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Sunday, January 1, 2012

an observation on William Lane Craig's divine command theory

WLC suggests we characterize objective morality in terms of God's nature. In particular, he suggests a form of DCT, that "God's own nature is the standard of goodness, and his commandments to us are expressions of his nature" (On Guard, pp135-6). The obvious reply here is that we can conceive a God whose commandments are morally wrong; so for instance we can envision a God who expresses his nature by commanding, say, a father to sacrifice his son. Clearly this would be an immoral act, and since definitions are true essentially it shows that morality is not defined by God's nature. WLC anticipates this sort of objection, but complains that the envisioned scenario is "logically impossible," on par with suggesting that a square can also be a circle (p136). On his view, of course, that's true enough---but if the contradiction only manifests when we assume DCT in advance, then that just goes to show that DCT is wrongheaded. Since we know human sacrifice is wrong by our moral intuitions, and since we appear to be able to coherently conceive (apart from DCT) a God who expresses his nature by commanding human sacrifice, then clearly morality does not essentially accord with expressions of God's nature.

The solution, then, is not to invoke DCT and thereby beg the question, but rather to show that a God who expresses his nature by commanding human sacrifice is incoherent independent of DCT. Since we cannot define morality in terms of God, we might try instead to define God in moral terms, e.g. to claim that he is moral by definition. However this would prevent us from then defining morality according to God's nature on pain of circularity, hence undercutting the very DCT which WLC wishes to defend. The only remaining alternative in view is to argue without appealing directly to morality itself that God must be the sort of being to behave, ultimately, in accordance with our moral intuitions. But if we permit that sort of move, then we might as well define morality in terms of those moral intuitions directly, without having God play the role of a logical middle man. In other words, by defending against the objection, he concedes a more direct avenue for nontheists to characterize objective morality independent of God.

21 comments:

C.L. Bolt said...

Concerning the act of a father sacrificing his son you claim, "Clearly this would be an immoral act." But presumably this is not clear to some people.

Imagine a people group who worship an entity they call Moloch. The people strive to base their understandings of moral facts upon the will of Moloch, and Moloch commands the sacrifice of some of their children. Hence the Molochian father sacrifices his son to Moloch, believing that clearly, this would be a moral act.

Or consider an atheist man who, for whatever reason, has gotten involved with a secularist cult that requires the sacrifice of his son. The idea of sacrificing his son might very well be repugnant, somewhat like the idea of eating frog flavored icecream is repugnant to him, but as he thinks about the ins and outs of taking the next step in this cult, he realizes that the alleged immorality of the act of sacrificing his son is not really so clear after all.

Or, imagine the Christian who, while finding the idea of a father sacrificing his son to be clearly immoral, does not believe this to be the case with respect the the first person of the trinity sacrificing the second person of the trinity (Isa 53). Indeed, the Christian believes that this is morally praiseworthy!

Not only do moral intuitions differ, but my greater concern here is that I am not sure *why* it is the case that, "Clearly this would be an immoral act." Granted our moral intuitions may inform us that the act is clearly immoral, it does not follow that we know just why it is clearly immoral, unless we take what is moral and immoral to be justified merely in terms of our moral intuitions, but this leads to some concerning consequences given that those intuitions differ.

Thoughts?

C.L. Bolt said...

Sorry - I meant to mention that the banner about Goodness Over God at the top hasn't been updated yet.

Ben Wallis said...

Chris,

Well first we should notice that whether or not it is clear to everyone else won't change the observation about DCT nor its consequences. It is sufficient in this case to know that human sacrifice is wrong without knowing precisely why it is wrong.

But in the cases you describe, I think even they would understand that their actions would not be moral in the sense we mean it here, i.e. something which comports well with our moral intuitions in today's civilized society. They might use the same utterance "moral," but they would have something very different in mind by it than we do. So it might be "moral" in the language of the Moloch-worshipers to sacrifice one's child, but it's not "moral" according to the language that you and I use here in our present social context.

Of course, there are genuine examples where moral intuitions conflict given the same fixed meaning for our moral language. But human sacrifice is not one of them.

Ben Wallis said...

Oh, and thanks for letting me know about the podcast message being out of date. But I think I'll wait to update it till the next time we have one, since (hopefully) that will be less than two days.

Hezekiah Ahaz said...

