Episode 039: Divine Command Ethics

Ethics Philosophy Philosophy of Religion podcast

NOTE: In this episode I call it episode 40. It’s not. It’s episode 39.

The podcast is back. Actually, episode 39 was going to be on another topic, but then someone suggested this one to me, so as I already had a document called “episode 039” I called this “document 040.” And then when I started recording it I thought – “Hey, this is the 40th episode. Cool!” and I made a big deal of it in the recording. And then after I uploaded it I realised that since I skipped over the episode 39 that I’m writing, this isn’t really 40 at all, it’s episode 39! So that was an epic fail.

So no sooner do I release another podcast episode, I am making excuses for it! This episode is based on a lecture on divine command ethics that I gave a few years ago at the University of Otago. Enjoy!

 

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{ 32 comments… add one }
  • Ron March 30, 2011, 4:28 pm

    I see you’ve finally gotten around to the elephant in the room. 😀

  • Samson April 1, 2011, 1:24 pm

    I see you’ve finally gotten around to the elephant in the room. 😀

    Yes, best podcast yet (and some have been very good!). I can’t believe you haven’t been hired yet, Glenn. Prayers for your wife.

  • Kyle February 21, 2013, 12:14 pm

    You say, for example
    1) That it hurts someone is the reason why God commands us not to torture.
    2) That God commanded us not to torture is the reason we have a moral duty not to.
    3) Therefore, that it hurts someone is the reason why we have a moral duty not to torture.

    You point out that “is the reason” is not transitive and “reason” in (1) is epistemic while “reason” in (2) is causal. So here’s what I’m wondering. Let’s say I take this view of DCT and someone asks me “Why do you think torture is wrong?” When I think about it, I’m going to say “Because it hurts someone.” I am not going to say “Because God commands it.” It may well be that God does command it, and I may believe it, but I admit that I’m going to appeal to the fact that it hurts someone, not God’s command. It seems like your view is saying that MY reason for thinking torture is wrong should not be because it hurts someone (though it may be God’s), but because God tells me not to do it. This seems counterintuitive to me. How would you respond? Did I explain myself well enough or make a mistake on your view somewhere?

  • Glenn February 21, 2013, 11:24 pm

    Kyle, I find that people are often not clear when they ask “why” questions. If someone asks “Why do you think torture is wrong?” and they mean “what is it that makes you think that torture is wrong?” Then it’s perfectly legitimate to say that you think torture is wrong because it hurts people AND ALSO because you think that God forbids us to hurt people (as a general rule!). If you didn’t think the latter, the former wouldn’t do the job. In other words, it’s actually fine to say “because it hurts people” only because of the antecedent belief that God forbids us from hurting each other.

    Of course, if they mean “what do you think makes torture wrong,” then “God forbids it” will do

  • Scott Terry December 21, 2013, 5:00 pm

    Hey Dr. Peoples,

    I’m a farm boy from North Carolina who noses around in matters above his ability from time to time – as a result, I’ve raised the ire of a particularly nasty atheist who argues from a “moral anti-realist” position, and I’m scheduled to formally debate him on ethics.

    Apparently, he doesn’t think moral propositions either exist, or have truth values. (Isn’t it Mackie who says moral propositions exist and have truth values, but they’re all false?)

    I have half a notion to try defending the “family” of moral-realist positions over and against moral anti-realism, by trying to show that moral-realism is necessary for speech acts, judgments, and logical operations (all of which we’d want to utilize during the debate).

    But, honestly, I’m winging it and the arguments I’m coming up with don’t seem very strong.

    Do you know any good arguments against moral anti-realism? Any advice for how to counter the arguments my atheist opponent will likely present on these matters? Any help would be greatly appreciated. (I know you don’t exist to help out anonymous people on the internet, so if it helps – I’ve been an on-again, off-again listener / fan ever since you did that podcast on “Presuppositionalism” – I’m a Van Tillian, but hopefully not one of the overly-zealous types with a herd mentality).

