Same with the scenario I hinted at above (an evil creator of the universe), in which we are created with an evil purpose.

    Don’t these scenarios show that there are possible worlds and/or situations in which one’s purpose is clearly not their moral obligation? If that’s true, doesn’t that show that purpose doesn’t equal moral obligation?

    One caveat…I think one could deny that such things are metaphysically possible. Likewise, they could argue that God is the robots ultimate origin in my thought experiment, and thus it is God’s purpose, not the evil genius’s, that constitute the robots duties.

    In any case, the point is that merely being created for an intended purpose doesn’t seem sufficient to morally obligate.

    I agree that, insofar as we know that God is perfectly loving, we have good practical grounds to do what He says. I’m more concerned, however, with moral duty. I don’t just want to say Hitler was dumb and impractical; I want to say he is evil, blameworthy, and deserving of punishment for his crimes.

  • Glenn October 24, 2011, 10:26 am

    BBB, it’s true that the robot’s intended function isn’t a moral obligation (and we’re talking about a robot with free will). But that’s just because the robot’s maker lives in a world where there are intentions “above” his own. In a scenario where the maker is the maker of the universe, that would not be so.

    What this shows is that not everyone’s intentions are equal – in this case the intentions of a mad designer don’t trump the intentions of his designer. So the point isn’t just that we have a proper function. It’s that we have a function determined by the supreme creator of all things, who himself is not subject to the design and intentions of another.

    I think you raise a good point when it comes to whether or not an evil God is metaphysically possible. Many have said, for example, that God has his characteristics not accidentally but necessarily. If that’s true, then in the real world none of God’s intended purposes will be malevolent. I think it’s senseless to talk about a morally evil God (just as it is to talk about a morally good God), so I stick to non-moral terms like malevolent or benevolent. But if God does have his characteristics necessarily, then moral rightness becomes living in accordance with the intentions of a necessarily good God.

    Having non-moral reasons to obey God’s commands is additional to the concept of proper function of course, so you would, in fact, have reasons to find Hitler morally blameworthy – in addition to him not living in his ultimate best interests.

  • BBB October 24, 2011, 8:36 pm

    I admit it sounds intuitive, although for some reason I still have trouble accepting that purpose or commands are the same as moral obligations. This may just be my own problem though, as I don’t have any more arguments for it. Let me ask two quick questions real quick and I’ll bow out. Thanks for taking the time.

    1. So would you, then, think the question “why be good?” to be nonsense? After all, if what is right is our purpose, than asking “why should I follow my purpose” would be like asking “why do I have a duty to do my duty”.

    2. Is there anything more to be said about the claim that God is necessarily loving, just, etc? That is, is there any explanation or argument for such a claim? It seems very crucial to me, but I have trouble seeing why God would have to be this way.

  • Glenn October 24, 2011, 10:25 pm

    BBB, I’ve enjoyed this exchange. I find that the most provocative and effective challenges are sympathetic ones like yours, as they aren’t a matter of trying to score rhetorical points, but to genuinely clarify matters.

    1. Well, if we mean “why, morally, should I be morally good,” then yeah that’s a strange question. The answer is just “because without being morally good, you can’t be morally good!” But the more general question of why we should be morally good is sensible. If God is good and all knowing and desires that we do certain things, then we have reason to think that it’s also non-morally good to do them, so there’s a reason right there.

    2. As for the question of whether or not God has his nature necessarily or accidentally, I can’t presume to do that justice in a comment, both because of the depth required and because of my own lack of experience in that specific subject area. But there has been some really good modern writing on that, one of the most highly recommended being Alvin Plantinga’s Does God have a Nature?.

    Cheers, Glenn

  • Jared October 25, 2011, 1:21 pm

    Thanks, Glenn and BBB for a great dialogue! Lots to think about. I think Glenn’s comments convince me even further that there is a direct relationship between obligation and purpose.

    By the way, BBB, I hope you have a microfilm reader if you intend to buy the book at the link Glenn provided (look carefully at the description).

  • Jared October 25, 2011, 1:30 pm

    (Amazon has it in paperback. There is also a 15-minute verbal version here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjSu8np6Efo )

  • Just Sayin' October 25, 2011, 3:22 pm

    Glenn, this is off-topic but I’m wondering if you’ve done a podcast on David Hume? If so, which one?

    Also: do you have any reading tips re. Hume?

