Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some Thoughts on Theological Voluntarism

There’s been much internet chatter over the past week or so about the William Lane Craig/Sam Harris debate. For instance, Luke, over at commonsenseatheism, posted a two-part review earlier this week. It has been suggested that Harris failed in his response to Craig because he brought up issues in moral epistemology when the debate was really about moral ontology. In the comments to Luke's review, I suggested one way in which epistemological issues could be relevant to a debate about moral ontology.

Some people responded, and I promised to provide some follow-up comments but, being somewhat busy at the moment, and not being inclined to rush anything, I decided to think about it for awhile and post my further thoughts on this blog. That’s the purpose of this post.

As I started writing these further thoughts I found that I couldn’t make the points I wanted to without getting into some of the more general features of theological voluntarism. As a result these comments are far more expansive than originally intended and probably longer than most are willing to tolerate. (I mean it’s taken me three paragraphs just to clear my throat, so imagine what it’ll be like when I start saying something substantive!)

Anyway, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that I’ve broken the discussion down into a number of sections. First, I look at moral properties and metaethics in general. Second, I look at the structural features of the metaethical theory known as theological voluntarism. Third, I consider the basic problems associated with this position. Fourth, I consider whether moral values are dependent on God. Fifth, I outline the modified Divine Command Theory (DCT). Sixth, I try to explain the motivation behind Adams's version of the modified DCT. And seventh, I outline my own argument concerning epistemology and the modified DCT and I consider how the dialectic is likely to play out after that argument is made.

Those who are interested in my follow-up comments to what I said on CSA should just skip ahead to section 7.

If you want commentary on the Harris/Craig debate, and refutations of Craig’s arguments, you should probably look elsewhere. You'll be spoiled for choice.

One last thing before I get started: this is an attempt to clarify my own thinking about these issues. I’m not proffering myself as an authority on theistic metaethics and I’m certainly not entirely convinced by my own arguments.

1. Moral Properties and Metaethics
There are lots of moral terms that we use in our everyday lives. We talk of things being “good”, “bad”, “virtuous”, “vicious”, “permissible”, “obligatory” and so on. Obviously, these terms all mean different things. One fairly typical way of breaking them down along theoretically motivated lines is the following:

Values: These are the things -- states of affairs, character traits and events -- that are morally good. They are the kinds of things toward which our moral lives should be directed or oriented. A classical hedonic utilitarian might say that states of affairs in which people experience conscious pleasure are good; a natural law theorist might say that there are many basic goods (knowledge, friendship etc), all of which contribute to the virtuous and flourishing life. Our systematic specification of what is valuable can be called our theory of the good.
Right Actions: It is not enough to simply specify which states of affairs or events are valuable, we must also specify how we should act in relation to that which is valuable. Must we always act so as to promote that which is valuable, as the consequentialist might argue? Or should we act so as to honour that which is valuable, as the deontologist would argue? A theory of morally right action must answer these questions.

Moral theorists usually identify four morally significant types of action:
(a) Mere Permissions: these are actions that we are allowed to perform and have no impact upon the moral value of the world. 
(b) Acts of Supererogation: these are actions that we are allowed to perform and that have a positive impact upon the moral value of the world. 
(c) Forbidden acts: these are actions that we must not perform. They can also be referred to as negative obligations. 
(d) Obligatory acts: these are actions that we must perform. They can also be referred to as positive obligations.
Before going any further, I should note that some theorists also distinguish between perfect and imperfect obligations. Roughly, the idea is that perfect obligations can only be fulfilled by performing a particular type of act; whereas imperfect obligations can be fulfilled in a number of different ways.

Metaethics as a whole asks a number of different questions about the moral properties that we have just identified. For present purposes, the question concerning the ontological grounding of these moral properties is the relevant one.

We want to know: do things like values and obligations actually exist, and if so what is it that makes them exist? Many theists think that values and obligations can only exist if there is a God. Why do they think this? How do they imagine that the grounding of these moral properties takes place? This leads us to consider the position known as theological voluntarism.

2. The Structure of Theological Voluntarism
Many readers will be familiar with the Divine Command Theory (DCT) of metaethics. The idea behind this theory is that moral properties such as obligations and values can only exist if God issues commands specifying what they are.