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 7:42 pm

    The problem with the DCT is that it bases our moral obligations purely on what someone’s preferences are (that they’re God’s preferences, and not someone else’s, makes no difference). Our moral obligations—if we have any at all—aren’t supposed to be something that’s based purely on preferences. Preferences are, by their very nature, arbitrary, and moral obligations aren’t supposed to be something based purely on what’s arbitrary (they’re supposed to be based on reasons that are preference-independent: the preferences are supposed to follow the reasons, at least that’s what we strive for: for them to be lining up). We have as much moral reason to do what God prefers us to do, as we do to do what Fred prefers us to do (whoever Fred is—whether he’s got some godlike properties, some humanlike properties, or both—doesn’t matter): and that’s zilch! The fact that God’s stronger than me doesn’t give me a moral reason to do what he prefers (it might give me a practical reason—if he threatens to beat me up for not doing what he says, then YES—that would give me a practical reason to obey: but that’s just bullying!). The fact that God’s smarter than me also doesn’t give me a moral reason to do what he prefers, either. But, gosh, what if God’s morally perfect, though (he’s “all good”)? Well…what does “morally perfect” mean here? It doesn’t mean much of anything at all, if we take the DCT to be true. Because to be moral is to just do what God prefers. Therefore: God is morally perfect just in case he always does what he prefers. So, “God is morally perfect” just means “God always does what he prefers”. So, how’s that gonna ground my moral obligations? How does that give me a moral reason to do whatever God prefers? The fact that God always does what he prefer doesn’t give me a moral reason to do whatever he prefers—just like the fact that Fred always does what he prefer doesn’t give me a moral reason to do whatever he prefers.

  • Glenn August 13, 2014, 7:47 pm

    “Preferences are, by their very nature, arbitrary”

    James, can you think of a reason for believing that? Arbitrary means willed for no reason. How are preferences willed at all? I could understand the claim that God’s commands are arbitrary (i.e. God wills that we do X, but he has no reason), but this claim could simply be denied by a Divine Command theorist. God has reasons. he commands based on what he loves. And if you then say that what God loves / God’s preferences are arbitrary, it doesn’t make sense, at least using the word “arbitrary” in a normal sense.

    Do you just mean that God’s preferences (i.e. God’s nature) is accidental? it looks like that’s probably what you want to say. But if that’s so, then a classical theist can simply deny your claim and maintain that God’s nature is necessary. So a classical theist who holds to Divine Command theory has no motivation to accept this critique.

    “Our moral obligations—if we have any at all—aren’t supposed to be something that’s based purely on preferences.”

    OK, but a Divine Command theory doesn’t claim that our moral obligations are based purely on preferences. Can you give an example of a proponent of a divine command theorist saying that?

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 8:46 pm

    Well, we’re gonna have to look at paradigm cases of preferences that are arbitrary—that we can all pretty much agree that they are arbitrary. My preference for vanilla ice cream right now is an example. I could’ve preferred some other flavor right now, but I just happen to prefer vanilla. That’s just where my whims are taking me. But what if I had always preferred vanilla—if any time I had a taste for ice cream, I preferred vanilla? I was just built that way (nature and nurture happened to come together to build me that way). Well, nature and nurture could’ve come together differently to build me differently, so I didn’t always prefer vanilla. So, it’s still arbitrary. That a feature is arbitrary doesn’t require that the feature be uncaused—all features are caused, given the truth of the principle of sufficient reason; so, even my occasional preference for vanilla is caused. What makes it arbitrary is that its causal history is centered uniquely on me, and it’s normally not the result of my planning, my intentions. It’s just something that happens to me, and I go with it.

    Now, what about God, and God’s preferences? We can’t even begin to make intelligent sense of that. Is there are a causal history to God’s preferences? Is God part of the network of cause and effect? At least with my preferences (and other human beings’ preferences), I can come up with some decent hypotheses about how they came about, what causally explains them. We all go the same basic motivational structure, which we share with all animals (pursue pleasure, for example, food and sex; avoid pain; and conserve energy: use the least amount to get the most). Now, how about God—an immaterial being? What’s his basic motivational structure? Beats me! With God’s preferences, we’re completely in the dark about them—we’re abysmally ignorant about what could be causally explaining them. Now, the specter of fickleness, of mercurialness, with respect to God’s preferences comes into sharp relief. What gives a lot of our preferences constancy, regularity, is how they are causally related to the world. Odds are: I’m not going to wake up tomorrow with a desire to have sex with women, or to not have a desire to drink coffee. How about God? This just further adds to the arbitrariness objection—God’s preferences would be arbitrary in a very special way.

    Now: God could have reasons for his preferences (“reasons” in the sense of something other than a cause; a reason could be a cause, it could function as a cause for doing something, but it’s not the same thing as a cause). And those reasons could keep God’s preferences in check—they can make them be unchanging. Okay, that’s all fine and good. But then we’re going to be talking about his reasons—his reasons for preferring something. That’s what’s going to matter. His preferences are going to follow his reasons. And what’s going to matter to what’s moral is what his reasons are. And the DCT would be…

  • Glenn August 13, 2014, 9:30 pm

    “I could’ve preferred some other flavor right now, but I just happen to prefer vanilla”

    I said that the ordinary meaning of arbitrary is willed for no reason. You haven’t objected to this (and I would hope not, because this is the standard meaning), so this example surely fails. You can’t just will, right now, to like another flavour of ice-cream can you? I would think not. Indeed, we don’t will our preferences at all. We just find ourselves with them. So – far from being a “paradigm case” where preferences are arbitrary, this seems to be an example that reinforces my observation. The notion of “arbitrary” doesn’t really apply to preferences.

