bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 6: Arbitrariness and Normative Impotence

Here, again, are the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
I have written five parts in this series about the Euthyphro Dilemma, the overarching aim of which has been to show that the dilemma provides the basis of a decisive objection to the metaethical divine command theory (MDCT). In previous posts, I have explained what must be done to establish this:
(A)  Show that the two options of the dilemma are mutually exclusive. (This was accomplished in Part 1)
(B) Show the two options are exhaustive (i.e., that these are the only options available) (This was accomplished in Part 4.
(C) Show that both options imply devastating problems for metaethical divine command theory.

i. Show that option (I) implies that MDCT is false. (This was accomplished in Parts 1 and 4[1]).

ii. Show that there are serious and devastating problems associated with option (II) which (individually or collectively) indicate that MDCT is false.

In defense of claim (Cii), I have said that option (II) just is the MDCT and that there are four problems associated with it:
(1) The contingency problem
(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem
(3) The arbitrariness problem
(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
In Part 5, I looked in detail at problems (1) and (2) and argued that, while these are serious problems, an objection to MDCT based on them is not decisive. In this current post, I will examine problems (3) and (4) and argue that an objection to MDCT based on them is decisive.
Problem (3): The Arbitrariness Problem
In Part 4, I described the arbitrariness problem as follows:

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.”

Defenders of divine command theory have attempted to address this problem in two distinct ways. Some divine command theorists argue that God’s commands are grounded in (or are expressions of) God’s essential nature. In his contribution to the volume, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough, William Lane Craig, for example, says,

On the theistic view, God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. (Garcia and King, 30)

Let’s call this response to the arbitrariness problem, the Essential Divine Nature response (EDN). Other divine command theorists offer a response that is importantly different from EDN. This second response involves using the distinction between axiological value and deontic value. Those who rely on this response emphasize that MDCT is a theory specifically of deontic moral value rather than a theory of all moral value. Given this, they claim, the axiological value of actions can provide God with reasons for his commands. Let’s call this response the Axiological Value response (AV). I will evaluate these responses separately.
EDN does not resolve the problem because is not actually a response to the arbitrariness problem, but to the contingency problem. Thinking that it is a response to the arbitrariness problem is a result of failing to properly distinguish these two problems. I made this point in Part 2 of this series using the following example:

Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.

That Craig, for one, confuses the problem of arbitrariness and the problem of contingency is made clear in his response to the criticisms (printed in the volume mentioned above) of his position that were offered by Louise Antony and William Sinnot-Armstrong:

The arbitrariness horn of the dilemma . . . is avoided by rejecting voluntarism in favor of God’s commands being necessary expressions of his nature.
. . .
God’s commands are not arbitrary in the sense that he could have commanded the opposite of what he did command.” (Garcia and King, 173)

The worry that God could have commanded the opposite of what he did command is not the same as the worry that his commands are not grounded in reasons. The former is the contingency problem, and while this problem is addressed via the claim that God has his nature essentially, as my comments above (from Part 2) demonstrate, that commands are expressions of an essential nature does not imply that those commands are grounded in reasons
Given the confusion between the arbitrariness problem and the contingency problem that this response involves, EDN is hopeless as a response to the arbitrariness problem. Let’s turn, then, to the second sort of response, AV. As I have indicated, AV claims that the axiological value of actions provides God with reasons for his commands. Baggett and Walls offer a version of this response in their Good God:

If “God is good” is true both as a predication and identity, a typical reason that God issues the commands he does is that the actions he commands are good. (Baggett and Walls, 126)

In his God and Moral Obligation, C. Stephen Evans offers a very similar response to the arbitrariness problem:

Restricting the account to moral obligations allows the defender of DCT to escape the dilemma implicit in the Euthyphro question. If asked, “Are moral obligations duties because God commands them?” the proponent of DCT answers yes. However, this does not imply that God’s commands are arbitrary. God’s commands are aimed at the good and therefore are certainly not arbitrary. (Evans 90)

A common way of responding to AV is to point out that if God has reasons for his commands, then these reasons will also be reasons for us to do what he commands and so his commands are superfluous. I discussed this issue in some detail in Parts 2 and 3, so I will not do so here. Instead, I want to consider a different but related issue.
Let’s begin by noting that there seems to be no reason to command things that are merely good. It is good to buy flowers for your mother on her birthday, but this does not seem to be a reason to command that you do so. For a command to be reasonable, it seems more is required than that the commanded action is good.
Of course, the DCT theorist can point out that she is not relying on mere goodness but on axiological value, which, it is plausible to suppose, comes in degrees other than simple goodness and badness. Some acts have higher/more or lower/less axiological value than others and it is only those acts that have very high positive axiological value that God has reason to command that we perform and only those that have very negative axiological value (or value lower than some threshold) that God has reason to command that we not perform.
But once this point is made, it becomes plausible that God’s commands would be superfluous. If some action is so (axiologically) bad that God has reason to command that we not engage in it, then, it seems, its badness is enough to give us reasons to not engage in it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command. And if some action is so (axiologically) good that God has reason to command that we perform it, then its goodness is enough to give us reasons to perform it, which reasons are prior to and independent of God’s command.
The DC theorist must push back against this argument; she must insist that axiological value alone is not sufficient to ground moral obligations. On MDCT a divine command is necessary for making an action morally obligatory. This can be true only it divine commands add something normatively significant. Thus, MDCT is only viable if commands are not normatively impotent. In other words, the response to the arbitrariness problem we’ve been evaluating succeeds only if there is an adequate response to problem (4).
To get a better sense of this, let’s consider a specific action, say a gratuitous pummeling of Carl. Call this act, Pc. Let’s consider the act in two different contexts. Context 1 (C1), in which Pc is committed when there is no divine command to not commit it; context 2 (C2), in which Pc is committed when there is a divine command to not commit it.
On the view we are currently considering, Pc has axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc, but these axiological properties are not sufficient to make it the case that it is morally obligatory to refrain from committing Pc. Importantly, Pc has the same axiological properties in C1 as in C2. This must be the case if these axiological properties are to provide God with reason(s) to command that we not commit Pc. For the axiological properties to provide God with reasons, it must be that these axiological properties are prior to and independent of any divine command with respect to Pc. Thus, Pc has these axiological properties even in contexts when there is no divine command with respect to Pc.
The axiological properties of Pc, we can assume, include not just the intrinsic value (positive or, more likely, negative) of the act itself, but also the axiological properties of the consequences of Pc. Thus, it is reasonable to assume, the axiological properties that provide God with reasons to command that we not commit Pc include the negative value of Pc intrinsic to the act itself, and the negative value of the consequences of Pc. Let’s use the designation ‘VPc’ to refer to the total axiological value of Pc (it’s intrinsic value and the value of its consequences) The view under consideration has it that VPc (or some subset of VPc) provides God with reason(s) to command that we not commit, Pc but that the entirety of VPc is not sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from committing Pc.
The defender of MDCT can acknowledge that VPc  provides reason(s) for us to refrain from committing Pc; she must maintain only that any such reasons do not make it the case that we are morally obligated to refrain from Pc (since only a divine command can make an action morally obligatory).
For this to be the case, God’s command with respect to Pc must add something of normative significance that is not otherwise present. Another way of saying this is that MDCT implies that C2 contains something of normative significance that C1 lacks, namely the command of God to refrain from committing Pc. But for this to be so, divine commands must be normatively significant. I will now attempt to show that they cannot be.
Problem (4): The normative impotence of commands
Here is what I wrote about this problem in Part 4:

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

The DCT gets its plausibility from two consideration: first, since God is perfect, he will only command us to do what he has good reason to command that we do; second, that, as the creator of all that is, we owe obedience to him. But to understand the problem with option (II) we must think very carefully about the contribution (if any) that God’s commands make to the deontic status of an action. This means that we need to isolate the commandedness (so to speak) of an action from other features, such as that there are good reasons for God to command it or that we are obligated to do it in virtue of being obligated to obey God. The effort to isolate the commandedness is what lies behind the call to consider obviously arbitrary commands.
Consider the possibility that God commands that we floss our teeth in the morning rather than the evening, so that the act of flossing in the morning has the property of being commanded by God. How could this factor make a contribution to the deontic status of flossing in the morning? Could this fact make any contribution? Arguments against DCT that are based in the Euthyphro dilemma capitalize on the intuition that no command could make such an act morally obligatory. But it is worth exploring the basis of this intuition. Why is it that the bare commandedness of such an act cannot make a contribution to its deontic status?
The answer to this question has to do with the fact that commands are the acts of rational beings and that rational beings act (at least frequently) on the basis of reasons. We can only understand a speech act as a command if we presuppose that the commander takes him or herself to have reasons to issue the command. A command is a directive to some person or persons that they engage in some action or course of action. A command has a subject—the person(s) to whom the directive is issued—and an object—the performance of the specified action (or course of action) by the subject. To take oneself to have reasons to issue a command is to take it that there are features of the object that count in favor of issuing the command. (This point is directly related to what I have previously called the action feature constraint. See Part 2.) In other words, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are features of the subject’s performance of the specified action that count in favor of directing this person to perform this action. But to say that there are features of the subject’s performance of the action that count in favor of that performance is just to say that there are reasons for the subject to perform the action. Thus, when a person issues a command, she takes it that there are reasons that count in favor of the subject’s performance of the specified action.
A defender of option (II) can accept this much. What she must say, however, is that the features of the object of the command (the subject’s performance of the specified action) that count in favor of the subject’s performing (or refraining from performing) the specified action do not make it morally obligatory (or morally wrong) for the subject to perform the action. Saying otherwise would contradict claim (II). If so, then a divine command must add something of normative force to the reasons that exist prior to the command. That is, a defender of (II) must assert:

(DC-Add) A divine command that some subject, S, perform act A adds something of normative significance to the reasons for S to A.

Before explaining why DC-Add is false, I want to distinguish between two types of reasons. As I used the term above, the object of a command is the subject’s performance of the specified action. Thus, an object-given reason is a feature of an action that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action. A command-given reason is any feature of a command (or the issuance of a command by a commander) that counts in favor of some subject’s performance of the action.
So, if there are object-given reasons for the commander to issue the command, then there are reasons for the subject of the command to perform the specified act. Importantly, a command itself cannot be one of the features of the object that counts in favor of issuing the command. This is because the features that count in favor of the command must be prior to the command. This just means that the fact that an action is commanded by God is not an object-given reason to perform the action.
One more bit of terminology: I will use the expression “reasons already present” to refer to the reasons that there are to perform a specific action (in a given context) and that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands.
Option (II) (and, hence, MDCT) implies that God’s commands add something normatively significant to the reasons already present. But examples that involve arbitrary commands or horrible commands show that a command, by itself, cannot add to the reasons that are already present. A command that we torture an infant cannot add or subtract to the reasons already present to refrain from torturing an infant. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot add to the reasons (or, rather, lack of reasons) already present. A command to do something that we have no reason to do cannot change the fact that we have no reason to do it. Thus, examples involving arbitrary commands and horrible commands show that DC-Add is false. In the case of an arbitrary command, there are no object-given reasons to perform the action. If we agree that the arbitrary command does not make it obligatory to perform the action, we are agreeing that the command does not add anything of normative significance to the object-given reasons. But this just means that, in the case of an arbitrary command, there are no command-given reasons. In the case of a horrible command, there are object-given reasons to refrain from performing the action. The command does nothing to change this. And so, the command adds nothing of normative significance. But, again, this just means that, in the case of horrible commands, there are no command-given reasons.
The reasoning from the above consideration about arbitrary and horrible commands to the rejection of DC-Add is as follows: If a divine command added something of normative significance, then even arbitrary commands and horrible commands would add something normatively significant. But neither arbitrary nor horrible commands add anything normatively significant. So, it is false that divine commands add something normatively significant.
A defender of (II) might want to insist that while arbitrary commands and horrible commands add nothing of normative significance, when there are object-given reasons to perform some action, a divine command does add something of significance. But such a view is untenable. To evaluate the claim that divine commands add something of normative significance, we have to isolate whatever normative force might be contributed by a divine command. And this requires considering commands in isolation from the normative force of other considerations (such as object-given reasons). When we isolate the contribution of divine commands (as we can when we consider arbitrary and horrible commands), we find that they make no normative contribution whatsoever.
Consider: If a divine command made a normative contribution, then in a situation in which there are no object-given reasons to perform an action (or one in which the object-given reasons that count in favor of performance are exactly balanced by object-given reasons that count against performance) a divine command to perform the action, in virtue of making any normative contribution whatsoever, would be enough to tip the balance of reasons and thus make it the case that the action is morally obligatory. But a divine command cannot do this.
There are no object-given reason to utter the sentence “The cute kitty cat came walking and sleeping and uttering utter nonsense last Tuesday evening at sunrise and bit the orange dog’s corpus callosum in the banana tree” once a month, every second Monday at 5:00 am. Nor does there seem to be any reason not to do so.[2] A divine command to utter this sentence cannot make it the case that it is morally obligatory to do so. This implies that a divine command to utter this sentence makes no normative contribution whatsoever. If divine commands made a normative contribution, then since there are neither object-given reasons that count in favor of nor object-given reasons that count against performing the action (and thus the balance of reasons is precisely neutral), a divine command could make it obligatory to utter the sentence. Since a divine command cannot do so; and this just means that the command itself cannot add to the reasons already present. So, a divine command would not add anything of normative significance.
At this point you might be thinking that there are social contexts in which a (non-divine) command can give a person reason to perform some action, which reason is not present prior to the command. When a commanding officer in the military, for example, gives an order, his subordinates are obligated to obey. And, arguably, children are obligated to obey when their parents tell them to do something. So, when a military officer commands that his subordinate perform some action, the subordinate has, just in virtue of that order, reason to perform the act (which reason was not present prior to and independent of the command). Thus, we might be tempted to say, given that we are obligated to obey God, when God issues a command, that command adds to our reasons, i.e., it provides additional reason(s) that were not present prior to the command.
This response will not help MDCT. The response just outlined assumes that, just as a subordinate is obligated to obey his or her commanding officer, we are obligated to obey God. But such general obligations (to obey superior officers or to obey God) exist prior to and independent of any command. The source of such general obligations is not a command, but something else. In the case of the military, it is plausible to suppose that a subordinate’s obligation to obey the commands of their superior officers is grounded in an oath that all military officers take. In the case of the children of children to obey parents, it is not as obvious in what the obligation is grounded. But the source of such obligations is not relevant to the point I am making. What is relevant is that the source must be something independent of and prior to the commands themselves.
By analogy, then, the response currently under consideration implies that we are under a general moral obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command. But that is incompatible with MDCT. The view according to which we have a general obligation to obey God is known as the Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT). (I have covered the distinction between MDCT and NDCT previously, in Part 2, and here.) According to metaethical divine command theory, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. Thus, such a view is inconsistent with the existence of a general obligation to obey God, which obligation exists prior to and independent of any divine command.
We are now in a position to state what I take to be a decisive objection to MDCT:  MDCT takes option (II) and, given this, it follows that the reasons that God has for his commands cannot be what makes an action morally obligatory or wrong (i.e., on MDCT, in the absence of God’s commands, the RAP do not make any action morally obligatory or morally wrong). On MDCT, what makes the action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. But this cannot be correct because commands are morally impotent; by themselves, they add nothing of moral significance. A divine command might be a response to the reasons already present (which count in favor of the performance of the action), but the command does not generate any new reasons.


