Saturday, January 2, 2010

God and Morality (Part 2): Owing Duties and the Euthyphro Dilemma

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through chapter 7, which deals with the topic of God and morality. As I pointed out in Part 1, most so-called moral arguments for God are nothing of the kind. They try to use God's existence to prove the truth of moral realism; they do not use the truth of moral realism to prove the existence of God.

Thus, the focus shifts to two questions about theistic meta-ethics:
  1. Does God's existence actually provide a solid footing for moral realism?
  2. Is a non-theistic moral realism possible?
In this post, I look at two arguments that try to make the case for theistic meta-ethics. The first is the argument that because God is our creator we owe certain duties to Him. The second is that God's omniscience makes him the source of moral truths.

The Creator-Duty Argument
The creator-duty argument is easily described. God created us, gifted us with life, sustains our existence, and so we owe him certain duties as a sign of gratitude. The argument rests on the idea that the gift of life imposes certain duties or obligations that must be met. Is this a good argument?

Everitt thinks not. He argues that life cannot be a gift and so no duties can arise from the act of creation. His reasoning is as follows: for there to be a gift, there must be a giver and a receiver. But who is the receiver in the act of creation? We do not yet exist. To suggest we owe a duty of gratitude is thus nonsensical.

Perhaps the argument can be improved by saying the duty of gratitude arises not from the act of creation but from the continuing sustenance of our existence. This is indeed a better argument, but it too has its flaws.

We must be sure that God really sustains something that is valuable. Only then could we owe a duty of gratitude. It is not obvious that this is the case. Continued existence is often painful and torturous. Here we start to rub-up against the problem of evil, a topic to be considered on another occasion.

In sum, it is not at all obvious that God's creation or sustenance imposes real moral duties. Furthermore, we must remember that arguments of this kind cannot prove the existence of God. It is not as though the existence of duties prove that God exists. Duties exist for all sorts of mundane reasons (e.g. the signing of a legal contract) that do not rest upon God.

Perhaps we can have more luck with an argument based on God's supposed omniscience.

Moral Expert or Engineer: The Euthyphro Dilemma
One of the standard attributes of God is omniscience (along with omnipotence and omnibenevolence). This implies that God has perfect knowledge in all domains. This would include the moral domain. Which would imply that if God were to say that something is morally wrong/right/permissible we could be sure that this is true.

Which some logical sleight of hand, this line of reasoning often brings us to the following claim:
    • (A) Something is morally wrong/right/permissible if and only if God says so.
The goal of A is to make morality dependent on God. Does it succeed? There are two possible interpretations of A (coming originally from Plato's Euthyphro dialogue):
  1. God is simply a moral expert, the subject matter of his expertise is independent of his will.
  2. God creates or engineers moral truths, but does so in a self-defeating way.
Let's look at both interpretations and see what is wrong with each of them.
    God as Moral Expert
    The first interpretation is easily dismissed. In order to be an expert on anything, there must be a factual basis for your expertise that is independent of your own opinion. For example, if I claim to have expert knowledge on the production history of the Star Trek television series, there must be some archival records, or producers and actors that can verify that what I am saying is true. It cannot simply be the case that whatever I think about the production history is true simply because I think it.

    So if God is a moral expert, there must be some set of moral facts about which he is an expert. And these facts cannot depend on him for their truth or falsehood. Therefore, God's existence is not necessary for moral realism to be true.

    God as Moral Engineer
    The second interpretation really does seem to make morality dependent on God but in a way that strips it of motivational force. The claim is that God, by exercise of Divine fiat, engineers or creates morality. Homosexuality? Abortion? Adultery? If God disapproves, then these are impermissible. But what if he approves of something that seems terrible, such as genocide?

    Here we run into the classic Euthyphro argument. A theist might wish to respond by saying God could never command such a thing because he is intrinsically good. But this defeats the original argument. Remember, we started by saying God is not a moral expert and that morality depends on his command or approval. This implies that everything is morally neutral prior to God's approval. But if it is morally neutral, and if God has the power to choose otherwise (and I know of no theist who would deny free will to God), then it really could be the case that genocide or torture or child-rape are morally acceptable. If you think such a divine-command theory implausible or irrelevant, then consider how many religious terrorists claim divine approval for their seemingly heinous acts.