    This is why I said that you probably want to say something like “accidental.” And I really think you do mean accidental: God’s preferences weren’t deliberately picked out, they just happened to be. I think that’s what you mean to get at here, right?

    I did anticipate this, explaining that you would need to give a classical theist some reason to abandon his conception of God’s nature as necessary. But the remainder of your comment doesn’t seem to interact with this, so perhaps I should wait. To indicate where I’m going with this, however: A divine command theorist can say that God’s commands are not arbitrary because they are grounded in what God loves / wants. And you might dismiss that nature as accidental, but you would have to argue for this, because that is not what a classical theist believes about God’s nature.

    So you’ll have to move from the arbitrariness objection and start giving reasons for believing that God’s nature is accidental and not necessary.

  • Kenneth August 13, 2014, 9:53 pm

    “Okay, that’s all fine and good. But then we’re going to be talking about his reasons—his reasons for preferring something. That’s what’s going to matter. His preferences are going to follow his reasons. And what’s going to matter to what’s moral is what his reasons are.”

    This is a fairly common mistake in criticising divine command ethics, I think. Just the other day I was reading an old thread where Glenn responded to this. This line of thought assumes that If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons are what makes something wrong or right – not God’s commands.

    This isn’t correct, though (or at least it’s certainly not obvious). Imagine that we are not talking about morality, but law. Use that analogy: Actions become illegal because Parliament passes legislation against them. Parliament might have reasons for doing so, but those reasons do not make something illegal. Legislation is what makes something illegal.

    In other words, If A brings B about, and A has a reason, R, for bringing B about, it doesn’t follow that really R brings B about.

    Glenn commented on this a bit more fully here:
    http://www.rightreason.org/2007/divine-commands-and-reasons/
    and here:
    http://www.rightreason.org/2011/brief-thoughts-about-god’s-freedom-to-command/

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 10:01 pm

    Sorry, I didn’t read your full response. I only read your response that was emailed to me, which I assumed was your full response–but for some reason it’s not, it’s cut short. Will read your full response on this webpage, and respond.

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 10:41 pm

    Well, what we agree on is: we don’t will our preferences. You don’t want to call preferences “arbitrary” because we don’t will them, and for you “arbitrary” means “willed for no reason”. Fine. I can go with your usage. I don’t lose anything there. (How about, “My race is an arbitrary feature that I have”? Just a sidenote that the standard usage might also accommodate that which is not willed). Preferences still don’t ground moral obligations, even though they’re not willed. How does it make a difference if the preferences don’t ever change, or can’t ever change? What if my preferences never changed? Or could never change? They still wouldn’t ground any of your moral obligations. Why does adding power to me (lots and lots of power) and adding lots of smarts to me (lots and lots of smarts) make a difference there? It doesn’t.

    Now: Are God’s preferences unchanging and necessary? This doesn’t make a difference to the issue—but it’s an interesting question to entertain. Are they unchanging and necessary? Well, gosh, I don’t know anyone whose preferences have never undergone a change: there were times when one never had a preference, then adopted it, or lost it.
    So, the general principle is:

    Whoever’s capable of having a preference is subject to changes in the preferences they have.
    God’s someone capable of having preference. (BY HYPOTHESIS)
    Therefore, he’s probably subject to changes in the preferences he has.

    This is a good inductive preference. Now: the DC theorist has got to make an argument as to why the general principle doesn’t apply—even though it’s not gonna help him with the argument I made against the DCT.

    As for whether the DC theorist claims that moral obligations are based “purely” on preferences. The “purely” there was just for emphatic purposes. Moral obligations are based on preferences, or not. And if they’re not, then–assuming we got them–they’re gonna be based on reasons (preference-independent reasons for action). Of course, we’re still gonna have preferences, right? We don’t cease having preferences, just because we have reasons for action. What we want to do is: line up our preferences with our reasons for action. And that’s a lifelong struggle.

    Now: suppose God prefers that we act kindly. And suppose you want to add: God prefers that because acting kindly promotes cooperation. That’s his reason for preferring it, and it’s (by hypothesis) a good reason. If acting kindly didn’t do that (but it promoted conflict) then he wouldn’t have that preference. Well, it looks to me that: the reason I have for acting kindly is that it promotes cooperation–not that God prefers it. God’s preferences follow what the good reasons are for action–on the assumption that he’s a morally enlightened guy. We’ve abandoned the DC theory here.

