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Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on God, Morality and Arbitrariness

July 17th, 2009 by Matt

Is morality independent of religion? One common argument for this position is that denying it makes God’s commands arbitrary.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues,

Let’s assume that God commanded us not to rape. Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.1

The conclusion of this argument is that morality cannot “depend” upon God, and that, God’s commands cannot “make” anything morally wrong. It is clear from what Armstrong says earlier in the same paper that he has in mind a relationship of constitution,2 his target is the claim that moral obligations depend on divine commands in a manner analogous to the way the property of being water depends upon the property of being H20. His conclusion is that morality, which in this context refers to deontic properties such as being prohibited, being permitted or being required, is not constituted by divine commands.3

The premises of the argument can be summarised as follows,

[1] Either, (i) there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape; or, (ii) there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape.

[2] If there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape then Gods commands are arbitrary.

[3] If there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape then, r, is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.

The point is that either a person must admit that God’s commands are arbitrary or deny that his commands constitute moral obligation.

I think this argument is problematic; the problem is that the word “reason” is ambiguous. William Wrainwright notes that the word reason can be used in two different senses. The first is a constitutive sense; one affirms that the reason water has certain phenomenological properties is because it is H20. In this sense, the use of the word “reason” denotes a special kind of ontological relationship. The second sense is a motivational reason; as in, when I state that the reason I feed my daughter is because I love her. This sense is more psychological or epistemological.4

It is important to note that these two senses are not the same as the following illustration demonstrates. Noah fills a glass with water. If we ask what the constitutive reason was for his action, the answer would be that he filled the glass with water because he filled the glass with H20. If we ask what the motivational reason was for his action, the answer would be that he wanted a drink. Yet, his wanting a drink does not constitute water, likewise water being H20 is not the motivational reason he wants the drink.

When Armstrong states, “Let’s assume that God commanded us not to rape. Did God have any reason to command this?” he could be asking if there is a motivating reason as to why God prohibits rape or he could be asking if there is a constitutive reason as to why God prohibits rape. Either way, however, his argument fails.

Turning to the first option, if Armstrong means to ask, did God have a motivating reason for prohibiting rape? then r refers to a motivating reason and premise [2] is correct. If God has no motivational reasons for prohibiting rape then God’s commands are arbitrary. To avoid the conclusion that God’s commands are arbitrary one would have to concede that God has motivating reasons for issuing them.

The problem is that on this sense of “reason,” premise [3] is false. If r refers to a motivating reason then it does not follow that because r exists, r constitutes the wrongness of rape. I noted this in the example I gave above; the fact that Noah has a motivating reason to pour water into a glass does not mean that these motivations constitute him pouring water into the glass. What constitutes water are H20 molecules, not his motivations.

Armstrong could avoid this by denying that he means r to refer to a motivating reason, that he meant r to refer to some kind of constitutive reason. This might enable him to affirm that [3] is true. The problem is that if this is what is meant by r then [2] is false. Even if God does not have constitutive reasons for prohibiting rape, he could still have motivating reasons and if he does then [2] is false. If God has motivational reasons, such as concern for the welfare of others for issuing the commands he does, then God’s commands are not arbitrary.

Armstrong’s argument therefore commits the fallacy of equivocation.

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) 108.
2 Ibid 106.
3 Ibid 105; where he turns to the question of whether Theism is an adequate foundation for objective moral duties.
4 William Wrainwright Religion and Morality (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2005) 91.

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21 responses so far ↓

  • This post seems badly confused.

    You claim that Sinnott-Armstrong must be talking about either motivating or constitutive reasons.  This is incorrect.  He's clearly talking about normative reasons (or what "counts in favour" of so acting).  Note that there might be a "good [normative] reason" to phi independently of what motivated you.

    And, of course, normative reasons are precisely the sorts of things that make an act right or wrong.

  • The first commandment in the Bible takes this argument head-on.  God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At face value, that's about as arbitrary as one can get.  The person who refuses to obey this command (because it is arbitrary) REVEALS a deeper moral problem–what Plato would have called "injustice," in that if fails to give God His due. 

