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A Quick and Dirty Refutation of Divine Command Theories

(Re-posted)
Robert Adams has played a significant role in reviving divine command theories in ethics (DCT). According to Adams, and many before him, the most plausible construal of DCT entails that moral obligation depends on the expressed will of God, where these expressions are properly construed as commands.1 Call any such view a ‘command formulation’ of DCT. Recently, Mark Murphy has argued that command formulations of DCT are untenable, and that the most plausible formulation of DCT entails that moral obligation depends upon the will of God, whether or not it is expressed.2 Call any such view a ‘will formulation’ of DCT. In this paper, I will argue that, while Murphy-style arguments against command formulations are decisive, the arguments Adams advances against will formulations seem equally decisive. But the most salient implication of these results is not that their particular versions of will and command formulations of DCT - those of Adams and Murphy - are inadequate. Rather, as I will argue, a much more dramatic implication follows: no possible formulation of DCT is an adequate moral theory.

This paper is divided into four sections. In the first section, I will briefly describe the defining features of the two most plausible formulations of DCT. In the second, I will discuss Murphy’s main objection to command formulations of DCT. In the third section, I will discuss Adams’ main objection to will formulations of DCT. In each of sections two and three, two goals are achieved: (i) a conclusion that an objection against a formulation of DCT is persuasive, and (ii) the uncovering of a necessary condition for any adequate moral theory. Finally, in the fourth section, I will utilize these results to argue that no version of DCT is adequate.

I
According to all formulations of DCT, at least some moral properties - such as the morally permissible, impermissible, and obligatory - are somehow dependent upon the will of God. Will formulations state that the dependence is direct. That is, certain kinds of divine acts of will are both necessary and sufficient for the exemplification of moral properties. By way of contrast, command formulations state that the dependence is indirect. That is, although certain sorts of divine volitions are necessary for the exemplification of moral properties, they are not sufficient. For such volitions to generate (e.g.) moral obligations, God must also communicate such volitions to the relevant people.

Are either of the above-mentioned versions of DCT plausible? As I mentioned earlier, Murphy has offered powerful criticisms of command formulations of DCT, and Adams has advanced powerful arguments against will formulations of DCT. We will now examine the best of these arguments in turn.

II
A key objection3 to command formulations of DCT can be expressed simply: If God’s ability to impose moral obligations depends on the expression of certain of His intentions in the form of commands, then they are objectionably contingent. For then God would be powerless to obligate without the existence of certain sorts of social practices, in particular, the practice of commanding. Such contingency is objectionable, for if (e.g.) the morally impermissible depends on God’s commands in this way, then it seems metaphysically possible for a community of people to exist in which either (i) the requisite social facts don’t exist, or (ii) they do exist, but God hasn’t commanded anything. But if either case obtains, then there will be actions that aren’t (say) impermissible, but should be. But this is implausible: such moral properties would be exemplified even if (i) or (ii) obtained. Therefore, command formulations of DCT are implausible.

Adams has a reply to this objection: “This does not ground a serious objection to divine command theory. A practice of commanding exists in virtually all human communities, and I think we need not worry about what obligation would be (if it would exist at all) for persons who do not live in communities in which they require things of each other4.”

This is surely too quick and dismissive. For it hardly suffices to say that, as a matter of fact, all (or virtually all) communities have a practice of commanding. For, prima facie, it seems (metaphysically) possible that a community without such a practice could exist. And it also seems that wrongness could supervene on acts in such a community. For consider a possible world, W, in which there exists a community of five people: a man (call him ‘Zed’), and four children, none of which is older than ten years old. Suppose further that this community has no practice of commanding. Finally, suppose that Zed regularly molests these children. Since, by hypothesis, this community has no practice of commanding, command formulations of DCT entail that none of Zed’s acts are morally wrong. But, surely, moral wrongness supervenes on at least some acts in W. But then moral wrongness doesn’t require the existence of a community practice of commanding as a part of its supervenience base. And if not, then command formulations of DCT are false. Therefore, it appears that Murphy is correct: command formulations of DCT are objectionably contingent. With this objection, then, we have uncovered a necessary condition for any adequate moral theory:

The Non-contingency Condition (NC): No moral obligation, R, is objectionably contingent.

Corollary: For any moral obligation R, if R isn’t binding without a human social practice of commanding, then R is objectionably contingent.

It will be important to keep this condition in mind when we come to assess the adequacy of divine command theories in general.

