Friday, April 16, 2021

Obedience to God out of gratitude

Some philosophers want to ground our duty to obey God’s commands in the need to show gratitude to God for all the goods God has done for us. I think there is something to that, but I want to point out a complication.

When someone has done something good for us, that generates moral reasons to do something good for them. But that is different from generating moral reasons to obey their commands. After all, being obeyed need not be good for the person issuing the commands. Imagine that you are on a ship along with someone who has already done many good things for you and your family. The ship is sinking. There is one last space left in a lifeboat. You start to push your benefactor into that space. Your benefactor interrupts: “Don’t! Get into it yourself!” In this case, it would be bad for your benefactor for you to obey their commmand, and obedience to this command would not, I think, be a right expression of gratitude. You might have other moral reasons to obey the command, such as that if someone is offering to make the ultimate sacrifice, you should not deprive them of that choice. But gratitude for past benefits is not a reason to obey your benefactor when your benefactor would not in fact benefit from your obedience.

So the mere fact that you are commanded something by your benefactor does not generate a gratitude-based reason for obedience. It is only when your benefactor would benefit from your obedience that such a reason is generated.

Now things get a little complicated in the case of God. It seems we cannot benefit God, as God has perfect beatitude. But as we learn from Aquinas’ discussion of love for God, it’s more complicated than that. There are internal and external benefits and harms a person might receive. Internal benefits and harms affect the person’s intrinsic properties in a positive way—think here of pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, etc. But there are external benefits and harms: when people speak badly about you behind your back, the loss of reputation is an external harm, even if you never find out about it and it never affects any intrinsic property of yours. Similarly, because friends are other selves, if x loves y, then benefits and harms to y are benefits and harms to x, albeit perhaps only external ones. Thus, we can benefit God by benefiting those that God loves, namely everyone.

So, when God commands us—as in fact he does—to love our neighbor, then our obedience to that command does benefit God, albeit externally. So it seems we do have a gratitude-based moral reason to do what God says. But notice that as far as the argument goes right now, that is not a reason to love our neighbor out of obedience to God. The reason to love our neighbor out of gratitude to God would remain even if God did not command us to love our neighbor.

But this isn’t the whole story. For, first, when we show gratitude to a benefactor by bestowing some internal or external benefits on them, gratitude seems to call on us to have a preference for bestowing those benefits that the benefactor asks us to bestow. Thus, the fact that some benefit to the benefactor is requested by the benefactor adds to the gratitude-based reasons for bestowing that benefit. And, second, it seems plausible that having one’s commands be obeyed is itself an external benefit—it is a way of being honored.

Thus, that God has commanded us to love our neighbor intensifies our reasons based on gratitude to God to love our neighbor. And even if God were to command something seemingly arbitrary and not in itself beneficial, like abstinence from pork, we externally benefit God insofar as we obey him. But in the latter case something stronger is needed than that: for the obedience to be a form of gratitude, it needs to be the case that on balance we benefit God through the obedience. That being obeyed is good as far as it goes does not show that being obeyed is on balance good. It is good as far as it goes for our benefactor to be obeyed when they say to go into the lifeboat, but it might actually on balance be better for them to be pushed into the lifeboat.

Thus there is a limit to how far this justification of divine authority goes. If we obey God out of gratitude, our reason for obedience cannot simply consist in the facts that God has commanded us and that God has bestowed great benefits on us. Our reason would also need to include the fact that on balance it bestows a benefit—an external one, to be sure—on God if we obey.

Is it the case that whenever God commands something, it always bestows a benefit on balance on God that we obey him? That initially sounds like a reasonable thesis, but we can easily imagine cases where it is not so. Consider cases where my disobedience to God would prevent massive disobedience by others. For instance, a malefactor offers me a strong temptation to disobey God, and tells me that if I refuse the temptation, then a thousand other people will be offered the same temptation, but if I give in, I will be the only one. Looking at how strong the temptation is, I conclude that if it’s offered to a thousand people, about 500 of them will succumb to it. Thus, if I obey God, there will be much less obedience of God in the world. Hence, my obedience to God actually leads to God being less honored and receiving less external benefit. But nonetheless I need to obey. Hence, the duty of obedience is not grounded in gratitude.

In summary: Normally, gratitude does give us moral reason to obey God. But if I am right, then the moral reason to obey God that comes from gratitude needs to include the assumption that it is good for God to be obeyed. And we can imagine cases where that assumption is false and yet obedience is still required.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, I am now wondering. Gratitude gives reason to honor *requests*, but perhaps gratitude does not give reason to honor *commands*.