  • John Jones October 26, 2011, 3:12 am

    > Glenn says:
    > October 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    > Jon, I’d be interested in considering those points your aise, but I
    > think you’ll need to shore them up a bit so I can see that the
    > argument is supposed to be in each case.

    >1) If we, via the fact of moral duties, identify the fact that God >exists, there’s no prima facie sense in which we cut God up and throw >anything away. It doesn’t claim that God is nothing other than a moral >commander, or something like that. So what’s the actual argument here? >Why should my position result in throwing away bits of God?>

    >2) You seem suspicious of calling anything about morality a “fact,” >because you think this looks like retrospective judgement that, you >pejoratively say, we “trot out” to our peers. I’m not really sure what >the point is here. Restrospective judgements about facts are >completely normal. We often decide what the facts are after we have >experienced them. Indeed, some people would call it presumptuous to >make a habit of the reverse! But I just don’t see what lies at the >heart of this worry – unless it turns out to be a denial of moral >facts just because one is sceptical about the existence of God.>

    >3) You say that a moral fact is just as much a reason to believe in >the devil as in God. But this claim doesn’t, on the face of it, have >anything going for it. So you’ll have to present the argument, and not >just the conclusion.>

    >4) I don’t really know what you’re asking with these comments about >God visiting us. But with no moral facts, we would have no moral >duties at all. This is tautologically true.

    >5) I don’t even know what a “moral command” argument for God’s >existence is. Sorry!

    Slicing God up:
    If we don’t have our own moral source then have we no autonomy. And if moral facts are only made evident in the world, then neither God nor ourselves have autonomy.

    Moral facts –
    I can say that it is a moral fact that we should not kill. But the term ‘fact’ is misleading and I am sure subject to Occams razor.
    Rather, I would say that we should not kill. Appending the word “fact” makes it look as though there are moral factual situations, like the facts of a murder, but I can argue that there are no such moral facts: Morality defines what is a murder – the facts of the murder themselves don’t define or specify a murder.

    Devil’s morality:
    I am sure if we can advance a morality we can advance its opposite. Morality and immorality are both faimiar to us. There must be devilish commands as much as good-angelic commands. and I am sure that there are people who have heard both.

    God visiting us (part-time God):
    If we say that there is proof of God because of proof of morality we would expect that this proof is necessary. But it is not necessary, because a moral fact and a command only appear at certain moments. Therefore, our proof isn’t of a necessary God, but of a contingent God.

    Moral facts again, and commands:
    Rather than rely on the contingency of a command or moral situation to prove god, would it not be a stronger proof to rely on the necessity of forms. Because, moral situations are only one type of form. For example the physical facts of a murder are identified only by our moral sense. So – why not go for the general case and say that it is form itself that is proof of God?

  • Dan L. October 26, 2011, 9:45 am

    You did a substanceless drive-by at Jerry Coyne’s blog. I’d love to hear your specific rebuttal of Jason Thibodeau’s argument.

  • Dan L. October 26, 2011, 10:39 am

    Since my request is getting disliked, let me clarify: Glenn stopped by another blog to tell the author he’s a philosophical naif but didn’t bother to be specific as to why he thought that. Glenn said:

    “Sorry, but your philosophy really is unsophisticated after all. Jason doesn’t help your case, he makes it worse. It’s a mug’s game to argue about it here, of course.”

    I would have happily asked him over there, but since it’s “a mug’s game to argue about it [there],” I didn’t bother. And that statement seemed to be an invitation to come talk about it somewhere it wouldn’t be a “mug’s game”, i.e. here.

    There’s also the implication that people don’t argue in good faith over at Coyne’s blog which might even be true to a certain extent. But getting downvoted over here for asking Glenn to clarify his position suggests that this blog might not be much better.

    And yes, this is on-topic. I’m not interested in a protracted argument with Glenn about the existence of God, I’m curious about how he would respond to a specific objection to the DCT.

  • Glenn October 26, 2011, 6:30 pm

    Dan, the author of that blog said that it’s a mug’s game to argue with an apologist at their own blog. I was just explaining why I didn’t argue with him (it was his own blog).

    I didn’t call anyone a naif, I just rejected his explicit contention that he had shown himself to be philosophically sophisticated by making the comments he did. I may write blog post on Coyne’s comments and unpack what I think are its shortcomings, but two things give me pause. Number one, when it comes to philosophy, nobody actually cares what he thinks (you know it’s true, however harsh it sounds), and number two, since he was responding to Matt Flannagan, it’s likely that Matt will want to write a response that will likely be more than adequate. But I may yet do so.