    Perhaps our modern democratic notions have caused us to forget an older notion of "worth-ship," in which right relationships are revealed by "paying homage" to the nobler person.  "Giving every one His due" means honoring those who are more worthy.  If you "diss" the Almighty because His commands are arbitrary, you (unjustly) hold yourself forth as "equal to God."

    Having said that, Sinnott-Armstrong might want to consider how this argument applies to the Christian Trinity.  The Father has absolute power, but the Son is the Word who was with God in the beginning, and who was God.  God could be simultaneously all-powerful (right solely because He commands it) and independently just (commanding it solely because it is right).

  • Richard in the article in question, Sinnott-Armstrong says that he is attacking the view that divine commands constitute our moral obligation. As such, to negate this claim the argument must be framed in terms of constitutive reasons.

  • Madeleine – no, the argument simply needs to be framed in such a way as to make clear why the conclusion follows.  This should be perfectly clear if you take 'r' to be a "normative reason" throughout.

    <span style="">If there's a good normative reason for God to prohibit rape, then that very reason will suffice to make rape wrong ("constitute rape's wrongness").</span>

  • Richard have you read the article by Sinnott-Armstrong that Matt is responding to?

  • That's a poisonous argument. It's like trying to make the argument of following because of reason vs blind faith. When in fact, reason is better when accompanied with faith, because we can reason ourselves into anything without a set of standard.

    Did God have any reason to command this?

    May be he can ask God when he die? In the mean time, we can see the result of rape, we can make sense of why God commanded us not to. But to know exactly God's reason for His commandments, one can ask God earnestly, or wait till one see Him when the time comes.

  • <p style="margin: 0in 0in 10pt;"><span style=" line-height: 115%;"><span style="font-family: Calibri;">Hi Richard, </span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0in 0in 10pt;"><span style=" line-height: 115%;"><span style="font-family: Calibri;">Not sure I agree with your exegesis of Armstrong here. note the question is does God have a reason for prohibiting <span style="mso-spacerun: yes;"> </span>X, in other words one is not asking whether there are reasons, which may or may not motivate God. One is asking what reasons actually motivated God, why did “he” do it. <span style="mso-spacerun: yes;"> </span></span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0in 0in 10pt;"><span style=" line-height: 115%;"><span style="font-family: Calibri;">But turning to your suggestion, suppose one frames R as “normative reason” it seems to me the argument is still erroneous. </span></span>
    <p style=""><span style="">[1] Either, (i) there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape; or, (ii) there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape.

    [2] If there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape then Gods commands are arbitrary.

    [3] If there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape then, r, is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.</span>
    <p style="margin: 0in 0in 10pt;"><span style=" line-height: 115%;"><span style="font-family: Calibri;">If r is a normative reason, and normative reasons constitute wrongness , then [3] might be true (assuming the transitivity of reasons). But it’s not clear that [2] is true, the fact that someone does not have a normative reason for doing something does not mean they have no reason for doing it, and hence the absence of a normative reason does not make an action arbitrary . </span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0in 0in 10pt;"><span style=" line-height: 115%;"><span style="font-family: Calibri;">An analogy might help, antecedent to any command on my part my son has no moral requirement to eat green peas, posterior to my command he does, however it does not follow my command is arbitrary, it’s obviously based on good reasons, such things as the fact that peas are healthy etc, these reasons by themselves however do not make eating peas obligatory. </span></span>

  • "Let’s assume that God commanded us not to rape. Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands."

    There seems a much simpler answer which does not require convoluted logic.  Yes God had a reason to command us not to rape… and yes that reason is what makes rape morally wrong… and that reason is part of the Universe which God created.   And so God commands us to act in a way which fits with his universe… I do not see how this makes morality independent of God.  There seems to be this hidden idea that there is something outside and above God here – but try to find it and guess what?  God created that too.  There are no holes.  God is God's reason.

  • Please forgive the lengthy comment.

