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Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I

March 23rd, 2009 by Matt

In a debate with William Lane Craig at the University of Colorado, Michael Tooley stated,

There is a theory which has the consequence that there cannot be objective moral laws unless God exists—that’s the so-called ‘divine command theory of morality’. What it says is that an action is wrong because and only because God forbids it. And an action is obligatory because and only because God demands it. If that theory were right, then there would be an argument in support of the claim that Dr. Craig has advanced. But that theory is quite a hopeless theory because of its implications. One of its implications, for example, is that if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible, then it would follow that that action was obligatory. Perhaps Dr. Craig would be happy with that consequence. But many people, including many religious thinkers, are very unhappy with that consequence, and so have rejected the divine command theory of morality.[1]

Tooley here appeals to a version of the Euthyphro dilemma; his argument contains two premises.

First, that a divine command theory has a certain implication; it implies the following conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible.

Second, Tooley thinks many people would be unhappy with this implication. Now I think Tooley is correct that the aforementioned conditional is an implication of the divine command theory. His phrasing of the second premise, however, is problematic; his stated reason is that many people are not happy with this implication but it is unclear why this is an objection. The fact that some people do not like an implication is hardly an objection against it. What is relevant is whether the conditional is true. For this reason, I take it Tooley is engaging in a rhetorical flourish and actually contends that this conditional is false.

The crucial contention of Tooley’s critique, then, is that the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible,is false. There are some problems with this contention. There are no reasons for thinking the conditional is false and there are good reasons for thinking the conditional is true. In the next two blogs I will defend these claims.

Reasons for Thinking the Conditional is False
The crucial contention of Tooley’s critique then is that the conditional if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible, is false.

Unfortunately Tooley provides no argument for this conclusion, he simply asserts it. An examination of the literature suggests that typically two lines of argument are offered for this contention. Given Tooley offers no new reasons of his own, I will assume that he has one of these in mind.

David Brink’s Argument against the Conditional
The first is mentioned by Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King

DCT [divine command theory] implies that it is possible for any kind of action, such as rape, to not be wrong. But it seems intuitively impossible for rape not to be wrong. So, DCT is at odds with our commonsense intuitions about rape.[2]

A similar line of argument is made by David Brink who states,

We might also notice a counter intuitive implication of voluntarism. Voluntarism implies that all moral truths are contingent on what God happens to approve. … Thus, for example, had God had not condemned genocide and rape, these things would not have been wrong, or, if God were to approve these things they would become morally acceptable. But these are awkward commitments, inasmuch as this sort of conduct seems necessarily wrong.[3]

Brink here uses the examples of genocide and rape; however, I suggest that he would say the same thing about Tooley’s example of ‘commanding people to torture each other;’ hence, for clarity I will stick with Tooley’s example.

Brink’s inference here has two premises; the first [1] is that the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible, implies that it is possible for the act of ‘torturing people as much as possible’ to be obligatory. The second premise [2] is that it is impossible for the act of ‘torturing people as much as possible’ to be obligatory; such things are necessarily wrong, that is, wrong in all logically possible worlds. If [1] and [2] hold, the conditional Tooley refers to is false.

The problem with this inference is that [1] is false. The conditional uses the term “if”, if God had … but this does not by itself imply that there is a logically possible world where such an action is obligatory. To get this conclusion one needs the additional premise that there exists a possible world where God issues such a command. Brink does not offer any reason for thinking this is the case; he seems simply to take it for granted.

It seems dubious, however, that this assumption is true. Tooley defines God as “omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect”.[4][Emphasis added] Similarly, in his debate with Craig he states,

I want to begin by briefly indicating how I’m going to understand the term ‘God’ in this next discussion. My view is that the question one should ask is, “What characteristics should an object possess in order to be an appropriate object of religious attitudes?”

I think that the answer to that is that a being, to be characterizable as God in that sense, should be a personal being, should be a being that is morally perfect, a being that is omnipotent, and a being that is omniscient..[5][Emphasis added]

So, as Tooley defines his terms, the claim that there is a possible world where God commands people to ‘torture one another as much as possible’ is true only if there is a possible world where a morally perfect omniscient person would command this action.