Works Cited
Baggett, D. and Walls, J., Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Evans, C. Stephen, God and Moral Obligation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Garcia, Robert K. and Nathan L. King (Eds.), Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).


[1] As I say in Part 4: “If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command.” And, if actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, then MDCT is false.
[2] If you think that the length or silliness of the sentence or the energy needed to utter the sentence is a reason not to utter it, then consider any act such that you are sufficiently satisfied that there are neither reasons to perform it nor reasons to not perform it (perhaps, for example, the act of uttering to oneself the word ‘myrtle’ once a month on either the first, second or third Tuesday, sometime between 5 am and 10 pm).

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 5: Is there a way out?

Recall the two options of the Euthyphro dilemma:
(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.
(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
In previous posts in this series I explained what the Euthyphro problem is and why it is a problem. Here is a brief summary of my conclusions: The Euthyphro problem is a problem for option (II), and thereby, a problem for divine command theory. The problem is that if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then, since God is omnipotent, his commands are wholly unconstrained. He could command any action whatsoever, and since deontic moral value does not exist prior to his commands, it seems that he has no reason to command one thing rather than another. Indeed, he could command something horrible, such as the gratuitous torture of an infant, and, on option (II), this horrible action would be morally obligatory. But no command can make the torture of an infant morally obligatory. So, option (II) cannot be correct.
As I indicated in the most recent post in this series, there are four distinct aspects of this problem. They are:
(1) The contingency problem
It is possible for God to command anything whatsoever. Given this, no matter what commands God actually issues, it is possible that he issues different commands, even a completely different set of commands (in the sense that, in some possible world, he issues these other commands). So, since on option (II), morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, there are possible worlds in which different actions are morally obligatory than are obligatory in the actual world; and there are possible worlds in which actions that are morally obligatory in the actual world are not morally obligatory. This is problematic because it seems that at least some moral claims are necessarily true. In particular, it seems that there are some actions such that they have their deontic moral status necessarily. However, if option (II) is correct, then it seems that no action has its moral features necessarily. For any action at all, whatever its actual deontic status, it is possible for it to have a different deontic status.
(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem
The contingency problem is that, on option (II), all actions have their moral properties contingently. This means that there are non-actual but possible moral truths. A related problem (and a consequence) is that among the possibilities are some that are wildly counterintuitive. The above description of what I’ve called the Euthyphro problem contains an example: it is possible that the gratuitous torture of infants is morally obligatory rather than wrong (in the sense that there is some possible world in which torturing infants is obligatory). But there are other possibilities. It is possible that something morally laudatory, such as giving money to the needy is morally wrong. It is possible that something morally permissible, such as brushing your teeth three times a day, is morally wrong. And it is possible that something morally permissible, such as eating breakfast at 7:30, is morally obligatory.
(3) The arbitrariness problem
If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II), all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.
(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands
A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am. Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.
Defenders of various versions of DCT have argued that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for DCT since a properly articulated version of DCT does not have the consequences [(1)-(4)] listed above.[1] In this and the next installment I will offer an assessment of the seriousness of these four aspects of the Euthyphro problem for modern versions of divine command metaethics.
I will consider each of these four aspects of the Euthyphro problem individually. The essay will be broken into two parts. In this current installment, I will look at problems (1) and (2) and the next installment will examine problems (3) and (4).
Problem (1)
The contingency problem involves the assumption that it is possible for God to issue commands other than his actual commands (or, stated another way, that it is possible that God issues commands in some possible world(s) that he does not issue in some other possible world(s)). This assumption appears reasonable, at first glance, because God is omnipotent. Given his omnipotence, it seems that God is completely unconstrained; and so it is possible for him to issue any command whatsoever. But, as Edward Wierenga[2] has famously pointed out (along with many others after him), theists do not typically believe that God is completely unconstrained. It is reasonable to believe that God has certain essential characteristics and that, among these characteristics are features that constrain the kinds of motivations that God could experience.
A command is an intentional act of a rational agent. Given this, all commands have motives. If God has certain essential characteristics (or, in other words, an essential nature), this nature will constrain the sorts of motives that God can experience. If that is right (and it certainly seems to be), then it is false that God can issue any command whatsoever.
Wierenga draws our attention to the fact that, on theism, God is perfectly loving. A perfectly loving being, it is reasonable to assume, cannot experience a motive to harm a person who does not deserve to be harmed. If God has this characteristic essentially (as, again, theism implies), then there is no possible world in which God experiences motives to cause harm to a person who does not deserve it. For the very same reason, there is no possible world in which God experiences motives to command that we engage in such horrendous actions as torturing an infant gratuitously.
Thus, as Wierenga argues, theists have a reason to believe that God will not issue cruel commands, namely, the fact that God is perfectly loving. In what follows, I am going to call this argumentative maneuver (that is, the claim that God is constrained by his essentially loving nature), “the appeal to love” (abbrev. ATL)[3].  The appeal to love involves the claim that God’s commands are not wholly unconstrained, coupled with the equally important insight that the constraints that apply to God come from within his own nature. Importantly, ATL does not involve claiming that the constraints on God are reason-involving. In other words, the claim here is not that God is constrained to respond to reasons; rather it is that God has a motivational profile and that this motivational profile places limits on the kinds of things that God will do.
While ATL is relevant to both problem (1) and (2), it is very important to distinguish both the problems and the responses. ATL blunts the force of the contingency problem in virtue of the fact that God possesses his loving nature essentially, but I think it is less successful against the problem of counterintuitive consequences.
I say that ATL blunts the force of the contingency problem but, as it happens, the appeal to God’s loving nature is neither necessary nor sufficient to obviate the problem. To show this, I will describe a response that would completely remove the problem:
The contingency problem is completely eliminated if we claim that God has his nature essentially. Given that God’s motives are a manifestation of his essential characteristics, it follows that if he has the same characteristics in all possible worlds, he has the same kinds of motives in all possible worlds. And given the same motives, he will issue the same commands. In other words, the content of God’s character does not matter for the purposes of obviating the contingency problem; all that matters is that God has his nature essentially. Given the way that character grounds motives, if God’s character traits are essential characteristics, then he issues the same commands in all possible worlds.
It is important to see that ATL does not assert this; that is, it does not assert that God has his nature essentially. Rather, it claims that God is essentially loving. But this claim is consistent with the claim that there are other aspects of God’s nature that he possesses only contingently. Perhaps, for example, God is all-loving in all possible worlds, but in some possible worlds he prefers the color red to the color green whereas in others he prefers green to red. Perhaps in some worlds, God enjoys all types of human-produced noise, but in others he has a strong dislike for progressive rock; in some worlds, maybe, he is indifferent to temporal considerations concerning meals, in others he has strong feelings that breakfast must be consumed in the early morning. In asserting only that God is essentially loving, ATL leaves open the possibility that other aspects of God’s character are contingent and thus leaves open the possibility aspects of God’s character may give rise to different motives, and thus different commands, in different possible worlds.
ATL does imply that God’s commands are not wholly unconstrained. Given that God is loving in all possible worlds, it is false that there are possible worlds in which God issues a completely different set of commands in some possible world. But we now see that this does not entirely remove the contingency problem. So long as some aspect(s) of God’s nature is/are unconstrained, then his commands, at least to some extent, will be different in different possible worlds. Given this, DCT, even modified by ATL, will retain the implication that at least some more truths are contingent if it allows that some aspects of God’s nature are contingent.
A brief aside: One might think, at this juncture, that whatever contingency is implied by DCT, it will not be a serious problem. Recall that the most serious problem in this connection is that it appeared that DCT implied that all moral truths are contingent. We have seen that a properly articulated DCT need not have this implication. Perhaps we should not be bothered by the implication that, on DCT, some moral truths are still contingent. It is obvious that not all moral truths are contingent; it is less obvious that no moral truths are contingent. Thus, if DCT implies that some moral truths are contingent, this is not obviously a serious problem for the theory.
I mention this mostly to make sure that I my evaluation of the Euthyphro problem is as thorough as I can make it. I doubt that the contingency issue is the most pressing of the four aspects of the Euthyphro problem and so I will decline to examine the above suggestion any further. My interest, at this point, is to consider what must be added to DCT in order to completely eliminate the contingency problem, and so it is to that issue that I now return.
As I noted above, if God has a nature and has his nature essentially, then, since his motives will be a function of this nature, he will have the same kinds of motives in all possible worlds. Given that commands are motivated actions, this strongly suggests that God issues the same commands in all possible worlds. The assumption that God can issue commands other than his actual commands turns out to be based on a failure to appreciate the ways in which God’s nature informs and constrains his actions. While ATL does not assert this, there is nothing that prevents the defender of DCT from relying on this insight. So long as God has his nature essentially, it seems that DCT does not imply that morality is contingent.
Before moving on to problem (2), I want to make a couple of observations that will be very important to the evaluation of problems (2) – (4): First, the fact that God has an essential nature implies only that he experiences certain kinds of motives rather than others; it does not imply anything about what those motives are. If God’s nature is cruel, then he will experience cruel motives and issue cruel commands; if he is loving, then he will experience compassionate motives and issue compassionate commands.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, while the response that I have sketched to the contingency problem involves the claim that there are constraints on God’s commands, these claims about God’s nature (including ATL) do not assert that the constraints on God are reason-involving. In other words, the claim here is not that God is constrained to respond to reasons; rather it is that God has a motivational profile and that this motivational profile places limits on the kinds of things that God will do.
Problem (2)
The contingency problem is entirely eliminated if we assert
(EDN) Essential Divine Nature: God has his nature essentially.
But this will not resolve the counterintuitive possibilities problem since it is consistent with EDN that God’s nature is cruel or indifferent. A god with a cruel nature will command that we torture innocent children. We might think that ATL entirely resolves the problem, but that would be an error. To see why, note that the problem of counterintuitive possibilities is not merely the problem that God might command something cruel. In the above description of the problem, I mentioned four different kinds of counterintuitive possibilities:
(A) God might command that we perform some cruel act(s), such as the torture of an infant.
(B) God might command that we refrain from performing some compassionate act(s), such as helping  to feed people who are starving.
(C) God might command that we perform some seemingly neutral act(s), such as eating breakfast at 7:30 am.
(D) God might command that we refrain from performing some seemingly neutral act(s), such as eating dinner at 6:30 pm.
The appeal to love can only address possibilities of type (A) and (B). A perfectly loving God would neither command a cruel act nor command that we refrain from compassionate acts. However, ATL cannot address possibilities of type (C) and (D). That God is loving does not imply that he will not command that we eat breakfast at 7:30 am. At least, it is very unclear how such a command would be inconsistent with his love. It is wildly counterintuitive that it could be morally obligatory to eat breakfast at 7:30 am. But DCT seems to imply that it is possible that doing so is morally obligatory and ATL provides no reason to think that this is not a genuine implication.
How serious is this problem? Since I am not claiming here that, on DCT, it is possible that it is morally obligatory to doing horrible things, it may seem that the problem is not all that serious. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the problem posed by possibilities of type (C) and (D). Every day, hundreds of times a day, you and I engage in actions that are seemingly innocuous but are such that it would not be inconsistent for a loving God to command that we not do these things. We drink coffee without cream and sugar, we brush out teeth after breakfast but before leaving the house for the day, we read news articles online while we are eating breakfast, we watch sporting events on television, we tell jokes, we converse with friends and co-workers at work, etc., etc. It would not be inconsistent for a loving God to command that we refrain from performing any of these things. If God commanded that we not read news articles while we eat breakfast, then according to DCT, it would be morally wrong to read a news article during breakfast. But it is wildly implausible that it could be morally wrong to read a new article while one eats breakfast. The same can be said for all of the other items on my list and countless other seemingly innocuous actions that people engage in every day.
In a subsequent post, I will return to the issue of seemingly innocuous actions in connection to problem (4) (the problem of the normative impotence of divine commands) where I think it has a great deal more force. For now let me close this aspect of the inquiry by pointing out that the appeal to love does not eliminate all of the counterintuitive possibilities that appear to be consequences of DCT.


