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John W. Loftus on The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority Part I

May 7th, 2009 by Matt

Several Christian thinkers, most notably, C S Lewis, John Hare, Robert Adams and William Lane Craig have argued that Theism provides a superior foundation for moral obligation than Naturalism does. Most of these thinkers defend this notion by developing and defending a divine command theory.[1] John W Loftus is aware of this and in The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority, he offers a refutation of divine command theory. I will argue that Loftus is mistaken; his arguments are based on a confusion between ontological and epistemological foundations.

Avoiding Strawmen
Before turning to Loftus’ arguments, it is necessary to spell out exactly what a divine command theory of ethics is. It is the thesis that “an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God.”[2] two things are noteworthy about this definition.

What is a Divine Command Theory?
First, the thesis is limited to deontological properties. Philip Quinn defines deontological properties as follows, “I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.”[3] Deontological properties are contrasted with axiological properties such as goodness and badness. Evans notes, “it does not appear that the concept of obligation is identical to the concept of what it is ‘good to do’ … It might be good, even saintly, for me to give a kidney to benefit a stranger, but it not an act I am obliged to do.”[4]

Despite frequently being portrayed this way in common critiques, divine command theories do not offer accounts of broader axiological properties. This is evident from the writings of those who defend such theories. Quinn, after defining deontological properties in the aforementioned way, affirms he is not offering a divine command theory of axiological properties. In this he is followed by Adams, Alston, Craig, Wierenga, Hare and Plantinga and, even to some extent, Thomas Carson. This is not something unique to modern divine command theories; older divine command theorists such as Paley, Locke, Berkley and Suarez typically limited divine command theories to accounts of deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness in general.

The second point is to note is that the word “because” in English is ambiguous. When a divine command theorist claims that “an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God.”[5] The theorist could mean either, that one cannot know what is right and wrong unless one believes in divine commands; or that right and wrong cannot exist independently of Gods commands. The first claim states that beliefs about right and wrong are epistemologically dependent on beliefs about divine commands. The second is that the existence of moral properties, such as right and wrong, are ontologically dependent on God’s commands.

It is important to note that epistemological dependence and ontological dependence are not the same thing. Take a straightforward example of identity; the property of being water is identical with (or constituted by) 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 and use it without knowing anything about atomic theory. Hence, our knowledge of the existence water is not dependent on our knowledge of H20.

When divine command theorists state that an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God they are using “because” in an ontological sense. The locus classicus for contemporary defences of divine command theory is the work of Robert Adams who affirms that “ethical wrongness is [identical with] the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.”[6] Adams here states that the relationship between the property of being contrary to God’s commands and wrongness is the ontological relationship of identity.

Elsewhere in the article he is explicit about this; he suggests that wrongness is identical with or constituted by being contrary to divine commands in the same way that water is constituted by (or identical with) H20. Other divine command theorists explicitly follow Adam’s lead on this. Stephen Evans and William Alston both affirm that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and note Adams’ identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending.[7] Craig cites Alston[8] as the inspiration for his position and contends that “commands constitute our moral duties”[9] he explains that by this he means to make divine commands an ontological foundation, and in particular, the concept of “informative identity”[10] analogous to 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.”[11] Craig is explicit that he is not offering divine commands as an epistemological foundation, “It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question.”[12]Also, “My concern here is with moral ontology not moral epistemology … to repeat, my concern is with an ontological foundation for morality, not with epistemological foundations.”[13]

The other leading defenders of divine command theory are equally clear that they are proposing a theory of the ontological and not the epistemological foundations of moral obligation. Quinn,[14] Weirenga,[15] Hare[16] and Plantinga[17] all offer accounts of the ontological foundations of deontological properties. Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theories were usually understood as ontological theories and not epistemological theories about how one knows what is right and wrong.[18]

John Loftus’ Mischaracterisation of Divine Command Theories
These observations lead into my main criticism of Loftus’ discussion. Loftus mistakenly understands divine command theories as signifying epistemological dependence. At the beginning of his article Loftus refers to the view that “[moral] standards are grounded in the commands of a good creator God, and these commands come from God’s very nature” and infers from this that “the Christian claims to have absolute and objective ethical standards for knowing right from wrong, which is something they claim atheists don’t have” [Emphasis added] here Loftus suggests that the claim that right and wrong depend on God’s commands is the claim that knowledge of right and wrong depends on belief in divine commands.

