Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Epistemology, Communication and Divine Command Theory


I have written about the epistemological objection to divine command theory (DCT) on a previous occasion. It goes a little something like this: According to proponents of the DCT, at least some moral statuses (like the fact that X is forbidden, or that X is bad) depend for their existence on God’s commands. In other words, without God’s commands those moral statuses would not exist. It would seem to follow that in order for anyone to know whether X is forbidden/bad (or whatever), they would need to have epistemic access to God’s commands. That is to say, they would need to know that God has commanded X to be forbidden/bad. The problem is that there is a certain class of non-believers — so-called ‘reasonable non-believers’ — who don’t violate any epistemic duties in their non-belief. Consequently, they lack epistemic access to God’s commands without being blameworthy for lacking this access. For them, X cannot be forbidden or bad.

This has been termed the ‘epistemological objection’ to DCT, and I will stick with that name throughout, but it may be a bit of a misnomer. This objection is not just about moral epistemology; it is also about moral ontology. It highlights the fact that at least some DCTs include a (seemingly) epistemic condition in their account of moral ontology. Consequently, if that condition is violated it implies that certain moral facts cease to exist (for at least some people). This is a subtle but important point: the epistemological objection does have ontological implications.

Anyway, in this post I want to take another look at this so-called epistemological objection. I do so through the lens of Glenn Peoples’s article, simply entitled ‘The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics’. Peoples is a theist and a proponent of DCT (or so I believe). He thinks that the epistemological objection fails. His paper focuses on two versions of the objection and two versions of DCT. The first version of the objection he views as being ‘crude’; the second is slightly more sophisticated and comes from work done by Wes Morriston.

I’m going to ignore what Peoples says about the ‘crude’ versions. I tend to agree that they are crude and, frankly, uninteresting. So I’ll focus on Morriston’s version instead. As will become clear, I much more favourably disposed to Morriston’s line of argument than Peoples seems to be. I will try to explain why as I go along.

I’ll do so in three parts. First, I’ll try to explain the differences between the two versions of DCT mentioned in Peoples’s article. Second, I’ll outline and analyse Peoples’s argument for thinking that the epistemological objection fails in the case of the first version of the DCT. And third, I’ll outline and analyse his argument for thinking that it fails in the case of the second version of DCT. I’ll offer my own responses in each section.


1. Two Versions of Divine Command Theory
Sloppy terminology is abundant in philosophy. This is a real shame since it often means that participants in philosophical debates end up talking past each other. This is particularly true in debates about DCTs, where several of the theories that are grouped under that heading are not really properly called ‘command’ theories at all.

Obviously, DCTs all share the claim that certain (perhaps all) moral statuses depend on God in some way. On a previous occasion I followed Erik Wielenberg’s suggestion and drew a distinction between two classes of these divine-dependency theories. The first, and more general, class is that of ‘theological stateism’. All theories in this class claim that certain moral statuses depend for their existence on one or more of God’s states of being (e.g. his nature, his beliefs, his desires etc). The second, and more narrowly circumscribed class, is that of ‘theological voluntarism’. Theories in this class claim that certain moral statuses depend for their existence on one or more of God’s voluntary acts (e.g. his willing or intending X; his commanding X). Voluntarist theories are a subset of stateist theories, and DCTs are a further subset of voluntarist theories. I have tried to illustrate this below.




Hopefully that is reasonably clear. Within the class of command theories, Morriston and Peoples introduce further two further distinctions. They are:


Causal Divine Will Theories: These theories hold that some moral statuses (most commonly that status of being obligatory) are dependent for their existence on God’s willing that they be so. This sort of view was defended by Philip Quinn, and was referred to as a ‘command’ theory, but Morriston argues that it is not really about commands per se since on Quinn’s view the commands need not be communicated. Whether that is sufficient to disqualify it from being a ‘command’ theory is debateable. For now, I’ll view it as such.

Modified Divine Command Theories: These theories hold that some moral statuses (most commonly the status of being obligatory) are dependent for their existence on God’s commanding and communicating that they be so. This is the sort of view defended by Robert Adams and is, according to Morriston, properly called a ‘command’ theory since communication is essential to the creation of the particular moral status.


Adams’s view is worthy of further consideration here since it is quite popular among contemporary DCTers. I have discussed it on a few previous occasions. In essence, Adams thinks that axiological moral statuses (i.e. the status of being good or bad) do not depend for their existence on God’s commands. But he thinks that God’s commands are necessary for the creation of certain deontic moral statuses, in particular the status of being obligatory. Indeed, Adams argues that without commands from an authoritative agent we cannot know the difference between something’s being morally supererogatory (i.e. above and beyond our moral obligations) and morally obligatory. For instance, it might be a morally excellent thing for me to send half my income to charitable organisations in the developing world, but without an authoritative command we cannot say that it is obligatory.

