Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Divine command metaethics

Divine command metaethics (DCM) says that

  1. the obligatory is defined as what God commands.
(Variants on which the obligatory is defined as what God wills can be handled in the same way.) The following question now seems to me to be quite important. How does the word "God" function in DCM?

Option 1: "God" is a proper name of a particular individual. Then, DCM licenses the following surprising per impossibile counterfactual:

  1. If the cosmos were created by an essentially omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly good, loving, unique, infinite, and necessarily existing (I will abbreviate such a list as "omni-omni") creator other than God, then there would be no duty to obey this creator.
This counterfactual is surprising, because it makes very puzzling why it is that we have a duty to obey God, even though we would have no duty to obey an omni-omni creator other than God. The answer cannot be grounded in any of the attributes of God, since (per impossibile) the omni-omni creator other than God would have all of the same attributes.

In other words, a DCM where "God" is a proper name is implausible.

Option 2: "God" is a definite description. Presumably, then, it is a description such that it is a conceptual truth that any omni-omni creator is God. (If not, just throw enough attributes into the "omni-omni" list to make that be true.) But if so, then the DCM claim is basically that the obligatory is what is commanded by a being who satisfies D, where D is some part of the "omni-omni creator" description. If so, then we have a problem identified in an excellent paper by MacIntyre: Exactly which attributes are a part of D? This problem is not unanswerable, perhaps, but it is very difficult.

8 comments:

Mike Almeida said...

No worries. Since the antecedent is impossible, it is also true that (2').

2'. If the cosmos were created by an essentially omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly good, loving, unique, infinite, and necessarily existing (I will abbreviate such a list as "omni-omni") creator other than God, then there would be a duty to obey this creator.

Enigman said...

I agree with Mike I think. For me, 'God' names our transcendent creator. Had he not created us, we would not exist. Had a cosmos been created by another divine being, we would not be in it; or maybe we would... If we could have been created by another divinity, then if we had been, then the obligatory would for us (then) have been what that being commanded. But I don't see how the falsity of that would follow from DCM, even with a possible antecedent and 'God' functioning as a name. For us, the obligatory is defined as what he commands (and in a different world, maybe that name could name a different divinity). Incidentally, it does not seem to me that it follows that we have such a duty unless God wants us to have a duty.

davida said...

I'm not so sure.

DCM seems to imply something like:

3. If God does not exist, then nothing is obligatory.

But, since the antecedent is impossible, one might say, it is also true that:

3'. If God does not exist, then something is obligatory.

However, DCM does not appear to imply 3' and this despite the fact that the antecedent is impossible. I dont know much about counterpossibles but surely there is a something in the literature that addresses issues of relevance.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Enigman:

If the commands of another omni-omni creator would also be obligatory for his creatures, then probably the version of DCM that you want is one that says something like: "The obligatory is what is commanded by a ______ creator" where the "_______" is filled in by some of the omni-omni attributes.

Mike:

I can either deny that all counterfactuals with impossible antecedents are true, or I can make a distinction between counterfactuals with impossible antecedents being trivially true (because their antecedents are impossible) and being non-trivially true. Thus, it is at best trivially true that if a man were an ass, he would have wings. But it is non-trivially true that if a man were an ass, he would have four legs (to use Aquinas' example).

Noel said...

Alex,

Perhaps we can restate DCM as DCM'

The obligatory in the actual world is defined as what God commands in the actual world

where 'God' is a proper name. This may initially raise some worries because it is logically consistent with

(1) The obligatory in some merely possible world is not defined as what God commands in that world

(1) is worrisome because it seems to entail the contingency of the obligatory by re-defining what the obligatory is in some other possible world. So perhaps we can restate DCM' as DCM''

The obligatory in all possible worlds is defined as what God commands in all possible worlds

