Erik Wielenberg on the Epistemological Objection to a Divine Command Theory

Ethics Philosophy of Religion

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A few years ago my article “The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics” was published. In it, I address a particular objection to a divine command theory of ethics. That objection is as follows: If the property of being morally required is the same as the property of being commanded by God, then people who do not believe in God cannot know that they have moral obligations, since they do not know that they have been commanded by God. But it’s part of the nature of moral obligations that people understand why they have them. So let’s reject a divine command theory of ethics. An epistemological argument is one that is concerned with what a person knows (or whether or not they can know something) and how they know it. In the process of making the argument I name a few philosophers who have made variants of this argument, but I focus mostly on Wes Morriston’s argument due to its detail and care.1

I don’t think this argument is compelling and in the article I explain why. Rather than rehearse the arguments here, I invite the reader to read the article.

One of my favourite atheist writers on meta-ethics and all-round nice guy, Erik Wielenberg alleges that I miss the point of Morriston’s argument (so much for being a nice guy, jerk). He says that I miss the point of Morriston’s argument, “mistakenly construing Morriston’s argument as an epistemological objection to divine command theory.”2 Really, says Wielenberg, Morriston does not offer an epistemological objection, but a metaphysical objection according to which reasonable non-believers would not even have moral obligations if a divine command theory were correct.

Let me first say that whatever the truth in the case of Morriston, there is an epistemological objection to divine command ethics. In my article I documented the argument’s use by a number of other writers; Richard Taylor, Richard Holloway and Bernard Gert. Their rather simple and blunt argument was simply that non-believers have moral knowledge, so morality doesn’t come from God. So even if I have completely misdiagnosed Morriston’s argument, this is an objection that is unsound and which is worth addressing.

Here I’m going to do two things. First, although you might not care at all about how to properly classify Morriston’s argument, in the spirit of fragility, pathetic insecurity, vanity and defensiveness for which many philosophers are renown, I will try to explain why I maintain that Morriston really has attempted an epistemological objection to divine command ethics and why I was right (on the whole, at least, if not in detail) to respond to him as such. I was right! I didn’t miss the point! Or at least not by much, if at all, OK? In the process, I will look at the “metaphysical” argument to which Wielenberg refers, namely the argument that if being morally required was the same as being commanded by God, then non-believers wouldn’t have moral obligations at all. I don’t think the argument was convincing when Morriston used it (and I said why back in 2011), and I don’t think it’s any better now. I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Morriston’s epistemological objection

In his abstract, Morriston says:

People who do not believe that there is a God constitute an obvious problem for divine command metaethics. They have moral obligations, and are often enough aware of having them. Yet it is not easy to think of such persons as “hearing” divine commands. … More generally, I claim that if divine commands are construed as genuine speech acts, theists are well advised not to adopt a divine command theory. (p. 1)

The thought expressed here is that people who do not believe in God are aware that they have moral obligations, but they surely cannot be thought of as “hearing” divine commands. This in itself is thought to be a problem for divine command ethics.

Morriston describes Robert Adams’ view in which the property of moral wrongness is the same thing as the property of being contrary to God’s commands. He assesses that view as follows:

This does seem to me to be the right line for a theological voluntarist to take. However, it does not provide a complete solution to the problem of the reasonable non-believer. The reason is that commands are speech acts in which a person tells others what to do. In order successfully to issue a command, one must deliver it to its intended recipients. This brings us right back to the problem of the reasonable nonbeliever. On the face of it, God has not succeeded in speaking to her. And since she is a reasonable non-believer, God has not even succeeded in putting her in a position in which she should have “heard” a divine command. How, then, can she be subject to God’s commands? (p. 3)

Morriston’s scepticism then is about how a reasonable non-believer can be subject to God’s commands (i.e. obligated) if she has never heard them. This objection, of course, only makes sense if Morriston is appealing to the claim that the reasonable non-believer has not heard God’s commands. And this is precisely what he claims: “On the face of it, God has not succeeded in speaking to her.”

Later, Morriston reiterates this thought: “If this is right—if, that is, a genuinely moral obligation is generated only when God requires something of a person—then it does indeed seem that in order to have that obligation one must be made aware of the fact that a command has been issued” (p. 4).