I imagine this story. I am a sailor and my captain has done great things for me in the past. Now we are ashore, and the captain commands me to mow his lawn. I look up the relevant regulations and find that this command is not within the captain's authority. I have reasons of gratitude to mow the captain's lawn. But I do not have reasons to *obey* the captain's command, because it is an invalid command, and my owing gratitude to the captain does nothing to make it valid. Indeed, it seems to me that if the captain were to *request* that I mow his lawn, then I would have more of a gratitude-based reason to do it than if it were commanded.

nick hadsell said...

Hey Alex, 1-3 are my attempt at summarizing your argument and putting it in conversation with standard ways of thinking about obligations of gratitude. 4 is my (admittedly ad hoc) attempt at providing a solution to your worry.

1. When someone gives me a gift, that produces moral reasons to return something good to them (unless they particularly specify that I not do so, or they’re repaying me, or they have an inappropriate intention behind giving the gift, etc.). We also tend to have some sort of correlation between the value of the gift given to us and the good act we do in return. For example, if a friend gives me gum, I say thanks, but if she saves my life, I should plausibly do something higher in value to reflect my gratitude to her.

2. Something like this is plausibly going on between us and God. He has done many great things for us, and it seems we might owe him something in return, though the goodness of what we could do pales in comparison to what he’s done for us. Perhaps the only thing we can do to reflect our gratitude to him is totally submit ourselves to his authority over our lives.

3. As you mention, such submission is reflected in our love of neighbor, which certainly can benefit God externally. But the problem: “that is not a reason to love our neighbor out of obedience to God. The reason to love our neighbor out of gratitude to God would remain even if God did not command us to love our neighbor.” But what we want out of an account of divine authority is obedience required by God’s directives, not merely by just doing good to God.

4. Here’s a fix, albeit an ad hoc one: if God has divine authority via gratitude, then we’re morally obligated to do what we can to benefit him. This means we love our neighbor to benefit God, obey divine commands to benefit God, etc. Our actions don’t have to be on balance good to God, and we can account for this by way of deontic constraints upon our actions. So, in the case of saving 500 people from sinning, it’s not beneficial to God (in some way?) to prevent this by doing something immoral because doing so violates a deontic constraint on our action. This might not work, but I just want to flag that the on balance requirement appears to me to risk a utilitarian calculus of gratitude-transactions when I don’t think that’s required.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Bracketing some probability questions not relevant to this discussion, it seems to be irrational to do an action to benefit X when one knows that the action will in fact harm X. It would be like drinking salt water to relieve thirst when one knows that doing so will in fact make one more thirsty.

It seems to me that a necessary condition for an action to count as an appropriate gratitude-return is that the action on-balance benefit the benefactor. Suppose that Alice who lives under a repressive foreign regime has done something really good for the USA. Suppose that normally someone who has done that good thing gets a letter of thanks from the American embassy. But it is known that a letter of thanks from the American embassy would result in persecution from the repressive regime. In this case, the letter of thanks is not an appropriate gratitude-return.

If this is right, then obeying God in the case where this leads to more overall disobedience of God is not an appropriate gratitude-return. (I don't dispute that the obedience is still obligatory. But it's obligatory for other reasons than gratitude.)

nick hadsell said...

I think I'm just not following that appropriate gratitude-return requires an on-balance benefit to the benefactor. Gratitude might entail an agent-centered obligation to return good, and such agent-centered obligations don't entail having to do some bad actions to restrain others from doing them. This might result in suboptimal conditions, but I don't see this would mean an agent-centered obligation of gratitude wouldn't work.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And I in turn am having a very hard time seeing how an action that on balance *harms* the benefactor can count as an appropriate gratitude-return. It may be the right action, but it does not seem to be a gratitude-return.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking a bit more about this. I think it's not uncommon for parents to criticize their disobedient children for ingratitude. But in the case of parental commands, the following tend to go together:
- What the parent commands.
- What the parent wants to happen.
- What fits best with the parent's plan.
- What it benefits the parent to have happen.

The last item on the list is not primarily because the parent is being selfish in commanding, but because the parent's feelings are hurt by disobedience, the disobedience makes the parent worry about the child and the parent is dishonored by the disobedience.

When all four things--what is commanded, what is wanted, what fits with the plan and what benefits the commander--go together, then it's easy to see how gratitude leads to doing what is commanded.

But when these things come apart, I don't think obedience is a form of gratitude-return. For instance, suppose that Alice made some great sacrifice for her mother despite her mother telling her not to do it. Making the sacrifice contrary to the protests might be disrespectful, depending on the circumstances, but it surely isn't ungrateful. On the contrary, the sacrifice may be a gratitude-return even if it is not wanted.