Communication of commands is consequently essential to Adams’s theory since without being told (in some way) that X is obligatory we cannot know that it really is. This need for communication turns out to be important when assessing the strength of Morriston’s critique. I will return to it later.


2. The Epistemological Objection and Causalist Theories
Now that we have distinguished between these two versions of theological voluntarism, we can proceed to assess the strength of epistemological objection in relation to each. We start with the causalist theory propounded by Quinn. Peoples argues that the epistemological objection has no real impact on this theory. I am less convinced of this.

We have to understand what he argues first. Peoples, following Quinn, argues that divine will theories are pure ontological theories. In other words, they do not incorporate an epistemic condition into their account of moral ontology. He doesn’t put it in these terms, but that’s the gist of it. To illustrate, he offers the following quote from Quinn on the epistemological objection:


Our theory asserts that divine commands are conditions causally necessary and sufficient for moral obligations and prohibitions to be in force. It makes no claims at all about how we might come to know just what God has commanded. For all the theory says, it might be that we can come to know what God has commanded by first coming to know what is obligatory and forbidden. After all, it is a philosophical truism that the causal order and the order of learning need not be the same. 
(Quinn 2006, 44-45)


Quinn is clear in this passage that his theory (unlike Adams’s) makes ‘no claims at all’ about moral epistemology. It only claims that an act of the divine will is necessary to bring moral obligations into existence. How people come to learn of those obligations is irrelevant. I have tried to illustrate this in the diagram below. The bit in the shaded box represents Quinn’s account of moral ontology; ordinary moral agents sit outside this box. They may come to know what the moral truths are, or they may not. This does not upset the plausibility of the underlying ontological theory.



Peoples seems to think that this is right. He thinks that if Quinn says his theory contains no epistemic conditions, then his theory contains no epistemic conditions. The epistemological objection has no foothold against such a theory. In saying this, Peoples is assisted by the fact that Morriston himself concedes that the objection has no impact on Quinn’s theory. I’m less convinced about this. For one thing, I don’t believe that the proponent of a theory is always the final arbiter of what that theory does or does not entail. For another, I believe that any plausible account of moral ontology probably has to include some implicit epistemic condition.

I am not alone in this belief. It seems to be pervasive in contemporary metaethics. I wrote a series of posts on this topic a few years back. In them, I looked at typical methodological approaches in metaethics. Oftentimes, proponents of a particular metaethical theory will assess that theory relative to a number of plausibility conditions, i.e. things that they think any good metaethical theory should account for. Included in those conditions there is usually something about how moral facts ‘join up’ with the reasoning capacities of moral agents. This typically requires some plausible account of how a moral agent comes to know what its relevant moral obligations are. A failure to account for this renders a theory less plausible. This is why there is so much discussion of debunking arguments in the literature. It is also why I wrote so much about those debunking arguments. For instance, in the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, some anti-realists argue that realism is implausible because it doesn’t explain how evolved beings like us could come to have knowledge of moral reality.

It could be that this approach to metaethics is fundamentally misconceived. But if it is not, then it seems like epistemic conditions must be folded into any plausible account of moral ontology. Thus, we should not be so eager to embrace Quinn’s statement that his theory ‘makes no claims at all’ about moral epistemology. It probably has to, if it is to be plausible.


3. The Epistemological Objection to Modified Command Theories
Let’s move on to Adams’s theory. As I mentioned above, Adams’s seems to concede that his account of moral ontology includes an epistemic condition. For him, moral obligations do not exist unless they are commanded and communicated to a moral agent by God. Remember how the communication is necessary in order for the moral agent to be able to distinguish between what is supererogatory and what is obligatory. I’ve tried to illustrate this in the diagram below. You should be able to see from this how different Adams’s theory is from Quinn’s. Whereas Quinn left the agent’s awareness of the command out of his account of moral ontology; Adams’s incorporates it into his account.




Morriston seizes upon this in presenting his version of the epistemological objection. It goes a little something like this:



  • (1) According to Adams, in order for X (or not-X) to be a moral obligation it must be commanded by God and communicated to the moral agent to whom it applies.
  • (2) In order for a command to X (or not-X) to be communicated to a moral agent it must be communicated via a sign that the agent is capable of identifying and understanding.
  • (3) A reasonable non-believer has no epistemic vices, but cannot identify an/or understand divine commands.
  • (4) Therefore, a reasonable non-believer cannot have moral obligations (under the terms of Adams’s theory).