The same interpretation is seen elsewhere in his chapter when he defines a divine command theory Loftus states Morality is based upon what God commands. “No other reasons are needed but that God so commanded it. If God commanded it, then it is right. If God forbids it, then it is wrong.” and citing the Divine Command theory of William Lane Craig he states “Many Christians will maintain they have a superior foundation for knowing and for choosing to do what is good. They claim to have objective ethical standards for being good, based in a morally good creator God, and that the atheist has no ultimate justification for being moral.” [Emphasis added] Despite the fact that Craig and other divine command theorists have repeatedly stated they claim no such thing.

Another problem with Loftus’ characterisation is that in several places he suggests that divine command theories claim that axiological properties such as goodness depend on God’s commands. He states, for example, that divine command theory entails that “God could’ve commanded something else, or even something contrary, or something horribly evil and simply declared it good” or that “If we think that the commands of God are good merely because he commands them, then his commands are….well….just his commands.” Examples could be multiplied; the problem is, as I have noted, divine command theorists typically do not offer their theories as foundations for axiological properties, they limit their theories to deontological properties.

These misconstruals undermine many of the criticisms Loftus makes. As I will show, many of his objections are based on a conflation between epistemology and ontology.

In my next post, John W. Loftus on The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority Part II, I will address Loftus’ arguments against a divine command theory, the emptiness of God is good and his arbitrariness objection.

[1] C S Lewis rejected a divine command theory; I believe, however, that Lewis’ dismissal is based on unsound arguments and the divine command theory coheres better with his argument in Mere Christianity as I argued in my paper “God and the Moral Law in C. S. Lewis” Theological Perspectives on C S Lewis Conference Carey Baptist College, Auckland, 1 July 2008.
[2] W K Frankena Ethics 2nd edn (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) 28.
[3] Philip Quinn “An Argument for Divine Command Theory” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 291.
[4] C Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 16.
[5] Frankena Ethics 28.
[6] Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.
[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) 303-304.
[8] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 186.
[9] William Lane Craig “The Craig/Kurtz Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough” Eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 30.
[10] Mark C Murphy “Theism, Atheism and the Explanation of Moral Value” eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 127.
[11] Ibid.
[12] William Lane Craig “The Indefensibility of Theistic Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality” Foundations 5 (1997) 9.
[13] Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 168.
[14] Ibid, 293.
[15] 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.
[16] John Hare God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) 49.
[17] Alvin Plantinga “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience”
www.ammonius.org/assets/pdfs/plantinga.pdf.
[18] Janine Maree Idziak “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989) 60.

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John W. Loftus on The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority Part II

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14 responses so far ↓

  • Hey Matt, any particular reason you’re taking John to task here? He has been refuted on numerous occasions, but never changes his tune. In my experience, it just ain’t worth it.

    Recent blog post: On dogmatism

  • His site is widely read, he has influence, therefore he merits a response. It isn’t always about winning over the person you are taking on, it is about the arguments getting wide exposure and those watching and seeing how two contrary viewpoints interact.

    Recent blog post: John W. Loftus on The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority Part I

  • I agree that it’s not about winning over the person being debated; I’m just
    not sure that Loftus has the influence that he pretends he does. He’s so
    inept that having someone like Matt respond to him seems more to grant him
    unmerited legitimacy than anything else…just my 2c worth. You can adjust
    it for recessionitis as you feel fit (:

  • Loftus’ atheism is better argued than Hitchens or Dawkins and the likes of Craig will happily debate them.

    His site sits 90,000 points higher on Alexa than ours does, his stat counter shows he is getting 40,000-50,000 visitors a month – thats 10 times more than us, so if he doesn’t have any influence, at least in the blogosphere, I would have to questions whether we do either. (Setting the New Zealand blogosphere to one side)

    Recent blog post: The Coming Week: Two Apologetics Forums & Bloggers Drinks

  • This is quite well written, but I think if people fail to grasp this distinction they may fail to grasp your argument here.