  • Glenn August 13, 2014, 10:55 pm

    “This doesn’t make a difference to the issue”

    On the contrary. If the issue is that God’s nature is just accidental in the sense that it could have been anything, so there’s nothing significant about what desires, then the issue becomes whether or not this claim is true. So by using the type of argument that you’ve used, you have placed this issue at the centre. If God’s nature is accidental and the classical theists are wrong, then you should show that they are wrong and your argument can be considered further. But unless you offer argument for this claim, then this is where your argument comes to a halt and should be rejected.

    “Whoever’s capable of having a preference is subject to changes in the preferences they have.”

    I’m afraid you’ll have to do a lot better than that. Since God is presumably a “whoever” on your analysis, this just begs the question. So you’re going to have to offer an argument, using premises that that classical theist already accepts, that produce the conclusion that God’s nature is accidental, rather than necessary.

    You say you’ve got an objection to a DCT (divine command theory). Fine, but that means your objection must hold against those who actually hold to a DCT. You’ve got to show them that their view is susceptible tot he objection. They really don’t have to prove that that their view in order to show that your objection applies.

    What I’m seeing here suggests the following: Your objection does not apply to a view wherein God’s nature is necessary rather than accidental. Agreed? (It might fail for other reasons, but it would at least fail for this reason.)

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 11:06 pm

    Kenneth:

    God’s preferences for what we do are going to follow good reasons for action, or not. By “follow” here, I mean they’re going to be based on them, such that if X is a good reason for us to do Y, God’s gonna prefer that we do Y; otherwise (i.e. if there were a better reason not to do Y) God wouldn’t prefer that we do Y.

    Laws are an institutional reality—like all institutional realities (marriage, money, government, property), they’re the result of our collective actions and collective agreements (our “collective intentionality”). Moral obligations aren’t supposed to be an institutional reality. (If moral relativism is true, then they really are an institutional reality).

    The reason why moral obligations are based on reasons for action is because there’s nothing more to having a moral obligation than having a particular kind of reason for action—a “moral reason” for action, and that reason is desire-independent (and since it’s desire-independent, it’s also preference-independent). To be under a moral obligation is to have a moral reason for doing something. They’re the same thing! Different words, same meaning.

  • Kenneth August 13, 2014, 11:14 pm

    James, the structural differences between a modern democracy and God really isn’t the point of the analogy.

    The point is just this: You appeared to be claiming that if God has reasons for commanding as he does, then really it’s those reasons doing the moral work. Those reasons are the reasons that actions are right or wrong – not God’s commands.

    The Parliament analogy simply shows that this claim is untrue. Regardless of Parliaments actual reasons. Something becomes law because of Parliamentary action, and parliament has reasons – and yet those reasons are not what makes legislation. And so the general principle to which you appeal is false.

    In the other thread I linked to this is explained more fully, but on the face of it it seems quite clear that you’re appealing to a principle about how reasons transfer that is simply untrue.

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 11:17 pm

    Well, I already accepted your assumption that “God’s nature is necessary”—just for the sake of argument. So, God’s preferences are the same in all possible worlds, and they never change. So, what? My preferences could be the same in all possible worlds, and never change, and they still wouldn’t ground any of your moral obligations. Well, what’s the difference between me and God? Well, God’s got more powers and more smarts. Well, that’s not relevant. To see that: just keep adding powers and smarts to me, until I’m godlike, and it still would be the case that my preferences wouldn’t ground your moral obligations. Same with God. This is a very simple argument.

  • Glenn August 13, 2014, 11:47 pm

    “My preferences could be the same in all possible worlds, and never change, and they still wouldn’t ground any of your moral obligations”

    Firstly, ensure that we’re talking about natures. Remember: The classical theist will maintain that any necessity of God’s preferences is a consequence of God’s nature being necessary. You can’t just say that your own nature might be the same. Really? You believe that about yourself? That all your attributes are necessary? You’re a necessary being?

    Secondly, you seem to be begging the question without realising it. You’re now saying that if you were a necessary being, your preferences wouldn’t ground morality. Well actually, if you were a necessary being (i.e. the classical conception of God), you’d be God and your commands would indeed ground moral duty. But you’re not God.

    Thirdly, and as I already said in my first reply, “a Divine Command theory doesn’t claim that our moral obligations are based purely on preferences.” Indeed, this is the point Kenneth is making, and which I have made elsewhere. The type of DCT that you’re talking about here maintains that God’s commands ground our moral obligations. Not God’s preferences.

    It’s true that your particular argument is simple, but it’s not even a serious candidate for an objection. Moreover, the way you talk about God is simply not in keeping with classical theism at all. You don’t just add more and more powers to a human being and eventually end up with God. God is not just a really powerful version of you.