We need to clarify certain aspects of this argument before we can evaluate it. First, we need to clarify the concept of a reasonable non-believer. A reasonable non-believer is someone who honestly searches for proof of God’s existence, but cannot find any evidence that brings them to believe. In doing this, the reasonable non-believer does not violate any epistemic duties. They are not bitter or biased or closed to potential sources of evidence. They simply cannot find any. The reasonableness of these non-believers is crucial to Morriston’s argument. We can safely assume that Adams’s theory does not require that commands be understood by the insane or the morally evil. It is only those who are epistemically open that are affected. Another point of clarification is that the conclusion of the argument can be taken in a number of different ways. I like to use it to argue that the modified DCT fails to provide a fully plausible account of moral ontology. Others like to use it as something akin to a reductio of the modified DCT. In other words, they say things like ‘but of course reasonable non-believers have knowledge of moral obligations; therefore, the DCT is absurd’. Maybe there is no practical difference between these two positions. Just a difference in style.

Moving on to the evaluation of the argument, there is really only one premise that is at issue. That is premise (3). A proponent of the DCT could target the first part of premise (3) and argue that there is no such thing as a reasonable non-believer. Since I like to think of myself as a reasonable non-believer, I’m not inclined to accept that line of argument. But Peoples thinks there may be something to it, though he doesn’t discuss it at any great length. That leaves the second part of premise (3) as the other potential target. They could argue that a reasonable non-believer does in fact have the ability to identify and understand the relevant divine commands. To make this argument credible, they would need to offer a fuller account of what it means for an obligation to be communicated to a moral agent. This means they need to go back into premise (2) and flesh out the standard of communication that is being implied by that premise.

Now, in his discussion of the argument, Morriston seems to have a very narrow conception of the possible forms of divine communication. He seems to think that (on Adams’s theory) God must communicate his commands in the form of a speech act. Peoples, rightly in my opinion, argues that no proponent of the DCT has such a narrow conception of divine communication. Instead, they all talk about multiple possible forms of divine communication (e.g. via moral intuition, general revelation, special revelation, and natural law). So to make the epistemological objection compelling, you must show that communication fails across these multiple possible forms.

And this is where Peoples thinks the argument falls down. Morriston argues that in order to have the requisite knowledge of the divine command, the moral agent must know the source of the command. That is to say, they must know that the command emanated from God. But of course this is exactly what a reasonable non-believer cannot know. Peoples thinks this is wrong. He says they only need to have knowledge of the content of the command. To underscore his point, he relies on Adams’s brief sketch of what it takes for God to communicate a command to an agent:

Adams’s Communicative Standard: “In my opinion, a satisfactory account of [this standard] will have three main points: (1) A divine command will always involve a sign, as we may call it, that is intentionally caused by God; (2) In causing the sign God must intend to issue a command, and what is commanded is what God intends to command thereby; (3) The sign must be such that the intended audience could understand it as conveying the intended command.” (Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods).

Peoples makes much of condition (3). He points out that this condition says nothing about the agent needing to understand the source of the command:

“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….In slogan form: People need knowledge of the command, not knowledge about the command.” 
(Peoples 2011)

He then goes on to give an example of how someone might know the content of a command without knowing its source:

“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.” 
(Peoples 2011)

What he is imagining here is a case in which someone has a really strong innate feeling that murder is forbidden, without knowing how or why they came to have it. Even still, God has successfully communicated his command to them. This is why Peoples thinks that Morriston’s argument fails. He goes on to point out that in such a case a reasonable non-believer might have incomplete moral knowledge, or might fail to appreciate how bad the violation of that command is, but that this is irrelevant to whether they satisfy the epistemic condition in Adams’s argument.

I have some problems with this. To repeat something I said earlier, I don’t think we can merely take Adams’s word for it regarding the communicative standard implied by his theory. He might think that knowledge of content is all that is required; but that doesn’t mean he is right. Remember the importance of the supererogation/obligation distinction. In his original work, Adams’s seems pretty clear that a command from a being with the right kind of authority is needed in order for an agent to be able to distinguish an obligation from an act of supererogation. As best I can tell, this implies that the agent must have knowledge of the source of the command as well as knowledge of its content. It is not enough that the agent knows that killing is really bad, or that giving money to charity is really good. They must know that these things are morally required of them. And under Adams’s theory knowing that these things were commanded by the right kind of entity is critical to drawing the distinction between what is great and what is obliged.

Admittedly, this is merely the sketch of an argument. But it seems to be truer to the communicative demands of Adams’s theory. If so, the epistemological objection still has some bite because reasonable non-believers will be incapable of knowing that a command (be it communicated via speech or conscience or whatever) emanates from the right kind of source. This is something I discussed at much greater length in my previous post on this topic.


Right, I'm exhausted with this topic now. That's it for this post.

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