Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On an Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Theory

John Danaher has a very interesting post at "Philosophical Disquisitions" on the epistemological objection to divine command theory. It gives good material for looking at a number of weaknesses in how analytic philosophers have tended to approach the subject. He presents the argument as follows:


(1) According to DCT, for any given moral agent (S), an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) exists if and only if God commands S to X (or refrain from X).

(2) A theological stateist theory of moral obligations fails to account for the existence of obligations unless the moral agents to whom the obligation applies have knowledge of the relevant theological state.

(3) DCT is a theological stateist theory of moral obligations.

(4) Therefore, DCT fails to account for the existence of an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) unless S has knowledge of God’s commands (from 1, 2 and 3)

(5) If there are reasonable non-believers (i.e. people who don’t believe in God and who do not violate any epistemic duties), then they cannot have knowledge of God’s commands.

(6) There are reasonable non-believers.

(7) Therefore, on DCT, moral obligations fail to exist for reasonable non-believers (from 4, 5 and 6)

(8) DCT cannot be a satisfactory theory of moral obligations if it entails that moral obligations do not exist for reasonable non-believers.

(9) Therefore, DCT cannot be a satisfactory theory of moral obligations.

There are a number of problems with this kind of objection. As long-time readers may know, although not a divine command theorist myself, whenever I face what is supposed to be a general objection against divine command theory (as opposed to an objection against this or that particular form of it), I always ask, "How do the assumptions about divine command theory in this objection compare with the divine command theory laid out in one of the classic texts on divine command theory as a philosophical account, William Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses?" And as long-time readers may also know, the answer that usually comes up is that they don't align -- Warburton in the eighteenth century had often already formulated his divine command theory in a way that is immune to the objection.

So let's start with (1) itself. Warburton would regard (1) as false, at least as stated. Obligations on his account do not require that God command S to X (or refrain from X). Any genuine authority with good and informed power of sanction can obligate. The obligations that require divine command on his account are only the obligations that require a universal authority. That is, Warburton's account calls on God for moral obligations in a strict and proper sense, as applying to all rational beings whatsoever. This is actually quite important for divine command theory generally, because one of the often overlooked strengths of a divine command theory is that if you are (unlike me, but like a lot of people) inclined toward a positivist theory of law, then it offers you a unified theory of obligation, moral as well as legal. The divine command theorist simply holds that we should take a positivist approach to law as correct for all obligations, including the most universal. (Legal positivists in general tend to want to have a sharp separation between moral obligation and legal validity that would block this. But the divine command theorist, of course, will simply argue that we talk about law in moral terms and morality in legal terms, and we do tend to talk about legal obligations created by legislators, and we can still make a perfectly reasonable distinction between your legal obligations and moral obligations by simply taking the latter to be more universal.) Thus (1) as stated is too broad.

I'll look at premise (2) in a moment, which brings us to (3). 'Theological stateism' here means: "The view that particular moral statuses (such as good, bad, right, wrong, permissible, obligatory etc) depend for their existence on one or more of God’s states (e.g. His beliefs, desires, intentions, commands etc)." It is in fact unclear that commands in general are 'states' in the sense that beliefs, desires, and intentions are. They certainly don't have to be states of mind. If Congress passes a law, we don't need to know the states of mind of Congress; we need to know what the command is, which is not a state of mind, but an actually promulgated standard. Now, it does seem to be true that commands depend on something we might call a 'state', somewhere in the chain, in the sense that a full explanation of a command will appeal to the agent commanding it. But it is quite clearly an indirect matter, and it is not clearly that the state itself is all that significant a factor in determining what is in fact commanded. Thus, while we can grant (3), we will have to be very careful about what kind of dependence is being assumed, throughout the rest of the argument, whenever 'theological stateism' is mentioned.

Premise (2) is too strong. The basic rationale for (2) is derived from an argument by Robert Adams, based on contracts. However, it is stronger than Adams' argument actually requires. (At least the one actually given -- I don't have Adams' work with me at the moment, but nothing Danaher says on his view strikes me as implausible based on what I recall.) If you have a contract, your actual knowledge of the terms of the contract is not generally relevant to the question of your obligation. If you sign a contract without looking at it, then, assuming there was no fraud, you are still obligated. The reason is that the contract was available in such a way that there is no particular excuse for not knowing. But we can even intensify this. Consider a different, and more analogous kind of obligation-making: legislation. No one regards your legal obligations as dependent on whether you have knowledge of it; all that matters is whether it was properly promulgated. Given this, it doesn't matter whether you know; it doesn't matter whether it was easy for you to come to know; it might even have been impossible for you, in particular, in your practical circumstances, to know. What does matter for promulgation is whether people who need to obey the law could generally come to know it through some standard channel. Thus (2) at least needs qualification -- it holds a 'theological stateist' account of obligation to a standard no one in practice regards as necessary to any theory of obligation.