This is unlikely. The very reason Tooley cites the example, of ‘torturing others as much as possible,’ is because he views it as a paradigm of an action which can never be obligatory. Similarly, Brink mentions actions like rape and genocide because he thinks it’s impossible that such actions could be permissible. However, if this is the case then a morally perfect being would never command such actions. The argument by Brink, therefore, is unsound.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Argument
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong suggests a second line of argument for the falsity of the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible. Armstrong states,

Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counter-factual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.[6] [Emphasis added]

Armstrong uses the example of rape in place of Tooley’s ‘torturing one another as much as possible’. He claims that “even if God in fact never would or could command” such actions, the relevant counterfactual still follows and “that is absurd.”

Armstrong gives no argument for the claim that the counterfactual is absurd, he simply asserts it as obvious. The problem is that it is not obvious. If there is no logically possible world where God issues such a command (and Armstrong concedes for the sake of argument that this is the case) then the conditional (which Armstrong refers to as the counterfactual) has a logically impossible antecedent; it is equivalent to statements like “if there were a round square, its area would equal the square of one of its sides.”[7] Whether statements like this are true or false is a difficult issue in contemporary modal logic. In fact, according to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional with a logically impossible antecedent is always true.

Armstrong’s suggestion, then, that the conditional is obviously true is far from obvious and in fact, runs contrary to the standard view of such conditionals in modal logic.

In my next post, Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II, I will look at attempts to overcome this.

[1] Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig A Classic Debate on the Existence of God held at the University of Colorado at Boulder, November 1994, transcript accessed on March 21st 2009.
[2] Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King “Introduction” 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) 11.
[3] David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 152.
[4] Michael Tooley “Does God Exist,” in Knowledge of God Ed. Alvin Plantinga & Michael Tooley (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2008) 72.
[5] Tooley and Craig A Classic Debate on the Existence of God.
[6] 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) 106.
[7] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 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), 172

RELATED POSTS:
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II
The Euthyphro Dilemma Against Divine Commands I: Avoiding Strawmen
The Euthyphro Objection II: Arbitrariness
Euthyphro Objection III:The Redundancy of God is Good
On the Meta-Euthyphro Objection
Brink on Dialetical Equilibrium
On a Common Equivocation
Patrick Nowell Smith on Divine Commands
Permissible Lies
Theology, Morality and Reason
The Meta-Ethical Argument for Christian Theism: A Response to Richard Chappell
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I

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12 responses so far ↓

  • […] Flannagan brings us Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I and Part II posted at MandM. Matt gives a critical discussion of Michael Tooley’s version of […]

  • I found some of this a bit confusing. I don’t see how Tooley is running a version of the Euthyphro dilemma. He’s simply stated an apparent consequence of divine command theory and noted that it is highly counterintuitive. What’s odd is that you seem to agree that the conditional statement he thinks is a consequence of DCT is false. Isn’t that precisely the objection? I can see ‘biting the bullet’ and saying that the conditional is a genuine consequence but it’s true. I can see finessing the view and saying that the DCT doesn’t imply that the conditional is true, but you seem to go for neither option.

    The argument is this.
    (P1) If DCT were true, ‘If God commanded rape, rape would be obligatory’ would be true.
    (P2) ‘If God commanded rape, rape would be obligatory’ is false.
    (C) DCT is false.

    It’s valid and so far as I can tell, you accept both premises but doubt the conclusion. I don’t think this version of the argument succumbs to the problem you think arises for Tooley’s argument and the passage suggests that this is a pretty fair rendering of what Tooley had in mind.

  • Just an attempt at an editing note: presumably the concluding sentence:
    “Armstrong’s suggestion, then, that the conditional is obviously *true* is far from obvious and in fact, runs contrary to the standard view of such conditionals in modal logic.” Should read *false* instead, if I’ve followed the reasoning.