[1] This is only partially accurate. Usually such defenders focus on (1) – (3) to the neglect of (4). In addition, many such defenders confuse the distinct aspects of the problem (e.g., it is common to confuse the contingency problem with the arbitrariness problem). I will attempt to substantiate these claims in a future post.
[2] Wierenga, E. “A defensible divine command theory.” Nous 17.3 (1983): 387-407.
[3] Other philosophers and defenders of DCT have offered responses to the Euthyphro problem that are similar to Wierenga’s. I will be discussing some of these related responses in future installments of this series. It is perhaps worth pointing out that while this current essay does not involve a thorough discussion of each and every argument that defends DCT from Euthyphro-type concerns, my assessment of the seriousness of the Euthyphro problem for DCT is an overall assessment. That is, parts 5 and 6 of this series contain my all-things-considered assessment of the Euthyphro problem.

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 4: Why is it a dilemma?

In part I of this series, I showed that the Euthyphro dilemma consists of the following two options:

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

I also argued that these two options are mutually exclusive and that, from this, we can infer the following two claims:
Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.
A dilemma is a situation in which there are only two options available, we must choose one option or the other (i.e., we cannot take both), and where there is something problematic, difficult, or uncomfortable about making the choice. To show that the choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma, we need to show (a) that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive (i.e., that we cannot take both options); (b) that there is no other option to choose from (i.e., that (I) and (II) exhaust the possible options); and (c) that there is something problematic about making the choice. As I indicated, I have already shown, in part I, that that (I) and (II) are mutually exclusive. In this post, I will accomplish tasks (b) and (c); that is, I will show that the options are exhaustive, and explain why the choice between (I) and (II) is problematic.
Before I get to those issues, I want to make a point of clarification about Claims 1 and 2.[1] It is not just that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it cannot be that the reason that he commands that we perform them is that they are obligatory. It is also the case that the reason that he commands that we perform them cannot be that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory. Similarly, it is not just that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they are obligatory, then it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. It is also true that if the reason that God commands obligatory actions is that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are obligatory, it cannot be that they are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them. These two points are fairly easy to grasp once we’ve grasped the logic of Claims 1 and 2. If the feature in virtue of which an action is morally obligatory is that God commands that we do it, then God’s reason for commanding that we do it cannot be that it has some other feature in virtue of which it is obligatory. And if the reason that God commands that we perform some action is that it has some feature(s) in virtue of which it is obligatory, then it cannot be that what makes it obligatory is that God commands that we do it (since, in this case, the what makes it obligatory is that it has the feature(s) that also provides God with a reason to command it). So, we can re-word Claims 1 and 2 to account for these points as follows:
Claim 1′: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2′: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be either that they are morally obligatory or that they possess some feature(s) in virtue of which they are morally obligatory.
More Options?
I will offer two arguments in support of the claim that there are no options in addition to (I) and (II). The first concerns the kind of factors that can be normative reasons and is, since it relies on disputed claims about normative reasons, more controversial. The second consideration is based on a very natural assumption about the connection between God and morality and is, given the naturalness of this assumption, less controversial. Since the first argument is more controversial, the case I will make that (I) and (II) exhaust the options will not stand or fall on this argument. I mention and describe the argument because I think it is a good one, but I am not here basing my case on it.
Before I get to either argument, let’s consider what an option other than (I) and (II) would need to say. Given the mutual exclusivity of options (I) and (II), any option other than (I) or (II) must involve two aspects: first, it must assert that the reason that God commands a morally obligatory action is not that it is obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory); second, it must assert that morally obligatory actions are not morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them. Given this, the basic outline of a possible third option immediately presents itself, namely,

(III) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that the actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory).

As stated, option (III) is a formula for generating more specific additional options. The phrase ‘something other than’ appears twice in (III) and there are an indefinite number of descriptive phrases that can be plugged in to each space to generate unique options. For example:

(III-U) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that they maximize utility and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

(III-K) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that the action involves treating humanity as an end-in-itself and not merely as a means, and the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that it makes him happy that we perform them.

I strongly suspect that (III-U) and (III-K) are not genuine options because I strongly suspect that the fact that some action makes God happy is not a reason for God to command that we perform it. Remember that I am using ‘reason’ in the normative sense. That some action makes God happy might be a motive for someone to command that we perform the action. But that it is a motive does not entail that it is a normative reason. For reasons, some of which I have mentioned in parts II and III of this series, I think that a consideration such as that an action makes God happy is not a normative reason that favors commanding the action. Here, then, is a consideration in favor of thinking that there is no genuine third option: On the assumption that actions are obligatory in virtue of something other than God’s commands, the only normative reason that God could have for commanding that we perform some action is that the action is morally obligatory (or has features in virtue of which it is obligatory).
If I am right about this, then there is no third option at all. Any alleged third option will, as I’ve indicated, assert that God’s reason for commanding that we perform morally obligatory actions is something other than that they are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory). But there are no such other reasons. Thus, there can be no third option. Again, my conclusion that there is no third option will not be affected even if this argument does not succeed since there is another consideration that shows that (I) and (II) exhaust the options.
A very natural assumption about God makes a third option unavailable. This natural assumption is that God commands all and only morally obligatory actions. Whatever is morally obligatory, God commands that we do, and whatever God commands that we do is morally obligatory. God does not command us to do anything that is not obligatory and there is nothing that is obligatory that God does not command that we do. This assumption does not include any claim about ontological priority, only that the actions that are commanded by God are the very same actions that are morally obligatory.
If this assumption is correct, then the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. But the connection is stronger than this. It is not just that these predicates happen to be (or are contingently) co-extensive, as ‘The highest mountain on Earth’ is (contingently) co-extensive with ‘Mt. Everest.’ There is a necessary connection between the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God. We can capture this necessity as follows: In every possible world in which God issues commands, the properties X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive. This is not the same as saying that the predicates are necessarily co-extensive. And, indeed, I don’t think that they are necessarily co-extensive since I think that there are possible worlds in which God does not exist but in which moral properties do exist. But even an atheist can agree that in any possible world in which God does exist, he commands us to do all and only morally obligatory actions. Let’s call this claim,

(GC-M): In all possible worlds in which God exists, God commands all and only morally obligatory actions (i.e., in all such worlds, the predicates X is morally obligatory and X is commanded by God are co-extensive).

It is very difficult to see how (GC-M) can be true unless either the reasons for God’s commands are that the commanded actions are morally obligatory (or have features in virtue of which they are obligatory) (i.e., option (I)) or that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of God’s commands (i.e., option (II)). The only other possible way for (GC-M) to be true is for there to be some feature that, necessarily, all and only morally obligatory actions have, the presence of which feature is the reason that God commands that we perform them. But this seems highly unlikely.
Therefore, if necessarily the actions that God commands are the same as the morally obligatory actions, then (I) and (II) are exhaustive.
Why the choice is problematic
I will now turn to the problematic nature of deciding between options (I) and (II). There are two reasons why a choice between two options might be a dilemma. It could be that both options are good or have good implications and we don’t want to give up something good by only taking one of two good options. Or it could be that both options are bad and we don’t want to have to accept the bad implications or consequences of either option. The Euthyphro dilemma is the latter type of dilemma. Both (I) and (II) have problematic implications.
If (I) is true, then moral properties (at least deontic moral properties) are independent of God’s commands. Since, on option (I) the reason that God commands that we perform a morally obligatory action is that it is morally obligatory (or has properties in virtue of which it is obligatory), the action must be obligatory prior to and independent of God’s command. This is problematic since it has seemed to many theists (and some non-theists) that all moral properties are dependent on God.
The problem for option (II) is that, if morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then, since God is omnipotent, his commands are wholly unconstrained. He could command any action whatsoever, and since deontic moral value[2]  does not exist prior to his commands, it seems that he has no reason to command one thing rather than another. Indeed, he could command something horrible, such as the gratuitous torture of an infant, and, on option (II), this horrible action would be morally obligatory. But no command can make the torture of an infant morally obligatory.
I am going to call the problem described in the previous paragraph the “Euthyphro problem.” As stated, the Euthyphro problem is multifaceted; there are actually at least four inter-related issues that are mentioned in that paragraph. They are

(1) The contingency problem

It is possible for God to command anything whatsoever. Given this, no matter what commands God actually issues, it is possible that he issues a completely different set of commands (in the sense that, in some possible world, he issues this other set of commands). So, since on option (II), morally obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we do them, no matter which actions are actually obligatory, it is possible that a completely different of commands is obligatory. Thus, in some possible world, a wholly different set of actions are morally obligatory than are obligatory in the actual world. This is problematic because it seems that at least some moral claims are necessarily true. In particular, it seems that there are some actions such that their deontic moral status is a necessary feature. However, if option (II) is correct, then it seems that no action has its moral features necessarily. For any action, whatever its actual deontic status, it is possible for it to have a different deontic status.

(2) The counterintuitive possibilities problem

The contingency problem that, on option (II), all actions have their moral properties contingently. A related problem (and a consequence) is that among the possibilities are some that are wildly counterintuitive. The above description of what I’ve called the Euthyphro problem contains an example: it is possible that the gratuitous torture of infants is morally obligatory rather than wrong. But there are other possibilities. It is possible that something morally laudatory, such as giving money to the needy is morally wrong. It is possible that something morally permissible, such as brushing your teeth three times a day, is morally wrong. And it is possible that something morally permissible, such as eating breakfast at 7:30, is morally obligatory.

(3) The arbitrariness problem

If actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands them, then it is difficult to see how God can have reasons for his commands. He has no reason to command one thing rather than another. On option (II) all deontic moral value exists in virtue of divine commands. Deontic moral value is precisely the value that actions have whereby we have reasons to perform or refrain from performing them. Commands are actions. So, if there is no deontic moral value prior to God’s commands, then God can have no reasons for his commands. But if there are no reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. And if his commands are arbitrary, then morality itself is arbitrary.

(4) The problem of the normative impotence of commands

A command (divine or otherwise) does not seem to be the kind of thing that can make a moral difference. Commands are normatively impotent in the sense that they cannot add to our reasons. We see this when imagine that God commands that we torture an innocent child. This command gives us no reason to torture a child, so it would make no difference to the moral status of child-torture. Or, again, imagine that God commands that we eat breakfast at 7:30 every morning. This command does not give us any reason to eat breakfast at 7:30 am and thus can make no difference to the moral status of refraining from eating breakfast at 7:30 am (by, for example, refraining from eating breakfast entirely). Commands are normatively inert in that they cannot add to the reasons that we already have to engage in (or refrain from) the commanded activity. Option (II) thus claims that morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.

To summarize: the problem for option (II) is that it implies that morality is contingent, it has counterintuitive consequences, it implies that morality is arbitrary, and it claims that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of something that is normatively impotent.
The choice between options (I) and (II) is a dilemma because, if we choose option (I), we have to accept that moral properties exist prior to God’s commands, and, if we choose option (II), we have to accept the implications described above.
Can we escape the dilemma?
If we believe that God does not exist, then we do not face the dilemma since we can deny that God issues commands (and thus deny both that God’s reasons for his commands are that actions are morally obligatory and that obligatory actions are obligatory in virtue of God’s commands). If we believe that God does exist but that he does not issue any commands, then, precisely because we believe that God does not issue commands, we do not face the dilemma. But if we believe that God exists and that he issues commands, we must choose between options (I) and (II). There are many theists who will be happy to choose option (I). Such theists will assert that moral properties exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. There are different ways of fleshing out such a view, and I will not discuss the various versions of theism that are consistent with option (I). But many theists are reluctant to concede that moral properties are independent of divine commands. After all, one traditional theistic belief is that God is the source of everything that exists. On this view, moral properties must have their source in God. The Euthyphro dilemma is most problematic for those who hold such views. Such theists face the choice of giving up the claim that God is the source of everything or accepting implications (1) – (4).
On the other hand, there are defenders of option (II) who claim that it does not have any problematic consequences. In particular, such people claim, option (II) does not have the kinds of consequences that are typically mentioned in discussions of the Euthyphro dilemma. In my next post in this series, I will give my assessment of whether option (II) has the consequences I listed above (i.e., (1) – (4)). To give a brief preview, I will argue that problems (3) and (4) are much more serious and difficult to resolve than problems (1) and (2). I will also argue that problems (3) and (4) definitively show that metaethical divine command theory is false.
 


