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Monday, 20 April 2009

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part II

In my last post, I discussed Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument from harm. I concluded by suggesting that his conclusion missed the point and failed to address the conditional, defended by William Lane Craig that, if theism is true then there exists a sound foundation for moral duties. In this post I will argue that the same problem afflicts Armstrong’s two major arguments for his harm-based account of wrongness.

Armstrong’s Arguments for the Superiority of the Harm-Account
The same failure to actually address the contention at hand is evident in the two main arguments Armstrong musters in favour of the harm-based foundation. These arguments are

(a) The harm account is more economical than a divine command theory;
(b) The harm account makes moral obligations more objective than a divine command theory does.

Economy and Simplicity
Of his first argument, Armstrong writes,

The secular view is also preferable on grounds of simplicity. Like the secular view, the divine command theory must recognise harm and its relevance to morality. Then the divine command view adds a new supernatural level to its theory of morality. That added complication brings no benefits for the objectivity of morality, as I have just argued. We should prefer simpler views when we have no reason to complicate matters. Hence, we should prefer the secular view.[1]

Armstrong appeals to Ockham’s razor, multipicandum sunt praetor necessitatem, entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. The idea is that if two theories can explain the phenomena equally well then the one that postulates the least entities is the preferred one.

This principle is the basis of Armstrong’s critique. He notes that both his own secular view and the divine command theory both explain the objectivity of moral obligation equally well. The divine command theory, however, does so by adding “a new supernatural level [God]” and so the harm based account is preferable.

“there are cases where rape is gravely wrong and yet no one is harmed or if they are, the harm is minimal and yet the action remains gravely and seriously wrong”In response to this argument I will make two points. First, even if the divine command theorist does add “a new supernatural level” his theory does not follow that Ockham’s razor automatically means it is a less preferable theory. Ockham’s razor tells us that if two theories can explain the phenomena equally well then the one that postulates the least entities is the preferred one. For Armstrong’s objection to be cogent, he needs to argue that his own harm based account explains the existence and nature of moral obligations better than a divine command theory. Armstrong does not do this; all he does s show that both theories explain the objectivity of moral properties equally well. However, objectivity is only one feature of moral obligations that a viable ontological foundation must explain. Showing your theory explains one feature as well as a rival theory does is a long way from showing it explains all features as well.

This is important, because one of the arguments made by defenders of divine command theory, such as Robert Adams, is that it can explains all the features of moral obligation better than its rivals. Adams maintains divine commands “best fill the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”.[2] He notes that divine commands explain, not just the fact, that “wrongness is an objective property of actions,”[3] they also account “for the wrongness of a major portion of the types of action that we have believed to be wrong,”[4] and “play a causal role ... in their coming to be regarded as wrong.”[5] In addition, Adams argues that they account for the intuition that our moral duties comprise, “a standard that has a sanctity greater than that of any merely human will or institution”.[6]

In other articles Adams has noted that divine commands capture the intuition that moral properties such as rightness and wrongness are “non-natural in the sense that they cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and animal or human psychology,”[7] and also, the idea that “having an obligation to do something consists of being required (in a certain way, under certain circumstances), by another person or group of persons, to do it”.[8]

Stephen Layman has argued that theism explains the overriding nature of moral obligations, that to have a duty to do something entails that one has decisive reasons for doing it; reasons that override any non-moral reasons to the contrary. Moreover, Layman argues that secular views do not explain this feature of moral obligation anywhere near as well as theism does.[9] Now these arguments may not be successful but given that theists have made them, Armstrong owes us an argument showing they are not; especially if he is going to conclude that his arguments call into question, not just Craig’s arguments, but the “arguments for a religious view of morality” of “other theists” and that these other theists cannot “avoid all the problems in Craig’s account without leaving traditional Christianity far behind.”

