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On a Common Equivocation

January 12th, 2009 by Matt

Recently I did a post on relativism and in earlier posts I have defended a divine command theory of ethics against various objections. In the comments section Mark V raised an interesting and thoughtful response. I hope Mark does not mind if I pick up on his points because the themes he raises are well worth discussing. Mark writes

You have earlier stated that if God exists we are obliged to obey him, presumably you mean we are obliged to obey his commandments. There are many commandments in the Bible, particularly in Deuteronomy that no theist today would ever dream of obeying. So even theists today use their reason and the facts to decide what is ethical and what is not. In doing so they appeal to a standard of ethics that is outside the Bible.

I think that Mark’s interpretation of the Deuteronomy is probably mistaken. However, putting his exegesis of the Torah to one side, Mark’s central point here, if I understand him correctly, is that we often know what is right and wrong independently of our beliefs about what God commands, in fact often we use our beliefs about what is right and wrong to help us decide what God’s commands are hence ethics is not dependent on God’s commands. This line of argument is common in the literature. In Morality Religious and Secular Patrick Nowell-Smith refers to an argument that is “familiar to philosophers but of which the force is not always appreciated”

[W]e must be persuaded independently of his goodness before we admit his right to command. We must judge for ourselves whether the Bible is the inspired word of a ind and benevolent God or a curious amalgam of profound wisdom and gross uperstition. To judge this is to make a moral decision, so that in the end, so far from morality being based upon religion, religion is based upon morality[1]

In Philosophical Problems and Arguments. James Cornman and Keith Lehrer express the same point.

Consider what we would do if we read that Moses had returned with such commandments as ‘make love to thy neighbor’s wife,’ ‘steal thy neighbor’s
goods,’ and ‘take advantage of thy parents.’ We would decide that what-ever was revealed to Moses, it was not the will of God, because these are immoral commandments. We do not justify that something is moral by showing it is God’s will, because the only available way to evaluate conflicting claims about what God wills is by finding which one is in accordance with what is moral.[2]

Several of the essays in Is Goodness without God good enough: A debate on Secularism, Faith and Ethics also make this point. In this book Paul Kurtz gives numerous arguments to the effect we can know right and wrong and live a moral life even if we do not believe that God exists.[3] The fact that ones knowledge of right and wrong is independent of and in some instances prior to ones knowledge of what God commands also figures prominently in the essays of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong[4] and Lousie Anthony[5]. In fact atheist populariser Christopher Hitchens frequently makes this point.

Despite its pervasive appeal I think this inference is flawed. I think it’s based on a failure to make an important distinction. Take the claim that right and wrong is independent of God’s commands. This claim is ambiguous: it could mean (a) that ones knowledge of right and wrong is independent of ones knowledge of what God commands or it could mean (b) that right and wrong exist independently of Gods commands. The first claim states that beliefs about right and wrong are epistemologically independent of beliefs about divine commands. The second is that the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong are ontologically independent of God’s commands.

Now the divine command theory denies (b) Divine command theorists claim that wrongness is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Something cannot exist independently of itself. Hence it postulates an ontological dependence between divine commands and moral properties such as wrongness. The arguments above however do not refute this claim, what they show is not that (b) is the case but that (a) is the case. The arguments of Cornman, Lehrer, and Nowell-Smith, Anthony and Armstrong show that we can know what is right and wrong independently of knowing or believing in the existence of divine commands. Hence they show at most an epistemological independence.

Showing that beliefs about right and wrong are epistemologically independent of beliefs about God’s commands does not show that right and wrong are ontologically independent of God’s commands unless epistemological independence entails ontological independence. In other words, the objector here assumes that if my knowledge of something’s does not depend upon is my knowledge of something else then the two things can exist independently of each other.

