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Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Part I

February 7th, 2012 by Matt

This is  first half of the paper I presented to the Naturalisms in Ethics Conference at Auckland University last year.

In many of his addresses and debates William Lane Craig has defended a Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (“DCT”). In a recent article Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has criticized this contention.[1] Armstrong contends that even if theism is true then a particular form of ethical naturalism is a more plausible account of the nature of moral obligations than a DCT is. This paper critiques Armstrong’s argument.

Craig’s contention
Craig’s contention is that if theism is true then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.”[2] By “God” Craig means a necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created the universe.

This emphasis, both on God as a loving and just being and identifying moral obligations with God’s commands suggests that Craig defends a version of the modified DCT defended by Robert Adams,[3] William Alston[4] and C Stephen Evans[5]. Both Adams and Evans have argued, like Craig, that if God exists then his commands “best fill the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”.[6] Much of Craig’s arguments can be seen as an appropriation and popularisation of Adams.[7]

Armstrong’s Argument from Harm
Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongArmstrong contends that such a position is “incredible”[8], 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.[9]

We do not need a “new supernatural level” for morality because a natural property, the property of harming others without an adequate reason, fulfils the role assigned to wrongness by the concept better than divine commands do. Armstrong provides two arguments for this conclusion.

(a) The harm account makes moral obligations more objective than a DCT does;

(b) The harm account is more economical than a DCT.

Armstrong contends that his argument refutes, not just Craig, but any theistic account of ethics, “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.”[10]

I will address arguments (a) and (b) below. However, it is worth noting that, as stated, Armstrong’s conclusion here misses the point. He contends that everyone who does not start with peculiarly religious assumptions will see that the harm-based account is more plausible than a DCT. But Craig’s contention is that if God exists then a DCT is a plausible account of the nature of moral obligations. Neither Craig nor Adams contend that a DCT is the most plausible theory in the absence of religious assumptions. They contend that a DCT is the more “attractive theory, given those [theistic] beliefs, than any other meta-ethical theory is, given non-theistic beliefs”.[11] Note that this is not the conditional Armstrong addresses in his paper.[12]

Armstrong’s Arguments for the Superiority of the Harm-Account
Turning to Armstrong’s two main arguments in favour of the harm-account:

Objectivity
Armstrong’s first argument is that his harm account of moral obligations makes moral obligations more objective than a DCT does. He distinguishes between two “levels of objectivity”; a strong sense, where the wrongness of an action does not depend on whether anyone thinks or wants it to be wrong, and a weaker sense where the wrongness of an action does not depend on whether we think or want it to be wrong. Armstrong contends that divine commands are objective only in the first sense. God, after all, is “someone”. However, the natural property of causing harm is objective in both senses. Hence, his harm account provides a better explanation of the objectivity of moral obligations.

I will make three comments in response to this.

First, Armstrong’s harm account is not, in fact, more objective than a DCT.  If God exists then natural properties are not objective in the first sense. God is omniscient and is the creator and sustainer of the universe; hence, no natural property exists independently of his beliefs and desires. Natural properties can only be objective in the strong sense if theism is false but Craig is not arguing that a DCT is plausible if theism is false. His claim is that if God exists then there is a sound ontological basis for moral duties.

Second, the property of harming others is not objective in the weak sense either. In a later elaboration of his account Armstrong states that the badness of harm consists in it being “irrational to seek it (or not to avoid it) without an adequate reason”[13] and “to call such acts irrational is then, at least partly, to say that you and other normal people would never advise your friends (or anyone you care about) to do them”.[14] This entails that the badness of harming others, and the reason-giving force of the obligation, depends on what we (normal people) believe and desire and so it is not objective even in Armstrong’s weak sense.

Third, even if Armstrong’s harm account does make moral obligations objective in the strong sense. It does not follow that it is a better explanation of the objectivity of moral obligations. That follows only if strong objectivity is part of the “the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”, and hence, is the type of objectivity an account of moral obligations must explain. However, Armstrong provides no argument for this.[15] Moreover, Adams’ reason for claiming that objectivity is part of this role assigned to moral obligations is that “‘wrong’ has the syntax of an ordinary predicate, and we worry we may be mistaken in our moral judgments”.[16] We worry that, neither we nor society can “eliminate all moral requirements just by not making any demands”[17] and that “what the Nazi’s did to the Jews was horribly wrong whether or not the Nazi’s thought so and it would have been more horribly wrong if they had managed to persuade the Jews that it was not wrong”; these features of the concept only require weak objectivity.