    Thank you, I found the post helpful

  • @Clayton – I don’t think Matt accepts P2. He says that according to standard treatments of modal logic, the conditional given is true, while Armstrong claims it is “absurd”, so presumably false. Tooley is also taken to believe it is false. However, Matt claims it is relevant that the antecedent part is, it seems, logically impossible if God is, as defined by Tooley, morally perfect. As such, we never actually would be obligated to torture AMAP if the intuition against it is correct and God is morally perfect. Thus, it is quite possible that Tooley’s moral intuitions are correct and yet that DCT does not face a coherent objection in Tooley’s conditional.
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  • “the conditional, if God had commanded mankind to torture one another as much as possible then it would be obligatory to torture one another as much as possible, implies that it is possible for the act of ‘torturing people as much as possible’ to be obligatory.”

    That’s Matt’s [1]. Here’s what he says:
    “The problem with this inference is that [1] is false. The conditional uses the term “if”, if God had … but this does not by itself imply that there is a logically possible world where such an action is obligatory. To get this conclusion one needs the additional premise that there exists a possible world where God issues such a command. Brink does not offer any reason for thinking this is the case; he seems simply to take it for granted.”

    Side issue. I don’t think Bring would think there is a possible world where God exists and issues any commands as I suspect that Brink might be an atheist and think there are no possible worlds in which God exists. I don’t see why the argument against DCT would have to assume that there’s any possible world in which God exists.

    Zachary, you wrote:
    “@Clayton – I don’t think Matt accepts P2. He says that according to standard treatments of modal logic, the conditional given is true, while Armstrong claims it is “absurd”, so presumably false. Tooley is also taken to believe it is false. However, Matt claims it is relevant that the antecedent part is, it seems, logically impossible if God is, as defined by Tooley, morally perfect”

    Just to be clear, my (P2) was, “(P2) ‘If God commanded rape, rape would be obligatory’ is false.” In the passage above, Matt says [1] is false. How could [1] be false and (P2) be false?

    I think we can easily reformulate the argument to avoid these worries:

    Suppose (1) God exists and (2) suppose the DCT theory is true. Given these suppositions, someone could say:
    (3) It is possible that: (God commands rape & rape permissible).
    But:
    (4) It is not possible that: (God commands rape & rape permissible).
    (C) ~(God exists & DCT).

    I think Matt accepts (4) along with the critics of DCT, so the disagreement between them has to concern the claim that (3) is a commitment of those who defend DCT and believe God exists. Now, there’s an interesting question as to whether someone who accepts DCT is committed to (3) and _that_ might be what Matt denies.

    There’s a problem with denying that (3) is a consequence of (1) and (2), however, and that’s that there seems to be little available to the proponent of DCT to explain how (3) is false. On its face, it seems that you’d want to say that (3) is false because rape is wrong and God wouldn’t command you to perform an impermissible course of action, but it seems you would be using moral facts to explain divine commands and that seems to go against the theory.

  • Clayton wrote “I don’t see how Tooley is running a version of the Euthyphro dilemma.” I think this is plausible in the context the quote I cite appears, in the previous sentence Tooley explicitly refers to the Euthyphro dilemma,

    Clayton wrote “What’s odd is that you seem to agree that the conditional statement he thinks is a consequence of DCT is false. Isn’t that precisely the objection? I can see ‘biting the bullet’ and saying that the conditional is a genuine consequence but it’s true. I can see finessing the view and saying that the DCT doesn’t imply that the conditional is true, but you seem to go for neither option”.

    Perhaps there is a misunderstanding here I was rejecting the claim that the conditional is false. Instead I argued that it has a necessarily false antecedent and hence is either true or of little consequence.

    “The argument is this.
    (P1) If DCT were true, ‘If God commanded rape, rape would be obligatory’ would be true.
    (P2) ‘If God commanded rape, rape would be obligatory’ is false.
    (C) DCT is false.

    It’s valid and so far as I can tell, you accept both premises but doubt the conclusion.”

    Like I said I don’t accept (P2), as it has a necessarily false antecedent.

    “I don’t think this version of the argument succumbs to the problem you think arises for Tooley’s argument and the passage suggests that this is a pretty fair rendering of what Tooley had in mind.”

    I agree that this is what Tooley had in mind, but I think this argument does succumb to the problem in my post (P2) has a necessarily false antecedent.

    This objection seems to me to be a bit like a person who objects to the claim that a triangles has three sides by pointing out that this claim entails that if a triangle were a square it would follow that a square has three sides, seeing this is false (squares do not have three sides) a triangle does not have three sides.