Thus we are already running into problems getting (4). The fact that (1) is stated too broadly ends up not being a problem, because (2) and (3) both narrow things down to moral obligations. But (4) quite clearly requires that we have the full strength of (2), and (2) is much too strong for most obligations -- we can be obligated without knowing exactly what we are obligated to do, e.g., through our own negligence, when the obligation could generally have been known, or was commonly known by typical citizens. We only require that laws be broadcast, not that they be narrowcast to every person subject to them; and yet we take laws to obligate even people who missed out. At the same time, no one takes obligations to require knowing the states of the legislator; if no one were obligated by laws of Congress unless they knew the states of minds of the legislators, it would be very difficult determine what purported laws we should obey. In reality, no one ever cares about the state of Congress, except sometimes courts for interpreting difficult cases; all they usually want to know is what, in fact, was promulgated.

As Danaher notes, (5) and (6) are also controversial; I won't discuss them here.

We can sum up all of the problems above by looking at the argument in a different way. One of the big questions that always needs to be asked when assessing any argument against divine command theory is this: Does the argument make any sense if we lower the authority in question from universal to particular? Divine command theory is a form of moral positivism in which the acts of an authority with universal scope of sanction are taken to be the only thing that establishes fully moral obligations. But divine command theorists have historically tended to see obligations on a scale, as noted above in discussing (1), with fully moral obligations as just the obligations of most general authority. So let's consider the argument for a lower authority: a human legislature and the legal obligations it creates.

(1) At this level, for any given citizen (S), an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) exists if and only if the legislature passes a law for S to X (or refrain from X).

(2) A legal stateist theory of moral obligations fails to account for the existence of obligations unless the citizens to whom the obligation applies have knowledge of the relevant legal state.

(3) This theory is a legal stateist theory of legal obligations.

(4) Therefore, it fails to account for the existence of an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) unless S has knowledge of the laws passed by the legislature (from 1, 2 and 3)

(5) If there are reasonable noncompliants (i.e. people who are citizens, but don't know about the legislature and who do not violate any epistemic duties), then they cannot have knowledge of the laws passed by the legislature.

(6) There are reasonable noncompliants.

(7) Therefore, on this account, legal obligations fail to exist for reasonable noncompliants (from 4, 5 and 6)

(8) This account cannot be a satisfactory theory of legal obligations if it entails that legal obligations do not exist for reasonable noncompliants.

(9) Therefore, This account cannot be a satisfactory theory of legal obligations.

I don't think the account in question would make a satisfactory theory of legal obligations; but none of this argument makes any sense as a reason for saying that. There's no obvious reason to think that the account's 'stateist' in the sense required; and (2) would be an unreasonable standard even if it were, because it seems to require assuming that the dependency of the command, qua command, on the state is much closer than it actually is. It is true that the explanation of the laws passed by the legislature requires consideration of the state of the legislature; but knowledge of that state is not required for knowing the laws themselves. And that's even assuming that one strictly needs to know the laws in order to be obligated by them, which is not how we generally handle laws -- we hold that laws need to be promulgated, but as long as certain basic conditions of promulgation are met, we can still be obligated by them. If our failure to comply really is due to innocent and honest ignorance, we may well take that into account when determining sanction (or whether to suspend sanction in this case), by taking it as exculpatory, but we don't in fact hold that the obligations do not exist at all -- and it is at least not obvious that they don't.

It's also worth noting that the reverse is true, as well: one can be in compliance with one's obligations without knowing what they are. This is blatantly obvious in the legal case. If we return a moment to Warburton, Warburton argues that we are in fact set up so that, all other things being equal, we will tend to comply with our obligations, because God has given us two things that do not constitute our obligations but tend to converge on them -- a moral sense of appropriate and inappropriate that can be cultivated into good moral taste, and a rational ability to identify better and worse in the abstract. But we are also set up in such a way that thinking in terms of obligations is relatively easy for us, so it's not surprising that even atheists tend toward thinking of moral life in these terms -- particularly, since, as Warburton also insists, atheists tend in general to get at least significant portions of their morality, directly or indirectly, from a broader culture that usually includes a great many theists. He just doesn't think they can do this coherently, since he argues that all obligation requires an obligating authority with adequate scope of sanction, and the scope of sanction for moral obligations would have to be universal. And it's worth noting, perhaps, that Warburton doesn't hugely care whether atheists themselves are obligated; what that ultimately means is just that atheists have no coherent theory of moral obligation, so all their actual moral life is really just moral feelings and calculation, so any time they say 'murder is wrong' they are saying, at most, 'murder is bad taste and poor sense'. This is entirely true, Warburton holds, but neither the 'bad taste' nor the 'poor sense', nor any combination of the two together, gets us an obligation of universal scope.

There are issues with promulgation when it comes to divine command theory; but to try to understand these issues in epistemic terms, as this argument does, just seems to get everything all wrong.

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