Thursday, April 8, 2010

Must Goodness be Independent of God? (Part 3): Alston and the Divine Metre Stick

This post is part of my series on Wes Morriston's discussions of theistic morality. For an index, see here.

I am currently taking a look at an article by Wes entitled "Must there be a Standard of Moral Goodness Apart from God?". This article looks at the attempts of William Lane Craig and William Alston to rescue divine command morality from the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma.

Part one introduced the whole Euthyphro debate. Part two covered Craig's solution to the dilemma. It was found to be lacking. In this part we will consider Alston's solution. It will also be found to be lacking.

1. The Supervenience Relationship
Alston's solution to the Euthyphro relies on the concept of supervenience. This is something that I have covered before on this blog. It is probably best explained here with an analogy.

Consider a painting. It has different sets of properties. Its pigmental properties are determined by the precise distribution of pigment across the canvas; its aesthetic properties depend on the pigmental properties but not necessarily in a causal or logical manner. They are said to supervene on the pigmental properties. Any change in the aesthetic properties must result in a change in the pigmental properties.

Alston envisages something like this when it comes to God and the Good. For him, God's commands are an expression of His perfect goodness.* And his perfect goodness is something that supervenes upon his attributes. 

According to Alston's picture, God's existence is not merely incidental to the existence of morality. His existence is necessary for the supervenience relationship to hold. No God, no morals.

This is illustrated below.

To this point, Alston's solution sounds suspiciously similar to Craig's. Both seem to be singling out a set of properties as the basis for morality and in doing so their positions seem to reduce to Moral Platonism. Alston tries to avoid this interpretation with an analogy.

2. The Metre Stick Analogy
Alston suggests that there are two distinct kinds of predicate: Platonistic and particularistic. The former predicates are defined in terms of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions; the latter in terms of similarity to a paradigm.

An example of Platonistic predicate would be triangle. A triangle has a precise geometrical definition. Indeed, the definition is so precise that no existing object, no matter how triangular it appears to be, is actually a triangle. 

By way of contrast, an example of a particularistic predicate would be metre. This is a unit of measurement that defined in terms of similarity to a paradigmatic object. According to popular misconception, this object is a platinum-iridium bar in Paris (Morriston points out that this is no longer true).

So now we reach the punchline: the property of goodness is to God as the property of being a metre is to the platinum-iridium bar. Consequently, to say something is good is to highlight its similarity to God.

In this way, Alston hopes to escape Platonism. But does he escape the Euthyphro dilemma?

3. An Unfortunate Analogy? 
Recall, that the other horn of the Euthyphro is represented by the Ockhamist. According to the Ockhamist, God's commands are good for no other reason than that they are God's. This is thought to make morality arbitrary.

Is Alston's position simply a disguised form of Ockhamism? It would seem so. He claims that God plays the part of moral metre-stick, but what is it about God that justifies his choice for that role?

Alston has two responses to this.

i. The Significance of Particularism
First, he argues that the objection doesn't imbibe the full importance of the Platonist/particularist distinction. If one is going to charge his account with arbitrariness, one may as well ask: what singles out the platinum-iridium bar for the special status of metre-hood? The answer is nothing. Particularist properties simply don't work that way.

But this is, of course, a bizarre answer. The metre is an arbitrarily-chosen unit of measurement. We only use it because we need some agreed-upon unit of measurement. To pick God as the moral metre-stick simply because we need some standard of morality would make a mockery of moral thought.

Alston is aware of this, so he sometimes falls back on the idea that God's "maximality" is what makes him a non-arbitrary moral metre-stick. But this seems to be a reversion to Platonism: it is now maximal love, maximal kindness etc. that are doing all the work.

ii. The Arbitrariness of Platonism
Alston's second response comes in the shape of a riposte to the Platonist. He argues that his invocation of God as the supreme moral principle is no worse than the Platonist's invocation of some abstract property. Explanations have to come to an end somewhere and for Alston that somewhere is God.

This is all well and good. It may well be that explanatory stopping points are always metaphysically arbitrary. But that leaves us with a pragmatic question: is God more useful than a Platonic standard?

It would seem unlikely that he is (these observations are largely my own, although somewhat influenced by what Morriston says).

First of all, we frequently use Platonic properties - e.g. trianglehood - for pragmatic reasons without labouring under the misapprehension that triangles actually exist in the physical world.

We could do something similar in morality by appealing to an ideal observer and using him/her when making moral calculations. This observer is somewhat analogous to God, but no one thinks he/she actually exists. In fact, many secular theories of morality already do this.

Second, we may actually end up in a worse position if we appeal to God. After all, to make the appeal worthwhile, we would need epistemic access to unambiguous divine commands. Such access is sorely lacking.

4. Divine Sovereignty
I'm skipping a large part of Morriston's discussion on the truth conditions of particularistic predicates. I feel that it is too technical for a blog entry. Instead, I will close out this series by summarising what he has to say about divine sovereignty.

One reason that theist's cling to divine command theory is that they want morality to be "up to God"; to preserve divine sovereignty. That is what Alston and Craig's solutions to the Euthyphro were designed to do.

Morriston thinks that even if Alston and Craig's theories were successful, they would not preserve the notion of divine sovereignty.

Think about it: if God's nature is responsible for the existence of moral properties (in a particularist or Platonic way), then he would still not be able to exercise control over what those moral properties are.

Craig and Alston admit as much: their answer to the Ockhamist horn of the Euthyphro is that God's commands are not arbitrary because they are constrained by his nature.

