bookmark_borderDoes Theism Explain the Necessity of Moral Truths?

The book, Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate, contains a transcript of the debate between William Lane Craig and Antony Flew, responses by eight commentators, and final responses by Craig and Flew. Many of the commentators, including some of the theists, sharply criticized Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence because, they argued, some moral truths are necessary truths and so do not need an explanation. Let’s call this objection UNMT (for ‘Unexplained Necessary Moral Truths’).
In his reply to commentators, as I read him, Craig replied as follows: (i) Christian theists who press the UNMT objection do not believe that God’s existence is logically necessary, whereas “the mainstream Christian tradition has held that God’s existence is broadly logically necessary, so that He can be the explanatory basis of necessary truths” (169). (ii) Necessary truths can stand in relations of explanatory priority to one another; indeed, there is such a thing as “explaining that (or why) a necessary truth is true” (169).
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with (i). Assume for the sake of argument that the proposition, Objective moral values exist, is true in every possible world but that the proposition, God exists, is not true in every possible world. In that case, God couldn’t be the explanation for objective moral values, since it would be impossible for a contingent truth (in this hypothetical, God’s existence) to explain a necessary truth (the existence of objective moral values). This hypothetical shows that, in order for it to be even possible for God’s existence to explain the existence of objective moral values, God’s existence has to be necessary. In other words, “Theism expresses a necessary proposition,” is itself a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for God’s existence to explain necessary truths, including necessary truths about the existence of moral values.
As software engineers might say, this is a bug, not a feature, in Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. If Craig’s moral argument requires that theism be a necessary proposition, then it is much more likely that theism is necessarily false (and so God cannot be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values) than that theism is necessarily true (and so it is possible that God might be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values). Why? Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper explains the point well.

Suppose that theism is not a contingent proposition. Then it is much more likely that it is necessarily false than that it is necessarily true. This is made clear by any objective comparison of the available reasons for thinking that theism is necessarily true to the available reasons for thinking that it is necessarily false. The former are limited to various versions of the ontological argument, which is almost universally rejected by philosophers. Indeed, even Plantinga admits that this argument fails to prove its conclusion. The latter include a whole host of serious arguments for the incoherence of theism. Keep in mind that I’m not convinced by these arguments for the necessary falsehood of theism, but they are clearly more persuasive collectively than the notoriously unpersuasive ontological argument. Further, theism asserts that the natural world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person, which assumes, not only that there is a maximum possible degree of power, knowledge, and moral goodness, but also that these three attributes are compatible with each other and with the existence of natural entities. Even ignoring specific arguments, clearly it is much more likely that some hidden incoherence lurks in the assertion that there exists a creator of nature possessing the highest possible degree of several distinct scaling properties than in the simple assertion that no such creator exists. Therefore, if I am mistaken and theism really is a necessary proposition, then it is very probably a necessary falsehood, which means that my assumption in my opening case that it is a contingent proposition is not only dialectically appropriate (for the reasons given in the previous paragraph), but dialectically generous. (LINK)

But let’s put that to the side and assume that God’s existence really is broadly logically necessary. If that were so, how would it follow that God’s (necessary) existence somehow explains the (necessary) existence of objective moral values?
A bit later in his response to commentators, Craig offers some clarification on the concept of a “moral value.” Regarding the metaethical position I call moral anti-reductionism (which Craig calls ‘atheistic moral Platonism’ but is far better known by the horrible label ‘non-naturalism’), Craig writes this:

First, it is difficult even to comprehend the Platonist view. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value Justice just exists? It is hard to know what to make of this. It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but is bewildering when it is said that, in the absence of any people, Justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions – or at any rate, it is hard to know what it is for a moral value to exist as a mere abstraction. (169, italics in last sentence mine)

Craig’s selection of “justice” as his example of a moral value is odd. Craig is aware of the distinction between moral values and moral duties; indeed, he emphasizes it in his writings. But most definitions of “justice” introduce the concept of law through the back door. For example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on justice with the words:

Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts.  The word comes from the Latin jus, meaning right or law.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due,” offering the word “fair” as a synonym. (LINK)

