Friday, April 14, 2023

On Vallier's Trinitarian Contractarianism

Kevin Vallier recently received the Marc Sanders Foundation 2023 Philosophy of Religion prize for his paper, Trinitarian Contractarianism (PDF) . It does not start out promisingly in its discussion of natural law theory and divine command theory:

These theories share a weakness. They cannot explain the social character of moral obligations between functioning adult humans. I understand obligations as duties that enable mutual accountability and allow us to sanction and blame one another for violations. This practice of responsibility defines obligation’s social character. Promissory obligations illustrate. When John promises Reba to help her, she can insist that he keep it. Promissory duties have social character. 

Natural law theorists offer no account of the social character of obligation. They have often held that obligations come from the commands of a superior, and God in most cases.  In this way, their strategy for explaining social character resembles that of DCT.

This argument doesn't even make the tiniest bit of sense. Aquinas's account of law defines that kind of obligation as a promulgated rational ordering to common good by one who has the responsibility for what is common. Obligations in natural law theory are relative to the community (another way one can translate 'what is common') and get their authority from the goods we share in common; precepts of natural law themselves are requirements of practical reason directed to the good shared by all rational animals, a good which forms them into the human community. Obligations of law don't come "from the commands of a superior" in any form of natural law theory; they come from reason. That's why it is called 'natural law theory'; it is concerned with the law natural to human reason. Obligations of law are originated by one to whose care the community is entrusted; but Aquinas (and many others) is lucidly clear that the natural caretaker of any community is the community itself, cooperatively caring for their shared good. Under the precepts of natural law are various other kinds of obligations and moral requirements that have derivative obligatory force, like positive laws, officia, parental counsels, contracts, and so forth, and all of them are varied and different from each other entirely depending on the kind of community or subcommunity involved or our relations to such communities and subcommunities. Vallier throughout the entire paper falsely claims that natural law precepts depend on divine commands in natural law theory; in natural law theory, divine commands give you divine positive law, which God promulgates under various covenants with particular communities. Natural law is not based on divine command but immediately on reason, and remotely on our participation in divine reason.

The summary of divine command theory is only marginally better:

Divine command theorists attempt to capture the social character of obligation by explaining obligations in terms of a relationship between one God and human beings. This is not a bad strategy. However, DCT explains obligation in only one direction—from God to human persons— and so does not explain the social character of our obligations to one another. Social character implies reciprocity with obligees, but creature and creator lack relations of reciprocity—the obligations are too one-sided.

No divine command theorists hold that all obligations are to be understood in terms of "a relationship between one God and human beings"; only the most fundamental and general obligations are. Divine command theorists generally do have an account of mutual or reciprocal obligations -- they get their force from an obligatory framework established by the authority of an obligating superior. Legal contracts, for instance, get their obligatory authority from contract law established by legislative authorities. We see the problem in clear highlight a little later:

So, imagine that God commands John to keep his promise to Reba and authorizes them both to hold John responsible for violations. Promissory obligations now travel together with accountability relations. But they are the wrong kind of accountability relations because John and Reba’s accountability relationship is with God, not with one another. Even if God tells John to keep his promise for Reba’s sake, nothing changes. John only owes his promise to God. Divine commands can only create obligations to God, not to others.

This is as absurd as saying that Congress or a state legislature can't pass a law that makes one citizen have obligations and accountability to another. "Oh no!" we might say, "John isn't obligated to Reba under contract law, he's only obligated to the state legislature!" This is not how positive laws work, and divine command theory is the view that all moral obligations are divine positive laws. Obviously a legislator acting within legislative authority can impose an obligation that in particular circumstances, determined by law, makes one person or group accountable to another.

It looks very much like almost all of Vallier's understanding of both of these positions derives from Mark Murphy, particularly God and Moral Law. I suppose I'm not surprised by that; God and Moral Law is not a very good book, starting from page one with the poorly motivated and developed distinction between explanandum-driven and explanans-driven explanations (His attempt to explain the latter uses an example that involves a straightforward and obvious switching of explananda), and the argument requires accepting the false view that moral facts must bottom out in moral laws and also a loose analogy between moral laws and laws of nature that doesn't seem to get the modal properties of the moral theories correct. (And indeed, the analogy seems to be muddled simply as an analogy, since Murphy's demand that God be an immediate explainer is not a concurrentist but an occasionalist demand, and Aquinas develops his natural law theory in part with an explicit view to his concurrentist view of providence rather than to any conservationist one, and most forms of divine command theory are clearly not occasionalist in structure because general obligators can empower others to obligate, so Murphy seems to have done nothing but muddle everything into next Wednesday.) It's a really good example of a book that should have been refined for a few more years before being formally published. Start with a bad framework, you get bad results. Both natural law theory and divine command theory are actually families of theories that have far more resources to handle criticisms than one would imagine from the characterizations of them that one finds in Murphy and Vallier.

The main positive argument of Vallier's paper, trying to ground interpersonal obligations on a norm of mutual love, is less bad, but (1) it does not actually provide an explanation of the norm as a norm, and (unsurprisingly, when one reflects) such a norm would in any case either have to be naturalistically or positivistically understood; (2) our interpersonal obligations are based directly on justice, not love; love is the basis of friendship, in a very broad sense of the word, and while friendship is in some ways even more fundamental than justice, people have been pointing out since Aristotle at least that friendship goes beyond any obligations. Vallier's mistake is in part assuming that his premise "The Trinity is to be imitated" implies obligations (it seems to presuppose them) and in part assuming that a general claim like this, without further information, can authorize as a norm a very, very specific conception of how it is to be done.

Some slack should be allowed for the fact that the essays submitted for the Prize are fundamentally supposed to be programmatic, laying out a foundation for research rather than a culmination, but this is a case where the foundations need immensely more work.