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Jerry Coyne on God and Morality Revisited

February 23rd, 2012 by Matt

Late last year I, wrote a criticism of Jerry Coyne’s piece in USA today. Entitled, As  atheists know, you can be good without God.  My critique attracted some attention. Getting commentary from Mary Ann Spikes, Jason Thibodeau,  Jeffery Lay Lowder, and Brian Zamulinski.  Since the USA today article Coyne has written a follow up article where he purports to address the kinds of criticisms I made in this post. This article is entitled Maybe my Philosophy isn’t so Unsophisticated After All.  However, far from exonerating his poor reasoning, Coyne’s response simply further demonstrates my point.

In this article Coyne focuses almost exclusively on criticisms I and others have made to his use of the arbitrariness objection. This is significant, for this criticism was just one of several criticisms of Coyne’s article that I raised .  Consequently, even if Coyne’s rejoinder is sound it addresses only one of my objections.  The rest remain untouched.

As it is, his response is poor.  He begins by noting the response to the arbitrariness objection proposed by William Lane Craig. According to Coyne, Craig’s response is “whatever God orders is good and morally obligatory simply by virtue of the fact that He is God.” He cites this as a quotation but fails to provide a source. His response to this is to refer to alleged atrocities taught in the Old Testament and claim Craig’s response is “too stupid to address”

Three things are evident, First, this is not Craig’s response to the arbitrariness objection; in his book Philosophical Foundations of  a Christian Worldview, Craig argues that Our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a just and loving God” (emphasis original)   and that

 this fact also supplies the key to the arbitrariness objection.  For our duties are determined by the commands, not merely of a supreme potentate, but of a just and loving God.  God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so forth, and His commandments are reflections of His own character.  Thus, they are not arbitrary, and we need not trouble ourselves about counterfactuals with impossible antecedents like “If God were to command child abuse . . . .[1]

So, Craig, in fact, maintains it’s impossible for God to command actions which are cruel, unjust and so on.   He does not, claim such actions can become good merely by God commanding them and Coyne appears to insinuate.

Second, I actually addressed the Old Testament atrocity argument in my original article . However, Coyne simply repeats his argument.

Third, calling someone “stupid” is not a rational rebuttal of their position; it commits a fallacy that logicians call the ad hominem fallacy, where one attacks the arguer instead of rebutting his argument. The distinction between attacking a person and refuting their argument is an elementary one in logic; it’s hard to believe Coyne is unaware of it.

If Coyne thinks misrepresenting people, insulting them and then repeating an argument which has been addressed counts as competent philosophical or theological analysis he is gravely mistaken.

After setting this tone, Coyne turns specifically to my criticisms. After suggesting that responding to on MandM is “a mugs game” he directs the reader to an article by Jason Thibodeau who Coyne calls a “real” philosopher” and cites two paragraphs which he claims “decisively” refute me.

Now it doesn’t need saying that simply finding an article that agrees with you and maintaining the author of that article is a “real scholar” is not really a response to anything. Neither is simply asserting that someone has offered a refutation itself a refutation.

But what’s interesting is Coyne’s selective citation. After noting my point, that a loving and just person would not command the kinds of actions he mentions, Thibodeau states

There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands… the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT [divine command theory] is false.

Coyne suggests this response “shows pretty definitively that” my argument fails and it “sets the record straight” for all thinking Christian’s

In fact this response is mistaken. The fact that a loving and just being does not command certain actions does not entail that there is a moral standard independent of that being requiring them to not command those things. This is because it is possible for a person to be loving and just with being obligated to be loving and just. Suppose, for the sake of argument, morality was an illusion and in reality no one really was required to love their children.  Would it follow that all parents would cease to love them, or that they could not exercise love?  Not at all, I can be loving without being under an obligation to be loving. So this objection fails.

Interestingly however, Thibodeau actually points this out in the very next line of the article which Coyne snips from his quotation. Thibodeau writes:

In any event, as Flannagan indicated, the debate does not end here because the divine command theorist may concede the point but still insist that all he needs is that God is all-loving, and he will get the same consequence (or at least one that is close enough); namely that God will not issue commands that require us to cause horrible pain and suffering (or do anything that we all agree would be horrendous). If developed in the appropriate direction, this reply can lead to a fully developed response to the arbitrariness objection.

So, the “real philosopher” Coyne cites actually says this argument is unsuccessful, for reasons I had already indicated in my criticisms.  Coyne’s response therefore appears to be as follows (a) find an article that agrees with his conclusions (b) assert the author (apparently unlike me) is a real philosopher (c)  quote an argument  the author actually says fails to address my point (d) Snip the context so your readers don’t know this (e) assert boldly that his comment refutes me.  Far from showing that my criticisms of Coyne are mistaken these kinds of tactics suggest I was on the mark.  Of course readers of Coyne’s work online or in USA today won’t have the original articles Coyne cites from and so will take his assertions on faith. This is effective propaganda but little else.

After these dubious manoeuvres, Coyne then asserts that the rest of Thibodeau’s article makes devastating points against me but does not cite or summarise these arguments.

In fact Thibodeau’s makes two arguments both of which fail.

Thibodeau’s, first argument appeals to God’s omnipotence, which he defines as the ability to do whatever is logically possible.  If omnipotence is defined this way, then God could command the torture of children.

Now whether omnipotence should be defined in this way is in fact a matter of dispute. However, suppose we grant Thibodeau’s definition; the argument still fails. Adams’ position is that that moral obligations are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God.  Even if God, being omnipotent could command the torture of children, he could not do so and continue to be loving and just. This is because it’s not logically possible for a loving and just being to command things like this. So this argument does nothing to show that a loving and just God could command torturing children and hence does not refute Adams’ position.

