Friday, March 4, 2011

Divine Command Metaethics

The following simple and valid argument came out of discussions with Mark Murphy (who has a forthcoming book that contains related arguments, though perhaps not this one).

According to the identity version of Divine Command Metaethics (IDCM), to be obligated to A is to be commanded to A by God (or to be willed to A by God or to be commanded to A by a loving God--details of this sort won't matter). But:

  1. If p explains x's being F, and to be F is the same as to be G, then p explains x's being G.
  2. My being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being obligated to follow Christ.
  3. It is not the case that my being commanded by God to follow Christ explains my being commanded by God to follow Christ.
  4. Therefore, it is false that to be obligated to A is the same as to be commanded by God to A. (By 1-3)
And so IDCM is false.

The argument more generally shows that no normative-level answer to a "Why am I obligated to A?" question can provide a property identical with being obligated. Thus, sometimes at least the answer to "Why am I obligated to A?" is that Aing maximizes utility. Hence, by an exactly parallel argument, being obligated to A is not the same as having A as one's utility maximizing option.

The argument is compatible with constitution versions of DCM on which the property of being obligated to A is constituted by the property of being commanded to A. But such theorists then have the added complication of explaining what the constitution relation means here, over and beyond bidirectional entailment (after all, many non-divine-command theorists will agree that necessarily x is obligated to A iff God wills x to A).

10 comments:

James Bejon said...

Being fairly philosophically ignorant, I'm not sure what work the term 'explain' is meant to do in 1-4. If, for instance, there's no further explanation as to why something is the case (suppose, for instance, there's no further explanation as to why I choose A as opposed to B), then does this make it self-explanatory? If so, isn't 3 OK after all?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Dan Johnson sent me this by email and asked me to post:

Alex,

Like the "why obey God?" argument against DCM, doesn't this apply to every single metaethical theory? (This might actually amount to the very same objection as the "why obey God" objection, at least since its solution is the same.) According to utilitarianism, my being obligated to be nice to my neighbor is explained by the fact that being nice to my neighbor maximizes utility. But also, according to utilitarianism, what it is to be obligated to do X is for X to maximize utility. The same is true for any claim about the nature of obligation.

What is going on here? I think this: explanation is more fine-grained than the world is, because explanation holds between propositions and the states of affairs to which the propositions correspond can be corresponded to by multiple propositions. If by "property" you mean a constituent in a proposition, then "being obligated to do X" and "being commanded by God to do X" are different properties and propositions involving one are ontologically explained by propositions involving the other. On the other hand, if by "property" you mean something more substantial in the world like a trope or a universal, the truthmaker for the propositions, then "being commanded by God" and "being obligatory" refer to the same property and propositions involving them are made true by the same states of affairs. In neither case is DCM (or any of the other metaethical views) threatened by this objection. And I think the word "property" is genuinely ambiguous between these two senses. Only by moving between them do you get a good objection.

Alexander R Pruss said...

James:

I don't think that God commanded me to follow Christ is self-explanatory. It seems quite possible to explain this in one way by giving God's reasons for commanding me and in another way by explaining what it is to command.

Dan:

I don't think this applies to every metaethical theory. It applies only to those metaethical theories that answer the metaethical question in terms of something from the normative level. It applies to meta-ethical utilitarianism and IDCM. But it need not apply to Kantianism. Kantianism says that to be obligated to A is for failure to A to be irrational. But Kantianism should not say that I am obligated to refrain from making false promises because making false promises is irrational. Rather, Kantianism should say that I am obligated to refrain from making false promises because making false promises violates one of the categorical imperatives. The categorical imperatives, then, are what we have at the normative level, and irrationality is what we have at the metaethical level.

Note that the type of explanation that occurs in my argument is not ontological explanation in your sense. It's just a straightforward non-ontological explanation. I ask you, say, "Why am I obligated to come to the potluck tonight?" And you say: "Because you promised you would. Don't you remember?" (OK, I didn't actually promise, but I hope to be there.) You can say that even if you accept IDCM, because even given IDCM there will surely be intermediate explanations. God didn't command me to come to the potluck (say)--he commanded me to keep promises. But sometimes the only answer to the "Why am I obligated" question will be "Because God commanded you." This is neutral between DCM and other theories. Thus, the only reason why the Israelites were obligated to refrain from pork is that God commanded them. There is no intermediate explanation. (There might be one in the Christ case. The Old Testament case is better for my purposes.)


The argument doesn't use the term "property". A natural take on "to be obligated to A is the same as to be commanded by God to A" is that both sides of the identity "is the same as" relation are properties. That's not the only interpretation.

But let's take the property interpretation. Then you're denying 1. I think 1 is pretty plausible at least when we're talking of non-ontological explanation.

James Bejon said...

Hi Alex,

I take your point. But what, then, would be a clear example of something that is in fact self-explanatory?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Every tree is a tree?

enigMan said...

Hi, there's a typo in (1) (two 'is's); also, (1) must be substantially wrong, as shown by (2) and (3), but where? The general case seems to be that explanation cannot be by identity. But your heaviness just is the force of gravity upon your mass. And your being massive explains your being heavy. (I should think of a better example but I'm not myself.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Typo fixed. Thanks.

"your heaviness just is the force of gravity upon your mass. And your being massive explains your being heavy."

I don't see the problem. Let's grant that to be heavy is to have gravitational force upon your mass. Then:

1. Your being massive explains your being heavy.
So:
2. Your being massive explains your having gravitational force upon your mass.

I don't see the problem.

Mike Almeida said...

1.If p explains x's being F, and to be F is the same as to be G, then p explains x's being G.

It is difficult not to take explanatory contexts as referentially opaque. If they are, then (1) is false. Take a context of causal explanation. It can be causally necessary that the guy who drank from the well is poisoned and not causally necessary that the guy who was born in c at t is poisoned, even though the man who drank from the well = the guy born in c at t. Since subsititutivty fails, it does not preserve causal explanation. Similar arguments will show that the subtitutivity of identical properties will not preserve causal explanation.

enigMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
enigMan said...

@Alex, it wasn't a very good example (Mike's is better, I think), but I was thinking that (i) X being massive and in a gravitational field explains why X is heavy; (ii) it does so because being heavy just is being massive in a gravitational field, but of course, (iii) being massive and in a gravitational field hardly explains why X is massive and in a gravitational field. (Sorry for the previous comment deletion, I'm not myself.) (And yet I must be!)