III
Adams’ main argument against will formulations of DCT is also simple: Moral obligations cannot exist unless they are communicated. But will formulations of DCT falsely imply that it is possible for certain sorts of God’s uncommunicated volitions to morally obligate us. Therefore, will formulations of DCT are false.5

There are two ways to support the main premise of this argument. According to the first, uncommunicated intentions can’t obligate because they are generated when (and only when) at least one person requires something of another person. But requiring is a communicative act. If, for example, a parent forms an intention (of a certain sort) that his teenage daughter be home before 8 p.m. every weeknight, but he doesn’t convey this intention to her, then she is not obligated to be home by 8 p.m. on weeknights. As soon as he communicates his intention to his daughter, however, an obligation is generated, and she must now be home at the stated time. Now if this is how obligations are generated, then, necessarily, if God has created obligations, then He has expressed them. But will formulations of DCT falsely imply that it is possible for certain sorts of God’s intentions to generate moral obligations even if those intentions remain forever unexpressed. Therefore, will formulations of DCT are false.6

According to the second way, uncommunicated intentions can’t obligate because a certain version of the “ought implies can” principle is true: If x is obligatory for S, then S must be aware (or at least be capable of becoming aware) that x is obligatory for S7. The general idea here is that one can only be responsible for what one is capable of doing. So, for example, suppose my hands are handcuffed together. If so, then I can’t raise just one of them. So if someone commands me to raise just one of my hands, I won’t be able to comply, even if I want to. But if not, then I can’t be held responsible for failing to raise just one of my hands. Similarly, I can’t be held responsible for failing to comply with an obligation if I can’t come to know of that obligation. For knowing of an obligation is a necessary condition for being capable of (intentionally) complying with it. But will formulations of DCT imply that the following type of situation is possible: (i) Due to a divine intention of a certain sort, at least one person is morally obligated to do something (or refrain from doing something), and (ii) she is unable to come to know of this obligation, since God has not expressed His intention. But since the above-stated “ought implies can” principle is true, this situation is not possible. Therefore, will formulations of DCT are false.

What to make of these objections to will formulations? If we don’t consider the “ought implies can” rationale behind the main premise, then the force of the argument will depend upon whether one finds a social theory of moral obligation persuasive. I suspect that many won’t find it persuasive. But even if we don’t, I think the “ought implies can” rationale is strong enough, all by itself, to support the main premise. However, Murphy disagrees. He thinks that no self-respecting moral realist can accept it. For, he argues, it seems to be a straightforward implication of moral realism that moral facts exist independently of human beings, just as rocks and trees exist independently of us. But then it follows that it is possible that there are moral values that we are not aware of. In particular, there could be moral obligations that we are not aware of. But if so, then the above-mentioned “ought implies can” principle is false, and so the argument doesn’t go through.8

I think this objection misses the mark. For recall the way that the “ought implies can” principle was formulated above. The principle doesn’t have the implication that there can’t be unknown moral obligations. Rather, it implies that there can’t be unknowable moral obligations. But surely any plausible moral theory must have the latter implication. A fortiori, any theistic version of moral realism must have this implication. For, prima facie, God’s holding His creatures accountable for failing to comply with obligations that He doesn’t express is incompatible with His goodness.9 So it appears that, necessarily, if a divine command theory is true (one according to which the divine commander is the God of traditional theism), then if God places obligations on His creatures, then He communicates them (or somehow makes it possible for His creatures to discover them). But as we have seen, will formulations allow for the possibility of morally binding, yet forever unexpressed, divine intentions. I submit, then, that Murphy has not shown that the above-mentioned “ought implies can” principle is false with respect to moral realist theories. It appears that we have found another necessary condition that any adequate moral theory must satisfy:

The Accessibility Condition (AC): Necessarily, for any moral rule, R, R is binding only if R is cognitively accessible in principle.

Unfortunately for Murphy, the principle shows that will formulations of DCT are inadequate. For unlike other versions of moral realism, will formulations of DCT entail that moral obligations can exist, and yet be incapable of discovery (even in principle) if God doesn’t express them. Therefore, will formulations of DCT are untenable.

IV
It is now time to take stock. In section II, we saw that any adequate moral theory must meet the following condition:

The Non-contingency Condition (NC): No moral obligation, R, is objectionably contingent.

Corollary: For any moral obligation R, if R isn’t binding without a human social practice of commanding, then R is objectionably contingent.

And in section III, we saw that any adequate moral theory must also satisfy the following condition:

The Accessibility Condition (AC): Necessarily, for any moral obligation, R, R is binding only if R is cognitively accessible in principle.

Putting these together, we get the following thesis:

The Adequacy Thesis: A moral theory is adequate only if it simultaneously satisfies both NC and AC.

Finally, the discussions of sections II and III together provide strong support for the following thesis:

The Incompatibility Thesis (IT): No version of DCT can simultaneously satisfy both NC and AC: For any version of DCT, T, T satisfies NC iff T does not satisfy AC.