    Having not read the Sinnott-Armstrong piece, I want to avoid replying to Matt on WSA-exegetical grounds.  Moreover, I would also like to avoid any theological entanglements.  In that spirit, I propose the following: if we see that the argument can be revised to hold true when we replace 'God' with some other entity (for simplicity, let's call him Jimmy), then it should also hold for God. Thus:

    [1]  Either, (i) there is a reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape; or, (ii) there is no reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape.

    [2] If there is no reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape then Jimmy's commands are arbitrary.

    [3] If there is a reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape then, r, is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.

    Now, Matt suggests the dilemma that r can be understood in either a constitutive sense or a motivational sense, and argues that whichever horn we grasp leads to one of the premises being false.  If r is motivational, then [3] is false, and if r is constitutive, then [2] is false.  This reply, though, seems to hinge on the use of the word 'constitutes' in [3].  But what if we modify [3] to maintain the spirit of the argument without relying on the constitutive terminology. I suggest:

    [3]' If there is a reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape, then r is what explains the wrongness of rape.

    Now, we can accommodate Matt's objection by splitting (i) in the first premise into two possibilities:

    [1*] Either, (i) there is a constitutive reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape; (ii) there is a motivational reason, r', why Jimmy or, (iii) there is no reason why Jimmy prohibits rape (~r & ~r').

    [2*] If there is a constitutive reason, r, why Jimmy prohibits rape, then r is what explains the wrongness of rape

    [3*] If there is a motivational reason, r', why Jimmy prohibits rape then r' is what explains the wrongness of rape.

    <div>[4*] If there is no reason why Jimmy prohibits rape ~(r v r'), then Jimmy's commands are arbitrary.</div>

    This argument, I think, maintains both the spirit of WSA's original (as presented by Matt) as well as its apparent validity, while also accommodating Matt's distinction between constitutive and motivational reasons.  I'm convinced that either Jimmy's commandment not to rape is arbitrary, or the wrongness of rape is explained by something other than Jimmy's prohibition.  Why, then, would the argument not hold, mutatis mutandis, for God?  Pardon the pun, but I see no good reason why it shouldn't.

  • So basically you replaced what's true of God with Jimmy, then replace what's true of Jimmy with God …

  • Lawyers have a concept of "malum prohibitum" and "malum in se" that might apply here.  If I drive faster than the speed limit, I commit a wrong because I do what a lawful authority has prohibited.  There's nothing morally wrong with driving 56 miles per hour in Maryland, but it is against the law and therefore I can be justly punished for it.

    If I invent a new game (let's call it "Ethical Pursuit") and teach you all the rules, you "cheat" if you broke the rules.  There's nothing morally wrong about playing three cards instead of two, as such–but it's still cheating.  And that's wrong.

    I keep coming back to the central notion that God is the AUTHORITY, which makes His commands justly binding on His creatures, whether or not they are "arbitrary."  Sinnett-Armstrong seems to be pursuing an analysis that intentionally leaves that piece out of the puzzle.  I suppose he can do that if he wants to–but I'd hate to be in his shoes on the Last Day.

  • Matt – right, not all normative reasons give rise to obligations.  One might have good reason to eat peas without thereby having an obligation to eat peas.  But there's no question that some do.  The reason that God has to prohibit rape, weighty as it is, seems an extremely good candidate for making rape wrong even before he prohibits it.  This is the point of S-A's argument, which your original post seems to miss entirely.

  • Richard, if S-A's argument is merely that one can posit SOME moral principles without an explicit reliance on God, then it doesn't seem like he's saying all that much.  I understood his argument to be that religion adds nothing to any "real" morality.

  • "if the argument can be revised to hold true when we replace 'God' with some other entity (for simplicity, let's call him Jimmy), then it should also hold for God."

    Absolute nonsense!  You can't treat God like any other entity.  That is why this argument collapses before it even starts.

  • "Did God have any reason to command this?" for instance makes the assumpion that God has "reasons" in the same way we do.  We have "reasons" like we do at least in part because we have a human brain, human senses, and human reasoning power.  To assume that God's way of perceiving is so similar to ours that we can just apply these words willy-nilly to God and assume if an argumet works for a person it must also work for God reeks of anthropomorphism.

