MandM header image 2

Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II

March 25th, 2009 by Matt

In my last post, Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I, I made some critical remarks on Michael Tooley’s critique of William Lane Craig’s version of the divine command theory. Tooley contends that this theory implies the conditional that 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, and makes the claim that this conditional is false. I argued that the arguments for the claim the conditional is false fail.

In the second half of the post I criticised Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s claim;

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.[1] [Emphasis added]

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

In this post, I want to examine a defence of Armstrong’s position, that proposed by Louise Anthony in her article “Atheism as Perfect Piety.” I will argue Anthony’s defence also fails. I will then offer some reasons for thinking that the conditional Tooley cites is not false but true.

Louise Anthony’s Defence of Armstrong’s Argument
Louise Anthony suggests a repair to Armstrong’s argument. She notes,

In standard modal logics, any counterfactual with an impossible antecedent is true. … Results like this are widely regarded as regrettable, in so far as one looks to formal modal logic to reconstruct ordinary reasoning with counterfactuals. I am going with ordinary intuitions, which do not treat all counterfactuals with impossible antecedents as true. [2]

Anthony, here, claims that the standard view of modal logic is mistaken. Not all counterfactuals with impossible antecedents are true. An obvious problem here is that even if this is the case, it does not follow that the particular counterfactual being discussed here is false. The fact that some counterfactuals with impossible antecedents are false does not entail that this particular one is false.

Suppose, however, one puts this argument to one side and grants that the counterfactual is false. What follows? I am inclined to think not much.

Consider the structure of Anthony’s argument. She notes that the claim that right and wrong is coextensive with divine commands entails that if, per impossible, God commands torturing people as much as possible then it is obligatory to do so. The problem is that an analogous line of reasoning applies to any ethical theory. Three examples will demonstrate this.

First, consider utilitarianism, the theory that an action is obligatory if it maximises the balance of good consequences over bad consequences. It follows from this that if torturing people as much as possible maximises good consequences over bad then torturing people as much as possible is obligatory. The utilitarian’s protestation that such a situation is impossible is unsuccessful because even if this situation is impossible the conditional is, according to Anthony, still absurd and hence, discredits the theory.

Similar things apply with Kantianism, the view that an action is obligatory if and only if it treats rational creatures with respect; that is, treats them always as ends and never merely as means. It follows that if torturing people as much as possible treats them with respect then it is obligatory to torture people as much as possible. Of course, the Kantian would object that torturing people as much as possible is never something that constitutes respect but again, that does not matter. Even if the antecedent is impossible, Anthony maintains that the conditional is false and for this reason the theory should be rejected.

The same is true with virtue ethics, the view that an action is obligatory if and only if, it would be performed by a virtuous person. It follows that if a virtuous person would torture people as much as possible then torturing people as much as possible is obligatory. Again, the virtue ethicist will protest that a virtuous person would never want to do that but again, if Anthony is correct, this is irrelevant. Her whole point is that even if the antecedent is impossible, an ethical theory with this implication is absurd.

I maintain the same is true of any meta-ethical theory. Let P be any property one considers to be logically equivalent to the property of being obligatory. It will be true that this meta-ethical theory entails that if P is possessed by the action of torturing one another as much as possible then torturing other people as much as possible will be obligatory.

Anthony’s argument is essentially that if we postulate logically impossible situations, absurd and false implications follow. Questions about what God would do in impossible situations is, as Craig points out, “is like wondering whether, if there were a round square, its area would equal the square of one of its sides. And what would it matter how one answered, since what is imagined is logically incoherent?”[3]

Reasons for Thinking that the Conditional is True
I have argued that attempts to show 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 all fail. I am inclined to go one step further and maintain not just that there is no reason for thinking that the conditional is false but that it is, on reflection, obviously true.