Theological voluntarism is a slightly broader notion. Where DCT only focuses on God’s commands, theological voluntarism can include any voluntary act on the part of God. If you want to learn more, it’s really worth checking out the article over on the SEP (I draw heavily from that article in what follows).

Theological voluntarism can be said to have the following abstract structure:

Theological Voluntarism: For any event, act or state of affairs X, X has the moral property Y if and only if God φ-s that it have Y.

There are two key variables in this theory: (i) the moral property Y; and (ii) the divine act φ. Technically, theological voluntarism could cover all moral properties (values and right actions), usually it just covers a particular subset of moral properties. As we shall see, the trend nowadays is to focus on obligations. As for the relevant divine act, this could be an intention, a desire, a command, a willing and so on.

For the remainder of this discussion I’ll focus solely on command-based versions of theological voluntarism for reasons that will become apparent.

3. The Problems with Theological Voluntarism
The classic objection to theological voluntarism, in all its forms, is some suitably revised version of the Euthyphro Dilemma (Richard Joyce gives some compelling reasons for thinking the original dilemma wasn’t up to much over here). The objection goes something like this:

Euthyphro Dilemma: For any state of affairs, act, or event X with moral status Y, does X have that moral status because God φ-s it, or does God φ it because of its moral status?
[Edit: This seems sloppy to me. Can someone think of a better formulation?]

The dilemma is usually supposed to confront the defender of theological voluntarism with two equally unpleasant conclusions. In fact, however, there are at least three unpleasant outcomes to contend with (Joyce, 2002). So it's more like a trilemma, although two of the horns are closely related:

The Independence Problem: If we accept that God only φ-s X because X has a particular moral status, then we seem to be claiming that the ontological grounding of moral statuses lies outside of God. No one who thinks God is necessary for the existence of morality likes this conclusion. 
The Arbitrariness or Modal Vulnerability Problem: If we accept that X only has the moral status that is does because God φ-s that it have that moral status, and if we assume God is unconstrained in his voluntary acts, then it seems like X could have had any moral status at all. This contradicts the assumption that moral statuses hold true across all possible worlds. 
The Vacuousness Problem: This one is often overlooked. It follows from the arbitrariness problem. The idea is that believers often use moral predicates when describing God (e.g. God is good, or God is just). But if God voluntarily decides what the appropriate application of these predicates is, then aren’t such descriptions of his moral status vacuous? I’ve discussed this before, over here.

4. The Modified DCT
Joyce (2002) suggests that each of these problems is not as serious as it first appears. I have some issues with Joyce’s arguments and I might discuss them another time, for now I would simply note that some theists concede the force of some of these problems.

Consider for instance our moral obligations, the actions that we must perform if we are to be moral beings. Many of these obligations have a fairly fixed status. As Craig often says in his debates, it’s pretty obviously true that we have an obligation not to rape, torture or murder children, and pretty difficult to see how that obligation could change.

But acknowledging that obligations have this seemingly fixed status, sends us on a collision course with the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. After all, if our obligation not to rape, murder or torture children only derives its existence from a voluntary divine command, then there’s a chance that that command could have been other than what it was. This seem contrary to what we believe about these particular obligations.

One way of resolving this problem is to suggest that God’s commands are constrained by his moral nature. The idea here is that God has certain core virtues (e.g. justice, lovingness, mercy, charity etc.) and that these prevent him from commanding anything that seems morally outrageous. So when the theist is confronted with the claim:
What if God commanded child rape, or torture or genocide...
They can respond by saying that the claim has an impossible antecedent: God could never command such things.

Leaving aside the complication that arises from the fact that the God some people believe is supposed to have commanded some of these things (more on this anon), this is certainly one way to resolve the arbitrariness problem. But it raises a couple of additional problems. We’ll consider two here.

5. Are Values Dependent on God?
First, doesn’t it imply that at least some moral properties are ontologically independent of God? Specifically, the moral virtues? The objection here is that in trying to constrain God’s commands by pointing to his virtues, the religious believer is simply appealing to a set of abstract moral properties that God has, but are metaphysically prior to or more basic than he. It is these properties, not God, that do all the heavy metaethical lifting.

