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Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I

April 18th, 2009 by Matt

This is the first of a two-part series where I examine a recent argument criticising religious ethics by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

In many of his publications and debates William Lane Craig has defended the contention that if theism is true then there exists a sound foundation for moral duties. In a recent article, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has criticised this contention. Armstrong has claimed that his criticisms do not just call into question Craig’s argument for a theistic based system of ethics, he contends that his arguments are conclusive against any theistic account of ethics which is compatible with Christianity. He states, “Other theists might try to give better arguments for a religious view of morality. I don’t see how they could avoid all the problems in Craig’s account without leaving traditional Christianity far behind.”[1]

Before discussing Armstrong’s critique it is important to define a few key terms; this will become important later on. First, by theism, Craig means, belief in a necessarily existent, all powerful, all knowing, perfectly virtuous, immaterial person who created the universe. By foundation, he means, an ontological or meta-physical foundation. The ontological grounding he has in mind is that of “informative identification;”[2] an example of this is the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H20 or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.”[3] Craig argues that if theism is true then one can informatively identify moral obligations with divine commands; hence, providing a plausible and defensible foundation for moral obligations.

“his arguments display a conflation of epistemic and ontological questions”Armstrong’s critique begins by noting that Craig defends “traditional divine command theory.” Armstrong contends that such a position is “incredible”[4] and subject to a “cavalcade of devastating objections.”[5]

Two initial points are worth making. First, the position Craig defends is not a “traditional divine command theory” but rather a version of the modified divine command theory defended by Robert Adams,[6] more recently by William Alston[7] and Stephen Evans[8], also I have defended it here.

This theory affirms that the property of being wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to God’s commands in much the same way that water is identical with H20. Second, many of the “devastating objections” consist simply of a repetition of the tired old lines always used against divine command theories; most of these objections have been subjected to rigorous criticism in the literature on divine commands over the last 30 years by people such as Philip Quinn,[9] Edward Weirenga,[10] Robert Adams,[11] William Wrainwright[12] and again by me[13]. Armstrong does not address any of these criticisms; he merely repeats the standard arguments without even mentioning, much less, addressing the problems noted by these authors. In fact, in several places, his arguments display a conflation of epistemic and ontological questions which is a common error as I have argued here.

Armstrong’s Argument from Harm
Putting these niggles to one side, however, Armstrong’s main line of argument is fairly novel.[14] He states,

There is a much more plausible foundation for morality. It seems obvious to me, and to everyone who does not start with peculiarly religious assumptions, that what makes rape morally wrong is the extreme harm that rape causes to rape victims.[15]

Armstrong suggests that Craig’s conditional, if theism is true then there exists a sound foundation for moral duties, is mistaken because a more plausible foundation exists for our duties, one that is independent of God’s commands. The wrongness of actions can be founded in the harm caused by immoral actions such as rape. Armstrong provides two arguments as to why this harm-based or secular account of the nature of wrongness is superior to a divine command theory.

(a) The harm account is more economical than a divine command theory;
(b) The harm account makes moral obligations more objective than a divine command theory does.

In my next post I will address arguments (a) and (b). I will leave you with the thought that it is worth noting that Armstrong’s conclusion misses the point. He contends that everyone who does not start with peculiarly religious assumptions will see that the harm-based foundation is more plausible than a divine command theory. Nothing in Craig’s contention contradicts this. Craig’s contention is that if God exists then there is a sound basis for moral obligations. The sound basis he identifies is divine commands. Craig, then, was not arguing that a divine command theory was the most plausible theory in the absence of religious assumptions, Craig argues that in the absence of religious assumptions it is Nihilism, not divine command theory, which is the most plausible account of moral obligation. Craig’s contention is that a divine command theory is plausible if one grants such assumptions. Armstrong’s conclusion actually has no bearing on the contention he is attempting to refute.

[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: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 114.
[2] Mark C 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: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 127.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 106.
[5]Ibid, 108.
[6] Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 66-79; “Divine Commands and the Social Nature of Obligation” Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987) 262-275. [7] 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) 303-26.
[8] C. Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[9] Philip L Quinn Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978); “Divine Command Theory” in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory ed Hugh LaFollette (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing Co, 1999) 53-73; “Theological Voluntarism” in The Oxford Handbook to Ethical Theory Ed David Copp (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 63-90.
[10] 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.
[11] 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; “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 66-79; Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” in Rationality and Religious Belief ed C F Delaney (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979) 116-140.
[12] William Wrainwright Religion and Morality (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2005).
[13] Matthew Flannagan “The Premature Dismissal of Voluntarism” in Colloquium: The Australasian Theological Review (forthcoming).
[14] I say “fairly novel” because a very similar objection was raised in Don Marquis’s seminal essay, “Why Abortion is Immoral” The Abortion Controversy: 25 Years after Roe v Wade, A Reader eds Louis Pojman and Francis Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998) 345.
[15] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 106.

RELATED POSTS:
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part II
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II
Maverick Philosopher on the Historical Atrocities Argument

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