1. I think a key issue, one which should really be spelt out in detail, is the concept of “grounding moral duties in divine commands”. What does this mean?
Basically, I think the relationship between the moral properties of being wrong and the property of being contrary to God commands is analogous to the relationship between water and H2O. Just as we explain the existence and nature of water by identifying it with H2O. I would explain the existence and nature of wrongness by identifying it with the property of being contrary to Gods commands.
2. So what do you mean by “divine commands”? How do you get them? Do you hear voices?
No I don’t hear voices. God is an immaterial being and hence has no vocal chords. I think it is possible for God to create an audible voice issuing a command but I think that this would be fairly atypical. In any event, I do not think that an auditory voice is necessary for issuing a command. I can communicate a command orally but I can also do it via e-mail, text, sign language, waving a flag, etc.
In the normal and typical cases, I think divine commands are usually discerned via a person’s conscience. One intuitively sees that certain actions are right and others wrong and hence intuitively perceives certain imperatives such as “do not torture children for fun,” etc. Moreover, I think anyone whose faculties are functioning properly perceives God’s commands this way whether they believe in his existence or not.
The H2O analogy may illuminate this. We know that the property of being water is the property of being H2O. However, people can know something is water immediately via perception even if they do not have any beliefs about molecules, atoms or contemporary science. Pre-European Maori, for example, knew about the existence of water and competently used water for centuries before they knew about the existence of hydrogen and oxygen.
Hence, on my view, atheists can know what is right and wrong. The real question is whether atheism can adequately explain the existence of right and wrong or whether, given atheism, it is likely that moral properties such as right and wrong exist. These are separate questions.
A person can believe in the existence of something and yet be committed to beliefs, which if true, entail that what they believe is a fantasy. I suspect this is precisely the way Atheists view Christians.
3. And if such a command tells you commit an act which conflicts with your moral intuitions and logic – which one do you follow?
If I understand Ken correctly here, he is asking me what I would do if I believed that God had commanded an action that I intuitively considered to be wrong. This is actually a big topic, worthy of a post in and of itself, I do plan to post something more substantial on this in the future, here I can only summarise my current position.
As I noted above, I agree with Ken that people can intuitively recognise certain principles of right and wrong. I would, however, point out that these intuitions are fallible. So, in contrast to what Ken appears to think, I would not assume that every time there was a clash between what I believed God’s commands are and my intuitions that the latter are correct. At the same time I also think our interpretations about what God commands are also fallible and so I would not assume that my interpretations of what God commanded were always correct either. In fact, given that I have already argued that one knows God’s commands intuitively through one’s conscience, intuitively perceiving an action is wrong is some evidence that God forbids it and that claims to the contrary are mistaken.
My answer then to Ken’s question, what do you do if one’s interpretation of God’s commands conflicts with one’s moral intuitions? is that it depends on one’s epistemic situation. If the belief that God has commanded a particular action is something that, after critical reflection, seemed to me well established by the evidence and by contrast, the contrary intuition that the action was wrong was fairly weak, peripheral and less plausible then I would go against the intuition. If, on the other hand, the intuition was very clear and seemed extremely plausible while the rival interpretation of God’s commands was, by comparison, fairly weak and tentative then I would follow the intuition.
To turn to one example Ken mentions, the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2000, I think the intuition that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings is a very strong one. Whereas I do not believe that the case from, say, scripture or theological tradition for killing innocent people in this way is very strong at all (in fact both scripture and tradition are fairly unanimously opposed to terrorism of this sort).
On other issues my thinking is different. For example some people appear to find it self-evident that there is nothing wrong with homosexual conduct. I myself do not have this intuition, nor do most people I know, in fact, many defenders of homosexual conduct I have spoken to admit that they personally find the idea of two men having sex disgusting but defend the “liberal” view in spite of this. Moreover, for I do not think it is implausible to conclude that much of the contemporary acceptance of homosexual conduct is due to cultural conditioning rather than a sudden direct insight gained in the mid 20th century. The arguments typically given for the permissibility of homosexual sex are fairly weak and frequently consist of no more than castigating others as bigots. On the other hand, I think the theological case against homosexual conduct from scripture and tradition is fairly strong.
I have posted a bit more about my thoughts on this in my post Brink on Dialetical Equilibrium.
I am not sure what Ken intends to prove with this point. Ken is correct that some people who suffer from a mental disorder believe that God has commanded them to kill. I don’t think this proves much. I know of people who suffer from dementia who have had hallucinations that there is a river running through their lounge. Does it follow then that referring to the existence of rivers is somehow dubious? In fact, mental patients can also have faulty “moral intuitions” and moral logic quite independently of any theological beliefs they have.
Despite this, Ken maintains, correctly, that people whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly can intuitively discern the presence of right and wrong. I agree with him, the difference is that I believe that what they discern is in fact the property of being in accord with or contrary to divine commands. Ken clearly does not. The question that some theistic critics of secular morality poses is not whether atheists can discern right and wrong, they can; the question is whether, if atheism is true, right and wrong actually exist.