This would seem to rule out the previous worry. But DCM'' would also seem not to entail the troublesome counterfactual. For the scope of what the obligatory is would be limited to the obligatory in all possible worlds, and not impossible worlds (or impossibilities). Now we may still have worries here, for we may still think it problematic that the obligatory is contingent when we are willing to include impossible scenarios. But notice that there are impossible scenarios that include God's existence, and presumably in those scenarios what is obligatory is defined by what God commands. This leads to another version of DCM. DCM'''

The obligatory in all possible worlds, and those impossible scenarios that include God's existence, is defined as what God commands

The only relevant impossible scenarios left are one's where God does not exist. In these scenarios DCM''' is silent, and perhaps (or perhaps not) here it would be an omni-omni other than God, whose commands, and not God's, is what defines what is obligatory. But whether or not this is true, the point here is that

(2) If the cosmos were created by an omni-omni other than God, then there would be a duty to obey this creator

is not inconsistent with DCM''', and so DCM''' does not entail (2)'s negation. Now much hinges on the plausibility of DCM''' here, and off the cuff, I see no obvious problems with it (Is it ad hoc?...I am initially inclined to say 'no', but for sake of space, will not elaborate).

I also think the theory of names we adopt will be relevant here, but I will not say much with respect to this.

Finally (sorry for the long post), I am concerned about the answer to the following question:

(3) Why is what is obligatory defined by what God (used as a proper name) commands?

I am concerned about the answer to (3) because I am concerned that the answer might be "Because God is the type of being that satisfies D", in which case, your second worry would be raised even if 'God' is being used as a proper name in DCM. Perhaps (3) is a bad question, but I doubt that. Perhaps the proposed answer is a bad answer, but this is not obvious. It is not obvious that it is a bad answer because it is not obvious that using 'God' as a definite description - in order to define the obligatory - in DCM is wrongheaded to begin with. That is, it does not seem wrongheaded to appeal to D in order to define what is obligatory, and so it does not seem wrongheaded to appeal to D in order to explain why the obligatory is defined by what God (proper name) commands.

I hope this was clear, and sorry for the inordinate length!

Noel

Mike Almeida said...

(i) I can either deny that all counterfactuals with impossible antecedents are true, or (ii) I can make a distinction between counterfactuals with impossible antecedents being trivially true (because their antecedents are impossible) and being non-trivially true. Thus, (iii) it is at best trivially true that if a man were an ass, he would have wings. But it is (iv) non-trivially true that if a man were an ass, he would have four legs (to use Aquinas' example).

There are several thing I can't follow about this. First, (i) and (ii) are a false dichotomy. I can also affirm that all such counterfactuals are trivially true. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is what you assumed in generating the troubling counterfactual (2). But maybe I'm misunderstanding your point in stating this disjunction.

Second, how is (iii) trivially true? I'd say it is non-trivially false. In worlds where S is an ass, S is wingless. I don't think it is impossible that a man should be an ass (though, it is impossible that he should be both). In any case, it ain't obviously impossible. Third, I take (iv) to be non-trivially true as well, but I deny that it's antecedent is impossible.

I'm in general very dubious of current work attempting to non-trivialize counterpossibles. It's all really fishy and (to my mind) semantically hopeless.

Enigman said...

Hmm... my reason for using 'God' as a name is that I don't wish to presume that I know much about my transcendent creator. For all I know, my God is the God of the Bible (more-or-less) but is not one of those omni-omni beings. But I do think that Divine Will metaethics should follow from some more general principle about the creation of souls (that we may never know). (Incidentally, God commanded Abraham to kill his son, at which point Abraham's conscience may have informed him that that was wrong. Was Abraham's conscience at that point right? After all, God did not want Abraham to kill his son. That's why I would use 'will' rather than 'command'.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Noel:

I don't think a definition should be relativized to a world. A characterization can be relativized to a world. It is very useful to give necessary and sufficient conditions for something in this world to be obligatory. But a definition, I think, needs to do more--it needs to work in all worlds in which the concept applies.