Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A dilemma for divine command theory

Either God does or does not have moral obligations.

If he has moral obligations, divine command theory seems to be false. Divine command theory comes in two versions: command theory and will theory. On command theory, an action is obligatory if and only if God commands it to one. But no one can impose obligations on himself by commands (one can impose obligations on oneself by promises, of course). On will theory, an action is obligatory if and only if God wills (in a relevant sense) one to do it. But what one wills oneself to do does not impose an obligation. That's all I'll say about this horn, though more can probably be said.

If God has no moral obligations, however, then in particular he has no moral obligation to keep his promises and reveal only truths to us. But the Western monotheistic religions are founded on an utter reliance on God's promises and revelation. Without God having moral obligations, why think that God's promises and revelation are trustworthy? (It would obviously be circular to think so on the basis of God's promises and revelations.) So if God has no moral obligations, Western monotheistic religions are in trouble. But most divine command theorists accept one of the Western monotheistic religions.

Perhaps, though, it is impossible for God to break promises or lie, even though he is under no obligation to keep promises or refrain from lying. But if it is not wrong for him to do these things, why can't he do it? If it's just a brute limitation in what he can do, then that seems to conflict with his omnipotence. Maybe, though, God's inability to promise or lie follows from some other essential attribute of God.

Perhaps his goodness? But goodness in a context where duty is not at issue, i.e., deontologically unconstrained goodness, does not seem sufficient to rule out breaking promises or lying.

Maybe in the case of an omnipotent being, though, it does. Goodness is opposed to inducing false beliefs in others, since false beliefs are intrinsically bad. So in our case, deontologically unconstrained goodness might lead one to break a promise, because one made the promise in ignorance of some aspect of the consequences of keeping it, and to lie because there is no other way of achieving some good. But an omnipotent and omniscient being is not going to suffer from such limitations. Sometimes the only humanly possible way to save someone's feelings from being hurt is by lying to him, and deontologically unconstrained goodness may lead one to do that. But God can directly will to have someone's feelings not be hurt.

But this line of thought is a dangerous one to the theist. For it is pretty much the same line of thought that leads the atheist to conclude that God, if he existed, would prevent various horrendous evils. In response to the atheist, the theist has to insist that there may very well be goods—perhaps but not necessarily beyond our ken—that are served by not preventing the horrendous evils. But if we are impressed by this line of thought, we will likewise be unimpressed by the thought that whatever end might be accomplished by lying or breaking of promises can be accomplished by an omniptoent and omniscient being without these. In particular, a sceptical theist cannot give the response I gave in the preceding paragraph.

There is a different line of thought, though, that might work better, inspired by Steve Evans' version of divine command theory. In addition to the distinction between permissible and impermissible actions, there is a distinction between virtuous and vicious actions, and it is only the permissible/impermissible distinction that is grounded by divine command theory. God, one can say, is essentially virtuous. But lying and breaking promises is vicious. Hence God can't do these actions, not because they are wrong, but because they are vicious. I think this is the best response to the dilemma, but I am not convinced.

One reason I am not convinced is this line of thought. Suppose that what makes lying and promise-breaking vicious is that these things are wrong. This is actually plausible. Consider this line of thought. A lot of people think that in extreme circumstances it is permissible to lie or break a promise (we might, though, argue that an omnipotent being doesn't end up in such extreme circumstances—this may be a subtly different line of argument from one that I argued against above, I think). They aren't going to say that lying or breaking promises is always vicious—only that it is vicious when it is wrong, and then because it is wrong. A minority of people, including me, think lying is always wrong (I don't know the promise literature, so I won't talk about promises here). They presumably think lying is always vicious. But surely it is always vicious precisely because it is always wrong. If so, then it is quite plausible that lying and promise-breaking are vicious because, and to the extent that, they are wrong. But the divine command theorist who says that they're vicious but not wrong for God cannot take this line.

Another plausible view is that lying and promise-breaking are wrong, when they are wrong, because they are vicious. But again a divine command theorist cannot take this line of thought, because that would allow one to ground wrongness facts in non-deontological virtue fact, and would make divine command theory unnecessary.

What the divine command theorist needs to hold here is that there is no explanatory relationship between the wrongness of lying and promise breaking and the viciousness of these. And that doesn't seem very plausible, though I do not have a knock-down argument against that.


Dan Johnson said...

What if I told you that God has the following attribute: he is essentially truthful. So he would be violating his nature if he lied. How do I know that God has this attribute? Not because I infer it from another of his attributes, but because he has revealed this attribute (in both general and special revelation).

