Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Podcast - Episode 3: A Semantic Attack on Divine Command Metaethics

Episode Three of the podcast is available for download here. In this episode I cover the article "A Semantic Attack on Divine Command Metaethics" by Steve Maitzen.

I think I am gradually improving my style. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

As I mention in the podcast, Steve develops a lengthy formal argument to supplement the more informal points that I discuss. I promised to provide a full map of that argument in this post so here it is. It comes in two parts and I recommend looking at them after listening to the podcast.

Part 1: Divine Command Metaethics is not Compatible with Traditional Theism

This argument is relatively straightforward. The only questionable premises are 2 and 4. Premise 2 is defended by arguing that a tautology cannot provide enough information to make a difference to a religious or theological claim about God. Premise 4 is supported by the considerations given in the podcast.

Part 2: Divine Command Metaethics is only true if Moral Nihilism is True

This argument is a little trickier. Premise 11 is the key, but it requires further elaboration and defence. Roughly as follows:
  • Moral nihilism is the claim that there is no moral truth. 
  • This implies that moral nihilism is false if there is at least one moral truth. 
  • Proponents of DCM claim that facts about the will of an agent explain all moral truths.
  • Specifically, facts about the will of a Supreme Being are what explain all moral truths.
  • The Supreme Being is the God of traditional theism.
  • So, proponents of DCM need traditional theism to be true.  
  • This implies that if there is at least one moral truth and if DCM is true, traditional theism must also be true.
Premise 11, then, is an accurate reflection of what proponents of DCM want to be the case. But because we have established that DCM is incompatible with traditional theism (in part 1 of the argument) we end up with the unappetizing conclusion that DCM can only be true if moral nihilism is true.


  1. Damn dude, if you keep this up, this is going to become my #1 favorite podcast!

  2. John: As always, I really appreciate your careful attention to my stuff and your clear exposition of it. I haven't thought about this particular argument in years; thanks to you, it's on my mind again! Cheers.

  3. John: Thinking about your claim that one of the steps in my argument is unnecessary, I took another look and spotted an unfortunate typo. The justification for step (7) of the argument (p. 22) should read "(3), (5), (6)," not "(3), (4), (5)." My fault; I shouldn't have expected a copy editor to catch something like that. Once you make the correction, I think you'll find that every step is required in order to make the argument valid.

  4. Thanks guys.


    It all becomes clear now. I'll redo the diagram.

  5. John D,
    As much as I like this post, I have to admit something that is probably pretty embarrassing. I don't understand how premise 13 follows from 12.

  6. Beautiful, just the stuff I needed.

  7. "...I have to admit something that is probably pretty embarrassing. I don't understand how premise 13 follows from 12."

    Thanks for your interest. The logical form of (12) is "If ~T, then (N or ~D)," which implies "If ~T, then (D only if N)," which is the form of (13). Why? Because "N or ~D" implies "D only if N." Why? Because "N or ~D" rules out "D and ~N" and hence implies "D only if N."

  8. Wouldn't the traditional DCM proponent maintain an identity between Good and God? So that while he would accept that "God is good" is a tautology, he wouldn't at all accept that it is religiously trivial. He will hence reject premise 2.

    I see the first part as another formulation of the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. I of course find it convincing - as an argument against DCM.

    The second part... well, I don't think it's another argument against the DCM. It's a bit rhetorical, really. The important point is (13) - if we're gonna commit to DCM under atheism, we end up with nihilism (well, duh!). From there we can continue to wonder whether DCM is indeed true although god doesn't exist, and nihilism is correct.

    There is nothing in Part II that touches on the real holders of DCM, which are theists. We already ruled out DCM under theism in (10). You can't now seriously argue further against DCM based on (10), when (10) rules out theistic DCM! If you want another argument against DCM, move on to other assumptions.

    Continuing past (13) seems to me to be gunning for a slogan, "DCM = Nihilism!" Its wording seems to imply that DCM leads to nihilism under theism, when it doesn't actually says that. If you could establish (15) without also assuming that DCM is false under theism (i.e. 10), now that would make (15) a sentence worth developing and an impressive argument. As it stands, it is not a useful conclusion.

    But, perhaps I'm missing some context here.


  9. Yair,
    1. I don't think what you've said threatens premise (2) of the argument. If the identification of God and Good ("God is Goodness itself") were really a tautology, then it would indeed lack any religious significance. Compare "All water is H2O": if that identity claim really is a tautology (having the same meaning as "All water is water"), then it has no chemical significance. That's one good reason to conclude that "All water is H2O" isn't a tautology, since surely it's chemically significant that all water is H2O. (Another reason is that competent English speakers in 1750 wouldn't have accepted "All water is H2O," but surely they would have accepted any tautology in English.) What we don't get in either chemistry or theology is a tautology that's significant in that field. Premise (2) is secure.

    2.The point of Part 1 of the article is to show that DCM and traditional theism are enemies, contrary to much popular opinion. That conclusion is expressed in step (10), which follows validly from prior steps. You've objected to (2), but not persuasively. Which other prior steps do you dispute?

    3. As for "Well, duh!": an argument that takes the trouble to spell out reasoning in logically valid form -- as mine does -- may contain some "Well, duh!" moments, since some valid inferences are obviously valid. I don't apologize for them.