  • Glenn October 26, 2011, 6:39 pm

    John your contention about slicing God us is still at the level of claim. I need to see the inner workings of the argument. Why is it the case that if God makes moral facts evident in the world, he must thereby have no moral autonomy. Indeed, if, as I maintain, God is the origin of morality, how could God lack autonomy.

    I also think you may want tor visit what “autonomy” means. Just having moral obligations does not rob us of autonomy. So long as we are able to do otherwise, then we surely do have autonomy.

    You misunderstand my use of “moral facts.” I was not talking about the factual state of affairs that constitute a murder. I’m talking about moral propositions, propositions about whether or not an act like murder is right or wrong. If it can ever be true that murder is morally wrong (as you appear to grant), then there are moral facts (that fact being “murder is wrong”).

    Yes, you can probably advance the opposite of morality – immorality. But the fact that evil commands exist does not prove that a devil exists. What is the argument here?

    It’s not the case that morality appears only occasionally. So this who argument about God visiting us on a part time basis goes wrong from the outset. That God is “here” all the time certainly doesn’t require that he is continually uttering commands. Why would it?

    Lastly, I don’t think anyone is relying on the contingency of commands (whatever that means) to prove that God exists. Rather, the argument is that the existence of moral obligations, if there are moral obligations, is good evidence for God’s existence. There’s no appeal to contingency.

  • Dan L. October 27, 2011, 4:00 am


    Fair enough, though “not unsophisticated” is not exactly the same thing as “(positively) sophisticated.” And yes, I absolutely agree no one cares what Coyne thinks about theology. (On the other hand, working scientists, especially people who focus on theory, are actually pretty good sources for interesting philosophical insights and arguments whether or not they themselves can articulate or defend the resulting theses rigorously.) That’s why I asked about your answer to Thibodeau’s argument rather than Coyne’s.

    Incidentally, Matt Flanagan commented on Coyne’s post before you did essentially repeating the original argument as if it hadn’t been answered. OTOH, I may be missing something or he may not have been able to be entirely clear in a comment box. Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to get multiple perspectives on such things and since you bothered to comment on Coyne’s blog it seemed as though you might have something to say.

    It’s largely academic. I don’t find the moral argument the least bit convincing, I just find the process of arguing for or against it interesting. At any rate, thanks for responding.

  • Glenn October 27, 2011, 9:17 pm

    “I absolutely agree no one cares what Coyne thinks about theology.”

    Well, I said philosophy. But yes, the same applies to what he thinks about theology as well (although the one fact does not follow from the other). I was struck that the replies offered (by Coyne and his sources) actually didn’t grapple with the issue in the right way at all, what was called for was for them to understand Matt’s argument – which probably explains why he tried to reiterate it for them.

    I got the genuine feeling that Coyne felt that because he’d found someone who was a philosopher who disagreed with Matt, he’d found an adequate response. It’s rather like the way the media will interview an expert an assume that “this guy works in the field or is somehow associated with the discipline, his comments will represent an informed and reliable perspective,” without themselves having the tools to know for themselves. This, I think, is a symptom of what Matt was bothered by in the first place when he noted that scientists can make poor ethicists.

  • Dicky P October 28, 2011, 11:46 pm

    Glenn, could you please give me your opinion on constructivism in meta-ethics and in particular John Rawls’ ideas of Kant on this subject. I know you did you phD on similar topics so I would be interested to hear from you.

    Thank you, Dicky P

  • John Jones October 29, 2011, 8:37 am


    My argument, summed up, is that there is no ontological or epistemological route to identifying a moral truth or fact, irrespective of our possible difficulties in distinguishing them.

    There is no ontological route to a moral fact because:
    If we have no moral response or judgement of our own then not only do we have no autonomy (see below), but we cannot distinguish a moral command from any other command. We can only make, or not make, the physical actions associated with the command. Now, as I argued, there are no moral facts that can be gleaned from physical actions or descriptions alone. Also, for God, if a moral truth is created ontologically by a command then God also has no moral judgement, hence no autonomy.