This is the position of the Moral Platonist, i.e. the person who believes that moral properties are abstract, non-natural and metaphysically basic. Although I have some issues with this position, I think it makes a good deal of sense. I’m willing to accept that there are some abstract properties (such as mathematical or logical truths) and that these properties can have some normative force (e.g. on belief formation).

Craig rejects Moral Platonism. He thinks that values and virtues have to be grounded in a being or person, that they cannot exist in a detached or abstract manner. I don’t see why this has to be the case. Indeed, it often seems like a form of special pleading. As long as one accepts at least some detached, or abstract metaphysical entities there seems to be no good reason to think moral values must be excluded from the abstract realm.

Furthermore, I think a theist has to accept some such entities. For example I can’t see how they could seriously believe that logical truths depend on God for their existence. God surely doesn’t have to will or command or intend the truth of the modus ponens? It is simply true, part of the basic metaphysical furniture of existence. (I believe Craig may argue against mathematical Platonism as well, if I recall).

6. Are Obligations Dependent on God?
Anyway, as far as I can tell, some theists are willing to accept the idea that not all moral properties depend on God for their existence. But they still hold out hope for obligations. Why is this?

Well consider the argument of Robert Adams. He maintains that commands are necessary for the existence of obligations. His reasoning is that obligations are essentially concerned with the relationships between persons (think of your familial, or social obligations). In such relationships, demands are made by the participants on one another. These demands constitute the basis of the obligations.

The social, legal and political obligations that we all have are probably too flimsy and too subject to social upheaval and change, to count as truly moral (or so the argument might go). We need a firmer foundation to explain the existence of moral obligations. Unsurprisingly, it is argued that God can provide this foundation by issuing commands telling us what we can and cannot do.

Here’s where things get interesting. Adams says that commands -- actual direct communications to conscious agents -- are necessary for the existence of obligations, divine intentions or desires just won’t fit the bill. His argument is that without the communication, there’s nothing to distinguish an obligatory act from a supererogatory act.

Here’s an analogy to help clarify this idea:
Suppose you and I draw up a contract stating that you must supply me with a television in return for a sum of money. By signing our names to this contract we create certain obligations: I must supply the money; you must supply the TV. Now suppose that I would really like it if you delivered the TV to my house, rather than forcing me to pick it up. However, it was never stipulated in the contract that you must deliver it to my door. As it happens, you actually do deliver it to my door. What is the moral status of this? The argument here would be that it is supererogatory (above and beyond the call of duty), not obligatory. My wishing or desiring that you do something is not enough create an obligation.
Applying this analogy to our relationship with God, Adams would argue that unless God actually communicates the content of our positive and negative obligations to us, they cannot exist. His desiring, intending or willing that something be obligatory is not enough to create obligations.

Adams’s point is controversial. Some would argue that we can have obligations without communicated demands. Perhaps, for example, a direct apprehension of the good supplies us with obligations; or even an awareness of the structure of our relationships. This could well be the case, but it would seem unattractive for the theist since it suggests, once again, that moral properties such as obligations can be grounded independently of God. In this case they would directly grounded in the kinds of abstract properties discussed above or in a process of deduction or inference from these abstract properties. I’ll need to return to this point.

7. Obligations and Epistemology
If we accept Adams’s claim for sake of argument, then it seems like epistemological issues (i.e. those pertaining to knowledge of God’s commands) could very well become relevant in a debate over moral ontology. In particular, it seems like one could make something like the following argument:

(1) Moral obligations exist if and only if God communicates his will to us in the form of a command. 
(2) God has not communicated his will to us in the form of a command. 
(3) Therefore, there are no moral obligations.

The conclusion, as you see, forces the believer to a form of nihilism or (weaker) scepticism about the existence of a core moral property, “the obligatory”. One could extend the argument by saying that, if the believer still thinks that moral obligations exist, then they must provide another grounding for their existence and reject premise (1) but let’s leave that to the side for the moment.

The argument as presented will no doubt seem circumspect to many. In particular, premise (2) will seem dubious. First, let me consider what kind of evidence could be marshalled in support of it and then the obvious objections.

As regards the support for premise (2), I think one can appeal to inconsistent commands (different religions have competing commands and competing obligations); and apparently morally abhorrent commands (e.g. genocide, child sacrifice etc.). Reference to scripture or to the claims made by individual believers who think God has spoken to them could be used to back this up.