[1] If you are interested, my reason for clarifying claims 1 and 2 has to do with the fact that statements about an agent’s reasons are, plausibly, referentially opaque. (If you have questions about referential opacity or how it is relevant in the context of reasons statements, please let me know in the comments.)
[2] Deontic moral value is the value that an action has in virtue of which we ought to perform it or refrain from performing it. So, an action’s deontic status is just its status as obligatory or wrong or permissible (I do not mean to imply that these are the only three deontic statuses, there are others; supererogatory, for example.)
 
 

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 3: Reasons and Moral Obligations

This is the third in a series of posts about the Euthyphro dilemma. In this series, I am making a case that the Euthyphro dilemma provides the basis of a definitive objection to DCT. This case will take several posts to present fully. In part 1, I explained what the two options of the dilemma are and showed that these options are mutually exclusive. In part 2, I began to consider the problems that arise for any view that, like the divine command theory, takes the second of the two options.
In part 2 of this series, I considered the Arbitrariness Argument (AA), which serves as an objection to DCT:

Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.

Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).

Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.

Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.

Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.

As I pointed out, Premises 3 and 4 are the controversial ones. In the previous post, I made a case for Premise 3. In this post, I will make a case for Premise 4. There are two aspects of Premise 4, which are important to treat separately as much as possible. They are: (A) the reasons for our actions (which, importantly, are independent of and prior to God’s commands) ground our moral obligations; and (B) God’s commands (which are grounded in these reasons) do not ground our moral obligations. I will make a separate case for each of these aspects.
Recall that part of my case for Premise 3 involved what I called the Normative Independence Thesis (NIT):

(NIT): There are normative reasons (for action) that exist independently of and prior to God’s commands.

As I argued in part 2, in order to avoid the arbitrariness problem, DCT must accept NIT. Since, in order for God’s commands to be non-arbitrary, there must be normative reasons that favor his commands, a defender of DCT who insists that God’s commands are non-arbitrary is committed to the existence of normative reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands.
This is a highly significant result and in addition to supporting Premise 3, it serves as an entry point into a compelling case for Premise 4. What it tells us is that normative relations are independent of divine commands. If God’s commands are to be non-arbitrary, there must be such divine-command-independent normative relations. Since moral reasons are a species of normative relation, if normative relations can exist independently of and prior to divine commands, then it is reasonable to suppose that moral reasons can as well.
We can thus make the following concise case for (A): When we are morally obligated to do something, there are strong reasons of a particular kind to do that thing. So, plausibly, being obligated is just a matter of having reasons of the right kind and strength. Sure, it is not the case that anytime that I have reasons to engage in some action, I have a moral obligation to engage in that action. But reasons come in differing degrees of strength and, plausibly, when I have a moral obligation, I have it in virtue of having reasons that are particularly strong, so strong as to be binding.
A defender of DCT might push back against this argument by observing that a moral obligation is not merely a matter of having reasons. There is a vast difference between having a reason to Φ and being morally obligated to Φ. A moral obligation is binding; it is not a mere suggestion. Further, moral obligations are always obligations to someone. Having reasons is not the same as nor sufficient for being bound to do something for the sake of another person.
These observations are correct and important; there are important differences between merely having reasons and having a moral obligation. But the differences do not amount to an insurmountable gulf. As I noted above, in my concise case for (A), reasons come in differing degrees of strength. Some reasons amount to little more than suggestions, others are so powerful as to be overriding and demanding. Some reasons concern the welfare of sentient beings; other reasons are fairly disconnected from any being’s welfare. Some reasons involve the effects that an action would have on some person(s), some reasons do not. It is plausible that we have moral obligations precisely when there are very powerful reasons to perform some action, which reasons have to do with the well-being of a person (or, possibly, any sentient being)[1].
I will therefore make a case that, once we grant that there are reasons that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, there is no obstacle to granting that some such reasons are strong enough and of the right sort to constitute moral obligations. Before I make this case, I need to make some preliminary points and define some terminology.
First, as I understand them, moral obligations are a special kind of norm. Moral obligations have the following features:

(i) They are binding: when we are obligated, something is required of us, it is not merely suggested or encouraged of us.

(ii) They involve reasons: when someone is morally obligated to do something, she has reasons to do that thing.

(iii) They have a social character: moral obligations involve things we owe to others (and perhaps ourselves). Obligations are always obligations to someone(s).

A reader who is looking for places to criticize my argument might want to start here. I am offering an account of the features must be present for someone to have a moral obligation. We might object that I have left some important feature of moral obligations out or included some feature that not all moral obligations possess. I encourage anyone inclined toward any such objections to let me know in the comments section.
With the above features in mind, let me stipulate some terminology, with the caveat that I am not intending, with the following definitions, to capture standard or common usage. I am stipulating how I will use these terms and am doing so solely for ease of exposition. Nothing in my argument depends on using this terminology, but I have found that this is the best way that I can make the points I want to make. Here is the terminology that I will use:

A welfare reason is one that involves the welfare of a sentient being.

A person-involving reason is one that counts in favor of or against actions that affect the well-being of some person(s).

A recommending reason is one that counts in favor of (or against) some action, but does not do so strongly.

A demanding reason is one that strongly counts in favor of (or strongly against) some action.

A moral reason is one that is either a welfare reason or a person-involving reason and that is stronger than a recommending reason.

While I will talk of demanding reasons and recommending reasons,[2] we should not assume that this is a simple dichotomy. Rather, the strength of reasons exists of a spectrum; on one end are reasons that merely suggest (without requiring an action or being binding) and on the other end are reasons that are so strong as to make demands of us.
I will also understand a moral obligation as involving an all-things-considered ‘ought.’ In other words, when we say of someone that she is morally obligated to do something, we are making a judgement that takes all relevant factors into consideration; i.e., it is a judgement that, given present circumstances and all relevant considerations, this is what she ought to do. Claims that a person has (some) moral reason(s) to perform some act, I take to be (at least in most circumstances) pro tanto judgements. They are claims that, to some extent, a person ought to do something; but they are not all-things-considered judgements. As such, a claim that there are some moral reasons to do something is not the same as a claim that it is morally obligatory to do it.
An all-things-considered judgement, as the name suggests, takes into consideration all the relevant considerations. Reasons can conflict with one another. That is, in one and the same circumstance we can often have reasons that are opposed; one reason or set of reasons counting in favor of some course of action, some other set of reasons counting against the same course of action, and yet other reasons favoring an altogether different course of action. Reasons can also support and/or enable other reasons. The way in which reasons combine and interact is quite interesting and complicated, much too complicated to fully account for here. I recommend Jonathan Dancy’s Ethics Without Principles to those readers who want to understand this issue better. What matters for this discussion is just the idea that, an all-things-considered judgement results from the (often complex interactions) of pro tanto factors.
My case for Premise 4 rests on the idea that when we have moral reasons that are sufficiently strong, which are not canceled or counterbalanced by opposing reasons, that is sufficient to make it the case that we are morally obligated. In other words, if, all things considered, a person has sufficiently strong moral reasons to do something, then, just in virtue of this, she has a moral obligation. If this is correct, then having a moral obligation is just a matter of having, all things considered, reasons of the right kind and strength. Once we grant the existence of reasons that are independent of and prior to God’s commands (as even defenders of DCT must if the arbitrariness problem is to be avoided) there is no obstacle to granting the existence of reasons of the types I described above. In particular, there is every reason to expect that there are demanding moral and person-involving reasons. But, then, in some instances in which such reasons are present, there will be people who have reasons, the force of which is not canceled by opposing reasons (that is, all things considered), that are so strong as to be binding and that concern the well-being of persons. Therefore, in such situations, these people will have moral obligations.
I think that these claims can be best supported by thinking about some imagined but realistic examples. These examples will all involve people who have reasons and we will be able to make what I take to be fairly obvious comparative claims about the strength and content of these reasons.
NEW JOB

Sally has been given a new job offer. It involves similar work and responsibilities to her current job, but has a slightly different compensation package. In addition, the new job is five miles closer to her house than her current job.

The fact that the new job is closer to her home counts in favor of Sally’s accepting the new job. But it doesn’t count very strongly in favor; the amount of time she will save on her commute is of relatively minor importance compared to other considerations, such as how pleasant the work environment will be compared to her current job, whether she will be more fulfilled at the new job, and what her compensation will be compared to her current job. That it is not a significant factor by comparison does not mean that it is no factor at all. The relative proximity of the new job, therefore, is a reason for Sally to accept the new job even if not a very powerful one. This reason is merely a recommending reason. Note also that this reason is not obviously a welfare reason since it is not directly related to the welfare of anyone. Conceivably, Sally’s own welfare might be enhanced by saving a couple of minutes every day on her commute, but any such effect on her well-being is minor.
INCORRECT CHANGE 1

Tom is purchasing a small amount of groceries. The total cost is $29.60. He pays the cashier with two $20 bills and receives a $10 bill, a quarter and two dimes. Tom does not immediately see the error that the cashier has made, but as he is walking out of the store, he counts his change and realizes that there has been a mistake.

The fact that Tom has been given five cents more in change than he should have been given counts in favor of his going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Tom to do so. But it is not a very powerful reason. Five cents is not that big of mistake and the supermarket will almost certainly overlook such an insignificant error. In addition, this reason is quite far removed from any person’s welfare. The cashier will not suffer when she realizes that her cash drawer is five cents short. She may briefly wish that it was not, but she will not suffer because of the error. Nor will Tom greatly benefit from the extra five cents he now possesses.
INCORRECT CHANGE 2

Susan is at REI purchasing supplies for her upcoming backpacking trip. She buys a new tent, backpack, sleeping bag, clothes, food, and miscellaneous supplies. Her total comes to $1138.50. She hands the cashier twelve $100 bills and receives four $20 bills, a $1 bill, and two quarters in change. Susan is in a hurry and does not notice the error until she gets back to her car, where she looks at her receipt and counts her change.

The fact that Susan has been given twenty dollars more than she should have been given counts in favor of her going back to the cashier so that the mistake can be corrected. Thus, it is a reason for Susan to do so. It is a more powerful reason that that which Tom has in INCORRECT CHANGE 1. In addition, Susan’s reason is more directly connected to some person’s welfare, namely that of the cashier who made the error. A $20 error is not tremendously significant, but it is significant enough that we can reasonably expect the cashier to suffer some (probably minor) consequences. Thus, Susan’s reason to return the $20 is a fairly strong person-involving reason. However, the reason is probably not so strong as to be demanding and it is probable that it can be outweighed by other considerations.
WALLET

Barbara is taking a short hike in the local hills. A few miles into her hike she finds a wallet lying on the trail. She opens the wallet and finds $125 in cash, credit cards, and a driver’s license. There is nobody else nearby on the trail .

The fact that Barbara has discovered the wallet counts in favor of her taking it to the nearest police department so that the police can contact the owner and return it to him (or in some other way ensuring that the wallet is returned to the owner). Given the amount of money contained in the wallet, and the importance of a driver’s license and credit cards, this reason is stronger than the reasons present in the previous examples. Further, this reason is more directly related to some person’s welfare than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. If the owner does not get the wallet back, he will lose $125, be forced to cancel his credit cards, and will need to visit the DMV to get a new license. These are merely inconveniences, but they are not negligible and they will have a negative effect on his welfare. Barbara has strong person-involving reasons to turn in the wallet (and thus, she also has moral reasons to do so).
DESERT HIKE

John has planned a multi-day backpacking trip through a remote part of the Arizona desert. Three miles into his hike he encounters a small child alone on the trail. The girl is clearly tired and suffering from exposure to the elements. She is sunburned, dehydrated, and malnourished. John tries to communicate with her, but the child is barely conscious and cannot answer John’s questions.