    I think there is some truth to the idea that Christianity has a greater grasp on morality than atheism because it knows the moral giver, but that is secondary, and not the argument. As I would say in my more simplistic manner, it is the existence of an ought that is evidence of God, even if people disagree on what we ought to do.

    I agree that sometimes refutation is about the onlookers and not who we are refuting. If someone is recalcitrant, then refuting them or showing their ideas to be foolish may only be to influence those who are watching from the sidelines.

    I note that Holding takes on some of Loftus’ theology at tektonics.

    Recent blog post: Conflict of interest

  • I believe the reason Craig won’t debate Loftus has more to do with their personal history. If memory serves, Loftus was once one of Craig’s students.

  • Loftus was one of Craig’s students. Craig has stated that he will not debate former students.

    However, it could be that Craig also has a policy of only debating PhD’s in the field unless they are highly influential and popular e.g. Hitchens. Loftus does not hold a PhD, though he comes close, and while he is a better argued atheist than Hitchens, he is not as influential or popular.

  • Oh, wow. I thought he claimed to have his PhD, so this is news to me.

  • No, he is quite clear on his profile.

    “I have the near equivalent of a Ph.D. in the Philosophy or Religion/Apologetics (three master’s degrees and Ph.D. studies). I majored under William Lane Craig and earned a Th.M. degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1985. I am the author of Why I Became an Atheist, and the founder of the Debunking Christianity Blog. I read all emails sent to me, but I can only respond to a few of them.”

  • Just a minor quibble with your example of water.

    You said:
    “Take a straightforward example of identity; the property of being water is identical with (or constituted by) 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 and use it without knowing anything about atomic theory. Hence, our knowledge of the existence (of) water is not dependent on our knowledge of H20.” Maybe, for thousands of years, but that’s not true today, now that we know more about the stuff!

    But what if the use you wanted to make of the water was to help you make an atomic bomb? Clearly, you would then have to know that not all water is the same thing (despite appearances) and some of it contains different isotopes of Hydrogen, whilst all of it is H2O. You would then have to know a little about atomic theory, wouldn’t you?

    You would find that, despite appearances, the property of being water is not necessarily identical with (or constituted by) the property of being H20. It merely seems so, until we look more closely. Tap water just won’t do the job, whereas what we are after is heavy water, still H2O, still water, but with slightly different properties.

  • Warzy paints,

    I take your points but don’t think they affect my argument. All I was trying to show by this example is the difference between ontological dependence and epistemological dependence. That the claim that one thing X ontologically depends on Y for its existence does not entail that one needs to believe in the existence of Y to know X exists. I think the example shows that one can know water exists without believing in atomic theory. This is enough to refute Loftus’s claim

    As to your quibbles, I don’t think your examples effect this point. True there are certain details about water which we depend on atomic theory to know about and true there are certain uses of water which we cannot know about unless we know about atomic theory. But none of this shows we need to know about atomic theory to know that water exists or to recognise particular bodies of water lakes rivers etc exist or to engage in activities such as drinking or swimming.

    In fact it could be argued that these features of water are analogous to the relationship between divine commands and moral obligations. I am quite willing to grant that one cannot know certain details about moral obligations unless one believes in divine commands. There are certain specific moral claims for example that religious conservatives and secular liberals disagree one and this is often due to differing theological judgements. Certain claims about the morality of blasphemy might be an example.

    Recent blog post: Christian Blog Ranking Report for April 09 – HalfDone

  • […] The “moral” half of the chapter has already been answered offsite by the posting here by Matthew […]

  • Matt, you are taking me to task based one a confusion. I separate my discussion of this in my book between divine command theories and modified divine command theories. You’re criticizing what I said about divine command theories using modified divine command theories. I dealt with both.

  • John, I tend to think the distinction between divine command theories and modified divine command theories is a distinction designed to defend a carciature in the first place.

    I don’t know of anyone who defended a “divine command theory” in the sense this distinction suggests, pretty much every major defender of DCT either contemporary or historical defended something different from the “unmodified version”.