Ockhams Razor
Armstrong’s second argument appealed to Ockham’s Razor; he stated “We should prefer simpler views when we have no reason to complicate matters.” However, “the divine command view adds a new supernatural level to its theory of morality. That added complication brings no benefits for the objectivity of morality”.[18]

In response to this argument I will make three points.

First, it is unclear that in the relevant dialectical context a DCT does violate Ockham’s Razor. Consider a related point by Alvin Plantinga:

Suppose we land a space ship on a planet we know is inhabited by intelligent creatures.  We find something that looks exactly like a stone arrowhead, complete with grooves and indentations made in the process of shaping and sharpening it.  Two possibilities suggest themselves: one, that it acquired these characteristics by way of erosion, let’s say, and the other, that it was intentionally designed and fashioned by the inhabitants.  Someone with a couple of courses in philosophy might suggest that the former hypothesis is to be preferred because it posits fewer entities than the latter.  He’d be wrong, of course; since we already know that the planet contains intelligent creatures, there is no Ockhamistic cost involved in thinking those structures designed.[19] 

Plantinga’s comments are aimed at debate over divine design. But something analogous occurs here. Craig and Adams are assuming for the sake of argument that God and his commands exist and asking what theory best explains the nature of moral obligation given these assumptions. One does not postulate a new supernatural level by explaining obligations in terms of divine commands. Armstrong’s appeal to Ockham’s Razor might[20] have “teeth”[21] if the naturalist and divine command theorist were starting from an agnostic position, and if the divine command theorist postulated the existence of God’s commands to explain the nature of moral obligation.  But Craig and Adams are not doing this.  They are assuming, for the sake of argument, that God and his commands exist and they are then asking which theory best explains the nature of moral obligation given these assumptions.[22]

Second, even if Armstrong’s naturalism is simpler than a DCT, it doesn’t follow it is a better account, all-things-considered. Simplicity is one relevant consideration. Another is which property best fits the role assigned to wrongness by the concept. Armstrong does not provide a reason for thinking his account does this. He argued it is a simpler account of the objectivity of moral obligations. However, objectivity is only one feature of moral obligations that a viable account must explain.

This is important because defenders of DCT contend it provides a better explanation of all the relevant features. Adams argued that if God exists then divine commands “best fill the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”.[23] He argued that if moral obligations are divine commands then this explains the fact that “wrongness is an objective property of actions”;[24] it also accounts for “the wrongness of a major portion of the types of action that we have believed to be wrong”;[25] It can explain how this property “plays a causal role … in their coming to be regarded as wrong.”[26]  And how moral obligations constitute a “supremely weighty reason” for doing or refraining from an action. Similarly, he contends that a DCT accounts for the intuition that our moral duties comprise “a standard that has a sanctity greater than that of any merely human will or institution”.[27] To conclude, his arguments call into question any theistic account of ethics that Armstrong needs to argue that his account provides a simpler account of all these features.

