Monday 7/09

Monday 7/09

Divine Command Theory

Readings

Texts

Notes

Synopsis

We picked up today exactly where we left off last time, after handing back a rather disappointing Examination I and discussing how to go about studying for Examination II this Thursday.

Now recall from our discussion of truth conditions in class (and also in the handout Ethical Objectivism) the possible kinds of truth conditions:

1. Objective Truth Conditions

a. A Priori --> Moral Rationalism--i.e., moral judgments are truths of reason.v

b. A Posteriori --> Moral Realism--i.e., moral judgments are truths of fact.

2. Subjective Truth Conditions --> SES--i.e., moral judgments are truths of subjective experience.

But there is yet another possibility. It could be that there simply are no truth conditions on ethical statements.

3. No Truth Conditions --> ?

In an important sense, philosophers who hold that ethical statements have no truth conditions are really holding that there is no point to studying ethics. When we argue over abortion, for example, we are not saying anything that can be either true or false. Philosophers call the thesis that there are no truth conditions on ethical statements "Emotivism" (EMO, for short.)

Now, we have rejected (2), since we have rejected SES. The truth conditions on moral judgments cannot be subjective. But rejecting (2) still leaves two possibilities. Either the truth conditions on moral judgments are objective--as in (1)--or there simply are no truth conditions on moral judgments--as in (3)--so that moral judgments are not properly judgments at all. We can put this into an argument.

  1. Either truth conditions on moral judgments are objective or truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective or there are no truth conditions on moral judgments.
  2. If truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective, then SES is true.
  3. SES is not true.
  4. Therefore, it is not the case that truth conditions on moral judgments are subjective. (2&3)
  5. Therefore, either truth conditions on moral judgments are objective or there are no truth conditions on moral judgments. (1&4)
  6. If truth conditions on moral judgments are objective, then it is possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.
  7. It is not possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.
  8. Therefore, it is not the case that truth conditions on moral judgments are objective. (6&7)
  9. Therefore, there are no truth conditions on moral judgments (5&8)

The argument is valid in the sense that its premises entail its conclusion and, so far as I can tell, it has all true premises with the single possible exception of premise (7). Thus the conclusion is true if premise (7) is true.

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that (7) is true. Then what would ethics be like? Making a moral judgment could no longer be counted as saying something which is true or false. Instead, moral judgments like 'lying is morally wrong', which have the same grammatical form as 'grass is green', would not be a judgment at all. So what could it be? We have lots of examples of sentences that do not have truth conditions: "What time is it?", "Go Islanders!", "Sit down!", etc. Perhaps moral judgments are not statements--even though they resemble statements--but are, rather, verbalizations of emotion. EMO claims that statements like 'abortion is morally wrong' and 'keeping your promises is morally right' are the speakers expressions of emotion. What the speaker says is 'abortion is morally wrong', but the only way we can understand this is as if the speaker had said 'boo abortion'. Similarly, when the speaker says 'keeping your promises is morally right', we must understand the speaker as saying the equivalent of 'yeah, promise-keeping!'.

EMO may sound like an odd theory, if we can call it a theory, but a number of philosophers have taken it very seriously. EMO presents the most serious skeptical challenge to ethical discourse and debate possible. It even has an interesting argument in its favor (in the form of the above argument.)

The key, then is whether or not it is possible to show that some moral beliefs are true and others are false.

I think there is a way to respond to the Emotivists' challenge.

According to Plato, ethics is about how we ought to live our lives. Ethics is about all the decisions we make day-to-day in choosing what we believe to be the best course of action. What, in other words, is the right thing to do in a given situation?

Now, ask yourself this question: What is it that differentiates a human being from, say, a goose? It seems to me that although the goose may have some rudimentary reasoning abilities, it is mostly under the control of instinctual processes about which it has no input.

A human being is, presumably, different. Our most basic assumption about ourselves-an assumption which has certainly not been proven true, by the way-is that we are not under the control of instinctual processes like the goose or the lemming. Rather, we make decisions for ourselves. We reason about what is best to do; we reason about what is the right thing to do. But the very possibility of reasoning about what is right or wrong presupposes that EMO, and with it premise 7 in the above argument, is false. If 7 is true, and EMO is true, then we cannot reason about our actions, in much the same way that the goose cannot reason about its actions. I find this implication intolerable. Although I think there is less light between goose and human behavior than most people would be comfortable admitting, I also think that there is a difference - a difference which contradicts EMO.

Having explored and dismissed the skeptical challenges to the possibility of studying ethics represented by Culture Ethical Relativism, Simple Ethical Subjectivism, and (now) Emotivism, we next turned to the one firm bedrock ethics traditionally has been thought to enjoy. That is, thus far we have discussed two theories which adopt the fundamental assumption that there is no universal moral truth. The first, Cultural Ethical Relativism, did poorly against our Standards. The second, Simple Ethical Subjectivism, did better, but we still ended up rejecting it as a possibly true theory. Of course, morality could still turn out to be relative in some way or other, but the prospects aren't good. So if there is universal moral truth, how do we establish it? What could justify universal moral truths?

Ethics is traditionally thought to be the province of religion. If we want to understand what is morally right or morally wrong, we need only consult one or more sacred texts or take up the matter with a privileged religious leader whose job it is to make moral pronouncements. Let us call this view moral theology. Only by invoking God's authority can we make sense of universal moral truth. Thus moral theology is popularly viewed as the only alternative to moral relativism. But is it?

We will consider two ethical theories that emerge from moral theology. The first, Divine Command Theory, supposes that morality is dependent on God's will. An action is morally obligatory just in case it was commanded by God. An action is morally wrong just in case it was forbidden by God. And, presumably, an action is otherwise morally permissible.