This is similar to someone who might argue that logical and mathematical truths owe their existence to God's existence. Even if they are right, it would seem odd to say that God literally wills the validity of the modus ponens.

If this is right, then a divine command theory of morality would always be superfluous.

* It should be noted that Alston does not defend a divine command theory. He offers his solution to those who might wish to defend such a theory.


  1. What a treat! You're providing excellent expositions of the most important recent work in philosophy of religion. Keep up the good work!

  2. I'm skeptical of the idea that anything supervenes on anything else without in an important sense being identical to what it supervenes upon.

    For me the painting metaphor is tough because I think the aesthetic qualities probably supervene on certain brain states and that the only thing objective about the aesthetic quality of a painting is that it contains within it the possibility of provoking certain cognitive reactions and excluding others.

    I bring that up because I think the "aesthetic qualities supervening on paintings" is a metaphor that benefits Alston's argument because it may encourage a perspective on supervenience that I disagree with.

    If I'm right, then goodliness and godliness still aren't that different and this is indeed similar to a form of platonism (which is supposed to be bad).

    As for paradigm cases...

    My college physics book tells me that France in 1799 legally defined the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole. And that this was abandoned for not being precise enough as science advanced. Then the meter was defined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of orange-red light emitted from a krypton-86 lamp. Then it was the distance traveled by light in 1/299,792,458 seconds. And then there's the platinum-iridium bar.

    It seems like a paradigmatic grounding of what is a platonic concept. And we just swap out paradigms when we judged them to be insufficient standard bearers for our platonic conception of what was being measured, because we don't 'really' want to commit to platonism.

    So if a paradigm has some sort of shadow-platonism lurking in it, it is not the paradigm we care about but what we strive to encapsulate with it. Or, as it relates to Alston's argument, this would indeed show that God was good according to some standard outside himself. While I think that's possible in principle, it doesn't appear to be the case here.

    I don't think the arbitrary choice of a paradigm is necessarily a problem, as long as you don't accept that there was any "choice" being made. To say that there was a "choice" to be made, and to insist the choice must not be arbitrary, you have to say there are some sort of standards by which to judge the choice. If that's true, there is some standard of good outside god. So it seems like Alston concedes everything by appealing to maximality.

    One could get out of that by asserting that we have to accept the paradigm for its own sake and that's that. There was no real "choice" at all, the paradigm is the paradigm (but this sounds utterly platonistic).

    This would be akin to saying there is something intrinsically good about knowing the relationship between a bar of platinum-iridium and all manner of objects we compare to it in the language of meters, irrespective of any platonic concept of distance. I find this at least conceivable, but that would be flagrant platonism.

    Regarding divine sovereignty, couldn't Craig/Alston reply the same way that Aquinas did in response to the omnipotence paradox? Since morality is in some sense "grounded in" God's nature, it is simply not possible that morality could be other than it is, and God's sovereignty consists in his being able to do all possible things.

  3. Also, any chance you'll do some stuff on Kuhn? I don't know if that is your interest, but I am interested in the tension between paradigm shifts on the one hand, and the notion that science does make forward progress on the other. And at least according to Reddit, there is a quote out there that Kuhn did believe in something like true forward progress.

    Consider it a request, at least.

  4. So, I think I agree. In most circumstances where we use paradigm cases to define certain predicates end up talking about Platonic properties (or at least very close to Platonic properties).

    Morriston actually does talk about this a little bit in the article I was summarising. He seems to be aware that the way we define "metre" (or "meter") is more complicated than Alston seems to realise (I may be doing a disservice to Alston there since I have not read the original article).

    A good example of how we use paradigms for Platonic properties can be seen in one of Daniel Dennett's talks on evolution. At the end of it he goes tells the story of the "straight edge". Worth checking out if you have the time.

    Re: sovereignty. If you say God can do all possible things, and that morality can only possible be one way then I am not sure how God is "sovereign" over the domain of moral truth.

    The problem, I think, is this: some theists want it to be the case that morality is impossible without God. In other words, they want Divine Command Theory to be the only coherent metaethical position. But if Ockhamism is undesirable, then morality simply has to be independent of God's will (determined by some Platonic property of goodness that is instantiated in his being). And if it is independent of God's will, then it is not "up to him" to determine what is right or wrong.

    I'm unlikely to do anything on Kuhn in the near future. Sorry. Will do some more stuff on philosophy of science, but I am more likely to focus on causation and experimental methodologies since I am interested in that kind of thing at the moment.

    I did study Kuhn and the whole postmodernist sociology of science debate a few years back. The general consensus appears to be that Kuhn was less radical than those who (over)interpreted the significance of his work.

  5. John,
    you said: "we frequently use Platonic properties - e.g. trianglehood - for pragmatic reasons without labouring under the misapprehension that triangles actually exist in the physical world"

    Could you please expand on this a bit? Are you saying triangles don't exist?

  6. Bogdan,

    No, I'm not saying they don't exist. I'm saying that they exist as non-natural (Platonic) entities. That is to say, they cannot be reduced to physical or natural entities. Sure, there are physical objects that resemble or approximate triangles, but the actual state of "trianglehood" exists in a non-natural realm.

    I wouldn't dare to suggest that this is an uncontroversial theory of mathematical (in this case, geometrical) ontology, but it is a plausible theory nonetheless.

    What I am suggesting in the post with this triangle-analogy is that moral properties do not need to have a naturalistic or divine metaphysical foundation. They can exist independently in a brute manner. See the post on Wielenberg's non-natural non-theistic moral realism for more on this idea.