    There is no epistemological route to a moral fact because:
    We can’t intuitively grasp a moral (fact or truth). The intuition is itself the moral. A moral identifies reasons or “graspings”; reasons do not identify a moral. Further, to assert that there is a moral truth “out there” is 1) to deny autonomy, that is, to deny our moral basis of OUR will and 2) short-circuits the divine command argument for God; in that, a moral command that is serving as a proof for God because the command is “out there” is made to rest on the condition that our morality is “out there”.

  • Glenn October 29, 2011, 10:17 am

    John – If morality is grounded in divine commands then we still do have a moral response or judgement of our own, and we still can distinguish moral commands from other commands. So that’s moot (quite apart from the question – as yet unanswered – of why this would mean there was no autonomy). And it doesn’t matter for God that moral truths are grounded in his commands – he still has autonomy in any relevant sense. He commands in accordance with that autonomy (so he commands in a way that satisfies his judgements about what he desires, for example, which is autonomy par excellence). There’s just no way here to conclude that either party lacks autonomy.

    As for your claim that we just can’t have moral intuitions – intuitions of moral facts – the obvious question is, why not? We can have immediate graspings of other facts (sense data being the obvious one). So this just looks unwarranted.

    And again you’re just point blank asserting with no argument that if we grasp moral truths out there then we lose autonomy, we deny that there is a moral basis for our will. But autonomy is the freedom to decide, so there’s no argument I can see here for your conclusions. If there are moral facts out there, then of course we still have autonomy because we are still in a position of choosing whether or not to be moral.

    This is just not how you do moral philosophy. You’ve got to have clear arguments from premises to conclusion. as it is, you seem to be just making bare assertions that have a very unclear basis. The most important one that you need to provide a good, well explained argument for is this: If our moral duty consists in following external rules that we are free to disobey or obey, how does this rob us of moral autonomy? This seems to be the claim that you keep appealing back to, but thus far you haven’t offered an argument for it.

  • John Jones November 1, 2011, 2:50 am

    We do not have our own moral sense if it is grounded elsewhere(in God).
    If our moral sense IS grounded elsewhere then we must also be elsewhere. That is, either we are God, or, we have a moral sense of our own.

    Autonomy and moral sense:
    Without a moral sense we have no autonomy. As it is our moral sense that organises and structures life-situations and their objects, then without that moral sense there can be no expression of autonomy. We can make no decisions unless we have a moral sense of our own, as without moral sense there is no world to support decisions. We cannot be free to obey or not obey a moral command if we have no moral sense: what we would be “obeying” or “choosing” would simply be a command to perform an empty physical movement.

    We may perceive a command, but without our own moral sense there is no framework in which that command can be realised.

    Occams razor is needed here, and maybe a bit of Wittgenstein. So far, we have a moral fact that is apprehended by a (moral) intuition, both of which are reactions to a command that is itself, presumably, based on a moral fact: a moral fact is found in us, in an indeterminate world of commands, and externally in God. it seems that externality is being used as a proof of God, rather than the command. There is no way a command can be intuited as being a moral command if we have no moral sense of our own.
    Wittgenstein would claim that morality provides the framework of facts. Similarly, we do not intuit pain or know it, we simply are in pain. Pain provides the framework for facts.

  • Glenn November 1, 2011, 8:24 pm

    Jon, why can’t we have our own moral sense if it is grounded elsewhere? Please argue for this. It strikes me as obvious that we could have our own moral sense, so long as we have epistemic access to moral facts. It seems like a very strong an unexpected claim that if morality is grounded in God then we could have no moral sense of our own. And besides, having a moral sense is not the same as moral autonomy.

    So maybe you should explain what you think moral autonomy is – and what a moral sense is. I think that moral autonomy is moral freedom, the ability to do that which is moral or not do it. I think that having a moral sense of our own is like having a moral compass. The ability to know what’s moral and what’s not. Maybe if you explain what you think those things are your comments will become easier to understand.


  • John Jones November 8, 2011, 1:03 pm

    There isn’t much sense of course to saying that my moral sense is wholly in my father, or my mother, or a distant uncle, or God. Unless i) I am these people or this deity, or ii) I am a will-less zombie, susceptible only to their commands.