Of course, inconsistencies and abhorrent commands do not necessarily imply that God has not communicated his will to us. In other words, they do not necessarily falsify (2). But they do, I think, give reason to doubt that we actually have epistemic access to his commands. Indeed, I think they might give us pretty strong reason to doubt this since in responding to them we tend to fall back on our own judgments about what would and would not count as a morally appropriate command. In this respect, the commands are clearly not self-authenticating. This would seem to increase the warrant for premise (2).

I think there are two directions in which the dialectic could go after this. We could end up in a debate about the inconsistencies or abhorrent commands themselves. In other words, the believer could argue that things are not so bad as they first appear, that scripture is not inconsistent with our beliefs about our obligations, and so we do not have as much reason to endorse premise (2). The non-believer could respond by saying that the believer’s responses are ad hoc or examples of special pleading, something that they themselves could not believe. This kind of debate could get quite messy, but it might be fun.

Alternatively, it could be argued that premise (2) works with too narrow a conception of communication. This observation was made by two commenters on commonsenseatheism (Rufus and Ajay) when I originally offered the argument. The suggestion, I take it, is that God could be communicating to us through means other than direct revelation. For example, by writing his commands on our hearts, in which case obligations might just become known to us through our moral intuitions. Or else, maybe, it is through the use of our own faculty of practical reason that we come to know what God demands of us.

There are a few things that can be said in response to this.

First, it’s not at all clear to me that we don’t get into similar problems with inconsistencies and abhorrencies by appealing to intuitions or practical reason. I’m not sure that people don’t arrive at competing, inconsistent and abhorrent conclusions when using these faculties. Still, I accept that there is considerable evidence suggesting a relative uniformity in moral intuitions so maybe this isn’t very strong.

Second, the response assumes that our intuitions and our practical reason are created by God and are media through which he can communicate to us. It’s not clear to me that we are entitled to make that assumption here. We’d have to provide additional argumentation for this e.g. through design arguments or through appeal to Plantinga’s model of warranted belief. Then we really would be in a debate about epistemology.

Still, even then, I think claim is a stretch. It seems easy to support the idea that words written in books or voices emanating from the heavens are divine communications. It seems much less easy to support the idea that intuitions or practical reason are forms of communication. The former are, at least, analogous to human communications and thus can be supported through argument from analogy. The latter cannot be similarly supported.

When I engage my faculty of practical reason, it sure doesn’t seem like I’m receiving a divine communication. It seems like I’m directly contemplating that which is valuable or virtuous and drawing its implications for my actions. When I act on my moral intuitions things are slightly more mysterious, but at most it feels like a trained response to certain states of affairs (kind of like the trained unconscious response of tennis player to a fast serve). Neither intuition nor practical reason carry the usual indicia of communications.

This brings me to the final point. When I actually engage in moral practical reasoning or use my moral intuitions, and it seems like direct contemplation, awareness or access to the good or the valuable is what dictates the appropriate moral response, then it also seems like communications are, contra Adams, not needed for obligations. It seems like the reasons for action provided by contemplation or analysis of the good is what grounds my obligations.

If this is right, then the modified DCT is improperly motivated, and premise (1), above, is false.

I’d be pretty happy to reach that conclusion.


  1. On the matter of commands, Wielenberg (in ch2 of "Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe") makes the claim that the person issuing command entailing moral obligations has a duty to ensure that the persons(s) so commanded are aware that the commands are coming from an "duly authorised commander".

    The result of this claim, if successful, is that God has failed to impose a moral obligation on atheists (for example) simply because, while the atheist may have received the "command" somehow, they do not recognise it as coming from a person authorised to issue such commands.

    A slight tangent to you point, but I think related enough to mention.

  2. Certainly, I think moral ontology and moral epistemology are connected! My point was that if Harris wanted to use epistemological concerns as an objection to Craig's moral ontology, then he did not explain how this worked. Alas, Harris apparently did not consult you (or myself, or Morriston, or Wielenberg) before his debate. :)

  3. Oh yeah, I figured that. I didn't want to suggest that you would disagree. I was just trying to provide the context for the post. I'll change the wording a bit.

  4. Rape is always the go-to example for objective morality. Why would a Christian cite it, though? It's obvious to everyone that it's wrong, but it's not discouraged by the bible. There isn't a single verse that declares rape to be a sin (especially inside of marriage).