The conditional states that torturing one another as much as possible is obligatory, in a particular situation; that is, a situation where a perfectly good omniscient being commands it. Now it seems inconceivable to me that any action, torture included, could be wrong under such circumstances. If torturing one another as much as possible is gratuitously evil and could never be obligatory then an informed perfectly good being would not command it. On the other hand, if torturing one another as much as possible had certain features that would lead a perfectly good being to overlook the evils the action contains and commend it then it would seem that torturing people in these circumstances would not be wrong. The reason we are inclined to take the counterfactual as absurd is because we think it is absurd that a perfectly good being would command anything of the sort.

[1] 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.
[2] 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) 82.
[3] 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 I
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

Tags:   · · · · · 8 Comments

Leave a Comment


8 responses so far ↓

  • The Euthyphro dilemma exists (at least in part, possibly completely) because there were more that one god and these gods were not required to be in agreement, so one could play them off against each other.

    Within monotheism this is not an issue as the moral imperatives come from God’s nature. So while in some sense what God commands is good, he only commands what is consistent with his righteous nature. Or as you say, some potential commands are impossible as there is no world which God would create with such a situation.

    I also posit that making claims as the the truth or falsehood of propositions based on impossible premises seems foolish. “If you could count to infinity then you would stop counting,” may seem superficially true, but it is in fact a nonsensical statement.

  • I think your comments are spot on.

    I was worried people wouldn’t understand my post.

  • It will come as no surprise that I agree here.

    The more I discover in the literature the more absolutely convinced I am that dismissal of divine command ethics – and theologically grounded ethics in general – is the weakest spot in contemporary ethical theory, bar none.

  • Ed Feser’s latest post suggests the same problem occurs with regards to religion in the literature in general.

  • Matt you state:

    “If torturing one another as much as possible is gratuitously evil and could never be obligatory then an informed perfectly good being would not command it.”

    Which raises the question, how do we know whether the commands of a being believed to be informed and perfectly good are in fact good?

    If everything this being commands are good because that is his nature, then the question of whether they are good or evil would never arise. Every one of his commandments would be obeyed without question because they are his commandments and they are always good. But we don’t do that, we measure his commandments against our standards and only obey them if they meet our standard of goodness.

    The earlier post of the woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night is an example of this. You went to some lenghts to find evidence that the commandment did not reflect the practce of the day because you disagreed with (I assume) the commandment that a woman found not to be a virgin should be stoned to death. So you measured this commandment against your own standard of morality. But why would you do that if all the commandments of this being are always good?

  • Hi Mark

    If I understand you correctly, I think your position rests on confusion between two different things. (a) Unquestioning obedience to a command of Divine origin and (b) unquestioned acceptance of the claim that a command is of divine origin.

    I agree that if God commands something we should obey without question and it would be absurd to measure Gods commands by our own standards. I do not think that it follows from this that we should accept without question every claim that God has or has not commanded everything and I think it can be perfectly appropriate to use what one believes about right and wrong to asses whether or not a given interpretation of Gods commands is in fact an accurate one.

  • Precisely Bethyada, I am glad you have grasped the points I was trying to make. Your comments are on the mark. I was worried that the philosophical nature of this post would mean I would lose people.

    Recent blog post: The Foundations of the Alexandrian Argument against Feticide Part III

  • “The conditional states that torturing one another as much as possible is obligatory, in a particular situation; that is, a situation where a perfectly good omniscient being commands it. Now it seems inconceivable to me that any action, torture included, could be wrong under such circumstances. If torturing one another as much as possible is gratuitously evil and could never be obligatory then an informed perfectly good being would not command it.”

    Follow up on post concerning your earlier post. There are two questions here.
    (Q1) Which conditionals are true?
    (Q2) Which conditionals does a defender have to say are true?

    Essentially you’re saying that a perfect being wouldn’t command rape, genocide, tortrue, etc… That seems to address (Q1). 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. The challenge is that the command itself is what is supposed to serve as the ‘ground’ of all obligations, so if you appeal to moral facts to explain why certain commands are possible (e.g., wash my car!) and other commands are not (e.g., when you finish washing my car, torture my neighbor Moses!) you seem to be suggesting that moral facts explain commands rather than the other way around. That’s how it should be, but that seems like an obvious cheat for a proponent of the DCT theory.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Could ‘ought’ be objective but shifty? =-.