Would you be satisfied? I suspect not; but I'd like to hear why not.

You might try to insist that his attribute of truthfulness can't be fundamental, that it must be grounded in some more fundamental attribute. I would have two questions. First, why think that? Second, why can't I just agree, but then say that I don't know and shouldn't be expected to know what more fundamental attribute that truthfulness is grounded in?

Marc Belcastro said...

Dr. Pruss:

Divine command theorists frequently claim that God’s nature essentially serves as the ultimate standard of moral goodness. So, perhaps these theorists could suggest something like the following: it’s only impossible for x to impose obligations on x (except in the case of promises) if x isn’t the ultimate standard of moral goodness, which applies to every agent except for God. God’s axiological status makes Him utterly unique in this sense. But it seems peculiar to think of God as issuing commands to Himself, so I doubt that most divine command theorists would find this hypothesis attractive.

What do you think of the proposal of some (like Alston) that God doesn’t technically make promises? If I remember correctly, Alston suggests that it isn’t strictly true that God makes promises, but rather that He expresses the intention to do something. Alston further suggests it’s possible to express intentions to do something without generating an obligation. And we can derive confidence in these divinely expressed intentions by virtue of God’s utterly dependable character.

As for lying, maybe the divine theorists can distinguish between an action’s being not (morally) good and an action’s being (morally) wrong, and then claim that lying is not good, which implies that it’s impossible for a perfectly good God to lie. (I don’t know if this is sufficiently different than Evans’s version of divine command theory.) The idea here is that an action’s being not good doesn’t entail its being wrong, but its being wrong does entail its being not good. It seems initially plausible that there could be actions which aren’t morally wrong but which aren’t morally good. (Perhaps it’s not wrong for a man and woman who are romantically involved to live together before marriage, even if they’re not sleeping together, but it might be not good.) According to divine command theory, lying for us is wrong, of course, because God has issued a command against lying. But God doesn’t lie for a different reason.

Heath White said...


Isn't your suggestion epistemically circular? God is essentially truthful; I know this because he said so. Substitute any other name for "God" and the problem becomes obvious.

Heath White said...


If I were a divine command theorist, I would be an Evans-style one, and I would say something like this: There are two sets of reasons not to lie. The first is that it harms me—it severs my connection with the good of truth or something. This makes it vicious. The second is that it harms you—it reduces trust in our community, or severs your connection with the good of truth, etc. The first set of reasons is essentially a matter of my self-interest, and these make a lie vicious. The second set of reasons makes it (I’ll stipulate) immoral. As a hypothetical divine command theorist, I would say that we have reasons to care about this set of considerations (which are over and above our self-interest) because God commands or wills it. “Wrong” is a word either ambiguous or disjunctive between vicious and immoral.

God will not lie because it is vicious. And whereas I might face a choice between self-interested goods (I have to choose, let’s say, between being severed from the truth and severed from my head) God in his omnipotence doesn’t have that problem. We have that first virtue-oriented set of reasons, but also another set, due to God’s commands, and God lacks that set of reasons. Which is to say that, strictly speaking, he lacks any moral obligations.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I like the idea of God having a fundamental attribute of perfect reliability.

But there is an epistemic worry. What's our reason for thinking God has such an attribute? If it's revelation (general or special), it may be problematically circular. (You're the expert on circularity, though.) If it's intuition that a perfect being would have such an attribute, that intuition seems to be no stronger than the intuition that a perfect being would have the attribute of creating a world with no evil--an intuition that many people have, but which is mistaken.


But is lying bad ultima facie or only prima facie? I say it's ultima facie, but the reason for which I say it is bound up with its being wrong. It seems that if lying weren't wrong, it would only be prima facie bad. God can do things that are prima facie bad. (It's prima facie bad to allow evil to happen.)

Marc Belcastro said...

Dr. Pruss:

If the divine command theorist can supply reasons for thinking that lying is suitably bad, then perhaps she can accommodate the claim that, with respect to God, lying is ultima facie bad and thus not fitting for an essentially perfectly good being to do. Heath’s suggestions sound plausible, particularly his second set of reasons. Maybe another suggestion could be offered along these lines: God’s making covenants (primary and otherwise) with His chosen people is an important (perhaps essential) element in salvation history. Also: God’s being unwaveringly reliable is a necessary condition for the integrity of special revelation, especially if that revelation is supposed to be inerrant. But God presumably can’t enter into covenant relations or bring about (inerrant) special revelation if He lies. These are two great goods which couldn’t be secured by a dishonest God.