For it is clear from the discussion in these sections that the feature of command formulations that enables them to satisfy the Accessibility Condition - the one that grounds the claim that no divine intention can generate a moral obligation unless it is communicated - is the very feature that prevents them from satisfying the Non-contingency Condition. It is also clear, from the discussion in these sections, that the feature of will formulations that enables them to satisfy the Non-contingency Condition - the one that grounds the claim that divine intentions (of a certain sort) can generate obligations, even if God does not express them - is the very feature that prevents them from satisfying the Accessibility Condition. But IT entails that no divine command theory satisfies the Adequacy Thesis. But if not, then it follows that neither formulation of DCT is adequate.

If the points of the previous paragraph are correct, then it is a short step to the conclusion that no possible formulation of DCT is adequate. For anything that could possibly count as a formulation of DCT would have to ground (at least some) moral properties in either (i) God’s commands alone, (ii) God’s intentions alone, or (iii) God’s intentions expressed in the form of commands.10 Now we have already dealt with (ii) and (iii). But our objections to (iii) apply to (i) as well. For, even apart from the inherent implausibility of type-(i) versions of DCT11, they imply that God’s ability to obligate would depend upon an existing practice of commanding. But if so, then version-(i) DCT fails to satisfy the Non-contingency Condition. Therefore, it cannot be an adequate moral theory. But since versions (i), (ii) and (iii) are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive formulations of DCT, any possible version of DCT must be an instance of one of these versions. And since we have just seen that each version is untenable, it follows that no possible version of DCT is an adequate moral theory.

In summary, then, we have taken a brief look at the only two formulations of DCT that have been advertised and endorsed. While discussing these accounts, we uncovered two necessary conditions of any adequate moral theory. We then saw that, while each of these formulations could meet one of the two conditions, neither version could meet both. Finally, we exploited some of these results to refute the only other possible formulation of DCT, one that no one endorses. And these results yielded the (perhaps) startling conclusion that DCT is doomed.

-----
1His most developed defense of this view is to be found in his Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford UP, 1999). See especially chapter 11 of that work.

2 Murphy, Mark. “Divine Commands, Divine Will, and Moral Obligation”, Faith and Philosophy 15 (January, 1998), pp. 3-27.

3The following argument is a modified version of the one Murphy gives in “Divine Commands, Divine Will, and Moral Obligation”, pp. 5-7.

4Adams, Robert. Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 266.

5This is a rough summary of Adams’ argument in his Finite and Infinite Goods, pp. 261-2.

6This is Adams’ primary rationale. See Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 262.

7It should be noted that Adams is uncomfortable with putting much weight on this second rationale. See Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 261-2, and footnote 27 on p. 262.

8This is a paraphrase of Murphy’s reply in “Divine Commands, Divine Will, and Moral Obligation”, p. 8.

9Adams seems to be raising the same problem for will formulations when he says that they yield “...an unattractive picture of divine-human relations, one in which the wish of God’s heart imposes binding obligations without even being communicated, much less issuing a command. Games in which one party incurs guilt for failing to guess the unexpressed wishes of the other party are not nice games. They are no nicer if God is thought of as a party to them.” Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 261.

10 Surely, no ethical theory that entailed that moral properties are grounded *neither* in God’s will *nor* in His commands (nor a combination of them) could count as a version of DCT.

11E.g., it appears that type-(i) versions imply that there could be a morally binding divine command that God does not want us to obey, which seems absurd., end

Comments

Mike Almeida said…
Corollary: For any moral obligation R, if R isn’t binding without a human social practice of commanding, then R is objectionably contingent.

I'm not seeing the problem. Since God (weakly or strongly) actualizes every state of affairs in every world in which he exists, he can instantiate just those essences that will generate the relevant practice. Or, God himself can institute the practice. The conventions of the practice are not difficult to pick up.

One other quick point. I think it's very instructive to take commanding in the military as an illustration. First, it clearly indicates that commands can generate requirements. So that is not a problem. Second, the commands are contingent: you get a requrement for each command, and they might have been different. Third, despite that, they are not arbitrary. So you don't get the arbitrariness worry simply from the obsevation that God could have commanded otherwise. Fourth, though commands are the source of military requirements, there are limits on what can be commanded. So, you get a bounded freedom in command. The logical relations here (I haven't thought them through) might be extremely useful in seeing just what constitutes a serious objection to DCT.
Eli Vieira said…
Thanks for this informed and scholarly honest blog, I'm already a fan!

Eli Vieira
President - Secular Humanist League of Brazil
exapologist said…
Eli,

Thanks for the kind words!

Mike,
I see how an Anselmian God could providentially ensure that the practices will obtain, but it seems to me that the thought experiment undercuts the claim that there is a relevant dependence relation between obligation and community practices of commanding. And on my view, possible-worlds accounts of the dependence relation are too coarse-grained.

Regarding your second point: worries about the dependence relation (or lack thereof) referred to above make me less than confident about Alston's community practice account of obligation. But suppose we grant it for the sake of argument. It seems to me that all one would need is the property of goodness plus the practice of commanding. Sticking the property in God's essence seems less than parsimonious, no?

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