For Ben:


http://hezekiahahaz.blogspot.com/search/label/Counting

Hezekiah Ahaz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reynold said...

I thought that this human sacrifice that was being referred to was Abraham being tested to sacrifice his son Isaac.

As for the "trinity" that can't really count as a "father-son relationship" since he was basically sacrificing himself to himself, can it?

Hezekiah Ahaz said...

Ben,

Where do we get those "moral intuitions' from?

C.L. Bolt said...

Thanks Ben.

Reynold,
I can't speak for what Ben had in mind, but you're probably right.

Re: Trinity - that doctrine does involve a father-son relationship; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons within orthodox Trinitarian thought. The Father bruises the Son per the text I cited. HTH

Tyrel said...

I'm afraid I adamantly agree with Craig, and thus I do not accept the premise that we can coherently conceive of a God who issues immoral commands. It seems to me that suggesting that we 'seem' to be able to conceive this is about as useful as somebody saying they 'seem' to be able to conceive of a maximally great being not existing. Only if one is a non-cognitivist with respect to a necessary being, or 'God', can one get away with saying anything as provisional as "it seems we can imagine 'God' issuing immoral injunctions." This is ultimately tantamount to saying something like "it seems possible that God can do the logically impossible."

If what one means by the word 'God' just entails by definition that goodness is his nature, and that his actions always reflect his nature, then one cannot imagine 'God' acting in any bad way (a way which is ~ good).

I think Craig is right.

Tyrel said...

I'm afraid I adamantly agree with Craig, and thus I do not accept the premise that we can coherently conceive of a God who issues immoral commands. It seems to me that suggesting that we 'seem' to be able to conceive this is about as useful as somebody saying they 'seem' to be able to conceive of a maximally great being not existing. Only if one is a non-cognitivist with respect to a necessary being, or 'God', can one get away with saying anything as provisional as "it seems we can imagine 'God' issuing immoral injunctions." This is ultimately tantamount to saying something like "it seems possible that God can do the logically impossible."

If what one means by the word 'God' just entails by definition that goodness is his nature, and that his actions always reflect his nature, then one cannot imagine 'God' acting in any bad way (a way which is ~ good).

I think Craig is right.

Hezekiah Ahaz said...

Ben said,

" It is sufficient in this case to know that human sacrifice is wrong without knowing precisely why it is wrong"


This sounds to me like:

"we know it's wrong"

and why is it wrong?

"we don't know but we know that's it's wrong"


This is nothing but an appeal to emotion wrapped in a circle.

Reynold said...

Tyrel
I'm afraid I adamantly agree with Craig, and thus I do not accept the premise that we can coherently conceive of a God who issues immoral commands.
So like Craig then, you have no problem with genocide?

Ok. What would you consider "immoral" then?

Ben Wallis said...

Tyrel,

Even if you don't accept the notion that we can (broadly) coherently conceive God issuing immoral commands as expressions of his nature, that doesn't justify rejecting the notion. I usually take our current conceivability as a guide to broad logical possibility, but if you aren't persuaded by that then so be it. But we still need some reason independent of DCT to think that it is incoherent.

My observation is that any such independent reason must concede the option to more directly characterize morality, without having God as a logical middle-man. So in the defense of DCT, WLC must acknowledge the viability of nontheistic moral theories.

--Ben

Hezekiah Ahaz said...

Reynold,

What's "wrong" with genocide?

Tyrel said...

Concerning conceivability and broad logical possibility:

Would you say that 2+2=5 is logically possibly true. Probably not, but it would be meaningful even if self-contradictory. However, wouldn't you agree that 2+2=red is wrong for a more subtle semantic reason? It isn't properly relating it's subject to the predicate according to the language-game in which this kind of sentence is understood. This is a key distinction.

Consider further the following: "God can create a square-circle"

It seems to me that this sentence is not true. However, it also seems to me very clear that this sentence is not false. It cannot have a truth value assignment because it commits a mistake analogous to 2+2=red since it isn't properly relating its subject to its predicate. Notice that it isn't just 'false' by reason of a self-contradiction (Square circle is a self-contradiction in terms) but the way the sentence is issued it cannot in principle be a proposition at all, since it doesn't propose anything intelligible at all.