Dan Johnson said...

Hey Alex and Heath,

Sorry for the delay; I sort of forgot about this conversation for a while.

About the epistemic circularity objection. First, do I need to know that someone is truthful before I believe what they say? If Reid is right, I don't. Second, perhaps the sense of deity and/or the testimony of the holy spirit can contain direct experience of God's truthfulness (or God's truthfulness in this case), rather than direct experience of his perfection plus an inference to his truthfulness on the basis of that. I take both knowledge-sources to involve experiences as of God's existence, his properties, or his truthful speech. In all cases, it seems like I can have a direct warrant for believing he is truthful (or, importantly, truthful in this case) without needing to go through prior knowledge of his perfection.

Here's the motivation behind both of the things that I said: I don't think that I (or the ordinary Christian) needs to do a bunch of philosophical theology about the truthfulness of a perfect being before I believe God's word. In fact, it seems to me that the normal order goes the other way: I believe that God is perfect and essentially truthful on the basis of the things taught about him in the Bible and revealed through the sense of deity.

A general point: Alex seems to make two different points in this post, one about the epistemic order of my knowledge of God's attributes, and another about the ontological ordering of God's attributes (in terms of grounding). These are different points and should be strictly separated (and I think Alex does that ok). The ontological point, I think, might have more promise.

Alexander R Pruss said...


My very speculative view of testimony is that it is a special case of a general should-is inference. Sam is a sheep. So, Sam has four legs, because sheep should have four legs. Dan promised me a chapter of his dissertation for next week. So, Dan will give me a chapter of his dissertation by next week or have a good excuse, because he shouldn't break his promise. Dan tells me that classical reformed theology says that there is free will. So, classical reformed theology says there is free will, because Dan's shouldn't say falsehoods.

The should-is inference is easily defeasible especially in a fallen world, and for some cases of the should-is inference we have a standing defeater (say, cases where a particular sin is very common, or where the temptation is particularly strong).

Moreover, the particular cases of the should-is inference (e.g., the "promises-so won't break" inference or the "testifies-hence it is so" inference) do not depend on explicit subsumption of the case under the general should-is inference. Thus, "She says so, so it is so" is fine as it is; one doesn't need to add "she shouldn't say what isn't so".

But the inference still in some way depends (I am in over my head; the only epistemology I semi-seriously do is formal epistemology, and that's not serious epistemology anyway) on its being a case of a "should".

Now, if it is false that God should tell the truth, then that's a defeater (when believed) or Gettierizer (when not believed) for cases of the should-is inference from divine testimony.

And I think the implicit or explicit judgment that something is a case of a "should" needs to logically precede the should-is inference based on that.

Suppose that someone is standing on a stage in a theater given to post-modern plays, and we've just come in, so we don't know the context. And she says: "I say, and not as an actor on a stage, that there is a traitor in the audience." Should you infer there is a traitor in the audience?

I think not. For without context, you have no idea whether the thing the person said was an assertion, in which case it should be said only if true, or a part of a play, in which case there was no assertion made. It would be objectionably circular in this case to apply the should-is inference.

I actually think that testimony-theorists may agree with me. For to believe on testimony, I need to believe that such-and-such has been testified to me. And I shouldn't believe that on testimony.

Another wacky case. Suppose there are two languages Sam could be speaking. It could be English or it could be English~ which has the odd property that its sentences are homophonic to those of English, but express denials of the propositions expressed by the corresponding English sentences. "Snow is white" in English~ means that snow is not white. Sam now says: "I am speaking English." It would be viciously circular to believe on testimony that Sam is speaking English.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A related line of thought. Plausibly (to me), a sentence is only an instance of testimony provided that it falls under a moral prohibition of falsehood. (I am inclined to think truth is the moral norm of assertion, so that those who innocently and sincerely believe a falsehood and assert it, do a moral wrong, though are inculpable. But you can fill in other moral norms of assertion here, like sincerity or knowledge, and the same point can be made.)

So if God is not obligated to refrain from speaking falsely, he does not testify.

Mark said...

Doesn't this seem plausible: A is obligated to do x if it is morally wrong not to do x? If yes, then what's the point of divine command? Obligation seems to stem from moral values.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I accept that the obligatory is that not doing which is morally wrong. But morally wrong is not a moral value. Moral values are things like: morally valuable, morally disvaluable, etc. And it's not clear how to read off what is morally wrong from what is morally valuable or disvaluable.

