Friday, January 17, 2020

Divine command theory and atheism

Suppose that the captain impersonates an admiral and yells: “Turn hard to starboard!” The sailors ought to turn hard to starboard and the captain had the authority to command them this. But nonetheless the captain has failed to issue a valid order. For in order to issue a valid order, the captain needs to make herself heard as the captain. The sailors’ obligation to turn to starboard is not a command-obligation but rather is an obligation of conscience to do what one believes, correctly or not, to be the commands of legitimate authority. A sailor who refused to turn would be acting badly, but would not be disobeying an order: she wouldn’t be disobeying the captain’s order, since the captain did not order anything qua captain, or the admiral’s order, since the admiral didn’t order anything.

The same thing would be true, though perhaps less clearly, if the admiral impersonated the captain and told the crew to turn to starboard. The admiral had the authority to issue the order (or so I assume), but to do that she would have to have made herself heard as the admiral.

Similarly, if the captain is a telepath and induces in the helmsman a strong moral belief that he should turn the ship to starboard, no order has been issued to the helmsman. If the helmsman refuses to turn, he is disobeying conscience but he is not disobeying the captain.

Now, consider the command version of the divine command theory: God’s commands (rather than will) define moral obligation. Now we have a prima facie problem with atheists. The atheist believes in an obligation to refrain from stealing, but is not aware of it as a divine command. Therefore, it seems that no command has been validly issued to the atheist: the case seems relevantly like that of the telepath captain. Thus it follows that on the command version of the divine command theory, the atheist has no obligations.

This was a bit too quick, however. For a promulgation condition on commands that requires actual cognitive uptake is too strong. If the captain is yelling orders as captain but the helmsman has deliberately plugged her ears so as not to hear the orders, the helmsman’s failure to hear does not impugn the validity of the orders.

But suppose instead that the helmsman is hard of hearing due to a recent explosion, and the captain whispers the order while knowing the helmsman won’t hear it. In this case, the order is invalid. It seems, roughly, that if the captain could easily make the command heard as her command but does not do so, and the failure to hear it as her command is not something the other party is antecedently at fault for, then the command is invalid.

Now, it seems that there are atheists who are not at fault for their atheism, and whose failure to hear divine commands as divine commands is not something they are at fault for. But God could easily (everything is easy to an omnipotent being) make them hear them as such. So, on the command version of divine command theory, these atheists have never been validly commanded, and hence have no obligations—which is clearly false.

Maybe I will get some pushback on the claim that there are atheists who are not at fault for atheism. Let’s consider, then, the case of Alice, a life-long atheist who is at fault for her atheism and who was never aware of any divine command as a divine command. Then, at some point t1 of time, Alice did the first thing that made her be at fault for her atheism and/or her failure to be aware of divine commands as divine commands. Perhaps an argument for theism was being offered to her by Bob, but she refused to listen to Bob out of racism.

Now to be at fault, you have to culpably do something wrong. And, according to divine command theory, the wrong is always a violation of a (valid) divine command. So, at t1, Alice’s action was the violation of a valid divine command. But at t1, Alice wasn’t aware of the command as one from God, since we’ve assumed that Alice was never aware of any divine command as a divine command. And Alice’s failure to be aware of the command as one from God was not due to any antecedent fault of hers, since we have assumed that t1 is the time of Alice’s first action that made her be at fault with respect to this failure.

Thus, it seems that the divine command theorist who takes the command part of the theory seriously has to say that those who are now atheists are atheists because they disobeyed a command from God which they were aware of as a command from God. This is deeply implausible. It is way more implausible than the already not very plausible response to the hiddenness argument that says that all atheists are morally guilty for their atheism.

But perhaps we want to distinguish epistemic from moral fault, and say that a command can still be valid if it fails to be heard due to an epistemic fault that the commander could have easily overcome, even when that epistemic fault does not correspond to a moral one. I do not think this is plausible. Being unable to parse complex sentences might be an epistemic fault. But if I issue a complex command to someone I know to be incapable of parsing such complex sentences, when I could easily have used a simpler sentence with the same content, I do not validly command.