Here is a further example, where Morriston is considering whether or not it is good enough for a reasonable non-believer to be struck by the content of God’s commands via a “sign” (i.e. an indicator that something is a command) without having any awareness that it is God’s command:

Even if he is aware of a “sign” that he somehow manages to interpret as a “command” not to steal, how can he be subject to that command if he doesn’t know who issued it, or that it was issued by a competent authority? To appreciate the force of this question, imagine that you have received a note saying, “Let me borrow your car. Leave it unlocked with the key in the ignition, and I will pick it up soon.” If you know that the note is from your spouse, or that it is from a friend to whom you owe a favor, you may perhaps have an obligation to obey this instruction. But if the note is unsigned, the handwriting is unfamiliar, and you have no idea who the author might be, then it’s as clear as day that you have no such obligation. (p. 5)

I take the argument here to be that a person is not really morally obligated by a command unless one knows that the command was issued by a person in a position to issue commands. Unless a person has this knowledge, their moral obligation is not established by the command in question. This is epistemological claim.

One last example:

Consider, for example, the obligation to refrain from inflicting unnecessary suffering on one’s fellow creatures. Reasonable non-believers have been unable to interpret whatever “signs” they have been given as divine speech acts forbidding this sort of behavior. But this has not prevented many of them from seeing that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering. How can Adams account for this? (p. 7)

What Adams is here challenged to account for is the fact that many reasonable non-believers see that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering, which is evidently an epistemological challenge.

On the face of it, then, Morriston is quite clearly offering an epistemological objection to a divine command theory of ethics. He takes it as a given that a person could not be morally obligated unless an obligation is properly communicated to them. On a divine command theory where being morally required is the same as being commanded by God, he maintains, a moral obligation has not been adequately communicated (since the non-believer is unaware of the command as a command of the right sort). Consequently, he says, a divine command theory could not account for a reasonable non-believer having moral obligations.

But of course, if Morriston is wrong in claiming that a divine command theory would not allow for moral obligations to be properly communicated to reasonable non-believers, then his (metaphysical) conclusion no longer follows. All one needs to do in replying to Morriston is to maintain that one can in fact apprehend the content of a command as a moral obligation without being aware that it was a command issued by anyone. As it turns out, Morriston’s reply is not to say that this reply would miss the point. Rather, it is to say that “the idea of a command that one can “receive” without being aware of being addressed by anyone is extremely counterintuitive.” In other words, Morriston’s complaint with this reply would be to say a solution like this fails to deliver at an important epistemic level, for surely a recipient of a command who lacks awareness of where it came from is a strange thought indeed.

So I must respectfully disagree with Wielenberg’s assessment. Morriston did raise an epistemological objection to a divine command theory of ethics, and that objection is that if a person is morally obligated by divine commands then people who reasonably reject belief in God do not have moral obligations properly communicated to them. In my article I explained why I take this allegation to be false.

The Metaphysical Argument

What then of the more ambitious argument that Wielenberg thinks I have missed, mistakenly thinking that the issue was an epistemological one. According to Wielenberg that argument is as follows:

It should be emphasized that the worry here is not an epistemological one. The worry is not that divine command theory implies that non-theists will have moral obligations but be unaware of them. Instead, the worry is that reasonable non-theists’ lack of belief prevents them from recognizing any divine signs they might receive – including their own “moral impulses and sensibilities” – as commands issued by someone who has authority over them, and consequently such signs fail to impose moral obligations in the first place. The Adams/Evans-style divine command theory is unable to account for the moral obligations of reasonable non-believers not in the sense that the theory implies that non-believers have moral obligations but are unaware of them (an epistemological worry), but rather in the sense that the theory implies that non-believers lack moral obligations altogether (a metaphysical worry). (p. 79)

In my article I made a distinction between “crude versions” of the objection, offered by Richard Taylor, Richard Holloway and Bernard Gert on the one hand, and Morriston on the other. Morriston’s argument is more sophisticated than those others, and in fact I quoted Morriston making the more ambitious argument that it is “hard to see how a divine command theory can offer a completely general account of the nature of moral obligation” [emphasis added]. I am aware that Morriston’s conclusion (one that I quoted in the article) is that a divine command theory cannot account for the nature of moral obligations at all. But as I think is clear, Morriston’s path to that conclusion is an epistemological argument, this, I claimed, was “the similarity between” his argument and earlier objections to a divine command theory.

