Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A divine intentional promotion account of duty

In my previous post, I argued against divine desire versions of divine command theory. Reflecting on that post, I saw that there is a simple variant of divine desire that helps with some of the problems in that post. Instead of saying that we ought to do what God desires us to do, the divine command theorist can say that:

  1. We have a duty to ϕ (respectively, not to ϕ) if and only if God is intentionally trying to get us to ϕ (respectively, not to ϕ).

On this picture, God doesn’t just “sit around” and wish for our actions: God intentionally promotes some of our actions and obstructs others. He does this in a multitude of ways: by commanding, by creating us with a human nature that inclines us towards some actions and against others, by inspiring us with his grace, and more generally by intentionally putting us in an environment that encourage or discourages certain actions. An advantage of this view is that it allows for divine commands to be constituted by a plausibly broad variety of divine actions.

One of the problems I raised in the previous post for divine desire theories of duty was the problem of conflicting divine desires. Even a perfectly rational being can have conflicting desires. It is perfectly rational to desire a medical procedure one knows to be painful while desiring not to have pain. Thus there is a serious possibility of conflicting desires on the part of God. This possibility is raised to the level of likelihood when we reflect on the fact that God is said to bring greater goods out of the evils we do, which makes for a likely conflict between God’s desire for these goods and God’s desire that we not perform the evils.

But while a perfectly rational being can have conflicting desires, it is plausible that a perfectly rational being does not have conflicting intentions. A perfectly rational being may desire A and not-A, but he won’t be intentionally promoting both. (Of course, a perfectly rational being may intentionally promote both A and B despite the fact that promoting A makes B less likely. But that doesn’t seem to raise particular difficulties for the intentional promotion account of duty, though I could be missing something.)

My second worry about divine desire theories was cases where our action goes against God’s desires but leads to God’s desires being on the whole better satisfied, such as when our succumbing to temptation keeps a large number of people untempted. I suggested that it is a loving thing to go against someone’s desires when doing so better promotes their desires on the whole. Here, I think there are subtle and difficult issues, but I think the same worry does not apply to the intentional promotion view. Suppose that Bob is intentionally trying to produce A and B. Alice, however, correctly judges that B is more important than A to Bob, and that intentionally acting directly against A will better get Bob what she wants. So she opposes Bob with respect to A in order to produce B. There are cases where this is perfectly appropriate. But I think these are all cases where Alice has a certain kind of superiority to Bob, say because she is Bob’s parent and hence has authority over him, or because she is much smarter than Bob. When Alice and Bob are equals, for Alice to intentionally act against A is not a proper act of love. It is either an act of enmity or at best an act of improper paternalism. (One might think something similar is true in the case of desires, but I doubt it. See the gift example in my previous post.) And this is much more so the case when Bob is Alice’s superior, as God is ours in every respect.

Love seeks union. To oppose oneself to one’s beloved’s intentions is innately contrary to that union. Sometimes love will make such opposition appropriate when the person we love is confused in some way (while love seeks union, union is only one of multiple aspects of love, and sometimes the other aspects may take precedence). But God is superior to us in every respect. Thus it seems plausible that love for God will never require us to oppose God’s intentions. But it may well require us to oppose some of God’s desires, because God’s desires themselves oppose one another, since an all-good being desires all goods, and the goods conflict (thus, God’s desire to exhibit forgiveness to creatures conflicts with God’s desire that creatures not do anything that needs to be forgiven).

Indeed, I think if we have a divine intentional promotion account of duty, there is hope that we may be able to ground moral duty in something virtue-theoretic, like Evans’ account that the virtue of gratitude calls on us to obey God—for it is fairly plausible that gratitude to a being superior in all respects calls on us to further that being’s intentions—or a love account.

Here are some interesting and nice corollaries of the view:

  1. There are no true moral dilemmas, because God’s intentions do not conflict.

  2. If to tempt someone is to try to get them to do the wrong thing, then God cannot tempt anyone (James 1:13), since if God were to try to get someone to do something, that would ipso facto be the right thing to do.

  3. God cannot intentionally unconditionally predestine anyone to damnation. For he who intends the end intends the means, and the means to damnation is sin, and God cannot intend sin.

  4. Abraham did not have a duty to sacrifice Isaac, but only a duty to prepare to sacrifice Isaac. For God has no intention that he sacrifice Isaac.

On the other hand, here is an uncomfortable consequence:

  1. God cannot intentionally promote a supererogatory action. For any action intentionally promoted by God becomes not supererogatory but a duty.

Perhaps we can say that sometimes God’s promotion of an action doesn’t come with the intention that one do the action but that one be more likely to do it, and that’s what happens in the case of supererogation? If that subtle distinction works, then we can turn a disadvantage of the theory into a significant advantage—for being able to account for supererogation is a serious challenge to many theories of morality.

Finally what about God’s duties? We have two options. First, we could say that (1) is limited to creatures, and God has no duties. Second, we could say that (1) applies to God as well. In that case, every time God intentionally does anything, God is fulfilling his duty, since if God intentionally ϕs, God is thereby intentionally (and in a very strong way) promoting his ϕing. Neither option is appealing. Perhaps the first one is better. In any case, questions about divine duties are always going to be tricky for a divine command theory.

All that said, I don’t endorse the theory. I much prefer a love theory or a natural law theory.

No comments: