Friday, February 08, 2013

The Stupid Way of Arguing Against Divine Command Theory

I'm not really sure what to make of the fact that it is also the nigh-universal way of arguing against it.

The stupid way of arguing against divine command theory (we'll make it More Logical the way philosophers do by turning words into letters and call it SWAADCT), goes like this.

(SWAADCT) Given divine command theory D, and given the assumption that God commands some awful thing A, D would require that A be obligatory.

Notice, incidentally, that I admirably continue the practice of turning words into letters to make it More Logical. Yes, I have been reading some dimwitted discussions of divine command theory that engage extensively in the practice of making things More Logical.

All mockery of the ritualistic behaviors of analytic philosophers aside, this is a truly stupid way to argue against anything. Divine command theories are accounts of obligation itself. Thus, if we are already assuming them even for the sake of argument, saying, "Suppose that God commands some awful thing" is equivalent to saying "Suppose that this awful thing is the kind of thing that would make it obligatory". We have therefore assumed arbitrarily that some awful action has the obligation-making feature required by the theory we are assuming for the sake of argument and then are shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that it logically follows that the awful action is obligatory.

Obviously this is the sort of fun we can have with any account of obligation:

(SWAAU) Given a utilitarian account of obligation U, and given the assumption that some awful thing A is required to maximize utility, U would require that A be obligatory.

(SWAAK) Given a Kantian account of obligation K, and given the assumption that some awful thing A is required by the categorical imperative, K would require that A be obligatory.

Mix and match! Make your own!

Or you know, you could just concede that when your refutation of a position consists of "But when I arbitrarily add assumptions about what fits the account's criteria for obligation, I sometimes get unacceptable conclusions", your conception of how to do meta-ethics is pretty obviously bankrupt.

There are, of course, non-stupid ways of arguing against divine command theory. Catherine Trotter Cockburn has a number of arguments worth taking seriously, for instance. And it is well known that divine command theories suffer most of the problems of legal positivism, and for at least some of them cannot take the usual escape routes that legal positivists take, for the obvious reason that divine command theories are forms of moral positivism and thus merely a way to generalize legal positivism.

UPDATE: For additional discussion on why this approach to divine command theory is a no-go, see my follow-up post.

24 comments:

  1. You can of course generalize further still (as anyone on the receiving end of this noise can tell you): when your refutation of a position consists of "But when I arbitrarily add assumptions about what fits the account's criteria for [X], I sometimes get unacceptable conclusions", your conception of how to do [X type of philosophy] is pretty obviously bankrupt.

    And yet, somehow, not obviously enough, if the target is Something Already Known to be Bad (pick your example).

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  2. Kenny Pearce11:21 AM

    I actually think this is a good argument (or at least there is a good argument in the neighborhood), but the anti-utilitarian version is actually stronger than the anti-DCT version, and people are often confused about what the premise is. The argument should have this form:

    (1) According to theory T, if it were the case that C, then action A would be obligatory.
    (2) But it is not true that if it were the case that C, then A would be obligatory.
    :. (3) T is incorrect.

    The reason the anti-utilitarian case is strongest is that you can get C to be something which is close enough to the actual world for our intuitions to be pretty reliable (if our intuitions are ever reliable). This is how the lynch-mob objection works.

    Note that this doesn't amount to 'arbitrarily adding assumptions': the claim is that the theory has a prior commitment to the conditional, even if the theorist rejects the antecedent of the conditional.

    Now, on a voluntarist DCT, the case may be pretty similar to the utilitarian case. But voluntarism has independent problems, like trying to figure out what non-trivial claim we might be making in saying that God is good, etc. So suppose we've got an intellectualist DCT. Then the conditional in question will be a counterpossible. Many philosophers, including some who argue in roughly this way, think that all counterpossibles are trivially true. Anyone who thinks this can't consistently put this type of argument forward against an intellectualist DCT. But I think that some counterpossibles are false and, furthermore, that I know some of them to be false. One of the counterpossibles I know (or at least reasonably believe) to be false, is this one: if, per impossibile, God commanded torturing infants for fun, torturing infants for fun would be obligatory. I take it the divine command theorist (even if she is an intellectualist) is committed to the truth of this conditional, and I find that commitment unacceptable. I think it's still unacceptable even if the antecedent is impossible. This seems like a good argument to me. (Incidentally, I'm inclined to accept all of the analogous Kantian conditionals that I can think of.)

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  3. Andrew Sepielli11:33 AM

    I don't read much of the DCT literature, but I'd be surprised if the SWARASFSDFT way of putting the argument is "well-nigh universal". The problem with DCT seems to be not that, in conjunction with some plucked-from-thin-air premise about what God commands, it yields an offensive conclusion about what we're actually obligated to do. Rather, the problems seem to be: (1) That the DCT yields offensive conclusions about what to do in (epistemically, metaphysically, logically...) possible worlds in which God commands, e.g., rape or murder; and (2) That the DCT offers an offensive explanation about what explains the wrongness of, e.g., rape and murder. Parallel criticisms of utilitarianism and the rest seem fine, even if not dispositive.

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  4. I'm wondering if the Kantian account of obligation can legitimately be placed in the same boat with utilitarianism or DCT. To say that the categorical imperative would require some awful thing (A) seems to conflict with the CI's formulations. For example, the CI would not require the awful action of lying, whereas DCT (in principle) could.

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  5. branemrys11:52 AM

    That the DCT yields offensive conclusions about what to do in
    (epistemically, metaphysically, logically...) possible worlds in which
    God commands, e.g., rape or murder



    This is just a roundabout way of saying exactly the same thing: given arbitrary assumptions about what can have the relevant obligation-making feature, offensive conclusions follow. That's all possible-world talk does: it's one way of talking about assumptions about what can take place in modal contexts.


    'Wrongness' is, incidentally, the wrong word to use, unless you are using it in a very precise sense; divine command theories are theories of obligation, and every notable divine command theorist since at least Warburton has insisted that violation of obligation is only one way a thing can be wrong.

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  6. branemrys11:56 AM

    Divine command theorists have always insisted that these awful things are in fact inconsistent with any reasonable account of the divine nature, so if you are going to let Kantians off the hook for this reason, you'd have to let divine command theorists off the hook as well. If you are pretending to give a refutation, you don't get to make arbitrary assumptions about what is allowable 'in principle' on a theory, especially when the contradict what major partisans of that theory have said for at least three hundred years.

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  7. branemrys11:58 AM

    This makes the argument massively worse: it would boil down the 'refutation' to the claim that divine command theory as an account of obligation is incorrect (3) because divine command theory gives an account of obligation (1) that is incorrect (2). This is worse than useless.

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  8. branemrys12:05 PM

    I think this is quite right. There are genuine problems with divine command theory (and serious divine command theorists have always recognized that and attempted to address them), but the typical problem with arguments against divine command theorists is that people repeatedly show that they have taken no trouble actually to know what divine command theorists are actually saying. And the reason is that DCT is taken to be Something Already Known to be Bad, so people just repeat the arguments without actually checking to see if they make sense against what a major divine command theorist like (say) Warburton actually said -- it doesn't really matter whether you've done your homework because you're on safe ground, and no one's going to call you out on it.

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  9. branemrys12:16 PM

    To specify a bit further: the conditional arises in divine command theory not because divine command theory is committed to this conditional about this or that A in particular, but only because it is committed to a general conditional linking divine commands to obligations. But every account of obligation is committed to a general conditional linking what accounts for obligation to obligations.



    Further the only way to support (2) for any account of obligation is to argue that the general conditional is false. But this is just the point at issue.

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  10. branemrys12:18 PM

    To specify a bit further: the conditional arises in divine command theory not because divine command theory is committed to this conditional about this or that A in particular, but only because it is committed to a general conditional linking divine commands to obligations. But every account of obligation is committed to a general conditional linking what accounts for obligation to obligations.

    Further, the only way to support (2) for any account of obligation is to argue that the general conditional is false. But this is just the point at issue.

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  11. Andrew Sepielli12:23 PM

    Why do you say that these assumptions are "arbitrary"? It is not inconsistent with the laws of logic that God commands killing the innocent. So it is logically possible that God commands killing the innocent. Mutatis mutandis for conceptual possibility and epistemic possibility.

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  12. branemrys12:35 PM

    Laws of logic are not the relevant standard for whether we are being arbitrary; a refutation of divine command theory has to make an assumption that is logically/epistemically/conceptually consistent with divine command theory. Otherwise you are indeed arbitrarily adding claims to divine command theory. But divine command theorists have never held that divine commands are arbitrary; since at least Warburton they have pointed out that God only commands for good reasons, and have claimed that it is inconsistent with the nature of God to command without good reasons. Since you are not actually establishing that God could or would have good reasons to command the thing, you are simply introducing it arbitrarily without regard for whether it is actually consistent with divine command theory.

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  13. branemrys12:39 PM

    To put the point in another way: It is not enough to assert that God commanding the awful thing is possible -- you have to establish that a divine command theorist is himself committed to it, given his account of divine commands.

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  14. branemrys3:45 PM

    I keep replying to people and then coming up with different ways of saying the same thing, which might be more helpful. But here's a simpler, if more indirect, way of stating it. According to divine command theory in its usual forms, something is a moral obligation if it is the kind of thing that can be commanded by an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good person (namely, God). So what advantage does the categorical imperative have on this particular point? Is there really any kind of awful action that would be rejected by the CI that would be exactly the sort of thing an omniscient and perfectly good being might command?

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  15. Kenny Pearce5:28 PM

    You could say that the argument really does no more than pump anti-DCT intuitions, and if one is REALLY committed to DCT (has not contrary intuitions) then one will be unmoved by it. But one could say something like this about almost any argument. Particular instances of (2) seem intuitively correct to me, and these PARTICULAR instances seem to me to have much more support than the GENERAL statement that DCT is false, and to provide support for it. Again, I suppose that's not a 'refutation' in the sense that it doesn't show DCT is inconsistent or anything like that, but I think a lot of people have similar intuitions and that's what this argument is getting at.

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  16. branemrys6:50 PM

    But this makes the argument somewhat odd, doesn't it? After all, if our intuitions are able to have force here, why are we going into strange hypotheticals and counterpossible situations in order to pump them? Why wouldn't we just have an argument taking a real case everybody recognizes and pump intuitions that in that case it's clearly not the commanded-by-God that makes it obligatory? Once we introduce these hypothetical scenarios, our argument no longer merel y depends on intuitions -- it depends on the divine command theorist actually being committed to the scenario somehow. (No position can be blamed for getting conclusions if we are simply making things up and tossing them in with the theory; they are only responsible for what happens when obligations are glossed in terms of divine commands.).

    Further, these hypothetical scenarios introduce an obvious problem that I note in my follow-up post: they require us to say that DCTists are committed to saying that anything can be an obligation. But no DCTist I have ever come across actually accepts that; what they accept is that anything that is obligatory is so because God commands it. The logic of these two statements is very different, and these hypothetical and counterpossible scenarios do not actually affect the latter one, the one that is strictly the central thesis of DCT, at all.

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  17. Kenny Pearce9:28 PM

    I am assuming that the form of DCT we are concerned with here is divine command metaethics, on which divine commands figure into an analysis of obligation. I take it that analyses ground non-trivial counterpossibles. So even if the DCTist denies that killing the innocent for fun could possibly be obligatory, the DCTist will still be committed to the non-trivial truth of the counterpossible if God should command killing the innocent for fun, killing the innocent for fun would be obligatory. I don't understand how you propose to get out of this commitment, especially since you say in your follow-up that divine commands constitute the obligations. Perhaps, though, if 'God' is used as an abbreviated definite description in the analysans you can get out of these counterpossibles. For instance, since you say we are analyzing obligation, assuming a prior account of goodness, perhaps the analysis should be 'an action is obligatory iff that action is commanded by a being who is maximally good and sole creator of the universe.' This counterpossible actually sounds rather plausible to me: if a being who is maximally good and sole creator of the universe should command killing the innocent for fun, killing the innocent for fun would be obligatory.

    On the more general issue: positions are to be blamed for committing one to the truth of propositions which are not true. This is the case regardless of what kinds of propositions we are talking about. My claim was that DCT commits one to the truth of a class of counterpossibles, many of which are false. (Again, many philosophers think all counterpossibles are trivially true; my charitable reconstruction of the argument depends on rejecting that idea.) Counterpossibles are tricky, but surely you agree about the case of utilitarianism: utilitarianism is committed to the truth of certain claims 'if someone is in circumstance C it is right for her to do A,' and some of those claims are clearly false. It is not an adequate defense to say that the circumstance is unlikely every to be actual. As far as the logic of the situation, it's not even adequate to say that the circumstance is impossible. The only thing that helps in the counterpossible case is that the claim that the conditional is false is on shakier ground. To defend the theory you need to argue either that the conditional is in fact true, or else that the theory is not committed to its truth.

    To me, these particular counterpossible claims seem more obviously true than either the straight denial of DCT or claims of the form it is not due to divine commands that x is obligatory. That's why I think they can be used as a basis for rejecting certain forms of DCT.

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  18. branemrys9:59 PM

    (1) We cannot merely assume that the counterpossibles are grounded; this must be established in terms of the actual analysis of obligations into divine commands.

    (2) The DCTist is only committed to the trivial, not the non-trivial, truth of the counterpossible you name; namely, he is only committed to the formal structure, and the content if that content is actually coherent given the way God commands and given the way God's commands ground obligations. It is not a 'non-trivial' counterpossible to a formal scheme simply to insert impossibilities into it; the counterpossibilities have to be something that have a genuine grounding, and are not merely of the sort "well, if, to take just a completely arbitrary example x were 'killing the innocent for fun', then killing the innocent for fun would be an obligation".

    (3) Positions are to be blamed for committing one to the truth of propositions which are not true only if those positions actually require them on their own. Otherwise we get the trivial result that all positions are to be blamed, since you can take any position and add some assumption to it to get a false proposition as a conclusion.

    (4) I in fact disagree with your analysis of utilitarianism; this is not a general problem for utilitarianism at all, and whether it is an adequate defense to say that circumstance is unlikely to be actual will depend entirely on why it is unlikely and how, precisely, the utilitarianism performs its maximization function. Saying that the circumstance is impossible would, in fact, be an adequate defense unless, despite its impossibility, the utilitarianism itself could not rule it out as a candidate for maximization. Unless you have established that, the theory doesn't even need any sort of defense; vague gestures at a possible problem that might arise are not the sort of thing a theory needs a defense from. We need to establish that it is a problem for the theory in its own terms, not on assumptions to which the utiltiarian (or DCTist) may not even be committed.

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  19. branemrys10:16 PM

    I suppose one thing that might help clear things up is an example of an account of obligation that you think is immune to the kind of argument you are suggesting. As I've pointed out, every account of obligation is committed to a general conditional schema relating the explanation of obligation to obligation in general, which admits of specification to a particular instance of, "Assuming X meets the criteria, X is obligatory." But anything can be, as a merely formal matter, plugged into X for any account of obligation, simply because we are dealing with a formal structure. But an account of obligation is not merely this formal structure; it is a substantive position about the particular things that explain obligation, and this substantive position may rule out some possible values for X. But on the kind of argument you are running, no account of obligation should be at all possible, because you can create these alleged 'counterpossibles' at will.

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  20. Andrew Sepielli10:42 PM

    I guess I was misunderstanding what you took to be part of DCT. As I was imagining it, DCT says that what makes an action obligatory is that it is commanded by God, whether God is perfectly good, or mostly good, or mostly bad, or whatever. But on your characterization of DCT, it says that what makes an action good is that it is commanded by God AND that God is all three "omnis". With that cleared up, a couple of remarks:


    1) DCT still seems vulnerable to another "possible worlds" challenge. It is epistemically possible that God does not exist -- it could turn out that there is no God in this, the actual world. So if DCT is true, then it could turn out that we are not obligated to refrain from actions which cause some people tremendous pain and benefit no one. But it could not turn out that we are not obligated to refrain from such actions. So DCT is false.


    2) I was understanding DCT in the way I was because that's the characterization of the theory on which it has some real explanatory power. Your DCT explains what's obligatory by appeal to what an evaluatively-described person would command. And I mean, I guess that's kinda neat if it works -- going from substantive evaluative facts to facts about obligation. But I would think that what most people in a contemporary context would want is either (a) an explanation, to supplement DCT, of what makes God (or anyone) good that appeals only to non-evaluative facts (and that is not "God approves of himself"), or (b) an explanation of facts about obligation that doesn't go through goodness at all, and appeals directly to non-evaluative facts. Of course, maybe that's not what people have wanted in centuries past -- maybe they've been very concerned with how the gap between goodness-of-persons and obligations could be bridged.

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  21. branemrys11:04 PM

    The argument given in (1) yields the result it does only by assuming already that DCT is false. If we merely take the claim that God does not exist, then DCT could still be true; it would merely happen that the only legitimate moral judgments would not allow for deontic necessities. In order to say that we would still be obligated, we would have to already be assuming the truth of an account of obligation inconsistent with DCT.

    I'm not sure I understand your point about explanatory power. As far as I can see, the (a) branch would require us to say that there are no evaluative facts not reducible to obligations, and I don't know of any actual position on evaluative facts that holds this. What sort of position are you thinking of? And the (b) would rule out virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and Kantianism, all of which are popular positions. Virtue ethics starts with eudaimonianism, utilitarianism with utility, and Kantianism with recognition of categorical and hypothetical goods, all of which are evaluative facts. And logically the demand doesn't make much sense, although I suppose it's not incoherent: obligations are deontic necessities, Box in D or D-like modal system, but you can't pull strong modalities out of the air. The most obvious ways to get such modalities are (a) to take them as primitive or (b) to get them by summing over independently established weak modalities, which are most plausibly seen as evaluative facts or (c) derive them by combining other strong modalities with prior evaluative facts. Obligations are -- by definition -- the strongest possible evaluative fact. Why in the world would any reasonable person try to derive them immediately? It is like -- exactly like, in fact, since they are all strong modalities -- demanding that we develop a criteria for applying the G and H of temporal logics without assuming any prior temporal facts, or insisting that we only get a theory with explanatory force if we give a criterion for necessary truths without assuming anything else about any other kind of truths. This is not obviously even an intelligent demand; I'm again not sure what kind of position you could possibly have in mind here.

    In any case, people are pretty clearly still concerned with the issues surrounding DCT; it's not as if it's difficult to find people who accept it in the larger position. And the usual sorts of arguments against it are bad arguments, based usually on ignorance of the actual position. There is obviously something wrong with that.

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  22. Kenny Pearce12:03 PM

    Like you said earlier, what this comes down to is really an intuition about why certain things are obligatory. Considering counterpossible scenarios can, I think, help us to think through that question. What we want to know is: why is killing the innocent for fun wrong? Granted that it's necessarily wrong, what kind of impossible scenario would have to be actual in order to make it no longer wrong? It seems to me that imagining something different about God or his commands doesn't do the trick, but I do think you've indicated (indirectly) something a DCTist could say, namely, that I'm considering the wrong scenario. If per impossibile God differed in his character, then he wouldn't be the ground of obligation. (Of course, the logic of counterpossibles is tricky, so I'm not totally certain that this conditional actually undermines the other one, but I'm willing to grant that it does.)

    At any rate, as I said earlier, the Kantian conditionals don't seem so bad to me. For instance, consider this one: if killing the innocent for fun were consistent with proper respect for humanity (personhood) as an end in itself, then killing the innocent for fun would not be wrong. Now, insofar as I can determine the matter in introspection, the fact that statements like that seem right to me is among my reasons for being attracted to Kantianism, rather than vice versa, but it is certainly possible that I'm wrong about this (as a matter of my own psychology and intellectual biography). At any rate, surely it is psychologically possible for someone to have strong intuitions about this sort of thing, and take it to be among her grounds when choosing between moral theories. It would be nice to have stronger reasons than these in favor of our preferred moral theory and/or against its competitors, but I don't think that's a reason for denying that these sorts of intuitions have some force.

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  23. branemrys12:52 PM

    Well, I'm very skeptical of the idea that we can trust our intuitions of counterpossible situations, even where we can trust them in actual situations; we always have to work to rule out the possibility that we are being thrown off by the counterpossibility, which is not a kind of modal context that we usually deal with. No doubt it's acceptable to give them a role, but there needs to be some confirmation. (I think this is generally true of intuitions, but it is especially true when dealing with something out of the ordinary like counterpossible situations.)

    The Kantian case is a good one for pointing this out. I see no significant difference here. We still have the awful action, it is still justified according to the same form, and, as I noted to Ed, there doesn't seem to be any obvious way in which "respect for humanity as an end in itself" would really get us different results from "something a perfectly wise and good God would command us to do". (I think it's worth pointing out that Kant himself , despite having no love for divine command theory, would agree with me on this point: in his view, the divine will, while not being the source of obligation, expresses and exemplifies, to such an extent that we can even conceive the moral law as divine legislation for practical purposes, as long as we do not take the moral law to derive its fundamental authority in this way.)

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  24. Andrew Sepielli10:50 PM

    Thanks for the response. I'm finding this helpful. A few comments:

    I don't see how argument in (1) assumes that DCT is false. It does reply on the claim that it could not turn out that we are not obligated to refrain actions that harm innocents and benefit no one. And maybe very few serious DCT proponents will accept this claim. But in my experience, many non-philosophers who claim to believe something like DCT do accept claims of this sort, and are persuaded to reject DCT by arguments like (1).

    Could you say a bit more about why you think that "(a) branch would require us to say that there are no evaluative facts not reducible to obligations"? I'm saying that unless the DCT proponent gives a theory of what makes a person (or a deity) good, he's going to be seen by a lot of people as just pushing the bump under the rug. I don't see why this would imply that whatever evaluative facts there are are reducible to obligations.


    Re: your view that it would be implausible to suppose that we could derive obligation "immediately": It is not so obvious to me that just because obligation is stronger that, e.g., reasons in the way you point out, that it must be posterior in the order of explanation. I mean, knowledge is stronger than justification and evidence, but it is not obvious that we should be giving an account of the former in terms of the latter two, rather than the other way around. Anyway, this is a tough issue, I think.


    Maybe I can illustrate the explanatory power stuff with analogy. Think not about theories of obligation for a moment, but rather about theories of the good. In one scenario, a philosopher, Alice, demonstrates the truth of a theory of the good to the satisfaction of the entire world -- where the theory in question is a fitting-attitudes theory of the good, which says that the good is what is appropriately desired. In the other scenario, a philosopher, Beatrice, demonstrates the truth of a theory of the good to the satisfaction of the entire world -- where the theory in question is a hedonistic theory of the good, which says that pleasure is the good. My suspicion is that, in the first scenario, some philosophers might care, but the rest of the world will be more-or-less indifferent and clashes about what's good will continue almost entirely unabated. By contrast, my suspicion is that, in the second scenario, everyone will care and a world-historical revolution in thought and action will take place as governments with the unanimous support of their people throw money at Experience Machine contractors. DCT as a theory that takes us from facts about the commands of an all-powerful deity to facts about obligation seems to me similar in interest and import to theory Beatrice proved; but I must say that DCT as a theory that takes us from facts about the commands issues *for good reasons* by an all-powerful *and perfectly good* deity seems to me closer in interest and import to the theory Alice proved (except in the ways, noted above and by others, in which it is distinctly implausible). The person in the street cares about getting from the non-evaluative facts to any of oughts, obligations, reasons, duties, rights, wrongs, etc. I don't think she cares so much about getting from facts about commands issued for good reasons to obligations.

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