    4. The argument's two main conclusions are that DCM implies atheism and (hence) that DCM implies moral nihilism (because DCM and atheism imply moral nihilism). Surely those are noteworthy conclusions just as they stand. They're arrived at by a logically valid argument, so an opponent's only choice is to dispute one or more premises. You've disputed one premise -- unsuccessfully, in my view. So far, then, those conclusions stand unrebutted.

  10. Sorry for not answering sooner - I was offline on vacation. And thanks for responding to me, Mr. Maitzen. At any rate,

    1. I believe we disagree on what traditional theism entails. You say "Even though God is no more
    essentially good than he is essentially omnipotent, 'good' and 'omnipotent'
    differ in meaning, a difference that any plausible theory of theological predication
    must capture." I, in contrast, believe the doctrine of divine simplicity implies that these terms actually mean the same thing - otherwise God would not be One, he will have several different properties, Parts. Instead, the (not-so) plausible traditional theology sees the difference as different ways of expressing/capturing the same meaning. It is like I'd say "Triangle" or "180-degree polygon"; in ignorance I may think they have different meanings, but an educated man (who studied Euclidean geometry) knows that they refer to the same object, only from different perspectives.

    Note that this is UNLIKE the case of different mathematical truths that share the same truth conditions but do indeed differ in meaning. It is more like expressing the same mathematical truth through different notations; say, speaking of "1" and "Exp[2 pi i]".

    Perhaps I misunderstand the theists. I certainly ain't one - I think that divine simplicity is complete rubbish. But If my interpretation is correct, it would lead to traditional theism denying premise 2, without any ad hoc assumptions - it is simply inconsistent with it. [Although divine simplicity isn't defined as part of your definition of "traditional theism", it is at least not an AD HOC assumption.]

    2. I don't dispute premise 2; I'm merely saying the DCMist would. Along those lines, some would also object to premise 4 as it applied to god (arguing for special pleading - as you anticipated in the conclusion), and a few would go as far as disagreeing with premise 1 (I've met some). For myself, I accept the argument, premise 2 included.

    3. I did not mean to belittle premise (13); on the contrary, I called it important, and I meant it. I fully agree it is a point that needs to be made explicitly in a rigorous manner, which you did admirably.

    4. I do not dispute the conclusions. I merely pointed out that Part II does not constitute a separate attack against DCM. DCM is already defeated for its traditional proponent in premise 10, and the implications of DCM for the atheistic proponent (which are unrelated to the first conclusion) are noted in premise 13. I merely believe there is no need to press forward towards premise 15 at that point; it is better to divine the discussion to theism or atheism, rather than rejoin them through premise 14. This is a didactic point, and I'd grant it is subjective.



  11. Yair,
    Thanks for your reply.

    1. It's customary (since Frege) to distinguish two components, or aspects, of linguistic meaning: sense and reference. Let's grant the doctrine of divine simplicity (DS), even though you and I both think it's rubbish. According to DS, the referent of "God's power" and "God's goodness" is the same: God. But it doesn't follow from sameness of reference that the senses of the two expressions are the same (compare "the Morning Star" and "the Evening Star"). So even on DS, it doesn't follow that the meanings of "God's power" (or "God is powerful") and "God's goodness" (or "God is good") are the same.

    2. I doubt that traditional theism nontrivially implies DS; if anything, they're in tension. According to DS, there's no complexity of any kind in God: God is identical to each of his attributes (and hence they're identical to each other), and so too for God and his actions. So, on DS, God's smiting all the firstborn children of Egypt and God's becoming incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth are the same action. I doubt you'd find too many traditional theists who'd gladly accept that result. Cheers.

  12. 1. But, "[a]ccording to DS.... God is identical to each of his attributes (and hence they're identical to each other)". Doesn't this mean that DS is talking about the sense, not just the referrant, of the terms? Such strong identity is more than mere coincidence of reference. DS isn't the doctrine that god is both good and powerful; it is (as you say) the idea that they are identical things, and it appears to me that this is equivalent to saying their coincidence in the being of God is tautological.

    2. No doubt DS has absurd implications. I would maintain it isn't even coherent - the different concepts are just that, different. This doesn't mean it isn't part of traditional theism, however. The failings of DS aren't relevant to the argument at hand.

    I agree that theists would be wise to abandon DS, and that it stands in tension to theism. But they still choose to employ DS, and it's not up to me to decide what they include in their theology...

    Thanks for your consideration,


  13. 1. "Doesn't this mean that DS is talking about the sense, not just the referent, of the terms?"

    No. DS says that the various terms have just one referent: God. Likewise, the terms "The Evening Star" and "The Morning Star" have just one referent: Venus. In neither case does it follow (and indeed it's false) that the terms in question have the same sense. Not unless Frege and his followers are wrong.

    2. "This doesn't mean [DS] isn't part of traditional theism, however. The failings of DS aren't relevant to the argument at hand. I agree that theists would be wise to abandon DS, and that it stands in tension to theism. But they still choose to employ DS...".

    Some theists do, but others (e.g., Plantinga) claim not to be able to make sense of an absolutely simple God or to reconcile such a God with the scriptures. Regardless, however, DS doesn't imply that the senses of "God's goodness" and "God's power" are the same, in which case it doesn't imply that those terms mean the same thing. Cheers.