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The Euthyphro Objection Part II: Arbitrariness

October 31st, 2007 by Matt

In his work Practical Ethics Singer proposes a version of the Euthyphro dilemma to criticise a divine command theory of ethics,

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]

In my previous post, The Euthyphro Objection Part I: Against Divine Commands & Avoiding Strawmen, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command theory is not typically proposed as a theory about what is good but is usually restricted to deontic properties such as right and wrong. Its worth noting however that, this fact is not fatal to Singer’s position; it is possible to develop analogies to the Euthyphro that do not rely on this straw man. James Rachels is an example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy he suggests that an action is right either because God commands it or he commands it because it is right. He then offers the same arguments Singer does to suggest that only by embracing the second horn of the dilemma which amounts to giving up divine command theory, can one escape absurdity.[ii]

The key argument Singer raises against divine command theory is, “if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad”.[iii] Singer couches this objection in terms of goodness and badness but the same objection can be raised with regards to claims that Gods commands constitutes what is right and wrong. Rachels for example states that divine command theory “leads to trouble” because “it represents Gods commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness would be right.”[iv]

The objection is that divine command theory entails a certain counter-factual conditional; to use Singer’s example, if God commanded torture then torture would not be wrong. While Singer does not state that this conditional is false, he appears to take it for granted that it is. After all, if the conditional were true then the fact that divine command theory entails it would not constitute an objection to the theory. Unfortunately Singer provides no reason for thinking this conditional is false. He appears to think that it is obvious.

Phillip Quinn has given reasons for questioning this assumption. Quinn notes that a counter-factual conditional such as ‘If God commands torture then torture is not wrong’ is false only if the antecedent is true and the consequent false.[v] In other words, the conditional is only false in a situation where God in fact does command torture and torture in that situation is wrong. In order for Singer’s objection to be sound there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?

It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

A former teacher of mine, Mane Hajdin, suggested to me that this assertion is too hasty a few years ago he offered me the following criticism,

[I]t is assumed that being good involves being loving, forgiving, etc, in all possible worlds. But why should we assume that? Why aren’t there worlds in which being good involves being cruel, ruthless, etc? To simply assume that, in this context, may leave the impression of begging the question.

Roy Perrett suggested to me that that there are possible states of affairs where the contingent and factual structure of the world would be so different that what we take as paradigms of virtue in fact are not. In such a world, torture may be conducive to human flourishing or be, in fact, a virtuous activity.There may be something to this response. The problem with this response is that it still fails to provide reasons for thinking that the above-mentioned conditional is false. In order for this conditional to be false it must be logically possible not just for God to command an action but for that action to be wrong in the given situation. Perrett and Hajdin provide us reasons for thinking that it is possible for a perfectly-good being to command actions such as torture or cruelty. However, the situations envisaged are ones in which torture is not, in fact, wrong. In the situation Perrett envisages, torture is, in fact, virtuous and in Hajdin’s torture is good. In such examples it is the virtuous nature of torture that makes it plausible to assume that a perfectly-good being could command it.

It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing. To the extent that we think a perfectly-good being could command a particular action, we have reasons for thinking the action permissible. On the other hand, to the extent that we think it is impossible for the action to be wrong we find it impossible to envisage how a perfectly-good being could command it.

In Part III I will look at the emptiness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[ii] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 42.
[iii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[iv] Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 42
[v] Phillip Quinn, “Divine Command Theory,” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. H Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 70.

The Euthyphro Objection Part I: Against Divine Commands & Avoiding Strawmen
Euthyphro Objection Part III: The Redundancy of God is Good

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