    Neither would it make sense to say that my moral sense is to be found in objects and situations, such as those that I encounter as the result of my fulfilling (or not) a command:

    The key issue here I believe is the confusion between totality and whole, which is the erroneous belief that parts can be identified, and can exist, without the whole that identifies them. A description of a totality of parts does not give a description of the whole that identifies the parts (or facts). For example, a set of flowers do not describe a bouquet. But a bouquet identifies a particular set of flowers. Similarly, a moral sense identifies the moral facts that constitute a murder, but the facts, objects, and situation of the murder itself cannot be identified or instantiated unless there is a moral sense already in place.

    So, we have our own moral sense, it is part of being a life-form.
    A moral sense (the whole) identifies and constructs moral facts (the parts).
    Moral facts (the parts) do not identify a moral sense (the whole). Similarly, a command cannot be identified as a moral fact unless there is a moral framework in place through which we can identify the command as a moral command. Unless we have a moral sense we cannot identify any moral facts -the whole identifies the parts. If we have no moral sense then we cannot construct or identify any moral facts.

    But then, if I have my own moral sense why should I need a command? perhaps when we lapse, morally.
    We might argue that it isn’t a command that proves God, but a REMINDER – a reminder that sombrely appeals to our own moral sense, a sense that is already in place. For without any moral sense of our own we would not be able to find any moral compass within a command. Indeed, a command isn’t the sort of thing that carries a value, such as a moral value.

  • Glenn November 8, 2011, 3:56 pm

    John, I have never denied that our moral sense is our own – in us. That has never been the issue, so your last comment seems a bit moot.

    The issue is whether we can have our own moral sense if it is *grounded* elsewhere. That is, it points to facts that are not in ourselves. The truths that it detects were not generated by us,but we detect them witht our own moral sense.

    There’s nothing here incompatible with morality being grounded in God.

  • Matthew Flannagan November 9, 2011, 11:36 am

    ncidentally, Matt Flanagan commented on Coyne’s post before you did essentially repeating the original argument as if it hadn’t been answered. OTOH, I may be missing something or he may not have been able to be entirely clear in a comment box. Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to get multiple perspectives on such things and since you bothered to comment on Coyne’s blog it seemed as though you might have something to say.

    Actually, what I pointed out was that the specific argument Coyne offered on his blog had in fact been anticipated and answered in my original article. I also pointed out that when you read the next line of the article Coyne cited from ( the line immediately after the quote he provided) Jason himself pointed this out. So all Coyne did was cite an argument from Jason I had addressed and in that Jason in fact acknowledged I had addressed.

    Distorted summaries of another’s argument is not really a rebuttal of it.

  • Matthew Flannagan November 14, 2011, 2:47 pm

    Also if Dan L wants a point by point rebuttal of jason’s blog he can look at the discussion between him and I in the comments on both his blog and MandM. Where I address pretty much each of his points

  • {Tim} November 21, 2011, 2:35 am

    Sigh — I’m pretty sure John is confusing ontology with epistemology, despite this being the exact topic of this post.

  • John Jones November 25, 2011, 11:21 am

    Tim and Glen,
    I gave reasons for there being no ontological or epistemological route to identifying a moral truth or fact. I wonder if the disagreement stems from the idea that the writers believe that facts and situations can themselves participate or identify themselves as being moral or not? I argued against this.

    Next comes the issue of the “grounding” of a moral sense. A moral sense is already a ground. It is the ground for identifying and judging situations as illustrative of being moral or not. I cannot make sense of the idea that we can have a moral sense and yet have it grounded elsewhere. What would constitute such a “sense” ? certainly not facts and situations.

  • Glenn November 25, 2011, 4:57 pm

    “I gave reasons for there being no ontological or epistemological route to identifying a moral truth or fact.”

    John, you gave no such reasons that have not already been addressed, as far as I can see. Your arguments, as far as I can see, were answered quite some time ago, and I’m not going back into this discussion. Other subjects have come up since then which are now occupying my attention.

  • John Jones November 27, 2011, 5:37 pm

    I already served the distinction between epistomolgy and ontology, and showed their failre to accommodate a moral fact.

  • John Jones December 24, 2011, 5:16 pm

    I pointed out that an epistemological approach fares no better than an ontological one. This is because of the reasons I stated – confusions over the legitimate use of the word “command” and moral facts have no grounding in the way described.

  • Glenn December 24, 2011, 8:29 pm

    *shrug* Well if you say so.

Leave a Comment

Remember: All comments should conform to the blog policy and you must use your real name. Comments that do not conform may be removed in whole or in part. You can review the blog policy here.

 Characters remaining