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The Euthyphro Objection Part I: Against Divine Commands & Avoiding Strawmen

October 28th, 2007 by Matt

Perhaps the most common argument against an appeal to divine commands in ethical reasoning is the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato and utilised by numerous critics of divine commands ever since. A representative example of this line of argument occurs in Peter Singer’s widely-acclaimed monograph Practical Ethics. In the first chapter of Practical Ethics, Singer offers the following argument.

[E]thics is not something intelligible only in the context of religion. I shall treat ethics entirely independent of religion. Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

Several features of this critique are noteworthy. Singer identifies a position known as the divine command theory of ethics. He construes this position as the view that “the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves.” He bases this on the testimony of “some theists”. Singer’s argument here consists of three stages. He proposes the famous dilemma proposed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. He then claims that divine command theory makes God’s commands arbitrary. He asserts that acceptance of divine command theory entails that paradigmatically-evil actions such as torture could be good. He concludes that divine command theory makes God’s goodness redundant,

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[ii]

In this three part blog series I will respond to the Euthyphro dilemma. In this post I will comment upon Singer’s description of his opponents’ position and suggest it is a straw-man. In the next two posts I will assess the arguments he proposes and argue they are unsuccessful. Contrary to what is commonly asserted in ethics textbooks and first year philosophy lectures, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma is sound.

As I stated above, Singer’s argument is an attack upon a position known in the literature as divine command theory or voluntarism. Schneewind notes that in the late Middle Ages two schools emerged as to the relationship between God and the existence of an objective law. The first and older position is known as Intellectualism. In this view, God does not create morality; rather, God’s will is guided by his intellectual knowledge of eternal moral standards. The second position is divine command theory. This position grounded the moral law not so much in God’s intellect but in his will. God himself creates the moral law.[iii]

It is worth noting at this juncture that divine command theory is only one possible way of construing the nature of divine law and since Singer only offers an argument against this position, even if his argument is sound it fails to establish that the idea of divine law is problematic. Nevertheless, even as a critique of this theory the argument appears to attack a straw man.

Singer construes divine command theory as claiming “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves.’” It appears then that Singer characterises divine command theory as a theory about the meaning of the evaluative term “good”; however, this is a caricature.

Few, if any, notable defenders of divine command theory propose it as a theory about the meaning of the term ‘good’. This is demonstrated by examining the literature of those contemporary theists who do defend versions of the theory. A notable, contemporary defender of divine command theory is Robert Adams. In Divine Command Ethics Modified Again and later in his monograph Finite and Infinite Good, Adams puts forward the view that “ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God”.[iv] [Emphasis original]

Note two things here; firstly, Adams does not offer a theory about ‘the good’ but explicitly limits his theory to deontological properties such as wrongness. Secondly, his theory is not about the meaning of terms; rather it is a metaphysical claim about identity.

This last distinction is important. Contemporary philosophy of language offers several examples of this distinction between two terms having the same meaning and two things being identical. One of the most famous is the relationship between water and H20. Water is H20. This is a claim of identity. The liquid on earth that we call water is hydrogen hydroxide. However, this is not a claim of meaning. The claim that water is H20 is not an analytic truth that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words, rather it is a claim discovered by empirical investigation. Moreover, a competent language user could refer to water and understand the meaning of this term without needing to know about the atomic structure H20. Similar examples are available with such claims as ‘the morning star is the evening star’ or ‘Superman is Clark Kent.’ In each case, we have a statement of identity that is distinct from the claim that two words have the same meaning. Adams then explicitly denies he is proposing the position Singer attributes to modern theists.

Similar things can be said about the other major defenders of divine command theory. William Alston holds that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and notes Adam’s identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending.[v]

Philip Quinn defends a version of divine command theory that is limited to the deontological status of actions.

