Monday, January 30, 2017

Normative powers and theism

There’s a curious puzzle for the following conjunction of views:

  1. theism
  2. normative power account of promises.

To introduce the puzzle, think about making baskets. I have the power to make a (pretty shoddy, I expect) basket come into existence. I would exercise the power by going to the river, gathering reeds and weaving them together. But God can directly make the basket come into existence, simply by willing it to exist. The point generalizes: all the things I can make exist, God can simply make exist by willing them to exist.

On the normative power account of promises, by going up to a friend and promising to dance a jig, I make an obligation for myself come into existence. So God can simply will my obligation to dance a jig into existence.

But that seems wrong. Of course, God can bring it about that I am obligated to dance a jig. God has a myriad of ways of doing so. God can, for instance, make a rich person inform me that if and only if I dance a jig, she’ll give a million dollars to a good cause. Or God can simply issue a command to me to dance a jig. But the idea that God can simply will the obligation into existence seems wrong. That would imply that there is a world just like this one, differing only in respects like: (a) God wills that I be obligated to dance a jig, (b) I am obligated to dance a jig and (c) I ignorantly fail in that obligation. That just doesn’t seem right. (The world where God commands me to dance a jig is different: it is essential to a command that it be expressed to the person being commanded.)

Well, but in a sense there are some things God can’t bring about simply by willing them, even though we can. For instance, I can bring into existence a hand-made basket. But God can’t bring a hand-made basket into existence simply by willing it, because the concept of a hand-made basket precludes it being brought into existence in any way but by hand. So our principle that God can directly bring into existence anything we can bring into existence needs to be qualified to exclude things whose description specifies something about how they are brought into existence. (If essentiality of origins holds, then things whose description include de re reference may be like that.)

But obligation to dance a jig doesn’t seem to be like that. It doesn’t seem to carry reference to how it’s brought about, in the way that hand-made basket does. There are multiple ways an obligation to dance a jig can come about, e.g., promises, authority and consequences.

I think a natural law approach has a nice escape from this. Suppose it is a part of the concept of an obligation that it be partly constituted by the nature of the obligated entity. Then God can’t just directly bring about obligations by willing them into existence. He would have to bring about an entity with a particular nature. God could bring it about that an agent is obligated to jig, but he would have to do it either by working through general norms grounded in the agent’s nature (say, by issuing commands if the agent has a nature that requires her to obey) or by creating an agent with a particular sort of nature, say a nature that strives to jig.

And divine command theories also don't have any problem: God commands us to keep promises, and that's all there is to that. There is, however, a difficult question there about the grounds of God's obligation to keep promises.

Should a non-theist care at all about what I said? I think so. Even if there were no God, the thought experiment of God simply willing the normative fact seems illuminating. It suggests that normative facts aren’t just be free-floating facts to be brought about by “normative powers”.

1 comment:

Michael Gonzalez said...

It seems relevant to me that "obligations" are not objects.... Your initial example, and the principle that you stated generally both have to do with objects which I can make and which God can will into existence. An obligation is not a thing. It describes a state of affairs which must (at the very least) include my having the capacity to jig, and one of the available sorts of obliging relations existing between myself and someone else.

Now, as you indicated, God COULD "bring this obligation to jig into existence" (to use the metaphor you're using in this post) on Voluntarism, but I think there are insurmountable problems with Voluntarism.