    Sure, there's Deuteronomy 22:25... which specifically mentions the rape of engaged women, which is more or less adultery (which was already sinful). In 22:28 is says that raping a woman who isn't engaged means you have to marry her. To me that sounds like a gift rather than a punishment (except, of course, for the rape victim). But just because there's a "punishment" attached doesn't mean it's a sin (such as commands to "unclean" women or leprosy victims throughout Leviticus).

  5. @starcrashx

    Also, I might add, the Biblical God DOES actually COMMAND rape on at least one occasion: Zechariah 14:1-2.

    "1Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city."

    So the Christians that throw up their arms in protest at the mere suggestion that God would command rape, and say that's not in his loving nature, are apparently reading a different Bible than I am.

    This is why I find Divine Command Theory erroneous. Because once you actually apply it to the God of Christian theology... rape becomes moral. It's funny that theologians always avoid that last step though, and actually apply their theological premises to their God. As long as they can seemingly keep the philosophy separate from the doctrine, it looks like they have no problem to worry about. The moment you realize you're being had, and point out the shell game, they claim you've changed the subject of debate.

    The reason they don't want you changing the subject of the debate isn't because it has nothing to do with their arguments, but that when you consider other evidence it usually has the power to disprove their arguments. That would leave them right where they started, without any evidence and nothing to ground their faith in.

    Sophistry, for the theist, works far better than admissions of truth.

  6. Just a suggestion..

    X→Y|G:φ(X) OR G:φ(X)|X→Y

    X has moral status Y given that God φ-s X or God φ-s X given that X has moral status Y.

  7. I for one can't strongly object to Harris straying from "do morals exist independently" into "what can we confidently say about them".

    Particularly because what makes those ideas pertinent to contemporary debate, are the well meaning religious leaders and layman diligently broadcasting simply that their god universally forbids action X, ipso facto it must be outlawed.

    For all the church's rhetoric they rarely convince even their own in-group to resist X (abortion, divorce, premarital sex, sodomy, contraception, same-sex marriage, etc) except through coercion whereby in addition to god's insistence and their community's condemnation, their state successfully restricts or punishes it.

    On the biblical strand teased out by Starcrashx and Tristan, while scholars are piecing together what was originally meant, theologians ensure the text remains relevant by continually re-interpreting their "living word of god". Biblical experts will tell you that the KJV wasn't ever meant to be the last word. I can only assume that leaves open the possibility that rape might come back in vogue.

  8. Nice post. I've never understood why anyone finds at all plausible the idea that "obligations are essentially concerned with the relationships between persons," which Adams's theory (as you say) relies on and which Mark C. Murphy has repeatedly defended in print and in conference talks. Suppose I'm the last person on Earth. Plenty of food and water but no possible human companionship. I consider whether to amuse myself by torturing a cat that wanders by. Surely I have an obligation -- to the cat, not (or not primarily) to any person -- not to torture the cat for fun. What could be more obvious? Why, then, would anyone be tempted to think that "obligations are essentially concerned with the relationships between persons"? What am I missing?

  9. I don't really disagree, but I'm curious: Would you thus say obligations are essentially concerned with the relationships between sentient beings?

  10. I'm not sure what to say about that. If we have obligations to the deceased (e.g., to keep promises we made to them) or to future generations (e.g., to leave them a habitable planet), then we have obligations to currently non-sentient beings. Regardless, we can have obligations to beings that aren't ever persons, contrary to Adams and Murphy.

  11. I don't think we even need to appeal to Yahweh's inconsistent commands when we have so many varied sentient beings with all manner of epistemic limitations. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 year olds dying of bone cancer. Bats, monkeys, rats, dogs, dolphins, etc, displaying different elements of tit-for-tat reciprocal altruism.

    I think Harris was perfectly justified in going the epistemology route and Craig only restricted it to ontology (which was not agreed upon beforehand, nor constrained by the actual proposition- it wasn't constrained until his open statement) because he knew his epistemological position was so weak and harris would smoke him with rhetorical salience. But of course a god who claims "you shall know them by their fruits" (actually asking his critics to verify moral effects empirically) is vulnerable to epistemological consideration. I am astounded that so many would rule this out of hand, and so was Harris, from what I read.