In speaking of the deontological status of an action, I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.[vi]

Quinn argues that God’s commands cause or bring about these properties. He specifically denies that he is offering a theory of ‘the good’ in general or that the relationship between God’s commands and moral properties is one of meaning. In fact, he argues against such a view.[vii]

Edward Weirenga defends a similar theory proposing that divine commands are those properties of actions that make them possess deontic properties such as right and wrong. He does not affirm that the word ‘good’ means commanded by God.[viii] Similarly, John Hare argues, “that what makes something obligatory for us is that God commands it”.[ix]

This is not just true of contemporary defenders of divine command theory. In a survey of the historical literature, Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theory was usually understood as a theory about what makes actions right and wrong and not a theory about the meaning of moral terms.[x] Moreover, historically, divine command theorists such as Locke[xi] and Puffendorf limited it to deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness.

Robert Adams did defend a semantic theory in some of his earlier writings but, as noted, he later rejected his theory in favour of the one I sketched above. Moreover, the semantic theory Adams did initially defend bears little resemblance to the interpretation of divine command theory made by Singer. Adams explicitly asserted that his theory was limited to analysing the meaning of the word wrong and not broader notions such as goodness. Moreover, it was limited to an analysis of what the word means in Judeo-Christian discourse not what the word meant in general.[xii]

It is difficult then to ascertain to whom exactly Singer is referring when he states “Some theists” hold this view and he fails to provide any citations as to whom he is referring. He appears to attack a straw man that has little resemblance to the theory as it has usually been articulated and defended in both historical and contemporary literature.

Not only does Singer attack a straw man but attention to the arguments he uses reveals that in the very next sentence he changes his interpretation from a theory of meaning to a dependence or causal theory. Immediately after stating, “the very meaning of “good” [is nothing other than] what God approves”, Singer follows Plato in suggesting that either something is good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is good.[xiii] However, this presupposes that the relationship between divine approval and goodness is some kind of asymmetrical relationship where one entity in the relationship is temporally or ontologically prior to the other.

If, as Singer maintains, divine command theory is the claim that “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’,” then the relationship between divine approval and goodness is not an asymmetrical relationship but rather a relationship of meaning so this dilemma simply does not apply.

Consider the following example. A person tells you that a bachelor is an unmarried man because the word bachelor means unmarried man. It would not make sense to respond to this claim ‘yes, but is he a bachelor because he is unmarried or is he unmarried because he is a bachelor?’ A person’s unmarried-ness is not prior to or the cause of his bachelorhood nor is his bachelorhood the cause of his being unmarried. His being unmarried is just a different way of referring to his bachelorhood. The relationship between a bachelor and an unmarried man is not causal; the relationship is one of meaning.

Immediately after stating that divine command theory is a theory about the meaning of terms, Singer offers an objection that presupposes it is not a semantic theory but a causal one. However, only a few lines later he offers the following objection to the theory “what can they [theists] possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?”[xiv] Here Singer’s objection relies on the claim that good means approved by God in order to generate the trap he refers to. Not only does Singer attack a straw man but also his target appears to change throughout the discussion. In fact, it appears to change in order to fit the objections raised.

In Part II I look at arbitrariness.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3-4.
[iii] Jerome Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8-9.
[iv] Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979): 76.
[v] William Alston, “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 303-304.
[vi] Phillip Quinn, “An Argument for Divine Command Theory,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 291.
[vii] Ibid., 293.
[viii] Edward Weirenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 215-27. See also “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory,” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 311-318 and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory,” Nous 17 (1983): 387-408.
[ix] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 49.
[x] Janine Maree Idziak, “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989): 60.
[xi] For a defence of the claim that Locke was a voluntarist see Francis Oakley & Elliot W. Urdang, “Locke, Natural Law and God,” Natural Law Forum, 11 (1966): 92-109.
[xii] Robert Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” In Divine Commands and Morality, ed. Paul Helm (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 83-108.
[xiii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 4.
[xiv] Ibid., 3-4.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid., 40.

RELATED POSTS:
The Euthyphro Objection Part II: Arbitrariness
Euthyphro Objection Part III: The Redundancy of God is Good

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