  • James Hill August 13, 2014, 11:50 pm

    Kenneth:

    Well, if God’s got perfect moral knowledge, then all his preferences are going to be based on moral reasons for action. So, if God’s got perfect moral knowledge, and there is a moral reason for us to act kindly, and that reason is that it promotes cooperation, then God’s going to be preferring that we act kindly, and he’s going to have a reason for preferring it, and that reason is going to be that acting kindly promotes cooperation. Theists generally assume that God’s got perfect moral knowledge—that this is supposed to follow from the assumption that he’s all knowing.

    I agree that laws are institutional realities—they’re the result of our collective intentionality. I honestly still don’t understand the argument that you’re making. Let me try to state my position again, using the specific example of the moral obligation to act kindly.

    God’s preference that I act kindly is the ground of my moral obligation to act kindly, or it’s not, and it’s a moral reason for action (let’s assume that moral reason for action is that acting kindly promotes cooperation).
    It’s not God’s preference.
    So, it’s a moral reason for action.
    Now, let’s go further with this.
    Suppose God prefers that I act kindly. But suppose there is no moral reason for acting kindly. In other words: acting kindly does not promote cooperation—in fact, it promotes conflict.
    Therefore: I don’t have a moral obligation to act kindly.
    Now, let’s imagine another case.
    Suppose God prefers that I act kindly. But this time there is a moral reason for acting kindly: acting kindly promotes cooperation.
    Therefore: I have a moral obligation to act kindly.
    Now: in this case, God could prefer that I act kindly BECAUSE there is a moral reason for acting kindly. In other words: he could prefer it for that reason—that could be his reason for preferring it. And if God has perfect moral knowledge (he knows what all the moral reasons for action are under all circumstances) then he would know that there is a moral reason for acting kindly. Now, we need a few more assumptions to get to the view that God’s preferences line up perfectly with his perfect moral knowledge. (The philosopher Richard Swinburne thinks he can get there).

  • Glenn August 14, 2014, 12:28 am

    I think Kenneth’s point is fairly obvious.

    On another note, James, given a divine command theory of morality, what are you referring to when you talk about God’s moral knowledge? Surely not God’s knowledge of morality prior to his commands, for that would be begging the question against a divine command theory.

  • James Hill August 14, 2014, 12:28 am

    Listen: if you can imagine a god (with all the mind-boggling features God is supposed to have, according to classical theism), you can imagine me having preferences that never change, and that are the same in all possible worlds. And you can imagine me having godlike smarts and powers (powers to make things happen). I’d be like the Q from Star Trek: TNG. This is all logically possible, and easily imaginable (the imagined character of Q is proof of that!). If you say you can’t imagine this, then you’re just not trying hard enough. My argument doesn’t depend on me having ALL of God’s features (so I’m one and the same person as God), and it doesn’t depend on me having features that are ALL necessary. So, this is just a misunderstanding of the argument. If my preferences never changed, and were the same in all possible worlds, they wouldn’t ground your moral obligations. Adding smarts and powers wouldn’t make a difference—there’s no magical point where you’d say: “Well, Jimmy, NOW you got enough smarts and powers, so that now we got a moral obligation to do whatever it is that you prefer!” It’s completely ridiculous to think otherwise. (I’m still not the same person as God here, because I still lack some feature that God has. For example, we can suppose that God created everything, and I didn’t. But…so what? That’s not gonna help you with the DC theory. Just imagine that I created everything—would that make a difference? Would that be the tip the scales, so that now my preferences are the ground for you moral obligations? Nope. And if you’re worried that now it looks like I’m the same person as God, then you need to keep in mind that there are still some features that God has that I lack—for example, we can suppose he is deeply concerned about people, but I’m not. Or we can imagine that I created everything BUT one atom—and that would be enough of a difference-maker, to individuate me from God.)

    As for you wanting to say that the DCT maintains that God’s commands ground our moral obligations, not God’s preferences. Now, we’re gonna have to go back to the philosophy of language. God’s commands express his preferences—because commands, as a type of speech act, express preferences of the speakers making them. That’s how we individuate them from other speech acts (for example: apologies, promises, assertions, and so on). You’re not able to pick out a speech act as a command without attending to the type of psychological state that is supposed to be expressed by the performer of the speech act. So, if God’s commands ground our moral obligations, then it’s his preferences expressed by those commands that would ground our moral obligations. God is just using his commands to express his preferences—just like the rest of us, when we make commands. We use them to express our preferences.

    I agree that “God is not just a really powerful version” of me. That just misses the whole point of the argument I made.

  • JMH August 14, 2014, 7:20 am

    Wow ! We have a commenter here who disagrees with DCT and maintains civility ?! Surely, this is a dream.