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

What I meant to say was that since God's commands don't constitute moral goodness (or wrongness), and moral goodness (and wrongness) determines moral obligations in the way I mentioned, then God's commands don't constitute moral obligations.
Note: If God's commands constitute moral goodness (in general), then God's commands constitute God's moral goodness, which is incoherent. So God's commands don't constitute moral goodness (in general). You might say 'God is good' is understood in terms of his virtue (which is not determined by his commands) and not goodness (which is determined by his commands), but as you said in this post, something is virtuous because it is good.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wait. I think the typical thing for a divine command theorist to say is that God's commands do not constitute moral value, but they do constitute moral wrongness.

Mark said...

But if, as you say, something is virtuous because it is good, then god's virtues are determined by his goodness. But if God's commands constitute goodness, then god's commands determine his virtues, which is incoherent.
Anyway, intrinsic moral values are moral goods. Instrumental values, on the other hand, aren't good in and of themselves, but they result in moral goods. In all cases, goodness and value are related. (I think you were thinking about instrumental values when you saw a distinction between value and goodness, as for ex, The Bible is only instrumentally valuable because it contains moral goods like truth).

Also, according to my reading of the topic, divine command doesn't account for moral goodness. From SEP, Murphy says: "But if moral goodness is to be understood in theological voluntarist terms, then God's goodness consists only in God's measuring up to a standard that God has set for Himself." "So Adams, Quinn, and Alston all recommend theological voluntarism only as a theory about properties like being morally obligatory, and not about any other normative properties." From IEP: "Wainright (2005)...Once God does command it, truth telling is not only morally good, but it also becomes morally obligatory, on Divine Command Theory."

Mark said...

Let me extend the quote from IEP: "Wainright (2005)...This is because the moral goodness of truth telling is a sufficient reason for God to command it. Once God does command it, truth telling is not only morally good, but it also becomes morally obligatory, on Divine Command Theory."

Mark said...

Upon revision, it seems as though some things I said need correcting. (Mediterranean summer heat confuses my thinking).
Adams does say God's commands constitute ethical wrongness (contrary to what Murphy claimed), but maybe not all DCT theorists say so. However according to Adams, 'God is good' is understood according to his virtues (ex. being loving), but as you pointed out, virtues are dependent on goodness. (God's commands also constitute ethical goodness, not only wrongness). But then, God's virtues are dependent on God's commands, which doesn't make sense, so we must reject that His commands generate goodness (and inversely, wrongness). That's why Murphy separates God's commands from moral goodness and only relates His commands to obligation.

On another note, DCT theorists would probably deny the existence of intrinsic values. Instrumental values are contingent on the goodness they result in, and not the other way around, so they may be irrelevant to the topic. But I think virtues are intrinsically valuable, so I'm not sure how DCT theorists would reject intrinsic value.

Unknown said...

Dr. Pruss, what do you mean by can? Do you mean it is epistemologically possible for him to do so in the future, or that it is metaphysically possible for him to do it and have done it? Because I don't think that is metaphysically possible. All I take DCT as is God's will as sufficient and necessary for morality.

There could be some sense of an obligation, that it would be beautiful for God to never break his promises with us, and in which case he would be "obligated" to do so. It is metaphysically impossible for God to decrease the beauty in the world (every thing that exist) "God necessarily desires the most valuable thing" This is metaphysically necessary fact about his nature. Which types of value are grounded on what isn't entailed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If there is this kind of innate beauty in not breaking obligations, might that not be enough to ground the obligation for us to keep our promises, without needing a divine command?

More seriously, I am now inclined to think that promises are partly constituted by their obligation-generating force. A speech act that does not generate such force isn't even a promise. So, if God has no obligation, God can't make promises.

Unknown said...

Dr. Pruss, you state "If there is this kind of innate beauty in not breaking obligations, might that not be enough to ground the obligation for us to keep our promises, without needing a divine command?"

I would say no because in order to look at aesthetic value you have to look at how something stands in relation to other things, and the whole in relation to the parts. "There being beauty in not breaking obligations" isn't sufficient for God to do it, but God conceiving of a world where he does and does bot break obligations, and comparing each for aesthetic value would be the process behind this.

Notice I didn't say possible world, because only the most beautiful possible world is metaphysically possible.

Because it is incoherent to say that a being who seeks to increase the value in the world could decrease by acting. Hence why I reject moral value as being anything mind-independent. Because then it will lead to absurdities where you have a morally perfect agent decreasing moral value in the world.