Now, coming to sentences like the following "God could not exist" or "God could issue immoral commands" etc.
The only way we have of talking about them is 'provisionally' since anybody who understands the referent of the word 'God' to be a maximally great being understands that God exists necessarily and goodness is his nature etc. Obviously Michael, for instance, is a non-cognitivist with respect to a necessary being, but that is just the problem, in a strong sense he is a non-cognitivist with respect to what a Theist means by 'God'.

Remember that all sentences spoken about God are (and have to be) issued in a language game of 'analogy' rather than an equivocal language game. Having this in mind, it isn't difficult to see that the statement "God could issue immoral commands" is wrong for the same reason the sentence: "God could make a rock so heavy he could not lift it" is wrong, and the sentence "I can taste the touch of the colour 9" is wrong. It doesn't properly relate its subject to its predicate according to the language-game in which it is issued.

I plan to post more on semantics and logic on my blog soon, so I had these things already in mind.

Finally, if something like 'square-circle' is incoherent it is incoherent for different reasons than 'shmogoosh' is incoherent. In neither case do I have the faintest idea what is being referred to, but in one case the language game I am presumably speaking shows me that it isn't possible for it to have a referent. When I say I cannot conceive of God issuing immoral commands, I don't mean that I have a limited imagination with respect to God, but I mean that it is incoherent in this stronger sense.

Ben Wallis said...

Tyrel,

If I understand you correctly, your objection centers on the fact that God is taken to be a "maximally great being" (MGB), where we take maximal greatness in turn to exclude any hint of immorality. Given these facts, it is contradictory to suggest God should issue an immoral command as an expression of his nature.

However, I don't see that this approach salvages DCT. For maximal greatness, at least as Plantinga defines it, depends on the pre-existing concept of moral goodness. Furthermore, it sounds like you want to determine that God is MGB by definition. But this leads to a circularity whereby we define moral goodness in terms of God, God in terms of MGB, and MGB in terms of moral goodness. One of these links in the chain will have to go.

Suppose we decline to define MGB in terms of moral goodness. Then consider that to the extent I can imagine MGB, I can also imagine a being which is maximally great in ever respect except morality. In other words, I can imagine a being which is all-powerful, all-knowing, etc., but quite immoral. Let's call this an immoral but "otherwise maximally great being" (OGB). But if we strip the definition of MGB of its moral component, then an immoral OGB is MGB, and we end up back with our original problem of God issuing immoral commands.

Suppose instead we decline to define God as MGB. Then we will have to choose a different definition for God, and then show that God is MGB. To make our task easier, let's define God (at least in part) by being OGB. Then it remains only to show that God is (maximally) moral. Recall that there is no apparent contradiction between MGB and an immoral OGB. So we must add to our definition restrictions/prescriptions on God's behavior such that it will comport well with our moral intuitions. But then to the extent that it is possible to explicate such restrictions/prescriptions, we can more directly characterize morality as correspondence to those restrictions/prescriptions, undercutting DCT by rendering it superfluous.

The only remaining alternative is to avoid defining morality in terms of God, which excludes DCT.

--Ben

Reynold said...

Hezekiah Ahaz:
What's "wrong" with genocide?
And Hezekiah goes ahead and shows the moral bankruptcy of the theist. Without biblegod to tell them that it's wrong (except of course when he commands people to do it) they have no reason to see that genocide is wrong.

The welfare of the human race---they don't care

having a safe society for their children, friends and family---they don't care

being able to empathize with others (to be able to put themselves in others shoes) to be able to understand what it'd be like to be the victims---they don't care

Long story short, any reason that an atheist or any person of any fucking moral standards, really, for being moral will be dismissed by the theist as somehow being not good enough.

All they're doing is showing that without biblegod belief holding them back, is that there's nothing stopping them from being complete monsters as Hezekiah has just shown.

Hezekiah Ahaz said...

Reynold your emotions are irrelevant to the discussion.
Try and reserve yourself it's embarrasing just because you don't like something doesn't make it wrong.

Ben Wallis said...

Apparently I'm having a problem with name-calling in the comments. Let me be clear, this is not permitted. I do not think it's too much to ask that you behave like adults instead of sixth-graders.

Reynold said...

So, Hezekiah has shown that I was right: Without biblegod to tell him that it's wrong, he sees nothing wrong with genocide.

Note that he ignores all the reasons that I have previously given and just pretends that it's "Just because I don't like it" is the reason that it's wrong.