The metaphysical argument to which Wielenberg points us – in Morriston’s article at least – stands or falls with an epistemological argument. It is because Morriston thinks that a divine command theory does not convey a sign in the right way to reasonable non-believers that he concludes that divine commands would fail to obligate them. If reasonable non-believers had the epistemological benefit of knowing that moral obligations were the commands of God, then they would be obligated. But, says Morriston, they do not, so they are not. In reply to Morriston’s argument, I argued that it is defensible to maintain that God has communicated his will (to an extent at least) to those who do not believe in him. I argued that a non-believer does not need to know who issued the command that is actually God’s command. I also suggested a proper functionalist account of moral knowledge obtained via conscience. In other words, I tackled the epistemological aspect of his case. But once this job has been done (assuming it has been done well), what metaphysical argument is left?

I am quite prepared to grant that I could have been clearer. In addition to saying that Morriston’s argument was more careful than the crude epistemological objections that I outlined, and in addition to quoting Morriston’s summary that his was a worry about the nature of moral obligations, I agree that I could have said more to stress the different steps that he was making in his argument in order to distinguish his argument further from that of Gert, Taylor and others. At the time I did not see the need.

Wielenberg’s defence of Morriston’s argument

Wielenberg’s own advocacy of Morriston’s argument turns on the claim that “The intended audience [of a command that morally obligates] must recognize the command as having been issued by some legitimate authority or other” (p. 79). And since a reasonable non-believer lacks this recognition, she is not obligated. In the first place I would say that I am not so sure that we do not naturally recognize moral obligations as though they were commands being made to us from somebody whose commands compel. I share the view of a number of Christian thinkers who maintain that conscience is the voice of God and we apprehend it as an authoritative voice, whether we can explain whence it derives its authority or not.

But even if you agree (as I do not) that we do not perceive moral obligations as commands from a superior authority, I will say in reply to Wielenberg what I said to Morriston:

Adams did not say that a sign needs to be such that a person can understand that it conveys a divine command, but only that he can understand it as conveying “the intended command.” He does not even need to know that it is a command, provided the command can be conveyed to him. In slogan form: People need knowledge of the command, not knowledge about the command. Remember that it is the command itself that is conveyed, in Adams’ view, and not the awareness that something is a command. A helpful analogy is that of a stop sign. The point of a stop sign is not to convey the message “here is a stop sign.” The point of a stop sign is to convey the imperative, “stop!” Even if for some reason a person did not realize that this red object before her was the object answering to the description “stop sign,” as long as she realized that it required her to stop, her ignorance about stop signs would not prevent her from knowing that she should do the thing that those stop signs required her to do.3 Consider for example the possibility that God conveys the “sign” to people regarding some act (let’s pick murder) via a proper function of the human conscience. Nobody needs to know what conscience is, how we got one, or that God uses it to ensure that we have some true beliefs in order for them to know, via conscience, that murder is wrong (assuming, of course, that there were a conscience with proper functions).

This is not a case of God implanting non-truth-aimed beliefs into peoples’ minds, manipulating their beliefs and just getting them to act but without giving them moral knowledge (a worry that Wielenberg raises about conscience). Instead, the proper function of the conscience would include intuiting the content of divine commands, so that their conscience provides a way, not just for them to hold beliefs, but to “see” truths.

So I’m fairly sure I was right about Morriston’s argument drawing on an epistemological objection to a divine command theory of ethics. I do not think all that much follows if it boils down to being something other than an epistemological objection, because the argument clearly makes assumptions about what a divine command theory would require in terms of epistemological, and I have argued that those assumptions are not true. I also don’t think Morriston (or Wielenberg) succeeds in showing that a divine command theory would prevent reasonable non-believers from having moral obligations, for reasons that I explained here and in the original article.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Wes Morriston, “The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-believers: A special problem for divine command metaethics,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 65 (2009), 1-10. []
  2. Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 79. []
  3. Here as elsewhere in contemporary philosophy of religion, the de dicto / de re distinction helps to clarify things. Speaking de re, this woman knows that she should do the things that stop signs convey to her that she should do. We could say, “of the thing that stop signs in fact convey, she knows that she should do it.” De dicto, of course, she does not know that she should do what stop signs tell her, since she does not even believe that there are stop signs. We could not say, “Of this thing she should do, she knows that it is conveyed by a stop sign.” Once more the supposedly tiresome distinctions made by medieval friars rescue us from significant misunderstanding, if only the moderns would listen! []
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