For an extreme case, imagine that the parent commands a child to do something, but none of the three other conditions come together: the child knows the parent doesn't actually want the child to do it, it fits badly with the parent's plans, and it harms the parent. (Think of a case where the parent thinks that the thing commanded is good for the child, but it will be disproportionately costly for the parent if the child does it.) While I think the child may well still be obligated to do it, doing it does not look like a form of gratitude, and refraining from doing it does not look like a form of ingratitude.

Unknown said...

A short and sound argument:

(1) ∀x,y(Gx ∧ Gy ⇒ (x = y)) Premise
(2) Gj ∧ Gf ⇒ (j = f) Universal instantiation from 1
(3) j ≠ f Premise
(4) Gj ∧ Gf Premise
(5) j = f Modus ponens from (2) and (4)
(6) ∴ j = f ∧ j ≠ f A contradiction. Conjunction of (3) and (5)

(1) For all x, y if x is God and y is God then x is identical to y.
(2) If Jesus is God and the Father is God, then Jesus is is identical to the Father.
(3) Jesus is not identical to the Father.
(4) Jesus is God and the Father is God.
(5) Therefore, Jesus is identical to the Father.
(6) Therefore, Jesus is identical to the Father and Jesus is not identical to the Father.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Aquinas' answer is that there are two senses of identity: there is numerical identity of individual and numerical identity of form. In the case of creatures, the two senses of identity come to the same thing: x and y are the numerically same individual iff they have numerically the same form. But in the case of God, the two come apart. So, Aquinas will say that (1) is true with = meaning identity-of-form and (3) is true wtih = meaning identity-of-individual. As a result, the argument is invalid.

Unknown said...

1.Identity here refers to the relationship an object has to itself.There are no two distinct identity relations, there is one. If Aquinas is granting that the persons are not the same thing as each other, then he is a polytheist.

2. Also this doesn't entail the argument is invalid. I wrote the formal writing so it was clear that it is obviously valid by form. You're just saying a premise is false. Either 1 or 3 depending on what we mean by identity. That would be to say the argument is valid but unsound.

Unknown said...

Dr. Pruss, what do you have to say about identity here referring to the relationship an object has to itself and that there are no two distinct identity relations, there is one

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a fairly well-developed theory where identity is relative to a kind that lets one say things like "x is the same lump of clay as y but x is not the same statue as y." Relative identity theorists typically think "the relationship an object has to itself" doesn't refer to anything meaningful: there is such a thing as being the same lump as itself, being the same statue as itself, but no general relation of being the same object as itself, because "object" does not name a kind.

Aquinas's solution doesn't need a full-fledged relative identity theory, but only a theory where there are two kinds of identity: numerical identity of form and numerical identity of individual. Thus

Unknown said...

Relative identity is gibberish. It literally entails things aren't identical to themselves. They might be the same person but not the same father. It's not at all an explanation of our common sense notion of identity which is just the relation all objects hold to themselves.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that a logic that is most faithful to Thomistic metaphysics will not have a single overarching domain of quantification over "all objects". Instead, the logic will be a typed logic with multiple quantificational domains---there will, for instance, be substance quantification, and then for each substance there will be quantification over the accidents of that substance, and probably a much more stuff. In such a typed logic with multiple quantifiers, talk of "all objects" makes no sense, though one can talk of "all substances", "all the accidents of Socrates", etc.

I don't have nearly anything like all the details worked out. But roughly I think it will come out like this. There is an identity predicate. If x and y are names or variables of the same type, then "x=y" is grammatically permissible, and means something like "x and y are the same kindof('x')s" (where "kindof('x')" denotes the kind corresponding to the type of name or variable that x is). If x and y are names or variables of different types, then the semantics for "x=y" will be more complex. For certain combinations of types, "x=y" will automatically be false (e.g., if x is of type substance and y is of an accident type). But for other combinations of types, "x=y" can turn out to be true. And transitivity need not hold for "=" when we mix types.

Unknown said...

1. Dr. Pruss, I do not understand how that's gonna help us with the trinity. The context of the conversation was regarding the trinity. If what Aquinas is saying is that God is one simple substance, uncomposed of form and matter, or attributes, or whatever, then he needs to give an account of what it means to say he is 3 persons, if persons arent taken to be an individuates substance with set of cognitive faculties.

2. Neither greek nor latin conceptions of the trinity succeed in giving such an account without appealing to accidents.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If memory serves me, this book does a good job expositing Aquinas' account: Thomas Aquinas’s Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Trinitarian Method by Timothy L. Smith.