Brandon said...

I'm not sure how this argument is supposed to work, since it seems to get its conclusion by taking divine command theory, which is a purely positivist theory of obligation, and adding assumptions that would require a theory of obligation that is not purely positivist. Given an account of divine authority to command, and the act of commanding, the divine command theorist doesn't need a further criterion for what counts as a valid command; the whole point of the theory is that the moral obligation just is a command from an authority of universal scope.

Nor do I think someone with a purely positivist account of obligation needs to agree with your analysis of the initial scenarios. If pretending to be an admiral doesn't make the captain a non-captain, and if it does not make what would ordinarily be a command a non-command, then he's still the captain of the ship and has still given a command within the scope of his authority, and the impersonation ipso facto does not change that. Nor does this seem at all unreasonable on positivist assumptions. The state legislature doesn't even have to inform me of its laws for me to be bound by them, in the positivist sense of being subject to sanction with regard to them; all it has to do is pass them in such a way that they could in principle be known. If the state legislature has passed a law and someone doesn't know it, it doesn't change anything about the obligation. If the state legislature has passed a law and, as often happens with corporate law, many people don't have the legal background to understand it, they are still obligated by it, and are subject to judgment and sanction under it. Not realizing that you are in the territory of a country you've never heard of doesn't exempt you from its laws. Innocent ignorance might be taken into account in actual judgment and sanction; but that's all downstream of the obligation itself.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I was thinking that an invalid command is not a command, just as an invalid contract is not a contract. And there are necessary conditions for a speech act to be a (valid) command, such as a reasonable expectation of being heard.

We do have laxer promulgation conditions on laws than on commands, I agree. But nonetheless the right account of laws will still have serious and non-trivial promulgation conditions. There are no secret laws. A legislature can vote that I am required to take the trash out of the legislature, but if that is never announced, then I am not bound by it, and it's not a law.

Admittedly, the promulgation conditions on laws don't require that I know about the law in order that I be bound by it. But they do require that a reasonable person would find out about it in relevant circumstances. If that's right, then divine command theory requires that all non-theists are unreasonable.

But perhaps we should take your suggestion to be this: Form the concept of a command*, which is like a command but we don't build in all the normative stuff about validity, but just something linguistic about its being an imperative speech act. We have divine command* theory: moral obligations are nothing but the contents of divine commands*.

Note, however, that even when we don't build in all the normative stuff about validity, we aren't home free. There are non-trivial conditions involved in just being a speech act. For instance, right now I can't whisper to you that 2+2=4. I can whisper that 2+2=4, but it won't be a whisper _to you_, because I am sufficiently practically certain that you won't hear me. To whisper _to you_, I need to think that you have a chance of hearing me.

Moreover, to command* you, I not only need an epistemic possibility that you hear me, but that you hear me commanding* you.

In particular, this means that if God knows for sure that Bertrand Russell won't hear him commanding* in a divine speech act X, then X is not a command* to Bertrand Russell.

Admittedly, no doubt Bertrand Russell heard his conscience. But he didn't hear the conscience commanding or commanding*, since he presumably didn't hear it as an agent that speaks.

Brandon said...

Divine command theorists are not generally going to see much difference between laws and commands, I think -- after all, the obvious examples of things they are usually talking about are in fact law, which they usually have taken to be just the relevantly general command of an authority with a relevantly general scope (historically understood as a general power to judge and sanction, although more modern versions sometimes have more complicated accounts of what authority to command is). The only validity issues in general are whether it is in fact, as you say, an imperative speech act, and whether person giving it has the relevant authority. It's an entirely source-side theory of obligation (as positivist accounts of obligations often are).