The fact that the child is suffering and will most likely die if she does not receive medical attention is a reason for John to cut his trip short and transport the child to the closest hospital. Given the amount of suffering she is experiencing and the value of her life, this reason is very powerful. Further, it is obviously directly connected to the child’s welfare. This reason is so powerful that it is difficult to imagine any factor that could outweigh or override it. John thus has a demanding, person-involving reason (thus, a moral reason) to render aid to the child. And, all things considered, this is what he ought to do.
The reasons present in DESERT HIKE are much stronger than any of the reasons present in the previous examples. Consider NEW JOB: Plausibly, if Sally ignores the fact that the new job is five miles closer than her current job, she has not done anything morally wrong. Sally is under no obligation to take this factor into consideration when she is deciding whether to accept the job offer. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 1: Plausibly, if Tom decides to refrain from returning the extra five cents to the grocery store, he has not done anything morally wrong. Tom is not under a strong obligation to correct such an insignificant error. Even those of us who think Tom is under some obligation to return the five cents, we will think that it is not a very strong obligation. Consider INCORRECT CHANGE 2: Plausibly, if Susan decides to refrain from returning the $20, she has done something wrong. Plausibly, Susan has at least some obligation to correct the error. However, whatever obligation Susan is under, it is not a powerful obligation. If, for example, Susan decides not to return the money because she needs to get to an important appointment and correctly foresees that she will be late to the appointment if she returns the money, it is plausible that her decision is both understandable and forgivable. She will have committed no serious moral violation. On the other hand, John’s reason to help the child is very powerful, it is certainly stronger than a mere recommendation. Further, it is stronger than any other reason that I identified in any of the other scenarios. It seems reasonable to say that John has reasons to help the child that are so strong as to be demanding. If John fails to render aid for some reason, say, for example, because he does not want to cut his trip short, he will have done something very morally wrong.
My case for Premise 4 is something like an existence proof: by describing the above realistic scenarios, I am demonstrating how the existence of reasons in certain circumstances can make it the case that a person has a moral obligation. In DESERT HIKE John (a) has reasons to render aid to the child, (b) has reasons that are so strong that they constitute requirements; i.e., they are not merely suggestions, and (c) owes something to someone, namely, John owes it to the child to try to save her life. Thus, in DESERT HIKE, we have a situation in which the elements of a moral obligation are present and are present solely in virtue of the existence of reasons of the right sort. So, it is plausible that John’s moral obligation in DESERT HIKE is fully constituted by the reasons that he has to render aid to the child. Much the same can be said about many other cases of moral obligation.
The points that I have made thus far strongly support the claim that reasons of a certain strength and type are alone sufficient to ground moral obligations. But we will not be able to accept this conclusion if we think that God’s commands add something essential to the equation, something that can only be supplied via those commands. With that in mind, let’s turn to the second aspect of Premise (4), namely, (B): God’s commands, which are grounded in these reasons, do not ground moral obligations.
The suggestion that God’s commands make us obligated is implausible precisely because we know that an arbitrary command cannot make an action obligatory. And why is it that an arbitrary command cannot do so? I suggest that it is because a command is not the right kind of thing that could be what makes an action obligatory. After all, that Φ is commanded (by God or by anyone) is an extrinsic feature of an action. That Φ is commanded by God has nothing to do with (a) the kind of action Φ is, (b) the actual consequences of Φ, (c) the intended consequences of Φ, or (d) the reason Φ was performed.
Consider: Let Φ = John’s act of bringing the lost child to a hospital so that she can receive medical care. Let’s compare two scenarios: In scenario 1, God commands Φ. In scenario 2, God does not exist and so it is not the case that God commands Φ. The only difference between Φ-as-performed in scenario-1 (Φ-ap1) and Φ-as-performed-in-scenario-2 (Φ-ap2) is that Φ-ap1 has the feature commanded-by-God and Φ-ap2 lacks this feature. But Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 share every other features in common; they have the same actual consequences, the same intended consequences, they are acts of the same type, they are performed at the same time, by the same people, in the same location, with the same motives, etc. The one feature whereby Φ-ap2 differs from Φ-ap1 is an extrinsic feature. It concerns attitudes that a rational agent has taken toward the action, which attitudes, it is important to note, must, given that they are the attitudes of a perfectly rational agent, be grounded in reasons (which reasons must themselves must involve features of Φ). Given that the only difference between Φ-ap1 and Φ-ap2 is an extrinsic feature and that this extrinsic feature is one that is itself reason-responsive, it is implausible that this feature (rather than the reasons it is responsive to) is what makes Φ morally obligatory. Isn’t it more plausible that it is one of the other features that I mentioned above (its actual and/or intended consequences, the kind of act it is, the reasons for it, etc.) that make the action obligatory? How strange it would be if, rather than these other features, Φ is obligatory in virtue of a reason-responsive attitude that a rational agent has taken toward the action. In other words, that Φ is commanded by God is not the kind of feature that could make Φ obligatory.
In the following clip, Dennis the constitutional peasant makes a point similar to the one I am trying to make:

That a strange woman lying in a pond distributed a sword to you cannot be what makes you the supreme executive in the government. But this is precisely what Arthur Pendragon claims as the ground of his executive power. Note what he says: “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water; signifying, by divine providence, that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I’m your King.”  The ‘why’ here is not the ‘why’ of reasons but the ‘in-virtue-of’ ‘why.’ When he says, “That is why I’m your King,” he is saying that this is what makes him King. Arthur is claiming that he is King in virtue of the fact that the Lady of the Lake held Excalibur out to him. Dennis claims that this claim is absurd. That a lady in a lake lobbed a scimitar at you is not the kind of thing that can make you the supreme executive.
In making this point, Dennis says the following: “If I went ‘round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.”  If, instead of getting angry and using violence to silence his critics, Arthur had calmly explained to Dennis that the Lady of the Lake is perfectly wise and would never hold out a sword to a peasant, or any other person unqualified to be a leader, he would have missed the point. Dennis is not saying that, according to Arthur’s theory of executive power, it is possible for an unqualified person to become King (since it is possible for the Lady of the Lake to give a sword to any person, even an unqualified one). No. Dennis’ point, rather, is that getting a sword from a woman in a lake is not the kind of thing that could make one King.
Similarly, we may say to the divine command theorist that an action’s being commanded by God is not the kind of property that could make the action morally obligatory. And we know this because of the following observations (which, by the way, are agreed to by most defenders of DCT):

  1. The mere fact that Φ is commanded cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, any person could issue an absurd command (e.g., don’t brush your teeth before 7:00 am) and this would obviously not make for an obligatory action.
  2. The mere fact that Φ is commanded by someone powerful cannot make Φ obligatory. After all, powerful people often command horrendous things. That Hitler commanded the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population did not make it obligatory to do so.
  3. An arbitrary command, no matter who it is issued by, cannot make any action morally obligatory.

All of this strongly suggests that being commanded by anyone, even God, is not the kind of feature that could make an action morally obligatory.
It is useful to focus our attention on point (3). We know that if a command to Φ is arbitrary, then no matter who issues it, the command cannot make it the case that Φ is obligatory.  This strongly suggests that commands, on their own, are never sufficient to make it the case that a person is obligated to do something. In other words, since a command that is not grounded in reasons cannot make it the case that anyone is under a moral obligation, bare commands are morally impotent. If that is right, then in cases in which a person is obligated to do something that he has been commanded to do, that person must be so-obligated in virtue of something other than the fact that he has been so-commanded.
Undoubtedly, there are cases in which a person that has been commanded do something is obligated to do that thing. One reason that this might be so is that the person is obligated in virtue of something independent of and prior to the command and the command serves as something like a reminder of this independent and prior obligation. But this sort of account will not cover all cases in which a person is obligated to do what she has been commanded to do.
There are other kinds of cases that we need to consider: cases in which some person is obligated to do something that she has been commanded to do but would not have been so-obligated if she had not been so-commanded. That is, there are circumstances in which the fact that a commander, C, commands someone, S, to Φ implies (in some sense of “implies”) that S is obligated to Φ. Military contexts provide examples of such cases. When a military subordinate is commanded to do something, he is obligated to do what he is commanded to do and, at least in some instances, would not have been obligated in the absence of the command. How do we square this with my above claim that bare commands are morally impotent?
I suggest that when the fact that C commands that S Φ makes it the case that S is obligated to Φ this is because of the existence of a prior obligation to obey C, which S is under. When a military subordinate is obligated to obey the commands of her superior officer, this is because, as a member of the military, she has an obligation (which is independent of the authority of any particular commanding officer) to obey the (lawful) commands of superior officers. In the absence of any such prior and independent obligation, the fact that S is commanded to Φ cannot establish any obligation that S Φ. This is consistent with my claim that bare commands are morally impotent. When commanding officer issues a (lawful) command to a subordinate, the subordinate is obligated to obey the command; but the command does not, all by itself, make the subordinate obligated. It does so only given the prior obligation that the subordinate has, namely the obligation to obey his superior officers. The command, considered in and of itself (and thus outside of a military context), is impotent. And we can see this if we imagine that the command is given, not to a subordinate member of the military, but to me or any other person who is not in the military. If a US Army general orders me to do something, this does not and cannot make it the case that I am obligated to do what he orders me to do. Without the prior obligation to obey the lawful commands of a superior officer, all military commands are impotent in the sense that they cannot make any person obligated to do anything.
If the above is correct, then all commands, no matter who issues them, are morally impotent considered in and of themselves. The only time a command can make a person obligated is when the commanded is under a prior obligation to obey the commander. And this fact will not help a defender of DCT respond to the objection that I am raising against it. If a defender of DCT insists that God’s commands ground moral obligations in virtue of the fact that we are obligated to obey God, then she is defending a version of Normative Divine Command Theory (NDCT) rather than Metaethical Divine Command Theory (MDCT). As I indicated in part 2 of this series, my target is MDCT and I am not here interested in raising objections to NDCT. The claim that our moral obligations are ultimately grounded in a basic moral principle, according to which we are obligated to obey God, is an interesting one. But as I have pointed out in other contexts, MDCT cannot rely on such a principle. On MDCT all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands, thus there can be no command-independent obligation to obey God. Therefore, appeals to our obligation to obey God cannot help MDCT here.
The upshot is that, with respect to the factors that make an action morally obligatory, the fact that God commands the action is irrelevant. A command, no matter who issues it, is not the kind of thing that could, in and of itself, make an action obligatory. Thus, God’s commands do not ground our moral obligations.


[1] Whether moral obligations extend to actions that effect all sentient beings or only persons is an interesting question. But it is one that it is beyond the scope of this essay. My point here is only that it is plausible that moral obligations are grounded in the presence of powerful reasons of the right sort (what sort that is will be determined through careful philosophical reasoning).
[2] This distinction is inspired by Joseph Raz’s distinction between mandatory and non-mandatory norms. See his Practical Reason and Norms.


References
Dancy, Jonathan (2004) Ethics Without Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Raz, Joseph (1999) Practical Reason and Norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 2: Arbitrariness

In the first post in this series, I pointed out that when we apply the Euthyphro question to DCT, we get the following options

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Reflection on these options yields the following two claims:

Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.