  • Nathaniel Blaney August 14, 2014, 10:20 am

    If I may step in here, James, you say:
    “if God’s got perfect moral knowledge, and there is a moral reason for us to act kindly, and that reason is that it promotes cooperation, then God’s going to be preferring that we act kindly, and he’s going to have a reason for preferring it, and that reason is going to be that acting kindly promotes cooperation”
    Here’s one way of seeing the problem with your objection: In the antecedent of the above conditional, you’ve smuggled in theses that the DCTist won’t accept.
    Earlier you say, “To be under a moral obligation is to have a moral reason for doing something. They’re the same thing!” Very well, let’s grant that. In that case, then, if we have a moral reason to act kindly, then that reason will not be that it promotes cooperation. It will instead be that God has commanded that we act kindly, since, as you have said, moral reasons are the same as moral obligations, and our obligations are, on DCT, constituted by God’s commands to us.

    Also, keep in mind that the DCTist will find your phrase “perfect moral knowledge” quite strange. What can this mean? The DCTist will think (or ought to think) that God has no moral duties, since morality is about God’s commands and he presumably doesn’t issue commands to himself. God’s “moral knowledge,” then, God’s knowledge about the contents of morality, will have to be knowledge about commands he has issued to his creatures. So it isn’t clear what work God’s having perfect moral knowledge is supposed to be doing in this conditional.

    Are you supposing that if God has perfect moral knowledge, then he will know of a set of moral reasons that he has? Recall that, according to your assumption, one’s moral reasons are the same things as one’s moral duties. You can see why the DCTist will find that idea problematic, for she believes there is no such set to be known.

  • James Hill August 14, 2014, 12:48 pm

    Glenn:

    Thanks for the question. I was trying to help Kenneth better understand my view. Not all Christian philosophers accept the DC theory—in fact, many of them (contemporary ones) don’t. Swinburne is of this view–and so is, I think, Plantinga (Swinburne thinks moral truths are necessary truths–they’re true in all possible worlds. Because of that, God’s preferences couldn’t have made a difference to what propositions were morally true. That’s even if God’s preferences were always the same, and the same in all possible worlds). They still think God issues commands—but if he commands that we do X, and doing X is a moral obligation we have, then the basis for his command (the reason for him commanding it) is a moral reason for action. Not all God’s commands are such that anytime he commands that we do X, doing X is a moral obligation we have. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them: it just means we don’t have a moral obligation to them. We could have some other obligation to do them. For example: Swinburne says we have an obligation to please our benefactors (within limits; what limits?; so long as pleasing them doesn’t violate a moral obligation that we have). So, sometimes when God commands us to do X (for example, it might be saying grace before eating a meal), and there is no moral reason to do X, we could still have an obligation to do X, as long as there is no moral reason not to do X—because we have an obligation to please God, because God’s our benefactor. Swinburne makes a very interesting argument for why God is morally perfect (whenever there’s a moral reason for God to do something, he does it; and he never does anything if there’s a moral reason not to do it), and why he’s got perfect moral knowledge. I don’t think it works, but it’s very interesting.

    J.M.H: Thanks for the compliment!

  • Glenn August 14, 2014, 3:53 pm

    James, you’re effectively telling me that I should change my concept of God – That I should just accept that if we just took James Hill and added more and more power and “smarts,” you’d eventually be the same as God.

    The way that I’ve approached your argument, James, is to get off the train at the first stop. As soon as the argument gets into trouble that means the argument cannot be allowed to proceed, I stop, point it out, and don’t consider the argument further until this is resolved. First you said that preferences are arbitrary and so God’s preferences must also be arbitrary. I pointed out that this gets categories a bit muddled. Decisions are arbitrary or not. Preferences aren’t (because to be arbitrary is to be willed for no reason). According to a Christian who holds a classical conception of God and a divine command theory of morality, God’s commands are not arbitrary because they are grounded in what God loves / wants. So really your argument was that what God wants / loves is just accidental. It could change, just as our preferences can change.

    But this, I have pointed out, is simply to reject the classical conception of God altogether. This is not what the classical conception of God is like. God is a necessary being. His nature is necessary, not accidental. As such his preferences are not just accidental.

    More recently you’ve effectively been saying – so what? James Hill could have his preferences necessarily too! And this wouldn’t make James Hill’s preferences the basis of morality.

    I’ve made two responses to this. The first – and I’ve said this a couple of times – is that this misconstrues a divine command theory of morality. A divine command theory is not that God’s preferences are the basis of morality. Rather, God’s commands are the basis of morality. I asked for an example of a divine command theorist who says that God’s preferences alone are the basis of morality. You haven’t offered one, and I’m inferring from this that you don’t know of any.