  • Clayton wrote”Side issue. I don’t think Brink would think there is a possible world where God exists and issues any commands as I suspect that Brink might be an atheist and think there are no possible worlds in which God exists. I don’t see why the argument against DCT would have to assume that there’s any possible world in which God exists.”

    It seems to me quite possible for an atheist to hold that there are possible worlds in which God exists and issues commands, all the atheist has to maintain is that God does not exist in the actual world.

    But that’s a side issue, because what I suggest Brink holds is that if DCT is true then there is a possible world where God commands rape, he states

    “DCT [divine command theory] implies that it is possible for any kind of action, such as rape, to not be wrong. But it seems intuitively impossible for rape not to be wrong. So, DCT is at odds with our commonsense intuitions about rape.”

    This seems on the face of it to suggest that if DCT is true then its possible, that is there is a possible world, where God commands rape. Brink goes on to state
    ”We might also notice a counter intuitive implication of voluntarism. Voluntarism implies that all moral truths are contingent on what God happens to approve. … Thus, for example, had God had not condemned genocide and rape, these things would not have been wrong, or, if God were to approve these things they would become morally acceptable. But these are awkward commitments, inasmuch as this sort of conduct seems necessarily wrong”

    Here Brink suggests that DCT contradicts the idea that actions like rape and genocide are necessarily wrong. That seems to imply that Brink thinks DCT entails that there are possible worlds where God commands these things. If God prohibits rape in all possible worlds then it then DCT would not contradict the claim that rape is necessarily wrong
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  • ”But, that doesn’t address (Q2). Critics of DCT will say that someone who defends DCT (if we take that to be the view that right acts are right because God commands them and not because of some further reason (e.g., that they are objectively best, required by the categorical imperative, etc…) have to explain why it is that God would never command us to perform an action that is impermissible.”

    Sure some have raised this objection, that’s however not the objection Tooley raised or the objection I was addressing in the post. Obviously I can’t discuss every objection to DCT in a single post

    Very briefly however, I am not convinced by this objection, for several reasons. Here I can only be brief. A DCT entails that God cannot prohibit an action because it is wrong. It doesn’t follow from this that he cannot prohibit the action for reasons other than its being wrong. I also think this objection often equivocates on the word “reason” and frequently relies on the questionable presupposition that the “reasons for” relationship is transitive.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Merry Christmas: Mary’s Magnificat =-.

  • “I don’t accept (P2), as it has a necessarily false antecedent.”

    Okay, I think it’s a bit clearer what you had in mind with your original post. So, I take it that Tooley and his crew will say that you are committed to the following troubling consequence:

    (TC) There’s a possible world in which rape is obligatory; namely, the one in which God commands it.

    Now, you’re response will be that this _isn’t_ a possible world. The critics response: that’s right. It’s not possible, but you’re committed to its possibility. That’s the other half of the Euthyphro dilemma. You said that the objection you were dealing with this post doesn’t really address this. Fair enough, but I think that to be fair to Tooley and co. they were assuming that you probably wouldn’t want to be committed to (TC).

    In your last comment you didn’t want to address this issue, but I think critics of DCT typically will assume that proponents of DCT are cheating if they help themselves to moral facts to explain divine commands. I worry that this would be the only way of avoiding (TC) and I worry that the issue you don’t want to address is something that critics of DCT think is part of the objection that you are addressing here.

  • Clayton wrote ”Now, you’re response will be that this _isn’t_ a possible world. The critics response: that’s right. It’s not possible, but you’re committed to its possibility. That’s the other half of the Euthyphro dilemma.”

    Sorry but I don’t see how the divine command theorist is commited to claiming that there is a possible world where God commands rape. The Euthyphro dilemma affirms that either an action is wrong because God commands it, or God commands it because it’s wrong. I don’t see how either option entails that a perfectly good being can command rape.

    “In your last comment you didn’t want to address this issue, but I think critics of DCT typically will assume that proponents of DCT are cheating if they help themselves to moral facts to explain divine commands. I worry that this would be the only way of avoiding (TC) and I worry that the issue you don’t want to address is something that critics of DCT think is part of the objection that you are addressing here.”