I also pointed out that since the DCT accepts option (II), it implies that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are obligatory. Further reflection reveals that it is not clear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally obligatory. But if God does not have any reasons for his commands, then those commands are arbitrary.
In this post, I will explain what arbitrariness is and why it is problem for DCT. In doing so, I will distinguish arbitrariness from some similar but distinct properties. Lastly, I will offer some considerations in support of the claim that if God has reasons for his commands, then these same reasons are reasons for us independent of God’s commands and would therefore be reasons for us even if God issued no commands.
I will begin with a preliminary point about the target of my arguments. When discussing the Euthyphro problem, it is important to mark the distinction between two kinds of divine command theory: normative divine command theory and metaethical divine command theory.[1] The normative divine command theory (NDCT) asserts that there is one supreme ethical principle, namely that God’s commands are to be obeyed. Importantly, NDCT does not involve any account of how this supreme principle is grounded. Just as important is the implication that this supreme principle is not grounded in God’s commands. That is, the principle that God’s commands are to be obeyed is not made true in virtue of any divine command; it is true independent of God’s commands. Indeed, for NDCT to be consistent, it must be that the principle is external to and independent of God’s commands. Metaethical divine command theory (MDCT), on the other hand, claims that all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. On MDCT, there is no supreme ethical principle that grounds our obligation to obey God. Rather, the property of being morally obligatory is grounded in God’s commands; God’s commands make it the case that we are morally obligated.[2] Importantly, NDCT is not consistent with MDCT. On MDCT, all moral obligations are grounded in divine commands. But on NDCT, the obligation to obey God is grounded in the supreme ethical principle, not in God’s commands. So, if NDCT is true, MDCT is false and if MDCT is true, NDCT is false.
It is helpful to connect this distinction to reasons. On NDCT, we always have reason to obey God’s commands. But the reason to obey God is not grounded in God’s commands; it is grounded in the supreme ethical principle (or whatever grounds that principle). On MDCT, the reason-giving force of a divine command is internal to the command; it is not grounded in anything or in any principle that is external to God’s commands. In this series, I am not criticizing NDCT or considering the application of the Euthyphro dilemma to it;[3] my target is MDCT. Thus, when I talk about divine command theories of moral obligation, I am talking about versions of MDCT (and ‘DCT’ has been and will be here used, unless otherwise specified, to refer to any and all of the several versions of MDCT). When we ask questions about whether and when we have reason to do what God commands us to do, it is important to bear in mind that defenders of DCT (MDCT) cannot, when answering such questions, rely on some general principle to the effect that we always have reason to obey God. Relying on such a principle entails abandoning MDCT in favor of NDCT.
What is arbitrariness?
Something is arbitrary when it is not grounded in reasons. To understand arbitrariness, it is helpful to distinguish it from other related properties. The claim that God’s commands are (or might be) arbitrary, is not the same as claiming that they are contingent, unconstrained, or unmotivated. I will discuss each of these other properties, and show that they are distinct from arbitrariness, separately:
(1) Contingent
A necessary proposition is one such that it is impossible that it is false. A contingent proposition is one such that, whatever its actual truth-value, it is possible for it to be true and also possible for it to be false. Another way of marking this distinction is to say that anything that is necessary could not be otherwise and anything that is contingent could be otherwise.
One problem for DCT is that it appears that, on DCT, all moral truths are contingent. This is not same as the problem that his commands might be arbitrary and it is very important to distinguish the arbitrariness problem from the contingency problem.  The contingency problem for DCT is as follows: Given that God is omnipotent, it seems natural to suppose that he can issue any command whatsoever. Suppose that God exists and has issued an actual set of commands.  Given that he is omnipotent, it seems that he could have issued a completely different set of commands. Indeed, for any command that God has actually given (e.g., “Thou shalt not kill”) it is possible that he issued a command with contradictory content (e.g., “Thou shalt kill’).  Given this, it would appear to follow that, on DCT, there are no necessary moral truths. Since it is possible that God issues any command with any content whatsoever, it follows that there is no command that he issues necessarily and hence there are no necessary moral truths.
This is strongly counterintuitive. It strongly seems that at least some moral truths are necessarily true. Consider, for example, the moral truth that it is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously. This seems to be not only true, but necessarily so. That is, it is impossible that the claim, ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ could be anything other than true. But, on DCT, it appears, at least initially, that it is possible for it to be false. After all, an omnipotent being can, it seems, issue a command such as, “Thou shalt torture infants gratuitously,” in which case, on DCT, it would be morally obligatory to torture infants (and hence ‘It is wrong to torture an infant gratuitously’ would be false).
If DCT really does imply that there are no necessary moral truths, this is a strong reason to reject DCT. However, modern defenders have a compelling response to the contingency problem. The most common and plausible response is as follows[4]: God has certain characteristics that are part of his nature and he has these characteristics necessarily. The commands that God issues flow from his nature and it is not possible that God issues commands that are contrary to his nature. Since, for example, it is part of God’s necessary nature that he is perfectly loving, it is not possible that he would command us to perform cruel acts such as gratuitous torture.
In this current post, I will not be concerned to evaluate this response (I have argued that the response is not adequate to save DCT from the Euthyphro problem here). My aim here is only to show that, whatever the merits of the response, it is irrelevant to the arbitrariness problem. And this is so because contingency and arbitrariness are distinct properties. That God’s commands are not contingent does not entail that they are not arbitrary. The following example will, I hope, make this clear:
Consider a deity who, like God, is omnipotent and omniscient, but, unlike God, is essentially hateful. This deity, who I will call ‘Asura’, has an essential nature and his commands flow from his essential nature, and, like God, it is not possible for Asura to issue commands that are contrary to his nature. Asura commands, for example, that we gratuitously torture children and similarly horrible things
Here is the point: that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature shows, at best, only that he issues the same commands in every possible world in which he exists. It does not show that he has reasons for his commands. And, plausibly, there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants gratuitously. Given this, despite the fact that Asura’s commands flow from his essential nature, they are still arbitrary. If Asura’s commands are not non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from his essential nature, then neither are God’s commands non-arbitrary just in virtue of the fact that they flow from God’s essential nature. What matters with respect to whether God’s commands are arbitrary is not whether they could be otherwise (not whether he could issue different commands) but whether there are reasons for his commands. Given all of this, we must sharply distinguish between arbitrariness and contingency and recognize that appeals to God’s necessary nature do not obviously resolve the worry that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary.
(2) Unconstrained
Just as it is a mistake to assimilate the arbitrariness problem with the contingency problem, it is also a mistake to think that the problem of arbitrariness is just the problem of whether God’s commands are constrained. Asura’s commands are constrained by his own character, but that does not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary. Again, it is plausible that there are no reasons for Asura to command that we torture infants; indeed, there are powerful reasons for him to not issue such a command. (That Asura has motives for his commands is a separate issue, see below.) In just the same way, the fact that God’s commands are constrained by his essential nature would not imply that his commands are non-arbitrary.
(3) Unmotivated
The claim that God has no reasons for his commands must be sharply distinguished from the claim that God has no motives for his commands. The following example makes this clear:
A hiring manager who makes hiring decisions solely on the basis of the race of the candidates is engaged in arbitrary discrimination. His hiring decisions are arbitrary because they are not based on the candidates’ relevant qualifications. But that does not mean that his decisions are unmotivated. Quite the contrary. A racist hiring manager’s motives are all too obvious; he wants to prevent members of certain racial categories from obtaining employment at his company.
The upshot of this example is that the fact that some decision is motivated does not make that decision non-arbitrary. Thus, the fact that God has motives for his commands does not make his commands non-arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is not that God might not have motives for his commands. As the current example shows, even an act that has some motive can still be arbitrary. The arbitrariness problem is the problem of whether God can have normative reasons for his commands.
Reasons and morality
The example of the racist hiring manager is important because it reveals two aspects of arbitrariness: First, it shows that what is relevant when it comes to arbitrariness is the lack of normative reasons, not the lack of motivating reasons. A normative reason for some action is a factor that counts in favor of our acting in this way whereas a motivating reason is a factor on the basis of which a person acts or decides to act. (I’ve discussed the distinction between normative reasons and motives in a different blog post, here.) In keeping with common philosophical practice, in this and other posts in this series, I will use ‘reasons’ to refer to normative reasons and ‘motives’ to refer to motivating reasons. Second, the hiring manager example shows that for some factor to be a reason the factor must be relevant to what is being decided. The racial characteristics of a job candidate are not relevant to the hiring decision because they are not relevant to whether the applicant can perform the job well.
If we put these two things together, we can understand the arbitrariness problem for DCT as follows: For God’s command that we Φ to be non-arbitrary, there must be some normative reason for, i.e., some relevant factor that counts in favor of, his decision to issue the command. But since, on DCT, the reason that God commands that we perform some action, Φ, cannot be that Φ is morally obligatory, it is not clear what reasons he could have for his commands.
It is important to say why it would be a problem for DCT if it implies that God’s commands are  arbitrary. The problem stems from the intimate way in which moral properties are connected with reasons. When we say that someone should or ought to do something, or that they are obligated to do it, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons for her to do that thing. More specifically, we can assert the following:

If Φ is morally obligatory, then there is at least some reason to Φ.

If Φ is morally wrong, then there is at least some reason to refrain from Φ-ing.

The link between moral obligations and reasons is probably stronger than this. That is, it is plausible that if Φ is morally obligatory, there is not just some reason, but overall, overriding reason(s) to Φ. Nonetheless, to see why arbitrariness would be a serious problem for DCT, we only need acknowledge the weaker claims above.
Thus far in this series, I have been focusing the discussion on divine command theories of deontic moral value (i.e., moral rightness and wrongness), but it is worth pointing out that all moral value, including axiological value, share this intimate connection with reasons.[5]

If Φ is good, then we have at least some reason to desire, pursue, preserve, and/or have some other pro-attitude toward Φ.

If Φ is bad, then we have at least some reason to avoid Φ, want that Φ not occur or exist, and/or have some other con-attitude toward Φ.

If God’s commands are arbitrary, the DCT threatens to eliminate this intimate connection between moral properties and reasons (at least that between deontic moral value and reasons). If God has no reason to command that we Φ, then there is no reason that Φ is morally obligatory rather than morally wrong. And if there is no reason why Φ is obligatory rather than wrong, it is difficult to see how we would have any reason to engage in Φ rather than refrain from Φ.
Philosophers on both sides of the dispute over DCT agree that arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations. Very few defenders of DCT are willing to defend the claim that an arbitrary command can ground a moral obligation. Indeed, much of the defense of modern versions of DCT has been aimed at showing that God’s commands are not arbitrary. And I think that the above observations about the connection between moral obligations and reason accounts for this widespread consensus. If a command is arbitrary, then we can have no reason to abide by the command because the claim that some action is obligatory entails that there is some reason for performing it, which in turn entails that there is some reason that it is obligatory.
Nothing I have said so far shows that, on DCT, God’s commands are arbitrary. But even if his commands are not arbitrary, there is still a problem for DCT: if God’s commands are not arbitrary, then he has reasons for his commands. But there are very good reasons to think that if God has some reason to command that we perform some action, that same reason counts in favor of our performing this action, completely independently of God’s commanding us to do so. And if these reasons are independent of God, then, given the connection between reasons and morality, is probably these reasons that ground our moral obligations rather than God’s commands. Such considerations lie behind a famous argument that is often called the Arbitrariness Argument (AA). Here is one version of that argument

Premise 1: Either God has reasons for his commands or else his commands are arbitrary.

Premise 2: If God’s commands are arbitrary, then they do not ground moral obligations (since arbitrary commands cannot ground moral obligations).

Premise 3: If God has reasons for his commands, then those reasons would be reasons for us independently of God’s commands.

Premise 4: If there are reasons for us that are independent of God’s commands, then those reasons, rather than God’s commands, ground our moral obligations.

Therefore, 5: Whether God has reasons for his commands or not, his commands do not ground moral obligations.

The controversial premises are 3 and 4. In the remainder of this post I will offer some considerations that I think strongly support Premise 3. (I will return to Premise 4 in a subsequent post.) That is, I am going to give three considerations that count strongly in favor of the following claim:

(TR) If God has a reason (or reasons) to command that we Φ, this same reason(s) counts in favor of our Φ-ing and would count in favor of our Φ-ing even if God did not command that we F.

The considerations that favor (TR) are:
(i) If there are reasons that favor God’s commands, then there are normative relations that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. This might be the most important consideration that counts in favor of the claim that morality must be independent from God (more on that below). For something to be a reason for something else is for it to count in favor of that thing. The reason relation, i.e., the favoring relation, is a normative relation. It might be the fundamental normative relation. Moral reasons and moral obligations are a species of normative relation. When defenders of DCT concede that God must have and does have reasons for his commands, they are conceding that there are normative properties that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Well, if there are normative properties that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands, it follows that it is at least possible for us to have reasons to engage in some action(s) (and refrain from engaging in others) that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. That is, if God can have reasons for commanding that are prior to his commands, then there is no obstacle to believing that we can have reasons for acting that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. I will call this the ‘normative independence thesis.’
(ii) If there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s issuing some command, then the factor counts in favor of issuing a command with some specific content. That is, a factor does not count in favor of commanding, full stop; it counts in favor of commanding that we perform some action or other. The content of a command that we Φ is that we Φ. It is obscure (to say the least) how some factor could count in favor of issuing a command that we Φ and yet not count also count in favor of our Φ-ing. At the very least, it must be that whatever provides the reason for God to command that we Φ, it must be some feature of Φ that provides it.
The upshot is that if God has a reason to command that we perform specific actions (and that we not perform others), there must be something about the actions that he commands that we perform that gives him a reason to command that we perform them.
Consider an example: Suppose God commands that we aid the afflicted. If there is a reason for God to command this, then there is some factor (or factors) that counts in favor of his issuing this command (and these factors outweigh any opposing considerations that might favor, for example, commanding that we not aid the afflicted or issuing no command with respect to such acts). Whatever factor this is, it must be some feature of the act of aiding the afflicted. Plausibly, one such feature is that aiding the afflicted relieves suffering. It does not matter whether I am right about that, i.e, that this is a feature that counts in favor of God’s command. The point is that, whatever provides God with a reason to command that we aid the afflicted, it must be some feature of acts of aiding the afflicted.
I am going to call this the “action feature constraint.” This constraint means that whatever reason God has for commanding that we perform some action must involve some feature(s) of that action.
(iii) Reasons have a universal character. This is also a widely acknowledged aspect of reasons. It is somewhat difficult to state precisely what this universal character entails, but it is easy enough to articulate the intuition. If some factor is a reason for me to Φ, then it must be a reason for any other person who is in relevantly similar circumstances. Here is how Kant makes the point: “Practical good, however, is that which determines the will by means of representations of reason, hence not by subjective causes but objectively, that is, from grounds that are valid for every rational being as such. It is distinguished from the agreeable, as that which influences the will only by means of feeling from mere subjective causes, which hold only for the senses of this or that one, and not as a principle of reason, which holds for everyone.” (Kant 25) Kant’s point here is precisely that reasons (what he thinks of as “principles of reason”) have a universal character. This universal character implies that if I have a reason to do something, then this same reason is going to be a reason for any other person to act in a similar way.[6]
The Case for (TR)
We can now state the case for (TR). If God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then, given the normative independence thesis, it follows that there is some factor that counts in favor of God’s so-commanding and that this favoring relation (which is a normative relation) is prior to and independent of God. Given the action feature constraint, it also follows that this factor must be some feature(s) of Φ. Call this feature(s), F. Given the universality constraint, it follows that F is, to use Kant’s words, grounds for every rational being. That is, if F is a reason, it cannot merely favor God’s commanding that we Φ; it must favor the similar actions of any rational agent. Now, the act of commanding that someone Φ is not the same act or even the same kind of act as Φ-ing. But, given the action feature constraint, we know that F is a feature of Φ. It is obscure how some feature of Φ could count in favor of commanding that some person Φ but not count in favor of that person Φ-ing.
I do not take this argument to be a knock-down argument that establishes, with certainty, that (TR) is true. As I said, the three features of reasons that I listed (normative independence, the action-feature constraint, and universality) strongly suggest that if God has some reason(s) to command that we Φ, then those same reasons are reasons for us to Φ. Strongly suggesting is not the same as proving. What is true is that there is a strong prima facie case for (TR) and thus anyone who wishes to deny it must show what is wrong with the above argument in its favor. I suggest that the case hinges on whether (and if so, to what extent) it is possible that there can be factors that favor God’s commanding that we Φ that do not also count in favor of our Φ-ing. I invite readers to try to discover any examples of this.
There is one other point worth mentioning. I said that the normative independence thesis might be the most significant consideration that favors the conclusion that morality is independent of God. The reason is, once again, related to the connection between morality and reasons. As I pointed out above, when we say that someone should or ought to do something, we are implicitly claiming that there are reasons to do that thing. If there are reasons, that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands that count in favor of God’s commands, then there is every reason to believe that there are reasons for us that exist prior to and independent of God’s commands. Among these reasons, there may be reasons that are powerful enough and of the right sort that they constitute moral reasons. In other words, once we grant the normative independence thesis, there is no obstacle to believing that there are moral reasons for us that are prior to and independent of God’s commands. Importantly, this point holds regardless of whether my argument for (TR) is successful. Even if the reasons that favor God’s commands are not reasons for us, the normative independence thesis strongly favors the conclusion that some factors or others favor our actions prior to and independent of God’s commands.
In my next post, I will more carefully consider the case in favor of Premise 4 of the arbitrariness argument.
 