In this context, “law” and “right” (including “morally right”) are deontological (duty) concepts, not axiological (value) concepts. This muddies the waters; if we say that “justice” is a moral value, it seems to be a different animal from other moral values which don’t refer to deontological concepts in their very definition. Perhaps we might call “justice” a ‘second-order moral value,’ since it is a moral value which is conceptually dependent upon a deontological concept, and say that we want a first-order moral value, a value which doesn’t combine concepts. Fortunately, Craig provides other, neater examples: mercy, love, and forbearance (170).
Here I want to use moral values like mercy or love to show that God’s necessary existence is not a sufficient condition for explaining the necessary existence of moral values. If moral values like mercy or love “exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions,” it would seem that they are relational and so would require that two or more persons exist. But, even if we assume that (mere) theism is necessarily true, the proposition, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition. Mere theism doesn’t entail Christian theism, which in turn means it does not entail the Christian doctrine of the trinity is true, and so it does not entail the existence of multiple divine persons. Furthermore, mere theism doesn’t entail the existence of any non-divine persons. So, even if it were the case that theism is necessarily true, it wouldn’t follow that more one person exists.
But if, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition, this creates a problem for Divine Nature Theorists (DNT-ists) like Craig who want to argue that God’s nature explains all objective moral values, including relational moral values like love and mercy. Sure, there is a sense in which we can talk about a person loving themselves or having mercy on themselves, but I think it’s clear that not what people usually have in mind when they talk about “love” and “mercy” as moral values. (Besides, it’s hard to imagine how or why God would have “mercy” on Himself.) So if moral values are properties of persons; if some moral values are relational; and if “More than one person exists” is a contingent proposition, then there are possible worlds in which God exists but relational moral values do not exist. Thus, God’s existence, even God’s necessary existence, cannot explain necessary truths about all objective moral values because it cannot explain necessary truths about relational moral values. But that entails Craig’s moral argument fails.

bookmark_borderDivine Commands and Informative Identity

Last week I had an exchange with Matthew Flannagan on divine command theory (DCT) in the comments section of the post “Does William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?” I raised some standard Euthyphro-type objections and asked for his response. He graciously replied even though he has treated the topic in much greater depth and detail elsewhere, particularly in his book, coauthored with Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books, 2014), and in his article “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” in Philo Vol 15, #1. I hope to respond at much greater length to his full treatment. In the meantime, I cannot resist making a few preliminary points in reply to his challenging comments in defense of DCT.
In my comments I offered the following statement of the “arbitrariness” horn of the dilemma:

“…it certainly seems intuitive for very many that moral goodness is not something that can be established by fiat, not even the command of an all-powerful being. Neither a consequentialist nor deontologist metaethic would countenance the possibility that sheer assertion can make an action morally worthy or unworthy. That bearing false witness, e.g., is wicked is not something that can be established by naked proscription, not even the proscriptive utterance of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. For any such command to have authority, it must have the backing of some creditable axiological basis (e.g. The Categorical Imperative; The Principle of Utility). To deny that commands need such a basis would seem to have the disastrous consequence of making might equal right, that is, the rules we must follow become the ones arbitrarily imposed by those with the power to punish.”

Matt, replies that I have construed DCT as a theory of moral goodness, whereas he intends it as a theory of moral obligation. Actually, I am not sure that these topics are easily separable. Surely, it is necessary that an act be morally good for it to be obligatory. Of course, the moral goodness of an act is not sufficient for it to be obligatory, since the act could be one of supererogation rather than obligation. However, that an act is morally obligatory does appear to entail that it is morally good, and so nothing, not even a divine command, can make an act obligatory if it is not morally good. Therefore, God’s command per se cannot make an act morally obligatory unless, in addition to and independently of that act of command, the act has the quality of moral goodness. So, divine command alone seemingly cannot be the whole story of moral obligation, but let’s see the rest of Matt’s arguments.
Matt is willing to allow my objection to be rephrased so that it addresses the claim that the DCT is a theory of moral obligation. He quotes Wes Morriston’s statement of the arbitrariness dilemma, a statement which I endorse:

“Either God has good reasons for his commands or he does not. If he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation. If he does not have good reasons, then his commands are completely arbitrary and may be disregarded. Either way, the divine command theory is false.”

Matt comments:

“I agree the second horn of this dilemma that if God lacks good reasons for commanding as he does they are completely arbitrary. The real bone of contention is the first Horn, and I just think this horn is false.”

