Last year I had an article Is Ethical Naturalism more plausible than Supernaturalism: A reply to Walter Sinnott Armstrong published in the journal Philo. In the comments section a reader asked me to comment on a response to that article published by classical historian Richard Carrier. This post will be the first of several where I do so.
In, Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism, I did two things. Firstly, I briefly explicated a conditional that has recently been proposed explicitly by William Lane Craig but which is also defended by several others, and secondly I rebutted several arguments raised against this conditional by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Carrier argues my rebuttals fail, but before he does so he offers three preliminary arguments against the positive thesis I was defending against Armstrong. It is these that I will address in this post.
The conditional I explicated as follows:
Craig’s contention is that if theism is true then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands, analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.” By “God” Craig means a necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe.
Note three things.
First, this is a conditional, if affirms that if theism is true then then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands.
Second, I define the concept of God used in this conditional as a necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe.
Third, this conditional specifies the kind of grounding relationship I am addressing, one where the relationship between God’s commands and moral obligations is one of identity. It’s the same kind of relationship as H20 has to water. It does not affirm a thesis about moral motivation: that we are motivated to do what is right by God’s say so, nor does it affirm a thesis about moral epistemology: that we need to believe in God or his commands to recognise moral obligations.
Fourth, I don’t in the article offer any positive argument for this conditional. I explicate what the conditional is and defend it against a series of objections.
These three points are important because much of Carrier’s argument proceeds by ignoring them, beginning with his preliminary objections.
Carrier’s Preliminary Objections
Objection 1: There is no evidence for God’s existence.
Carrier’s first objection is that “we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God”. This objection misses its target. I emphasized repeatedly in my paper that I was rebutting objections to a conditional proposition. The contention is that: If God exists then a divine command theory is plausible account of the nature of moral obligation. Conditional statements of form “if P then Q” have what logicians call an “antecedent” and a “consequent”. P is the antecedent; in my paper the antecedent is the claim, “God exists”. In a conditional statement one talks about what occurs if the antecedent is true. Q is the consequent; in the example above the consequent is the proposition “it’s plausible to identify moral obligations commands with God’s commands”. The consequent is what is said to be true if the antecedent is correct.
It’s a basic point in the logic of conditionals that the truth of the conditional does not presuppose or depend on the truth of the antecedent. What matters is whether the consequent would be the case if the antecedent were. Let me illustrate this with an example. Take the claim, “If I was shot in the head yesterday I would not be here today”. That’s a true conditional: I don’t need to prove I was actually shot in the head or that I am not here today to show it is true. All I have to know is that if people are shot in the head they aren’t around the next day. Similarly, consider the conditional: “If it is raining then the grass will be wet”. This conditional remains true even on a hot day with no rain in sight. Even on such a day it will be true that if it rains the grass will get wet.
So contrary to what Carrier suggests here I don’t need to prove that God exists or provide evidence for God’s existence to defend this conditional. Lack of evidence for its antecedent does nothing to show that the conditional is false. Carrier’s first objection therefore is simply fallacious.
Suppose, however, I hadn’t defended a conditional, but simply affirmed the consequent. Carrier’s argument would still fail for two reasons:
First, contrary to what Carrier assumes a DCT is compatible with atheism and agnosticism. As I pointed out in my paper an “agnostic could accept a divine command theory is the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligation, deny God exists; and conclude, therefore, that moral obligations do not really exist and embrace an error theory.” In, fact one of the leading philosophical defenders of atheism in the 20th century, J L Mackie, arguably did this. A DCT entails theism only if it’s conjoined with moral realism: the claim that moral obligations exist.
Second, if we accept moral realism, as Carrier does, the objection that “we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God” is circular. “One of the most generally accepted reasons for believing in the existence of anything is that its existence is implied by the theory that seems to account most adequately for some subject matter”. If the best account of the nature of moral obligations is that those obligations are God’s commands, then the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for the existence of God. We will have a straightforward argument from the best explanation for theism. Consequently, one can only claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence if one has already ruled the divine command theory out as the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligations. To appeal to the lack of evidence for God’s existence as grounds for rejecting a divine command theory is to reason in a circle.
Objection 2: Circular Argument
Carrier’s use of a circular argument is ironic given that the second major objection he raises is that my explication of this conditional involves a circular argument:
Flannagan’s thesis imagines that, in effect, if God is a “necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe,” then what he concludes is morally right would indeed be morally right. That may be sound, but it’s circular, because it presumes (without argument) that “loving and just” decisions are morally right
I think Carrier here subtly misconstrues the conditional I was defending. But not only does Carrier misconstrue my position, his claim that it is circular reasoning is false. To propose a circular argument one has to offer an argument for a conclusion where the conclusion is tacitly assumed in the premises. But as I stated in my article, I was defending a contention against various objections. The contention I defended is not an argument: it was a single conditional proposition. Seeing as it’s not an argument and has no premises it can’t possibly be a circular argument, and can’t assume anything in the premises.
However, even if my contention did express an argument, which it didn’t, Carrier’s objection fails to show it is circular. As Carrier construes the argument, the conclusion of my argument is that what “[God] concludes is morally right would indeed be morally right”, yet the premise I apparently assume is “that loving and just actions are morally right”. An astute reader will note that this premise is not the same as the conclusion. Consequently, the argument Carrier mistakenly attributes to me is in fact not circular at all. Hence, even if I had offered the argument he says, and I didn’t, it would not be a circular argument because the argument he attributes to me isn’t circular.
Objection 3: The Bible is immoral.
This brings me to Carrier’s last preliminary objection that: “within the Bible there is a vast plethora of not only contradictory moral advice, but many moral commandments that we now all deem fundamentally immoral.” While I disagree with Carrier’s take on the Bible, even if one granted it, this argument again misses its target. The conditional stated above asserts that if God exists then it is plausible to identify our moral obligations with his commands. This is compatible with the Bible containing immoral commands. The fact that the Bible records God commanding something immoral does not entail that God did command something immoral, unless one also accepts the further premise that whatever the Bible teaches is true. While some divine command theorists do believe this, that position is not part of or entailed by a divine command theory itself, and one could consistently be a divine command theorist without holding this further premise. So as a critique of divine command theory per se, Carrier’s argument fails.
Carrier’s claim does create a problem if the acceptance of a divine command theory is combined with a commitment to biblical inerrancy. But the problem would be with biblical inerrancy, not with DCT. Carrier’s third objection therefore changes the subject.
My conclusion, then, is that none of Carrier’s preliminary objections are successful, in that not only do they not provide any reason for rejecting Craig’s conditional, in fact they don’t address the conditional at all. The first tells us Carrier’s opinions about arguments for God’s existence, but tells us nothing about whether if God exists a divine command theory is plausible, and as a criticism of DCT simply assumes the issue at hand. The second addresses an argument I never made, and even then seems to misunderstand what a circular argument is, and the third changes the subject to the question of biblical inerrancy, again ignoring the question of whether if God exists a divine command theory is plausible.
 Matthew Flannagan, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Super- naturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012), 19.
 Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012), 201
 J L Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. (New York: Penguin Books, 1977) 229-231
 See Robert Adam’s “Moral Arguments For Theistic Belief”
 Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012), 201-202