This assumption however is false. Take a straightforward example of identity; the property of being water is identical with the property of being H20 as such H20 and water are not ontologically independent. Yet people for thousands of years could perceive water, drink it, detect it, use it etc without knowing anything about atomic theory. Hence, our knowledge of water is independent of our knowledge of H20. Yet this fact does not mean that water is not identical with H20. Two things can be identical without people knowing that they are identical.

As Mark Murphy[6] and William Lane Craig[7] point out those theists who defend divine command theories and or maintain that morality cannot exist independently of religion almost always have ontological dependence in mind. The same is typically true of atheists and nihilists who argue that the “death of God” entails nihilism. John Mackie for example argued that the kind of entities that exist in a naturalistic universe. A universe where the only things that exist are the things postulated by our best scientific theories is a universe where properties like rightness and wrongness do not exist.[8] As Craig notes these people are raising the question of the “ontological foundation for ethics not its epistemological foundations”[9] Pointing out that our knowledge of ethics is independent of theological claims people know or believe avoids rather than addresses this issue.

[1] Patrick H. Nowell-Smith, “Morality: Religious and Secular,” in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: SCM Press, 1966) 97.
[2] James W. Cornman & Keith Lehrer, Philosophical Problems and Arguments (New York: MacMillan, 1979), 429.
[3] Paul Kurtz “The Kurtz/Craig Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 25-49.
[4] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008),101-116.
[5] Louise Anthony “Atheism as Perfect Piety” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008),67-84
[6] Mark Murphy “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008)117-118.
[7] See his comments in William Lane Craig “The Kurtz/Craig Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 25-49 and also “This Most Gruesome of Guests” in “The Kurtz/Craig Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 168 and also n 5
[8] John Mackie Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977 )
[9] Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests”, 168-167

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6 responses so far ↓

  • No my point is that Christians today pick and choose the commandments in the Bible they want to obey and those they do not. I mentioned the commandments contained in the Book of Deuteronomy as examples of commandments that no Christian would ever dream of obeying. For example Deuteronomy 22:20-21.

    “Mark’s central point here, if I understand him correctly, is that we often know what is right and wrong independently of our beliefs about what God commands, in fact often we use our beliefs about what is right and wrong to help us decide what God’s commands are hence ethics is not dependent on God’s commands.”

    Actually we use our beliefs about what is right and wrong to help us decide which of God’s commandments should be obeyed and which should not. In fact I and many non-theists have come to the conclusion that there are many commanments in the Old Testament that are quite immoral and therefore should not be obeyed.

    You quoted:
    “In Philosophical Problems and Arguments. James Cornman and Keith Lehrer express the same point.
    Consider what we would do if we read that Moses had returned with such commandments as ‘make love to thy neighbor’s wife,’ ‘steal thy neighbor’s goods,’ and ‘take advantage of thy parents.’ We would decide that what-ever was revealed to Moses, it was not the will of God, because these are immoral commandments. We do not justify that something is moral by showing it is God’s will, because the only available way to evaluate conflicting claims about what God wills is by finding which one is in accordance with what is moral.”

    If the above hypothetical examples are not God’s will because they are not moral, what about all the other commandments that are actually contained in the Old Testament that are even more reprehensible? Are they God’s will or not?

  • Hi Mark

    I am working on a post that addresses your points about the content of Deuteronomy in more detail.

    Matt

  • While I don’t think you quite picked up on Mark V’s point (and I consider your opinions about divine command theory and objective morality to be false concerning ontology), your statement about the separation of ontology from epistemology is essentially right.

    See also New Zealand philosopher Roy Bhaskar’s discussion of the ‘epistemic fallacy’.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one who is having to constantly explain this distinction. Conflating epistemology and ontology seems to be what all the cool skeptics are doing these days.

    I have a question, though, Matt, with regard to your specific view of moral ontology. You say that the properties of rightness and wrongness do not exist independently of God’s commands. This seems very counter-intuitive to me; would it not be the case that they don’t exist independently of God’s character? Otherwise, what are the commands themselves grounded upon?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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