There is a second, more important problem, with Armstrong’s appeal to Ockham’s razor. This is that when one takes into account the dialectical context of Armstrong’s argument it is not clear that the divine command theory does violate Ockham’s razor. Plantinga articulates this point in a recent paper he presented before the American Philosophical association; he argued

Suppose we land on a planet we know is inhabited by intelligent creatures. We come across something that looks exactly like an arrow-head complete with grooves and indentations apparently caused by the process of shaping and sharpening it. Two possibilities suggest themselves, that it acquired these features by erosion or that it was intentionally fashioned by the inhabitants. Someone with a couple of courses in philosophy might suggest that the former hypothesis is to be preferred because it posits fewer entities than the latter. He'd be wrong of course, since we already know that the planet is inhabited by intelligent creatures, there is no additional Ockhamistic cost in assuming these structures were designed.[10]

Plantinga’s insight is correct. He goes on to note that if we did not know the planet was inhabited by intelligent beings and the erosion hypothesis was not significantly less probable then an appeal to Ockham’s razor, in favour of the erosion hypothesis, would have “teeth”. However, if one already knows that the planet is inhabited by intelligent beings then we do not violate Ockham’s razor by appealing to the existence of these beings to explain the existence of grooves and indentations on what appears to be an arrow-head.

Something analogous occurs here. Craig is arguing that if theism is true then there is a plausible ontological foundation for moral obligation in divine commands. He is not, then, proposing the theory in a context where people do not know whether God exists, nor is he proposing it in a context where people do not know that divine commands exist that are co-extensive with moral duties. Rather, he is proposing it in a context where one assumes, for the sake of argument, that theism is true and asks what theory best explains the nature of moral obligation given these assumptions.

Once this is realised, however, it is far from clear that the theist is adding “a new supernatural level.” Rather, the existence of a supernatural element is already granted. The question, then, is how best to understand this element’s relationship to morality.

Armstrong’s appeal to Ockham’s razor seems to presuppose a dialectical context whereby both theist and non-theist start from an agnostic perspective and try to work out the best foundation for the nature of moral obligation given the shared information available to both of them. The problem is that Craig was not arguing for his theory in that context. His argument is that if theism is true then a sound foundation exists. To rebut the contention that Craig actually defends, Armstrong needs to show that if God exists such a foundation does not exist. This, however, is precisely what he does not do.

The same problems afflict Armstrong's appeal to objectivity. Armstrong states,

This secular foundation makes morality objective. If what makes rape morally wrong is the harm to rape victims, then whether rape is wrong does not depend on whether I or rapists believe that rape is wrong. It also does not depend on whether any one wants to rape. Regardless of any-one's desires and moral beliefs, rape causes harm to the victim, and that harm makes rape wrong. This secular foundation, thus, makes morality every bit as objective as the divine command theory.[11]

Armstrong here shows that with regard to the objectivity of duties the harm-based account and the divine command theory are on par. However, he then argues that, in fact, the divine command theory fails to explain the objectivity of moral duties.

If God did not think that rape was morally wrong, then God would not command us not to rape, and then rape would not be morally wrong, according to this theory. ... In contrast, the secular harm-based view makes morality independent even of what God thinks. If God somehow thought that rape was not morally wrong, and if God forgot to command us not to rape, or even if God commanded us to rape, none of that would make any difference. Rape would still be morally wrong, because it would still harm rape victims.[12]

I think Armstrong is mistaken here. Theism, as Craig defines it, includes the claim that God is omniscient; hence, even if rape is wrong in virtue of the harm it causes and not because of any divine commands, it still would be impossible for rape to be wrong independently of God thinking it is wrong. An omniscient being only believes true propositions and never believes false propositions; hence, it is impossible for rape to be wrong and God to not believe that it is wrong.

Once this is realised, it is clear that Armstrong’s examples assume that theism is false. He puts forward situations where God forgets to issue commands or where God mistakenly believes rape is not wrong. This can only occur if God is not omniscient and, hence, theism is false. However, Craig is not arguing that a divine command theory is plausible if theism is false. His claim is that if God exists then there is a sound ontological basis for moral duties.

Does Harm Explain the Wrongness of Rape?
My final criticism directly challenge the harm account. Throughout his critique, Armstrong, contends that rape is wrong because of the extreme harm it causes rape victims. Despite its initial plausibility, I am inclined to think this account of the wrongness of rape fails. This is because there are cases where rape is gravely wrong and yet no one is harmed or if they are, the harm is minimal and yet the action remain gravely and seriously wrong.

Take the following case, a doctor is performing surgery on a woman. He puts her under general anaesthetic and she falls unconscious. Then, prior to performing surgery, he has intercourse with her. He does so using a condom. He takes care to be gentle. The physical harm to his patient is minimal. The patient is unconscious; she is unlikely to ever be aware of what has occurred; the risk of psychological trauma is not present. Hence, it is implausible to suggest that the doctor has caused extreme harm to the patient, yet his actions are clearly rape and it is also clear that what he has done is gravely and seriously wrong. Hence, what makes the action wrong cannot be the extreme harm done to the rape victim.