So, Matt apparently accepts (second horn) that if God does not have good reasons for his commands, then his commands are arbitrary. Put simply, the moral authority of a command, even God’s, cannot issue from the command itself. Rather, the command’s prescriptions or proscriptions must be just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making quality. If, on the other hand, the command lacks such a right-making quality, then it has no moral authority, however august or powerful the commanding agent might be. Thus, the Jim Crow laws of the State of Mississippi fifty years ago, though backed by duly constituted legal authority, had no moral authority since they contravened fundamental principles of justice, arbitrarily reducing nearly half the state’s population to second-class citizen status.
He expresses the first horn of the dilemma, the one with which he disagrees, as follows:

“COND: If God has reasons for commanding as he does, then those reasons (and not God’s commands) are the ultimate ground of moral obligation.”

However, Matt sees the phrase “ultimate ground of moral obligation” as ambiguous and suggests two possible interpretations:

“…’ground of moral obligation’ as I see it this can have several different meanings. Sometimes when we talk of one thing being the ‘ground’ of a moral obligation, we refer to some property, distinct from the property of being morally obligatory, which stands in an asymmetric dependence relationship to this latter property, so that the existence of the latter depends on the former. This is often what people mean when they talk of a right making property. A second use of the phrase ‘ground of moral obligation’ refers to what Mark Murphy calls an explanation in terms of informative identification, such as when ‘we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.’” (emphasis in original)

On the first interpretation of “ground of moral obligation,” an act A can be morally obligatory only if A possesses some property, distinct from being morally obligatory, which, as Matt says, stands in an “asymmetric dependence relation” with the property of being morally obligatory. It is the former property that people normally refer to as the “right-making property.”
Matt says that he accepts that moral obligation must have grounding in the first of the above senses Matt therefore appears willing to accept each of the following propositions:
(1) If God’s commands have moral authority, then God has morally good reasons for his commands.
(2) “…if God has reasons for commanding as he does, then there is a property distinct from the property of being obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”
Matt is willing to accept these propositions because he holds that they are compatible with the claim that moral obligation is also grounded in the second sense of grounding, which he takes as the core claim of DCT. In that second sense, to say that moral obligation is grounded in divine commands is to offer an explanation of moral obligation in terms of informative identification, as we do when we say that water is H2O or that heat is molecular motion. Matt puts it like this:

“DCT doesn’t deny that there can be properties distinct from the property of being obligatory, which ground that latter property in this sense. What a DCT typically claims, or at least in the form advocated by Adams, Craig, Alston and Evan, is that God’s commands ground moral obligations in the sense that moral obligations are informatively identified with Gods commands.”

From (1) and (2) it follows by hypothetical syllogism:
(3) If God’s commands have moral authority, then “…there is a property distinct from the property of being morally obligatory that is such that moral requirements exist because this property does.”
And what might that property be? It cannot be God’s act of command itself. As Matt admits, being commanded, per se, cannot explain moral obligation. An arbitrary or immoral command has no moral authority, and so can impart no moral obligation. Rather, a command has moral authority only if its imperatives are just, fair, equitable, or evince some other right-making property. In that case, it is not the command, per se that accounts for the obligatory nature of the imperative, but some other property that authorizes the command. If God’s commands have moral authority, then something other than God’s commands must account for that authority.
The upshot that the DCT as Matt construes it is false. What makes an “informative identification” informative? It is that such an identification plays an explanatory role. Identifying water as H2O permits us to explain the observed properties of water, such as the fact that it expands when it freezes, in terms of the nature of the water molecule, its atomic constituents and the bonds that form between them. Likewise, the phenomena of heat are explained by the identification of heat with rapid molecular motion. Similarly, the apparitions of the Morning Star are explained with reference to the constitution and orbit of Venus.
However, identifying moral obligation with divine commands tells us nothing at all unless we are further assured that all of the commands will possess some right-making property (e.g. they will be just, fair, righteous, equitable, etc.). In that case, what does the informing is the adduced right-making property, not the fact of command. When you are told that water is H2O, you have been told everything you need to know to understand the physical properties of water. When you are told that a morally obligatory act is commanded, that alone tells you nothing about why the act is morally obligatory. You must in addition be told what morally authorizes the command.
It appears, therefore, that “The morally obligatory is what is commanded by God” is not an informative identification like “H2O is water,” or “heat is rapid molecular motion.” Therefore, DCT as Matt construes it must be false.