According to one version of the Moral Argument for Theism, God provides the best explanation for the existence of moral obligations. The most sophisticated version of this argument is arguably that provided by Robert Adams in “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” (published in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays). Richard Chappell thinks those who follow Adams in this argument have a “daft’ position. Because, Chappell states, any aspect of morality God can explain can also be explained by appealing to what God would have done in counterfactual situations a. Chappell writes,
Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend.”Suppose we want to ground goodness in God’s nature. This does not require God to exist. We could just as well appeal to counterfactual natures, and what God would have wanted (had he existed).
Now the best defenders of the meta-ethical argument do not attempt to ground morality in God’s nature. Robert Adams holds not that “Gods nature” grounds moral goodness. But that that the most plausible account of what “right and wrongness of an act consists in” is the theory that moral rightness and wrongness consist in agreement and disagreement, respectively, with the will or commands of a loving God.” Strictly speaking then Chappell attacks a straw man. Nether the less I assume Chappell thinks his argument applies with equal force to Divine Command Theories such as those proposed by Adams. He argues,
Consider: you may think (1) that God exists, and (2) that God frowns upon genocide. Now entertain the hypothesis (3) that God does not actually exist after all. You should still hold a modified form of your second belief, namely: (4) God would have frowned upon genocide.
I’m suggesting that claim #4 can do everything that claim #2 can. It is just as objective, and can “ground” all the same facts. Any doubts you have about #4 (e.g. “but how can we know it for sure? We could be mistaken in ascribing these judgments to God…”) will apply in equal measure to #2. There is simply no relevant difference between them.
Chappell asks us to consider two claims. The first which I will call [a] is the claim that God exists in the actual world and commands C1-C2 in The second which I will label [b] God does not exist in the actual world, however there is a possible world just like the actual world in all respects except that God does exist in this world and does issue commands Cn-Cn+2. Chappell thinks that [a] and be [b] that God will issue the same commands in both worlds C1-C2 will be identical to C1-C2. Hence every aspect of morality which it’s explained by Gods actual commands in [a] will be explained by the counter factual commands in [b].
What I find puzzling about Chappell’s appeal to this argument is that Adams in fact discussed it and responded to it in the above mentioned essay. Which is one of the definitive essays on the topic. After spelling out his argument Adams notes,
It may be objected that the advantages of the divine command theory can be obtained without an entailment of God’s existence. For the rightness of an action might be said to consist in the fact that the action would agree with the commands of a loving God if one existed, or does so agree if a loving God
exists. This modification transforms the divine command theory into a nonnaturalistic form of the ideal observer theory of the nature of right and wrong. It has the advantage of identifying rightness and wrongness with properties that actions could have even if God does not exist And of course it takes away the basis of my metaethical argument for theism.
This is almost an exact analogue of Chappell’s argument. Adams response is to deny that God will necessarily issue the same commands in [a] as he does in [b],
The flaw in this theory is that it is difficult to see what is supposed to be the force of the counterfactual conditional that is centrally involved in it. If there is no loving God, what makes it the case if there were one, he would command this rather than that? Without an answer to this question, the crucial counterfactual lacks a clear sense (cf. chapter 6 in this volume). I can see only two possible answers: either that what any possible loving God would command is logically determined by the concept of a loving God, or that it is determined by a causal law. Neither answer seems likely to work without depriving the theory of some part of the advantages of divine command metaethics.
No doubt some conclusions about what he would not command follow logically or analytically from the concept of a loving God. He would not command us to practice cruelty for its own sake, for example. But in some cases, at least, in which we believe the act is wrong, it seems only contingent that a loving God
does or would frown on increasing the happiness of other people by the painless and undetected killing of a person who wants to live but will almost certainly not live happily. Very diverse preferences about what things are to be treated as personal rights seem compatible with love and certainly with deity.
Adams point is as follows much of what God commands in the actual world is a contingent matter. God is not required by the facts of the world or by his own nature to issue the exact commands he does. Of course there are some things a loving God will not command, such as cruelty for it own sake. But once these options are eliminated, there is still no one set of commands which a loving being in a world like ours must command. Hence it simply does not follow that God will issue the same commands in counterfactual situations that he does in the actual world. There are possible worlds like ours where he issues one set of commands and there are other possible worlds like ours in all other respects in which he issues other commands. Hence, there is no determinate answer to the question, what would God command if he existed in a world like ours.
This creates a problem for counter factual appeals to God. The problem, noted by Thomas Carson , is that if we ask what God would have commanded in counterfactual situations we will get contradictory answers. In one possible world exactly like ours in all relevant respects God would have commanded us to A. But in another possible world exactly like ours in the same respects, he would have commanded to not A. C1.
Now I think Adams (and Carson) are correct about this, even if I am wrong however, what this shows is that Richard’s argument is mistaken. Richard attempts to criticise a meta-ethical argument for theism. He however ignores the actual versions the argument that occur in the literature and sketches a straw man, he then simply asserts a claim that God will issue the same commands in counter factual situations, which the actual proponents of the moral argument have already noted and argued against. He then concludes from this assertion their position is daft. If people are to rebut Christian philosophers, they need to actually engage with their arguments and that means Richard needs to provide some argument to the effect that God would issue the same commands in a counterfactual situations as he does in the actual world. Divine Command Theorists such as Duns Scotus and more recently Hare and Quinn have denied this claim, and argued against it. They may be mistaken, but simply saying so and ignoring what they have argued is not a rebuttal.