[1] Mark Murphy makes and explains this distinction in his An Essay on Divine Authority.
[2] Different versions of MDCT offer different accounts of this making relation. On Philip Quinn’s view, God’s commands cause an action to be morally obligatory. On Robert Adams’ view, the relation is an identity relation. That is, the property of being morally obligatory just is the property of being commanded by God. Such distinctions are irrelevant to the points about arbitrariness that I will be making in this post.
[3] There are a couple of reasons for this. First, NDCT is implausible on its face in a way that is completely independent of Euthyphro-type concerns. Why would it be that there is only one supreme ethical principle and why would it have this particular content? Why not some other principle, such as that sentient creatures should not be harmed gratuitously? Once we acknowledge that there is at least one ethical principle that is independent of God’s will, it seems that there is no principled reason to think that there is only one such principle. Second, my aim in this series is to show that there are moral truths that are independent of the will of God. In as much as NDCT entails that there is at least on such truth, NDCT is consistent with this conclusion and does not threaten it.
[4] See Wierenga for an example of this response.
[5] I will discuss axiological value and its connection to modern divine command metaethics more thoroughly in a future post.
[6] It is important to keep in mind here the distinction between a pro tanto reason and reasons all-things-considered. My point is that if I have a reason to do some act, then this will be a pro tanto reason for any other person to perform a similar act in similar circumstances. This pro tanto reason, of course, might be outweighed by other factors present in circumstances that vary from my own. I discuss what it means for a reason to be pro tanto in my post, “On reasons and what they do.”


Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mary Gregor (trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1998
Murphy, Mark C.  An Essay on Divine Authority. Cornell University Press, 2002.
Thibodeau, Jason “God’s Love is Irrelevant to the Euthyphro Problem” forthcoming in Sophia.
Wierenga, E. “A defensible divine command theory.” Nous 17.3 (1983): 387-407.
 

bookmark_borderThe Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 1: The Question and the Options

The Euthyphro dilemma has been used for centuries as a basis for undermining theories that account for moral value in virtue of God’s will, activities, and/or nature, including various versions of Divine Command Theory (DCT)[1]. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century the arguments directed against DCT that are grounded in this dilemma came in for sustained and penetrating criticism, especially from those philosophers who were attempting to articulate and defend modern versions of DCT. As a result of such criticism, anyone looking into recent scholarship about the dilemma will frequently find philosophers claiming that the objections to DCT stemming from the Euthyphro dilemma have been undermined or refuted. By no means is this the consensus view of professional philosophers, but I think that, within the specialized sub-discipline of theistic ethics, there is a widespread view that the Euthyphro problem has been effectively enfeebled. Here are some examples of philosophers making claims to this effect:

the Euthyphro Dilemma has been, in our estimation and in that of many others, definitively answered in the recent literature . . . (Baggett and Walls, 6)

In light of these reasons, there seems to be no reason to take the Euthyphro dilemma seriously. (Copan 167)

It is my contention that what is generally construed as the Euthyphro Dilemma as a reason to deny that moral facts are based on theological facts is one of the worst arguments proposed in philosophy of religion or ethical theory, and that Socrates, the character of the dialogue who poses the dilemma, was both morally bankrupt in his challenge to Euthyphro, but more importantly here, ought to have lost the argument hands down. (Peoples, 65)

In short, a nuanced divine command theory can finally put Socrates’ troubling question to rest. Arguments for the autonomy of ethics can no longer rely on the Euthyphro problem to undermine the conceptual coherency of theistic approaches. (Milliken, 159)

I will argue that the Euthyphro dilemma represents no threat to the DCT. (Joyce, 50)

Adams’ version of a DCT evades this dilemma by holding that God is essentially good and that his commands are necessarily aimed at the good. This allows Adams to claim that God’s commands make actions obligatory (or forbidden), while denying that the commands are arbitrary. (Evans)

And here is a video of William Lane Craig articulating the view that the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for DCT:
 

The claims that Craig makes to the effect that the Euthyphro dilemma has been refuted, as well as the similar claims I quoted above are all deeply problematic. The Euthyphro dilemma, and the arguments it gives rise to are not some of the worst arguments proposed in ethics or philosophy of religion. The Euthyphro dilemma has not been definitively answered. There is no relevant third option available for defenders of DCT. And no modern version of DCT has been shown to effectively evade the dilemma. Indeed, my considered view is that no version of DCT can evade the problems associated with the Euthyphro Dilemma; that the dilemma poses a mortal threat to all versions of DCT, including modern versions defended by philosophers like Robert Adams, John Hare, C. Stephen Evans, and others. In a series of posts, I will carefully explain the dilemma, the different aspects of what is often called the “Euthyphro problem,” and the objections to divine command theories that the dilemma gives rise to. In addition, I will look at the most influential and significant responses that have been offered to the dilemma and show how and why these responses fail.
My goal in this introductory post is to carefully explain the nature of the dilemma. The dilemma comes from a question that provides two options that are mutually exclusive. I will explain the question, state and explain the two options for answering the question, and explain why the options are mutually exclusive.
As Craig says in the above video, the Euthyphro dilemma takes its name from one of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro. The central philosophical issue of the dialogue is the nature of piety. Euthyphro insists that he knows what piety is, which leads Socrates to ask Euthyphro to explain his account of what it is in order that they might put that account to the test. Thus, the initial question that guides the dialogue is, “What is the pious?” and Socrates makes it clear to Euthyphro that, in asking this question, he is looking for that characteristic (or characteristics) in virtue of which all pious things are pious.
The answer the Euthyphro gives, once he understands the question, is that the pious is what all the gods love. But Euthyphro’s answer, as it stands, is ambiguous. It is not clear whether Euthyphro intends to indicate merely that the gods love all pious things or, on the other hand, to indicate that the feature in virtue of which something is pious is that the gods love it. Only if Euthyphro intends the later has he provided the kind of account Socrates is looking for. To resolve the ambiguity, Socrates asks the following question:

Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Plato, Grube (trans.), p. 12).

I will call this the Euthyphro Question (EQ). Though I will be offering an interpretation of EQ and an account of the meaning and significance of the question, I am not here interested in the role that Socrates’ question plays in the Euthyphro dialogue nor with offering an account of any argument that Socrates makes in the dialogue. Everything that I say with respect to interpreting what Socrates says is aimed at understanding EQ and not at getting Plato’s or Socrates’ argument right.
EQ presents two options, which options are mutually exclusive. That they are mutually exclusive is a point that I will return to, but for now let us get clear on what the options are. They are

(A) The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious.

and

(B) The pious is pious because it is loved by the gods.

There is one potentially interesting but, for our purposes, probably irrelevant issue that I will briefly mention and then set aside. As it appears in the dialogue, a natural interpretation would have it that Socrates’s question involves an attribution of the property of being pious to the form of the pious. Option (B), for example, seems to be saying that the form of the pious is itself pious because the gods love it. It is an interesting problem for Plato that the forms seem to exemplify the properties of which they are the forms; that, for example, the form of the good is itself good. The prospect that they do exemplify themselves yields a famous objection to Plato’s theory of the forms, namely the third man argument, which Plato raises and considers in his dialogue Parmenides. While this is an interesting argument (and has applications that extend beyond Plato’s theory of the Forms), it is not relevant to the Euthyphro dilemma. This is because, despite the wording of the question given above, we need not interpret Socrates as making any claim or asking any question that implies or assumes that the form of the pious is pious.
What Socrates is saying, in offering option (B), is not that the form of the pious is pious because the gods love it, but rather that a pious thing is pious because the gods love it. To eliminate this potential confusion, I suggest the following revised versions of (A) and (B):

(A1) Pious things are loved by the gods because they are pious.

(B1) Pious things are pious because they are loved by the gods.

With that potentially complicating issue out of the way, we can now turn our attention to clarifying what the two options are saying. As currently stated, the options can be misunderstood. EQ uses the word ‘because’ twice, once for each option, but importantly, ‘because’ does not have the same meaning in (A1) as it does in (B1). This is probably the most important point when it comes to understanding the Euthyphro dilemma: ‘Because’ is not univocal in (A1) and (B1).[2] The ‘because’ in option (A1) indicates motives or reasons while the ‘because’ in option (B1) indicates a making (or in-virtue-of) relation. To get clear on this distinction, notice that the two options are accounts of distinct phenomena, or, to put it slightly differently, the options are answers to different questions. Option (B1) is an attempted account of what it is that makes something pious. It is an attempt to answer the question, “In virtue of what is something pious?” or “What is the feature (or features) that makes something pious?”  Option (A1) does not attempt to answer this sort of question, rather, option (A1) is a proposed account of why the gods love pious things. It purports to answer the question, “Why do the gods love pious things?” or “For what reason do the gods love pious things?”
So now we have two questions that correspond to the two options in the dilemma. They are:

(Qa) For what reason do the gods love pious things?

(Qb) In virtue of what feature(s) is something pious?

Option (A1) is a proposed answer to (Qa). Option (B1) is a proposed answer to (Qb). Given this, we can see that the ‘because’ in option (A1) is not the same ‘because’ as that in (B1).
Let me say a bit more about the ‘because’ of (B1). When we say that some object, o, possesses some feature, f, because the object satisfies some other predicate, P, we are saying that o is f in virtue of the fact that o satisfies P. Another way of saying this is that what makes it the case that o is f is the fact that o is P. Thus, to say that something is pious because the gods love it is to say that an object is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it, or, equivalently, that what makes something pious is that it is loved by the gods. This in-virtue-of/making relation is not necessarily a causal relation. We should not think that Socrates is looking for a feature that causes pious things to be pious. Some making relations are causal relations, but not all. That is, while a causal relation is often a making relation, not all making relations are causal. When an umpire calls a pitch a strike, that makes it the case that it is a strike (it is a strike in virtue of the fact that the umpire called it a strike), but it would not be correct to say that the umpire’s calling it a strike causes it to be a strike. The upshot is that when Socrates ask what it is that pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious, he is not asking for what causes them to be pious.
Thus, options (B1) can thus be reworded as follows:

(B2) Pious things are pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them.

And option (A1) can be made more clear by rewording it as,

(A2) The reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious.

