Monday, June 26, 2017

Command ethics

I think one of the most powerful objections to divine command theory is MacIntyre’s question as to which divine attributes make it be the case that the obligatory is what God commands. It’s not God’s creating us: for imagine a naturalistic universe where a crazy scientist creates people—surely the crazy scientist’s commands do not constitute obligations. It’s not God’s being omnipotent—that just seems irrelevant. Omniscience also doesn’t seem to help. Etc.

Here’s a theory that just occurred to me which avoids this problem:

  • the obligatory is what is validly commanded by someone.

This is a command theory instead of a divine command theory. The difficulty with this theory is giving an account of a valid command that does not proceed by saying that a valid command is one that it is obligatory to obey. Perhaps, though, one could suppose that there is a fundamental property of non-derivative authority (actually, a relational property: non-derivative authority over x with respect to R) that some persons have. For instance, God has this property in a very broad and non-derivative way, but God might not be the only one (maybe parents have it with respect to children, and governments with respect to people). This theory solves the MacIntyre problem with divine command theory. And while there is a cost to having a primitive account of non-derivative authority, there is some reason to think that even if we grounded obligations in something other than commands, we might still have to take non-derivative authority to be primitive.

Of course, without God the command theory is just implausible: clearly there are ordinary obligations we have that do not come from the commands of other ordinary persons.

I certainly don’t endorse the theory. But it’s worth thinking about, and in particular it’s worth thinking whether it’s not superior to divine command theory.


Brandon said...

Basing divine command theory on a more general command ethics is historically the standard divine command theorist view; it's the view of William Warburton in The Divine Legation of Moses, for instance, and you can't get more divine-command-theorist than Warburton. Most divine command theorists have been legal positivists of one form or another, taking the obligatory to be based on sanction by a consistent power to compel. (Thus in the divine case, they would regard omnipotence, which is a supreme and unevadable power of sanction, as the feature making divine commands authoritative.) Your point about implausibility is even flipped by Warburton as part of his argument that atheists cannot consistently hold that morality involves obligations, because they recognize no power of sanction capable of obligating at that level.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I didn't know that. Very interesting.

SMatthewStolte said...

Leibniz has a decent argument against a command theory of obligation in part IV of “Opinion on the Principles of Pufendorf” (1706). Admittedly, it probably isn’t the best version of the command theory out there, but it’s interesting, and part IV is only about three pages long.

Jo F said...

What do you think of Rob Adams' theory that the good is defined by what conforms most to God's nature?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I find the ontology plausible, given that God is the good itself.