    There are two additional consequences of the moral-engineer-argument. The first is that it makes a mockery of God's moral perfection. For moral perfection to be a property that is worthy of respect it must be something more than the mere exercise of divine fiat.

    The second consequence is perhaps the most damaging of all. It is the fact that if morality is a product of divine fiat, then morality cannot provide us with reasons-for-action. A reason-for-action is something that motivates us to alter our behaviour. If morality is simply the product of divine fiat, it is not clear how it could motivate us.

    Motivational force is a product of the content of moral norms, not their origin. Imagine if God had commanded us all to stand on our heads. It is not clear how this declaration would actually motivate us to change our behaviour.

    The theist has an obvious response. He/she can argue that the threat of divine reward or punishment provides us with moral reasons for obeying God's command. Here, we must distinguish between moral reasons-for-action and prudential reasons-for-action. If we obey simply out of fear or prudence, then we are not behaving morally. In other words, we are not changing our behaviour out of a belief in moral rectitude.

    There is more to be said about this line of argument, but Everitt does not say it. I personally think that the Christian doctrine of salvation through acceptance of Jesus denudes morality of its motivational force; as do certain responses to the problem of evil. I hope to cover these some other time.

    Further Reading
    I don't usually do this, but on this occasion I will suggest some additional reading for interested parties.

    Wes Morriston has some great articles dealing with the alleged dependence of morality on God's command:

    Likewise, Adolf Grunbaum has a good, if overlong, paper on the poverty of theistic morality.


    1. Hey John, great posts.

      1st - Housekeeping, the diagram has a extra f in "iff"

      2nd, Serial idiot Vox Day (Theodore Beale)thinks his making inroads on the dilemma - he suggests god is not omnipotent and perhaps not omniscient.

    2. Hey Rich, the extra f is deliberate. It stands for "if and only if". I have come across this in a lot of philosophy texts so I think it's a fairly common practice.

    3. You could of course weaken the definition of God to make it compatible with all sorts of problematic data, but Everitt works solely with the three-omni version. Vox Day has a fairly idiosyncratic take on Christianity.

      I'm not sure why a being with lesser properties would be worthy of respect. Or why we should accept him as our saviour.

    4. I enjoy the additional reading section, honestly. It helps those who wish to explore the matter, personally, without having to randomly pick out a book that may not be adequate.

      There are too many problems with saying that God is the Engineer of Morality. Some of these you listed. Of course, this is dependent on whether the theist "believes" in the words of the Bible. The greater majority limit their belief to what already fits the construct they have. Which is another problem entirely.

      Excellent post, overall. Good formatting and organization.

    5. There's a standard response to this (I think Lewis makes it in one of his books), which (as far as I understand it) is to argue that God is a moral expert on a morality which is somehow internal to him, but which he does not choose: rather it's part of his "nature". At least, I think that's what the response is: it's hard to get people to state clearly what they mean by this reponse, since the point of it is to avoid falling onto either horn of the dilemma, which is best accomplished by being vague.

      Have you run into this response, and what did you make of it?

    6. I'd say check out Wes Morriston's paper "Must there be a standard of goodness independent of God?" in the links above.

    7. Also, I'll be doing posts on Lewis's God-morality beliefs soon enough. It's a fascinating journey to observe.

      He starts out using the existence of objectively agreed upon moral prescriptions to support his belief in God, but ends up acknowledging that God's morality must be very different from ours thereby undercutting the support for his original argument.

    8. pw201 is right. Most arguments I hear is that God embodies perfection similar to how Platonic forms could be the foundation for realism. See William Lane Craig's argument from morality.

    9. Which is why I recommend Wes Morriston's paper "Must there be a standard of Goodness Independent of God". It deals precisely with this type of argument. I'm going to be covering his work on moral arguments in a later series.

      Briefly, all that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths.

      In other words, morality is still not "up to God", it merely inheres in him.

      This means that God's existence does nothing to support a consistent metaethical philosophy.