  • Max, you're right to QUESTION whether God's "reason" is analagous to ours.  It wouldn't be wise to merely ASSUME that we can apply human words to God's acts or thoughts.  Some very smart people have held a such a transcendent view of what Einstein called "The Old One."

    My reason for thinking "anthropomorphically" about God is based on Genesis, which reports that "God created man in His own image."  If that is true, then man might be called "theomorphic," in some sense.

  • <p style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"><span style="color: #404040;"><span style=""><span style="">Richard, if not all normative reasons give rise to obligations and not all reasons are normative reasons then, [3] is false. It is perfectly possible for God to have a reason for prohibiting an action (such as rape) and that reason itself not constitute the wrongness of the action.</span></span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"><span style="color: #404040;"><span style=" "> </span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"><span style="color: #404040;"><span style=""><span style="">Moreover, if you limit r to normative reasons that would constitute moral obligations then while [3] would be true [2] would be false; the fact that God does not have a normative reason that constitutes wrongness for issuing a command does not entail that he has no normative reason that does not constitute wrongness nor does it entail that he has no reason at all hence [2] would be false.</span></span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"><span style="color: #404040;"><span style=" "> </span></span>
    <p style="margin: 0cm 0cm 0pt;"><span style="color: #404040;"><span style=" ">So I think my original point stands. It seems that if one defines r in a way that makes [3] true then it is not clear that [2] is, and if one defines r in a way [2] is true then it is no longer evident that [3] is.</span></span>

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    <p><span style="color: #404040;">Richard, if not all normative reasons give rise to obligations and not all reasons are normative reasons then, [3] is false. It is perfectly possible for God to have a reason for prohibiting an action (such as rape) and that reason itself not constitute the wrongness of the action.</span>
    <p><span style="color: #404040;"> </span>
    <p><span style="color: #404040;">Moreover, if you limit r to normative reasons that would constitute moral obligations then while [3] would be true [2] would be false; the fact that God does not have a normative reason that constitutes wrongness for issuing a command does not entail that he has no normative reason that does not constitute wrongness nor does it entail that he has no reason at all hence [2] would be false.</span>
    <p><span style="color: #404040;"> </span>
    <p><span style="color: #404040;">So I think my original point stands. It seems that if one defines r in a way that makes [3] true then it is not clear that [2] is, and if one defines r in a way [2] is true then it is no longer evident that [3] is.</span>

  • Richard, if not all normative reasons give rise to obligations and not all reasons are normative reasons then, [3] is false. It is perfectly possible for God to have a reason for prohibiting an action (such as rape) and that reason itself not constitute the wrongness of the action.

    Moreover, if you limit r to normative reasons that would constitute moral obligations then while [3] would be true [2] would be false; the fact that God does not have a normative reason that constitutes wrongness for issuing a command does not entail that he has no normative reason that does not constitute wrongness nor does it entail that he has no reason at all hence [2] would be false.

    So I think my original point stands. It seems that if one defines r in a way that makes [3] true then it is not clear that [2] is, and if one defines r in a way [2] is true then it is no longer evident that [3] is.

  • "My reason for thinking "anthropomorphically" about God is based on Genesis, which reports that "God created man in His own image."  If that is true, then man might be called "theomorphic," in some sense."

    Yes – in some sense… no doubt at all.  But in the sense required for this argument to work?  Possibly…. but not certainly.  This alone makes the argument useless since we can not ever say if the premisis are true. 

    Oh I relish in being simple at times.  Al of this wrangling over definitions seems so irrelevant.  Its like devising complex logical arguments to prove my mother exists… I know she does.  I talked to her this morning!  I don't need to *prove* this from first principles.

  • Richard: "The reason that God has to prohibit rape, weighty as it is, seems an extremely good candidate for making rape wrong even before he prohibits it."

    Only if you construe God's reason as a moral reason. Why would you assume that if God has reasons for issuing commands, those reasons must be moral ones?