    The second response I offered was to say that this simply misconstrues a classical conception of God. God is not a being like you or I, but much, much, much, much, much (etc) smarter or more powerful. God’s being and attributes, on classical theism. In other words, if you actually had the relevant attributes, then you would be God – the only God. And it is evidently begging the question just to assert that if you were God, then your commands wouldn’t serve as the basis of morality. That is the very thing in question.

    There are other things to consider in a critique of divine command ethics, of course, but I am getting off the train at the first stop. Your argument must work against the beliefs that divine command theorists actually hold, and by insisting that Christians with a classical conception of God modify their view of God so that your critique stands a better chance is an indicator that the argument has failed. If you have a new argument to use, I’d be interested in hearing it, but I’m not going to continue responding to this one.

    I also think you’ve significantly misunderstood or underestimated the argument Kenneth raises, which I’ve raised elsewhere. That argument a separate reason why I think that you’re not in a good position with this critique.

    I don’t say any of this to offend, but I’ve learned that it’s important to be able to discern when you really think there’s nothing promising about a line of argument and not to invest further time in it. And that’s what I’ve decided. A new argument would be required to re-ignite my interest.

    PS: On your more recent comment: “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them: it just means we don’t have a moral obligation to them.” – You’d be hard pressed to find a Christian philosopher who maintains that this is true, whether a divine command theorist or not. Also, I asked my question because it’s important to realise that from the perspective that you’re criticising (namely a divine command theory of morality), there is no moral knowledge prior to a divine command. To speak as though there is, therefore, is just to assume that a divine command theory is false.

  • Nathaniel Blaney August 14, 2014, 4:59 pm

    Glenn,
    In Edward Wierenga’s article,”A Defensible Divine Command Theory,” he says
    “I think that the theory is best formulated in terms of God’s will and wants or His
    approval and disapproval. Thus, what makes an act obligatory is that
    God wants it to be performed.”
    In your view, is God’s approval or disapproval of an act distinct from his “preferences,” as the term has been used here?
    Forgive me if my question is confused, I’m new to the literature.

  • Glenn August 14, 2014, 5:27 pm

    Yes that’s right Nathaniel. Wierenga, as I understand him, by “approval” and “disapproval” is talking about more than preference. This is because, for example, God might command different things, all of which would result in God’s preference being met. Clearly we cannot be required to do all of them if some of those acts exclude others. By approve or disapprove Wierenga means something more like will that we do it. Sometimes a divine command theory makes reference to the divine will, other times to the divine speech act.

    To see that Wierenga means more than just preference, here’s the section of that article where Wierenga tightly describes his theory in two propositions:

    “(P1 ) For all acts a, a is obligatory iff God commands a; and if a is obligatory then by commanding a God makes it the case that a is obligatory.

    (P2) For all acts a, a is wrong iff God forbids a; and if a is wrong then by forbidding a God makes it the case that a is wrong.”

    and:

    “I should also note that although I speak of God’s commands and prohibitions and I call the theory a divine command theory, this is really a convenient shorthand and a courtesy to tradition. I think that the theory is best formulated in terms of God’s will and wants or His approval and disapproval. Thus, what makes an act obligatory is that God wants it to be performed.”

    So for example, God can prefer that we express love for each other, but on an occasion he might express his will that I do one thing rather than another, even though there are a lot of ways to express love.

    Wierenga was not writing, of course, to make it clear what he does and doesn’t mean by “want,” so he makes little effort
    to avoid being misunderstood in this way. I would have preferred him to be clearer, but certainly longer works on divine command ethics are clearer here (his article is relatively short).

  • James Hill August 14, 2014, 6:43 pm

    First on the history of the give and take of arguments. Essentially, the way it’s been developing has been like this: I’ve presented an argument, you’ve made what I think is an objection that fails to work, and then what I’ve ended up doing is, “accepting” your objection, and showing that I can still get my conclusion, despite that. First, you redefined “arbitrary”, so it comes out false that “preferences are arbitrary”, because, now, “arbitrary” means “willed for no reason”, and preferences aren’t willed. And this is despite the counterexample, “My race is an arbitrary feature that I have” (I guess all the scholarship on John Rawls, where this is the customary usage, is mistaken). Well, fine, then, objection accepted. You’re not getting anything substantive—any substantive conclusions—by merely redefining a word. Because God’s preferences still can’t ground moral obligations because they’re subject to change (they might ACTUALLY change, or they COULD’VE been different). You’re next objection is to say: No, God’s preferences aren’t subject to change (in either of the aforementioned senses), because God’s a necessary being; that’s the classical conception of God. Well…God could be a necessary being, and have preferences that are subject to change. To be a necessary being is just to exist in all possible worlds. God could exist in all possible worlds and have preferences that change in some of those worlds. So, to get your point across, you need to come up with a different claim. How about: God’s preferences are necessary—they’re all the same in all possible worlds. Well, that doesn’t rule out that his preferences are subject to change. His preferences could be necessarily subject to change: they change in all worlds in exactly the same ways. Your last shot is to say: Well, it’s a necessary feature of God that none of his preferences change. Okay….But then we have the inductive argument I made.