This example can be strengthened when we compare it to another proposed by Robert Adams.[13] Adams asks us to imagine the case of a person whose doctoral dissertation is destroyed by a computer hacker. We would consider the sabotage of the computer a reprehensible act but nowhere near as serious a crime as the rape committed by the doctor in the previous example. Despite this, it is not implausible to suggest that the person who has had their doctoral research destroyed suffers more “discernible harm” than the person who awakes from surgery never knowing she has been raped and continues on with life oblivious to it.

What this shows is that the grave wrongness of rape does not depend on the extreme harm it causes, because even when there is no extreme harm present the act remains gravely wrong. Rape remains a very serious wrong, relative to other wrongs, even when the harms of these other wrongs outweigh it. For this reason, I am inclined to think that far from being “obviously correct” Armstrong’s harm-account of moral obligations is implausible.

[1] Ibid, 107.
[2] Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1(1979) 74.
[3] Ibid, 74.
[4] Ibid, 74.
[5] Ibid, 75.
[6] Ibid, 75.
[7] Robert Adams “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” 117-18.
[8] Robert Adams "Divine Commands and the Social Nature of Obligation" 262-63.
[9] C. Stephen Layman “God and the Moral Order” Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002) 304-16; “God and the moral order: replies to objections” Faith and Philosophy 23 (2006) 209-12; “A Moral Argument for The Existence of God” Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 49-66.
[10] I transcribed this from Plantinga’s paper to the American Philosophical Association, “Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies”
[11] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong "Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 106.
[12] Ibid, 107.
[13] Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods 107.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II
Maverick Philosopher on the Historical Atrocities Argument


  1. You argue that an omniscient being would know what was right and wrong, and nobody could disagree with that.

    However if we must trust the rulings of an omniscient being who does not explain his reasoning but simply pronounces certain activities good or bad, that leaves us in the less than ideal position of answering moral questions by checking documentation rather than by weighing up the balance of suffering and happiness ourselves. It takes moral reasoning out of our hands. Then what if the OB's rulings on right and wrong conflict with our intuitions? For example if he says that rape is in fact OK despite what we thought, then we have to accept it, because divine proclamation is the only definition, and there is no point pointing to any amount of suffering and misery as that is irrelevant. We in the position of children facing an infuriating parental "because I say so" argument.

  2. My copy of this book arrived today. I've been reading through Sinnott-Armstrong's chapter and I'm just horrified at some of the objections he seems to think are good ones.

    It ought to occur to any sensible person who is about to write something for publication as he tears into a theory and labels it "absurd" that it might be a good idea to read some of the literature on the subject first. This man shows not a shred of awareness of anything that has been written on divine command ethics - writings the respond (time and time again) to precisely the spectacular objections he thinks he is raising!

    Recent blog post: Baggini: The New Atheism is cringe material

  3. I can see where you are coming from. And I know my comment is not strictly responding to your actual argument, so please forgive me. But I have to disagree with you about rape not causing harm or psychological trauma when the victim is unaware of it. This is an easy misconception for you to hold since you hopefully never been raped, and I'm supposing you know only as much about rape recovery as the next person. But harm occurs on levels other than that of consciousness. Rape causes damage which resonates at a cellular level and remains in the memory of the body until it is acknowledged and healed. A rape victim unconscious of the violence done to her (and rape can never be "gentle"!) still suffers deep trauma - she simply may not be aware why.

    This may sound rather esoteric but in fact scientific research has shown how rape, perpetrated while the victim was in an altered mental state (dissociation or hypnosis), drugged, or unconsciousness, causes changes to their nerve system, behavior patterns, breathing, and biochemistry. All of which impacts on her psyche whether she understands why or not.

    And now to get esoteric - rape is an assault not only on the body of the victim but her whole self. So even without conscious awareness of it she has suffered deep soul damage which can last a lifetime. For some religious cultures the damage is thought to linger beyond a lifetime.

    I do agree with you that rape is wrong regardless of the harm done to the victim. However, as a professional in the field of rape recovery, I did want to assure you that harm is *always* done.