DCT is especially interesting because a great many of the people in the world believe something like DCT, even if they have never explicitly formulated it as we have. So it seems important to find out whether or not DCT has a chance of being true. We turn to that problem next time.

Today we asked, applying the Standard of Clarity, whether all the terms of Divine Command Theory are intelligible. It may be that the term 'God' is problematic. Consider the following argument:

The Problem of Evil
  1 If God exists, then God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (perfectly good).  
  2 If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then evil cannot exist.  
  3 Evil exists.  
4 Either God is not all-powerful, God is not all-knowing, or God is not perfectly good. 2&3
5 God does not exist. 1&4
 

The idea is fairly intuitive. If you saw a small child about to wander into traffic, you would, doubtless, run and stop the child. Of course, you may not be able to, because you may not be able to run fast enough. But you are a good person, so you'll do your best to avert disaster.

What would we say of someone who stood by and watched as the child wanders into traffic to be struck and killed?

Because it's so hard to believe that somebody would just stand by and let it happen, we might first wonder whether the person was able to save the child. Perhaps this person, though standing, requires a cane to get around and knows that he can't get to the child in time to save it. Then we might be less inclined to hold him blameworthy for not saving the child. After all, we cannot be expected to do what is not in our power.

Yet suppose we find out this person was perfectly able to save the child. Then we might wonder, did he know that the child was about to wander into traffic? His attention might have been elsewhere. One cannot intervene in a situation if one doesn't even know the situation exists.

Suppose now that we discover the person did, in fact, know what was happening. He knew what was happening, he could have acted to prevent it, yet he did nothing. Our conclusion must be that he is morally, and perhaps legally, blameworthy for failing to save the child. At the very least, we would say that he is not a good person, because a good person who knew what was about to happen and could intervene would have done so.

God, so the atheist argues, is in much the same position as this person we have been imagining. If God exists, then God can do anything, knows everything, and is perfectly good. It couldn't then be the case that children die in the thousands from starvation, abuse, and natural catastrophe every day, but it is. If God exists, then God watches, refusing to lift a finger.

So either God does not exist at all, or God is either not perfectly good, not all-powerful, or not all-knowing.

Put this way, it seems like a fairly powerful argument. There are, however, many responses to the Problem of Evil. There is no hope that we can solve the problem in this class, so we set it aside to consider further and, as it turns out, decisive arguments against DCT.

DCT implies a contradiction. This contradiction comes from holding that morality is dependent on God's will and asking the question, is an action right because God commands it or does God command it because it is right? This is the Euthyphro Question, so named because it is first asked by Plato in his "Euthyphro" dialogue.

Spelling out the argument in detail is somewhat complicated. What it comes down to is this: If an action is morally right just because God commands it then there is nothing else which makes the action morally right. In particular, there are no reasons God might have for so commanding, since in that case the action would presumably be morally right not because God commanded it but because of the reasons God has for commanding it. On the other hand, if God commands an action because it is morally right, then it must be the case that there are facts or reasons which make the action morally right independent of God's will.

So either God has reasons for His/Her/It's commands, or God doesn't. If God has no reasons, then morality is arbitrary, which is an intolerable implication. It must be the case that God has reasons for so commanding. But then morality is not dependent on God's will, which contradicts the basic tenet of DCT that morality is dependent on God's will. Thus DCT implies a contradiction. Any theory which implies a contradiction must be false.

A further problem for DCT is, of course, that there may not be a God. If there is no God then DCT is inconsistent with the facts. But whether or not there is a God is another issue which could easily take up the entire semester and we still would not be able to come to a conclusion. So instead I put the point this way: For those who do not think there is a God, DCT is at odds with the facts as they believe them to be.

We uncover a deeper problem when we reflect that there is no way to decide which of the many religions is true or, at least, false. Generally speaking, religious people endorse their particular religion because it is part of their cultural or familial heritage. But mere cultural or familial tradition cannot determine whether, for example, Islam or Buddhism are false while Christianity is true. Yet religions vary greatly in the facts they presuppose about the world. Thus the facts we need to check to see if DCT is consistent with known facts change depending on which religion is employing the theory, which makes it impossible to determine whether DCT is consistent with known facts.

Since DCT implies a contradiction and is inconsistent with known facts insofar as no single consistent set of facts are presupposed by DCT, we conclude that the theory fails the Standard of Coherence.

There are, of course, additional problems with Reflective Equilibrium. For example, DCT as it is commonly understood in the Christian tradition implies that homosexuality is morally wrong, slavery is morally permissible, women have fewer rights than men, and those who do not believe in God or do not believe in the same God have no rights. These implications are objectionable by argument-backed intuition. Unfortunately,there are many people who are willing to argue, for example, that women should have fewer rights than men and homosexuality is morally wrong. While I think that these people are seriously mistaken, we leave off by simply saying that DCT arguably fails to pass Reflective Equilibrium.

Since no theory that fails Coherence can be true, we conclude the theory is false. Interestingly, none other than Saint Thomas Aquinas agreed that DCT ought to be rejected. Next week we take up his intriguing alternative theory of Moral Theology. This of course puts us behind a full day, but I'll see what I can do about catching us up.

Some clarification of our discussion of Moral Theology is perhaps in order. What I argued in this lecture and will argue in the next is that the two most prominent ethical theories derived from the religious conception of morality fail to meet the Standards of Evaluation.

It would be easy, I suppose, for someone to conclude that the course is anti-religious. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are showing is that, contrary to the almost universally held view, morality is in fact independent of religion. Moral truths are not determined by religion or faith, or so our arguments conclude. But this should not be taken to imply that religion is somehow defunct or nonsense. Though religous folks might find this result off-putting, all the course argues is that it is possible--indeed, necessary--to investigate moral matters without religious doctrine. Yet that is surely no reason to scorn religions.