Part II coming soon…


[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) 101.
[2] Ibid.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] C. Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[6] Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1(1979) 74.
[7] In “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: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 186. Craig states he drew inspiration for his DCT from William Alston. Alston states the version of DCT he is defending is “the one Robert Adams defends in Divine Command Ethics Modified Again”, see William Alston “What Euthyphro should have said” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide ed William Lane Craig (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002) 284.
[8] Ibid 106.
[9] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 106.
[10] Ibid 114.
[11] Robert Adams “Prospects for a Meta-Ethical Argument for Theism: A Response to Stephen Sullivan” Journal of Religious Ethics 21 no 2 (Fall 1993) 316. Craig similarly defends a divine command theory, not by arguing directly for it but by defending two conditionals: first, if theism is true then we have a plausible account of moral obligation; and, second, if theism is false then we do not have such an account. See Craig, 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) 169.
[12] Armstrong states explicitly that he is addressing Craig’s first contention that “If theism is true we have a sound foundation for morality” Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 101.
[13] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Morality without God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 60.
[14] Ibid, 61.
[15] Armstrong did allude to this problem, stating “Of course Craig might object that morality does not have to be objective in this strong way. However, I am just applying his original definition. At the very least he should stop saying morality cannot be objective on a secular account”. This, however, provides no reason for thinking that strong objectivity is the relevant sense of objectivity assigned to wrongness by the concept. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 107.
[16] Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 74.
[17] Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 247.
[18] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 107.
[19] Alvin Plantinga “Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies” pre-published manuscript 13.
[20] I say “might” because, an agnostic could accept a divine command theory is the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligation, deny God exists; and conclude, therefore, that moral obligations do not really exist and embrace an error theory. even if one does start from an agnostic position. Consequently, even if one starts from an agnostic position. It’s unclear a divine command theory is less economical than naturalism. To show naturalism was more economical from this position Armstrong needs to show his naturalism is was more economical than an error theory.
[21] Ibid 14.
[22] In formulating this point I am influenced by Plantinga’s “Science and Religion” 14.
[23] Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 74.
[24] Ibid, 74.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid, 75.
[27] Ibid.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • What grade would you get if you handed this in for a masters degree?

  • Dicky P it’s too short for a Masters thesis.

    Why are you thinking of cheating?

  • Lol, do I come across as a masters student?

  • Go away Michael. We don’t need your annoyances here.

  • I seems to me that another problem with using harm as the criteria, unless you restrict it to pure physical pain (and perhaps even then), is it is often difficult or impossible to decide what constitutes the most harm in a given situation, if harm is the only basis for judgment. Say for instance you have a married couple, one of whom has problems with the marriage and wants to leave and the other wants to keep the marriage together. How do decide which action constitutes the most harm to the other person?

  • I wonder if the appeal to Ockham’s razor is misunderstood by Armstrong. I would think the idea behind the razor is not just the simplest path to a conclusion, but the the most fully orbed one. One that can view all the data objectively. So, is naturalisms claim simpler? if one was to try and trace the history of ethics through nature itself. Perhaps this could get a little complicated, muddled there could even be gaps where things do not match reality. One would have to rely on there being some consistency where some underlying laws are followed either in genetics, social structures etc. I would say this would show not a simple source, but a in-consistant one. Where if DCT is true this seems much more simple. If God has greater authority over nature then the foundation for ethics is not the the random world of nature. nor could one compare DCT within the limits of nature. It is plausible he can also communicate what are the most profitable moral functions where human-beings will flourish. We can also understand the implicates of these concepts and their benefit.

  • Dicky P, No, its just your question was a little left field. It could have mean’t, “gosh this is crap, how much do you think
    you’d get for that rubbish in a masters course, an F probably.” Or it could have been “hey that’s a really good essay I beat its worthy of a good grade” I was being chartable and assuming the latter.

    I don’t know what I would get for the paper in a Masters course, it’s years since I completed my masters, I’d hope though, given I am now working at post doctorate level, and that the paper has passed review for two professional philosophy conferences, and also been presented at two conferences, and had good feedback from people like John Hare, Eric Welenberg, Mark Murphy, Trent Dougherty, Greg Ganssle, and various others that it might fetch a reasonable mark.

  • You would have done a lot better than Glenno ever would.

  • […] In my previous post, I noted that Robert Adams has argued that if God exists, then divine commands “best fill the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”.[1] He argues that if moral obligations are divine commands this explains the fact, that (i) “wrongness is an objective property of actions,”[2], (ii) it accounts “for the wrongness of a major portion of the types of action that we have believed to be wrong,”[3]   (iii) it “plays a causal role … in their coming to be regarded as wrong”,[4]  (iv) it explains how moral obligations constitute a “supremely weighty reason” for acting or refraining from an action,   and (v) he contends that DCT explains the intuition that moral duties comprise “a law or standard that has a sanctity greater than that of any merely human will or institution”.[5] […]