These options are mutually exclusive. That is, if we accept option (A2) then we cannot accept option (B2) and if we accept (B2), then we cannot accept (A2).
And this leads us to the crux of the dilemma: if Euthyphro is offering an account of what makes something pious, then, on his view, something is pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love it. But if something is pious in virtue of the facts that the gods love it, then it cannot be that the gods love it because it is pious. On the other hand, if the gods love pious things because they are pious, then their being pious is logically prior to the god’s loving them; and therefore, things cannot be pious in virtue of the fact that the gods love them. To put it succinctly, option (A2) logically rules out options (B2) and option (B2) logically rules out option (A2).
In the context of the dialogue this is significant because, if Euthyphro maintains that (A2) is the correct answer to Socrates’ question (as in the dialogue, he does), then he has not offered an account of the pious. That is, if Euthyphro thinks that the reason that the gods love pious things is that they are pious, then, since on this option it cannot be that what makes something pious is that the gods love them, Euthyphro, in saying that the pious is what all the gods love has not thereby told us what all pious things have in common in virtue of which they are pious. This is a purely logical point: If the reason that the gods love a pious act is that it is pious, then the act’s being pious is logically prior to the gods’ loving it. And, if what makes an act pious is the fact that the gods love it, then the gods’ loving it is logically prior to its being pious.
I will offer two analogies that I hope will make this point clearer:
Example 1: Film Quality
Suppose you are talking about films and film quality with a friend and you want to know what the characteristics are that make a film good. Suppose your friend says something like, “Ultimately, a good film is one that I like.” You might ask, in the manner of Socrates,

(Qf) Do you like good films because they are good or are they good because you like them?

 For this question, the two options are

(C) You like good films because they are good.

Or, in other words,

(C1) The reason that you like good films is that they are good.

And

(D) Good films are good because you like them.

Or, in other words,

(D1) What makes a film good is the fact that you like it.

In asking (Qf), you are attempting to determine whether your friend is offering an account of what makes a film good or is merely indicating that she likes films when and because they are good. Option (D) offers an account of what makes a good film good. Option (C) offers an account of the reasons why your friend like good films. If your friend answers (Qf) with (C), then she has not answered your original question, which just was the question of what features make a film good. We know this because if the reason that she likes good films is that they are good, then their being good is logically prior to her liking them. On (C), a film must already be good before she likes it. If, on the other hand, what makes a film good is the fact that she likes it, then it cannot be that the reason that she likes it is that it is good. That is, if (D) is correct, then her liking a film is logically prior to its being good and thus its being good cannot be her reason for liking it. If there is a reason for her liking it, it must be something other than that it is good.
Example 2: To-do List
Henry has been presented with a list of things that need to be done around the house. The list includes tasks such as replacing a faulty electrical outlet, cleaning the kitchen floors, repairing the leaky bathroom faucet, etc. Suppose we ask,

(Qt) Are the tasks on the to-do list on the list because they need to be done or do they need to be done because they are on the to-do list?

For this question, the two possible answers are,

(E) The reason that the tasks are on the to-do list is that they need to be done.

(F) The tasks need to be done in virtue of the fact that they are on the list.

If the reason that a task is on the to-do list is that it needs to be done, then it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the to-do list. And this for the purely logical point that if the reason that the task in on the list is that it needs to be done, then its being a task that needs to be done is logically prior to its being on the list.
If (E) is correct, then, as Henry tries to think of what additional tasks to add to the list, he will try to think of tasks that need to be done. And, as he discovers additional tasks that need to be done, he will add them to the list; and the reason that he will add them to the list is that they need to be done. But, precisely because of this, it cannot be that a task needs to be done in virtue of being on the list. It is only added to the list if it needs to be done; thus, its needing to be done must be logically prior to its being on the list.
In this example, (E) is obviously the correct answer, and (F) is implausible. But to understand the nature of the Euthyphro dilemma, we should consider (F) and its logical implications. Thus, if a task is something that needs to be done in virtue of the fact that it is on the list, then it cannot be that the reason it is added to the list is that it needs to be done. In this case, if Henry is considering what new tasks to add to the list, he cannot add a task to the list because this task needs to be done. That is, Henry’s reason for adding it to his list cannot be that the task needs to be done since nothing can appear on the list (and thus need to be done) until it is on the list. This is a purely logical point: a task is not one that needs to be done, on (F), unless and until it is on the list. On (F), Henry can add things to the list, but he cannot add them to the list because they need to be done. If he does add items to the list, he must add them to the list for some other reason than that they need to be done since, on (F) they are not tasks that need to be done prior to their being on the list.
Notice that if (F) were the correct option, then even if Henry do not know that (F) is correct, it cannot be that his reason for putting something on the list is that it needs to be done. And, again, this is for the purely logical point that, if some task’s needing to be done is for it to be on the list, nothing could be a task that needs to be done unless it was already on the list. Henry might think that the reason that he has added a task to the list is that it needs to be done, but since, on (F), what makes a task one that needs to be done is that it is on the list, it cannot be that a task’s needing to be done is a reason for (counts in favor of) its being on the list. And this is so, on (F), regardless of whether Henry knows this or not.
So, if (E) is true (F) cannot be true; and if (F) is true, (E) cannot be true.
EQ and DCT
I will close with some observations about how the (EQ) applies to DCT. Suppose we believe that our moral obligations are those actions that are commanded by God. We can ask, in the manner of Socrates,

Does God command that we perform morally obligatory actions because they are morally obligatory or are they morally obligatory because they are commanded by God?

The options for answering this question are:

(I) The reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory actions is that they are morally obligatory.

(II) Morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.

One important point is that these options are mutually exclusive. Just as with the two examples just discussed (and for the same reasons), if the first option is true, the second cannot be true and if the second option is true, the first cannot be true. And so, we have the following two claims:
Claim 1: If the reason that God commands that we perform morally obligatory action is that they are morally obligatory, then actions cannot be morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them.
Claim 2: If morally obligatory actions are morally obligatory in virtue of the fact that God commands that we perform them, then the reason that God commands that we perform them cannot be that they are morally obligatory.
No modern version of the divine command theory or defender of such theory has refuted Claim 1 or Claim 2. If the Euthyphro Dilemma has been defeated and/or effectively answered, it is not because Claims 1 and 2 have been shown to be false.
Since DCT accepts option (II), it follows from DCT and Claim 2 that the reason that God commands that we perform obligatory actions cannot be that they are morally obligatory. This is the source of the Euthyphro problem for DCT. It is unclear what reasons God could have for commanding that we do something other than that it is morally required. Since DCT rules this out, it appears that DCT might imply that God can have no reasons for his commands. I will discuss this issue in my next post.
 


[1] ‘Theological voluntarism’ is the name for the class of moral theories that ground moral properties in the will of God. ‘Divine command theory’ names of a class of voluntaristic theories that ground moral properties in God’s commands. The Euthyphro problem is a problem for all versions of theological voluntarism, but in this series, I will be focusing on versions of DCT.
[2] S. Marc Cohen provides a good explanation of the equivocal nature of the word ‘because’ in the Euthyphro dilemma in his “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.”


Works Cited
Baggett, D. and Walls, J. (2011). Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford University Press.
Cohen, S. M. “Socrates and the Definitions of Piety: Euthyphro 10A-11B.” Reprinted in The Philosophy of Socrates. Gregory Vlastos (ed.) University of Notre Dame Press, 1971
Copan, Paul. “The Moral Argument,” in The Rationality of Theism. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (eds.) New York: Routledge, 2003.
Copan, P. and Moser, P. K. (2003) The Rationality of Theism, New York: Routledge.
Evans, C. Stephen, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/moral-arguments-god
Joyce, Richard (2002). “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (1):49-75.
Milliken, J. (2009). “Euthyphro, the Good, and the Right.” Philosophia Christi 11 (1):149-159.
Peoples, G. (2010). A NEW EUTHYPHRO. Think, 9(25), 65-83. doi:10.1017/S1477175610000084
Plato, (2002 ) Five Dialogues: Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, G.M.A. Grube (trans.) Hackett Publishing company.

bookmark_borderMatthew Flannagan and Jason Thibodeau Discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma

On Saturday (9/22) I was privileged to join Matthew Flannagan for a dialogue about the Euthyphro dilemma. Cameron Bertuzzi of Capturing Christianity hosted the dialogue and livestreamed it from the Capturing Christianity YouTube channel. I did my best to explain why I think that there are some compelling Euthyphro-inspired objections to divine command theory, and Matthew offered powerful and thoughtful responses to these objections. In my humble opinion the conversation was thorough, thoughtful, and friendly. It is one of the most rewarding conversations I have had about the Euthyphro problem.
Many of the regular readers out The Secular Outpost will know that Matthew is an expert in the field of theistic ethics (you can watch one of his lectures about divine command theory and the Euthyphro problem here.)  He is the co-author, with Paul Copan, of Did God Really Command Genocide? He and I have had some exchanges about Euthyphro and divine command theory here at the Secular Outpost and also at his blog (see, e.g., here and here). I have always had a great deal of respect for the intellectual rigor he brings to any discussion. I learned a great deal from Matthew during this conversation (as well as in our previous exchanges) and I want to thank him for sharing his considerable knowledge and intellectual talents.
I also want to thank Cameron for hosting this discussion and for the work he does at Capturing Christianity, which brings together theists and non-thesists in friendly dialogue. He regularly hosts very good conversations about topics in the philosophy of religion, apologetics, and counter-apologetics.
You can watch the entire discussion below.
 

bookmark_borderThibodeau on the Real Atheology podcast

I recently appeared as a guest on an episode of the Real Atheology podcast. The co-hosts, Ben Watkins and John Lopilato, and I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma and its implications for divine command theory. You can listen to the episode below.
Ben and John are great hosts and I want to thank them for inviting me. You can find Real Atheology on Facebook and YouTube; and download and listen to other episodes of the podcast here (or wherever you download podcasts). If you enjoy philosophy of religion (and why else would you be reading this blog?), I highly recommend subscribing to the podcast. Ben, John, and their co-host, Ben Bavar (who does not appear in this episode) are thoughtful, careful, and well-informed and they have terrific guests.

 

bookmark_borderWhat could God’s commands do for morality?

Consider the following version of divine command metaethics (DCM):

Our moral obligations are constituted by divine commands. In particular,
F is morally obligatory = God has commanded that we F
F is morally wrong = God has commanded that we not F
F is morally permissible = God has neither commanded that we F nor commanded that we not F.

On this theory, God’s commands constitute moral obligations and thus, in the absence of divine commands, there are no moral obligations.
Suppose that God exists in the actual world and has issued many commands. Among the commands that he has issued is the following:
Thou shalt not torture innocent children.
Now consider a possible world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God exists but has not given any commands. Call this the no-divine-command-world or world-NDC.
Importantly, in world-NDC God has all of the same characteristics that he does in the actual world. This implies that, in world-NDC, God approves of all of the same actions that he approves of in the actual world and that God disapproves of all of the same actions that he disapproves of in the actual world.
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NDC, let’s call him Bill, is trying to decide whether it would be wrong for him to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering and God strongly disapproves of it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
This piece of reasoning should strike us as very odd. In knowing that the act causes unnecessary suffering and that God disapproves of the act, doesn’t Bill know enough to conclude that it would be wrong for him to torture the child? What could the fact that God commands that we not torture add to the relevant list of facts Bill already knows? However, on the version of DCM that we are considering, Bill’s reasoning is impeccable.
But Bill’s reasoning is not impeccable. It is seriously flawed. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Bill might produce instead:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, God strongly disapproves of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
We might respond to Bill’s reasoning as follows:
We know that, if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command to not torture have to do with whether torture is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God has or has not issued a command about torture is not a morally relevant fact about torture because it is not even an intrinsic feature of torture. That is, it is a fact about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God has actually commanded that we not torture is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his disapproval tells us about the act of torture. A perfectly loving being strongly disapproves of torture. If this is relevant, it is relevant only because it means that the action has features that give God reasons for disapproving of it. That is enough to tell us that the act has features that give us moral reasons to not engage in it. And that implies that, even in the absence of a divine command, the action has features that make it wrong.
Now consider another possible world—a world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God does not exist. Call this world the no-God-world or world-NG. [I think that world-NG is the actual world, but we are here assuming, for the sake of ease of expression, that God exists in the actual world. Nothing depends on our making this assumption.]
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NG, call him Paul, is trying to decide whether it is morally wrong to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
According to DCM, this reasoning is impeccable. But this is wrong. Just as with Bill’s reasoning, Paul’s reasoning is seriously flawed. Given what Paul knows about torture, namely that it causes severe needless suffering, he knows enough to know that it would be wrong to torture a child. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Paul might produce instead:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, and, if God existed, he would disapprove of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage child torture.”
We might respond to Paul as follows:
We know that, if God did exist, he would strongly disapprove of the act of torturing children and that if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command have to do with whether the action is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command or whether God actually disapproves of the act, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God does or does not approve of and has or has not issued a command about torture are not morally relevant facts about torture because they are not even intrinsic features of torture. That is, they are facts about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God disapproves of torture or the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God disapproves of torture and commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God actually disapproves of torture or has actually commanded that we not do it is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually disapproves of something or commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his responses would reveal about the act of torture. What matters is that the object has features that would lead to God’s disapproving of the act and commanding that we not engage in the act. When we know that a perfect God would disapprove of torturing children and would command that we not torture children, we know enough to know that torture is wrong. And this is because what we know is that torture has features in virtue of which a perfect God would disapprove of it and command that we not do it. And these features are what make it wrong, not God’s commands.