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Monday, 23 March 2009

Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I

In a debate with William Lane Craig at the University of Colorado, Michael Tooley stated,
There is a theory which has the consequence that there cannot be objective moral laws unless God exists---that's the so-called 'divine command theory of morality'. What it says is that an action is wrong because and only because God forbids it. And an action is obligatory because and only because God demands it. If that theory were right, then there would be an argument in support of the claim that Dr. Craig has advanced. But that theory is quite a hopeless theory because of its implications. One of its implications, for example, is that if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible, then it would follow that that action was obligatory. Perhaps Dr. Craig would be happy with that consequence. But many people, including many religious thinkers, are very unhappy with that consequence, and so have rejected the divine command theory of morality.[1]
Tooley here appeals to a version of the Euthyphro dilemma; his argument contains two premises.

First, that a divine command theory has a certain implication; it implies the following conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible.

Second, Tooley thinks many people would be unhappy with this implication. Now I think Tooley is correct that the aforementioned conditional is an implication of the divine command theory. His phrasing of the second premise, however, is problematic; his stated reason is that many people are not happy with this implication but it is unclear why this is an objection. The fact that some people do not like an implication is hardly an objection against it. What is relevant is whether the conditional is true. For this reason, I take it Tooley is engaging in a rhetorical flourish and actually contends that this conditional is false.

The crucial contention of Tooley’s critique, then, is that the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible,is false. There are some problems with this contention. There are no reasons for thinking the conditional is false and there are good reasons for thinking the conditional is true. In the next two blogs I will defend these claims.

Reasons for Thinking the Conditional is False
The crucial contention of Tooley’s critique then is that the conditional if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible, is false.

Unfortunately Tooley provides no argument for this conclusion, he simply asserts it. An examination of the literature suggests that typically two lines of argument are offered for this contention. Given Tooley offers no new reasons of his own, I will assume that he has one of these in mind.

David Brink’s Argument against the Conditional
The first is mentioned by Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King
DCT [divine command theory] implies that it is possible for any kind of action, such as rape, to not be wrong. But it seems intuitively impossible for rape not to be wrong. So, DCT is at odds with our commonsense intuitions about rape.[2]
A similar line of argument is made by David Brink who states,
We might also notice a counter intuitive implication of voluntarism. Voluntarism implies that all moral truths are contingent on what God happens to approve. … Thus, for example, had God had not condemned genocide and rape, these things would not have been wrong, or, if God were to approve these things they would become morally acceptable. But these are awkward commitments, inasmuch as this sort of conduct seems necessarily wrong.[3]
Brink here uses the examples of genocide and rape; however, I suggest that he would say the same thing about Tooley’s example of ‘commanding people to torture each other;’ hence, for clarity I will stick with Tooley’s example.

Brink’s inference here has two premises; the first [1] is that the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible, implies that it is possible for the act of ‘torturing people as much as possible’ to be obligatory. The second premise [2] is that it is impossible for the act of ‘torturing people as much as possible’ to be obligatory; such things are necessarily wrong, that is, wrong in all logically possible worlds. If [1] and [2] hold, the conditional Tooley refers to is false.

The problem with this inference is that [1] is false. The conditional uses the term “if”, if God had … but this does not by itself imply that there is a logically possible world where such an action is obligatory. To get this conclusion one needs the additional premise that there exists a possible world where God issues such a command. Brink does not offer any reason for thinking this is the case; he seems simply to take it for granted.

It seems dubious, however, that this assumption is true. Tooley defines God as “omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect”.[4][Emphasis added] Similarly, in his debate with Craig he states,
I want to begin by briefly indicating how I'm going to understand the term 'God' in this next discussion. My view is that the question one should ask is, "What characteristics should an object possess in order to be an appropriate object of religious attitudes?"

I think that the answer to that is that a being, to be characterizable as God in that sense, should be a personal being, should be a being that is morally perfect, a being that is omnipotent, and a being that is omniscient..[5][Emphasis added]
So, as Tooley defines his terms, the claim that there is a possible world where God commands people to ‘torture one another as much as possible’ is true only if there is a possible world where a morally perfect omniscient person would command this action.

This is unlikely. The very reason Tooley cites the example, of ‘torturing others as much as possible,’ is because he views it as a paradigm of an action which can never be obligatory. Similarly, Brink mentions actions like rape and genocide because he thinks it’s impossible that such actions could be permissible. However, if this is the case then a morally perfect being would never command such actions. The argument by Brink, therefore, is unsound.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Argument
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong suggests a second line of argument for the falsity of the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible. Armstrong states,
Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counter-factual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.[6] [Emphasis added]
Armstrong uses the example of rape in place of Tooley’s ‘torturing one another as much as possible’. He claims that “even if God in fact never would or could command” such actions, the relevant counterfactual still follows and “that is absurd.”

Armstrong gives no argument for the claim that the counterfactual is absurd, he simply asserts it as obvious. The problem is that it is not obvious. If there is no logically possible world where God issues such a command (and Armstrong concedes for the sake of argument that this is the case) then the conditional (which Armstrong refers to as the counterfactual) has a logically impossible antecedent; it is equivalent to statements like “if there were a round square, its area would equal the square of one of its sides.”[7] Whether statements like this are true or false is a difficult issue in contemporary modal logic. In fact, according to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional with a logically impossible antecedent is always true.

Armstrong’s suggestion, then, that the conditional is obviously true is far from obvious and in fact, runs contrary to the standard view of such conditionals in modal logic.

In my next post I will look at attempts to overcome this.

[1] Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig A Classic Debate on the Existence of God held at the University of Colorado at Boulder, November 1994, transcript available at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5307#section_3 accessed on March 21st 2009.
[2] Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King “Introduction” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 11.
[3] David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 152.
[4] Michael Tooley “Does God Exist,” in Knowledge of God Ed. Alvin Plantinga & Michael Tooley (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2008) 72.
[5] Tooley and Craig A Classic Debate on the Existence of God.
[6] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 106.
[7] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 172

RELATED POSTS:
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II
The Euthyphro Dilemma Against Divine Commands I: Avoiding Strawmen
The Euthyphro Objection II: Arbitrariness
Euthyphro Objection III:The Redundancy of God is Good
On the Meta-Euthyphro Objection
Brink on Dialetical Equilibrium
On a Common Equivocation
Patrick Nowell Smith on Divine Commands
Permissible Lies
Theology, Morality and Reason
The Meta-Ethical Argument for Christian Theism: A Response to Richard Chappell
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I

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