    Every person we’ve come across has had preferences that are subject to change.
    Therefore: it’s a general rule that persons have preferences that are subject to change. (The Inductive Generalization)
    God, by hypothesis, is a person (someone capable of acting rationally and morally)
    Therefore: God is going to have preferences that are subject to change.

    You claim that the inductive generalization is “question begging”. Well, what does that mean here? The inductive generalization is based on what our best observations tell us. So, yes, the belief (the hypothesis—it’s a hypothesis because it’s supposed to explain why we got moral obligations, at all, and why we got the particular moral obligations that we do in fact have)—the hypothesis that God’s got preferences that never change flies in the face of what our best observations tell us. The problem isn’t with our observations! The problem is with the hypothesis! Now, unless you got some better argument for the hypothesis, we ought to chuck the hypothesis……

  • Glenn August 14, 2014, 10:34 pm

    “You claim that the inductive generalization is “question begging”. Well, what does that mean here? The inductive generalization is based on what our best observations tell us.”

    James, that’s painfully bad. Effectively now, your argument is the claim: Your God doesn’t exist, because nothing else like your God exists. If that’s the argument, we don’t even get to first base in discussing DCT.

  • James Hill August 14, 2014, 11:18 pm

    We rely on inductive reasoning to reasonably form our beliefs all the time. If you claim that a particular raven (“your raven”, let’s say) is orange, then we’re entitled to reasonably reject your claim, on the ground of our shared inductive generalization that all the ravens we’ve come across have been black. You need to provide us with some evidence, some argument for why your raven is in fact orange. You can’t just effectively say: Well, inductive reasoning is all fine and good, unless it challenges the reasonableness of my belief that my raven is orange—then, I throw it out! It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s a prime example of acting out of a confirmation bias. And deleting the other arguments I made against what you said, allegedly because I made “back to back comments” (one wonders if you would’ve done that if I had been arguing in support of your position, and singing your accolades)—this is probably also another example of acting out of a confirmation bias. Religious beliefs encourage this. And that’s why we ought not to have them.

  • Glenn August 15, 2014, 7:06 am

    James, here’s where we are now: I noted that in your claims about divine command ethics, you were effectively just assuming that a classical Christian concept of God was wrong. To your credit, you’ve now taken the bull by the horns and are marshalling an argument for the falsehood of the classical Christian belief in God.

    In particular you’re arguing that no changeless and necessary being exists. When you first presented this argument, your first premise was very clearly question begging: “Whoever’s capable of having a preference is subject to changes in the preferences they have.” Of course this premise could only be true if classical Christian theism is false. This is why I called it begging the question.

    Your wording of this premise has toned down a little. You’re now saying that every person that “we’ve come across” is subject to change, and so as a rule, persons are subject to change. Induction, of course, is where were observe a sample of set X, and then we make a generalisation about every member of set X on that basis. For this reason, it matters crucially whether or not God and the persons we observe are both in set X. And here is where your inductive argument starts to get into trouble. It’s evident that by “every person we’ve come across” you mean every human person who is part of the physical world,” since you – or so it appears – do not believe that we know of anybody who isn’t part of the physical world. And given that this is so, you would, I assume, agree with all of the following:

    “Every person who is part of the physical world is not the creator of the physical world.
    Therefore: it’s a general rule that persons are not creators of the physical world. (The Inductive Generalization)”

    “Every person who is part of the physical world is not a timeless being.
    Therefore: it’s a general rule that persons are not timeless beings. (The Inductive Generalization)”

    “Every person who is part of the physical world is not the ground of the existence of everything in the world.
    Therefore: it’s a general rule that persons are not the ground of the existence of everything in the world. (The Inductive Generalization)”

    And so on. But using your form of argument, you’d conclude that therefore God is not the creator of the physical world, is not a timeless being and is not the ground of the existence of everything in the world.

    In short, your claim boils down to the claim that there’s no person who isn’t considerably like created persons. Can you appreciate why this may amount to begging the question, James?

  • JMH August 16, 2014, 1:54 am

    Perhaps I spoke with a bit of haste. While certainly speaking at first in a civil manner, it seems James is heading down a rather disappointing path. Intellectual dishonesty is quite a serious accusation, and as Glenn has pointed out, there is a good reason he’s abandoned inductive reasoning when it comes to the classical understanding of God.

    Perhaps if we were talking about Greco-Roman gods, we would be able to apply inductive reasoning since they have virtually nothing in common with the Judeo-Christian god and much more in common with hypothetical super men.

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