Natural law theorists, who in a sense take obligation to be based on shared reason and thus cannot be purely source-side theorists, hold that there can be no secret laws in a fairly strong sense; while there's no doubt some kinds of secrecy that are simply inconsistent with divine command theory (ruling out the imperative or the authority), the positivism of the theory would only rule out those limited kinds. The legislature example is a good example here: the legislature has to announce the law, but that usually only means that they have to enter it as a law in their public legislative record -- they don't have to announce it to *you*. Nor does being bound by it actually require that you personally have access to the public legislative record. The legislature is not required to make it easy for you. Before digital systems, most people would only be able to access such archives if they had access to a library that archived it, or, indirectly, by being informed by someone who did have access to the record somehow. For a very barebones divine command theory without any bells and whistles, this would be the way moral obligation works: yes, God announces it, and in fact He announced it -- He sent prophets who could be consulted on the matter. Thus the law was entered into record. That there are atheists who don't know the law as law is no different from the fact that there are people who grow up not not learning the law as law (most of us most of the time, in fact); it doesn't affect the status of the law itself, although there may be good reason sometimes to take such ignorance into account in actual judgment and sanction. The same thing happens, mutatis mutandis, if the divine command theorist is one of those who takes conscience to be a record of divine commands.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But a theory of law that is so positivistic is a bad theory of law, because laws are there to guide the reasonable deliberations of the governed. :-)

In other words, what we're coming to is this: divine command theory either leaves atheists unbound or requires a bad theory of law.

As for public legislative record, I think it's fairly complicated. There are laws that govern the common day-to-day activities of everybody, and by and large ordinary folk know the relevant ones, either because these laws coincide with moral laws (do not steal), or because their parents have told them about them (cross the road in the correct place), etc. Then there are laws that govern "special" activities, such as driving, transporting explosives, teaching, etc. Normally, when one engages in one of these special activity, either common sense suggests to the reasonable person that it's one of those activities where one should inquire what the governing laws are (e.g., transporting explosives) or one has an employer or a master one is apprenticed to who informs one (e.g., teaching) or everyone knows that this is a case where one has to learn the laws (e.g., driving).

Indeed, I think it is reasonable to say that laws that are not really promulgated are an invitation to injustice through highly selective enforcement. (After all, full-scale enforcement results in promulgation.) Sometimes, I suspect that what is going on is that the legislature knows there would be a big outcry about the law if it were public and enforced. In that case, I think it's reasonable to say that they don't really mean it (or only mean it in some special cases).

Brandon said...

Well, yes, I think it's very safe to say that divine command theory either leaves atheists unbound or is not a natural law theory. :-)

By and large people know the basic day-to-day laws, but, as your examples suggest, in general they don't know them from the legislative register that promulgates them, but from things like testimony. In the U.S., actually, even most lawyers don't usually know federal laws from the (often very complicated) Statutes at Large entered into the Congressional Register that actually promulgates them as laws but from the U.S. Code, which is just the summary made by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel attached to the House of Representatives; except for cases of deliberate codification (where Congress tries to simplify a complicated portion of law by just officially replacing it with the U.S. Code summary of it) or where lawyers go back to the source in hopes of finding some nuance that didn't make it into the U.S. Code, few people outside of the Office of Law Revision Counsel even look at the actual promulgation. It has to be promulgated, but once promulgated, we take it to be in effect and leave the rest just to ordinary communication; if someone developed the idea, even by some reasonable path, that (for instance) they had no obligation to pay taxes to the government, or that there was no legitimate government to pay their taxes to, they would still be judged and punished for not paying their taxes, because we would usually still take the law to be in effect. Since divine command theory allows a completely unified theory of obligation (as opposed to necessarily two-tier theories of obligation like natural law theory that split moral law from positive law), divine command theorists can treat moral obligations exactly like we normally treat legal obligations on this point. Atheism, in the context of morality, is like the sovereign citizen movement; but divine command theorists usually hold a view of moral obligations as applied to atheists that's similar to how ordinary citizens usually see the laws as applied to members of the sovereign citizen movement.