    Ok it’s unclear what exactly the problem is here, if I read you correctly you seem to be suggesting that the only way a person can avoid accepting (TC), is if they hold that there exist deontological properties independent of Gods commands which explain his commands. I agree that would be a problem if it were true. I fail to see however why it’s true at all. I don’t see why God couldn’t posses certain character traits essentially in all possible worlds, despite not having a duty to cultivate such traits in these worlds.
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  • “Sorry but I don’t see how the divine command theorist is commited to claiming that there is a possible world where God commands rape. The Euthyphro dilemma affirms that either an action is wrong because God commands it, or God commands it because it’s wrong. I don’t see how either option entails that a perfectly good being can command rape.”

    Suppose you say to the utilitarian, “If torturing this infant maximized utility, it would be right” and the utilitarian said that’s true, but that’s because the conditional has a necessarily false antecedent. The response would fail because we know that there’s a PW where torturing this infant maximizes utility.

    Suppose you say to the DCT, “If torturing this infant maximized utility, it would be right” and the DCT theorist says that this is true but only because the conditional has a necessarily false antecedent. I say that this response is as silly as the response the utilitarian offers.

    A DCT theorist will no doubt disagree. They might say (assuming they go the route you recommend) that there’s no PW in which God commands ‘Torture this infant!’. The question then becomes how to explain why there’s no possible world in which God commands someone to torture the infant.

    Here’s an explanation:
    (Exp1) There’s no PW in which God commands you to torture the infant because in every PW it is wrong to torture the infant, God would know that, and no morally perfect being would command you to do something wrong.

    That explanation isn’t available to the DCT because it is using moral facts and knowledge of them to explain why God wouldn’t issue certain commands. (We’re on the “God commands it because it’s wrong” horn.)

    Once you appreciate that (Exp1) is out of bounds, you’ll see that there’s no credible explanation available to the DCT that explains why there’s no possible world in which God commands someone to torture an infant. So, the DCT cannot credibly deny that there’s a PW in which God commands this just like the utilitarian cannot credibly claim that there’s no PW in which torture doesn’t max utility. There’s nothing available to these theories to constrain metaphysical possibility in that way. There’s just too many possible worlds.

  • Clayton, I think there is an important difference, between the utilitarian reply and the DCT reply, the claim that torturing an infant maximizes utility is not on the face of it, an incoherent statement whether or not it’s true would depend on contingent empirical facts in the given possible world. The claim God commands torturing an infant, is however incoherent this is because, as I noted, Tooley accepts that God is essentially perfectly good and hence the claim that God commands torturing an infant is equivalent to the claim that a perfectly good person knowing tortures an infant.

    “A DCT theorist will no doubt disagree. They might say (assuming they go the route you recommend) that there’s no PW in which God commands ‘Torture this infant!’. The question then becomes how to explain why there’s no possible world in which God commands someone to torture the infant.”

    Yes, but I did explain why I think there is no PW in which God commands the sort of actions Tooley mentions. That is because God is essentially perfectly good, and it’s incoherent to maintain that a good person knowingly commands acts of the sort Tooley mentions.

    “Once you appreciate that (Exp1) is out of bounds, you’ll see that there’s no credible explanation available to the DCT that explains why there’s no possible world in which God commands someone to torture an infant. So, the DCT cannot credibly deny that there’s a PW in which God commands this just like the utilitarian cannot credibly claim that there’s no PW in which torture doesn’t max utility.”

    This does not seem to me to follow; I agree that (Expl) is out of bounds. But all this shows is that one particular explanation of why there is no PW where God commands torturing an infant is incompatible with DCT. But that does not entail there is no credible explanation for this. Another explanation might be that God has certain character traits such as being loving or abhorring cruelty, or being compassionate, or a being who seeks the flourishing of his creatures and that no person with these traits would knowingly command the torture of an infant. DCT theorists such as Weirenga and Quinn, Carson, Adams have suggested something like this. So it appears both that (Expl) is not the only possible explanation and nor is it the explanation DC theorists typically give, hence its failure is, I think, of little consequence.
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