  4. Another problem that has bothered me since I read this article is that we are left with no way to make moral decisions.

    Say we want to decide whether to be kind to a kitten, or cruel. First we must identify the correct set of omniscient being-derived advice from among several competing sets. Then having settled on one of them, we must hope that it does not contain conflicting advice (be kind to kittens/be cruel to kittens), and that it answers our exact question. What if its closest statement is that we should do no harm to cows: does that also go for kittens? We cannot trust either our intuitions or our moral reasoning (we were wrong about rape after all).

    So even if one accepts the principle that morality comes from an omniscient being who has left us documented rules for moral conduct, it is still far from clear how we should behave, leaving us to fall back on our imperfect harm-vs-benefit rule of thumb.

  5. "Another problem that has bothered me since I read this article is that we are left with no way to make moral decisions."William, I think you're treating divine command ethics (or theologically grounded ethics) like a moral epistemology if you think this is a problem. It's not. Sure, divine command ethics says something about knowing right from wrong, but only conditionally (e.g. "if we know what God wills us to do then we know what is right"), but is certainly isn't a theory of how we know right from wrong. It is compatible with a range of moral epistemologies (e.g. intuitionism).

    As for leaving us to "fall back" on the harm-vs-benefit rule of thumb, you can opt for any alternative rule of conduct that you like, but harm and benefit is just harm and benefit. You can affix the label "morality" to that rule, but the rule is hardly an objective one.

    You also seem concerned, William, that divine command ethics "takes reasoning out of our hands." I put it to you that the harm principle isn't much better. You complain that divine command ethics means we don't have to reason, we just have to look up what God wants us to do. But using that line of reasoning, your harm rule does exactly the same thing: We don't need to engage in moral reason, we just have to check which things cause harm and that is that. The reality is, you no less than Matt or Bill Craig start with a first principle of morality, and once you have reached that principle you say "the road of moral reasoning starts here."

    You also, along the way, make the error of saying that "divine proclamation is the only definition," when in fact divine command ethics is not a semantic theory about what the definition of "right" is, it is a theory of what makes actions right (or wrong).

    Recent blog post: Baggini: The New Atheism is cringe material

  6. Louis Antony's paper is worse she seems to have read nothing except the Euthyphro and Paul Kurtz seems simply unable to get the point. But it is a fascinating read.

    Recent blog post: Published: Abortion and Capital Punishment

  7. William, Your argument seems to be: (a) a divine command theory entails that we do not reason to moral answers and (b) a divine command theory entails that if God commands some abhorrent action, which we have good reason to think is wrong, then "we have to accept it".

    I don’t think either contention is true. Turning to (a) as Glenn notes a divine command theory is a theory of ontology not epistemology. It affirms that properties such as right and wrong are constituted by divine commands. It does not claim that our knowledge of right and wrong depends on our belief in divine commands.

    An analogy might help, water is constituted by H20, it does not follow from this that we cannot know what water is unless we know atomic theory. Maori in New Zealand were able to identify water for centuries without knowing about atomic theory and they could and did reason about water. The same is true with divine commands the fact that they constitute right and wrong does not mean a person with no theological belief cannot perceive right and wrong, nor does it entail that they can't and reason about it.

    Turning to (b) when you say we must accept divine commands to engage in actions we have reason to think are wrong I think there is an ambiguity here you could mean [i] you must accept any action commanded by God or [ii] you must accept the claim that God commanded the action. Now if we are confronted with a command to, lets say, rape and we have good reason for thinking the action is wrong. The divine command theory tells us that if God commanded it then it cannot be wrong, hence we are required to accept it in the sense [i] lays down, but you yourself note that this is sensible, if an omnsicent morally perfect being commands something then it is impossible for it to be wrong.

    What’s important however, is that nothing in the divine command theory entails that we must accept it in the sense [ii]. We are not by the theory required to accept any claims that God commanded rape. If we have good reasons for thinking that rape is wrong then we have good reasons for thinking that God would not command the action and hence for doubting and questioning that any such command is actually from God. Of course our moral judgements can be wrong and we should be open to this possibility but our theological judgements about what God commands can also be wrong and we need to be equally open to the possibility of error here. Hence, a divine command theory does not require us to throw discernment and critical ethical thinking to the wind.

    Recent blog post: Published: Abortion and Capital Punishment


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