Thibodeau’s second argument is similarly mistaken. Thibodeau argues that it’s possible that there exists an all-powerful creator that enjoys watching sentient beings suffer, he labels this being Azura. He then notes that Azura could command the torture of children.

Now assuming that it is possible that Azura exists (which I doubt), this argument is beside the point. The fact that an evil being who is all powerful could command the torture of children, does not entail that a loving and just God could. So Adam’s contention that moral obligations are best accounted for by the commands of a loving and just God remains un-refuted.

Both arguments fail because they misconstrue the position that Adams and those who follow him defend. These people contend that the nature of moral obligations is best explained by the commands of a loving and just God. Pointing out that they are not explained by a God who lacks these attributes does not address this contention. It ignores it.

Interestingly,  in  some commentary on Coyne’s exchange with myself arguments philosopher and ethicist  Brian Zamulinski notes that he had pointed this out to Coyne months before he wrote the USA today article. Zamulinski  writes

Robert Merrihew Adams contended that morality is constituted by the commands of an essentially loving God.  The Euthyphro dilemma collapses because an essentially loving God could not command just anything.  In his USA Today article, Coyne rehearses the Euthyphro dilemma but does not mention the Adams reformulation.  This is odd.  I had an e-mail correspondence with Coyne some months earlier in which I pointed out the Adams reformulation.  Coyne should have taken time to rebut the reformulation.  He did not.

Coyne’s final riposte is to ask a question, how do you know a loving God exists? And this whole issue is “moot unless you can show that there’s a God to issue moral commands”. This however is to reason in a circle, in his USA today article Coyne was criticising the argument that morality was “strong evidence for [God’s] existence.” People like Adams argue it is because the best account of the nature of moral obligations is that moral obligations are commands issued by a loving and just God.  To contend Adams is wrong because no one has offered an argument for a loving God’s existence is to assume the very issue under dispute. One could just as easily argue Coyne’s argument is flawed on the grounds that his arguments are flawed.

Nothing in Coyne’s follow up leads me to revisit my initial conclusion. Misrepresenting people’s views, calling people names, quoting from articles out of context, denigrating others’ scholarly qualifications and confidently asserting a position whilst reasoning in a circle, and ignoring objections, are not the same as actually addressing them.  I doubt such sophistry would pass muster in the scientific community when people write on scientific topics, and it does not pass muster when scientists comment on theology or philosophy.

[1]William Lane Craig and J P Moreland Philosophical Foundations of a Christian WorldView (Downers Grove Il:Intervarsity Press academic), 531,

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44 responses so far ↓

  • Socrates effectively argued that if God creates morality through his commands, then rape could be right. The falsity of the consequence infects the antecedent. It is not much of an improvement to define morality in terms of the commands of a loving God. (It is necessary to be careful and not do as William Craig Lane does and define morality as the commands of a just and loving God, because that’s circular.) The trouble is that God would be cruel rather than kind unless he warned us against known dangers. A loving God would therefore have to command us to eschew cholesterol as well as killing. Consequently, the modified definition is too broad and therefore false. (Also, if God created the dangers he warned us against, he would be controlling rather than loving.) Furthermore, if the divine command theory were true, we could never know anything about morality. Since by definition God is all good and always speaks truly, we could certainly rely on his commands when deciding what we should do. But we could not know that an imperative actually was one of God’s commands unless we could prove on independent grounds that it accorded with morality.
    The foregoing are arguments against the divine command theory. If they fail, the divine command theory still has no support. Moreover, it is not true that it is reasonable to posit God as the best explanation for existence of morality.
    Finally, if you were able to find my criticisms of Coyne, you ought to be able to find my criticisms of morality as constituted by the commands of a loving God. They are in the same place. I find your failure to mention them as noteworthy as Coyne’s failure to mention the views of Robert Merrihew Adams.

  • I find it ironic that Coyne, a biologist, thinks that he’s in a position to judge who is and isn’t a “real philosopher” given that his forays into philosophy would receive a failing grade in a sophomore level class. Evidence for this consists in the fact that in past articles he has written, he shows that he hasn’t the foggiest about modal concepts. Something which sophomores learn if they take an introductory class in metaphysics…

  • Brian my response was to Coyne not to you, hence I responded to his arguments in this post not to every argument I am aware of. I do plan to respond to others in other posts at other times, and in fact quite regularly do respond to different criticisms of DCT on MandM.

  • Brian

    Socrates effectively argued that if God creates morality through his commands, then rape could be right. The falsity of the consequence infects the antecedent.

    Actually, I don’t think Socrates did argue for this, in the original Euthyphro Socrates attacked a polytheistic divine which was based on literal belief in the Olympian Gods, his critique worked because his interlocutor, the seer Euthyphro granted that objection was that the Olympian gods disagree over what is pious and when they agree they do so because the actions are antecedent pious. No divine command theorist would accept these assumptions.

    The argument you cite is an adaptation of the Euthyphro which is attributed to 17th century Philosopher Ralph Cudworth. Cudword, which is that if wrongness is based on Gods commands then anything at all could be morally acceptable

    It is not much of an improvement to define morality in terms of the commands of a loving God. (It is necessary to be careful and not do as William Craig Lane does and define morality as the commands of a just and loving God, because that’s circular.)

    I don’t think Craig’s position is circular; Quinn and Adams have both address this objection. The claim that moral obligations are identified with the commands of a loving and just God only if you understand justice in deontological terms, that is justice is understood in terms of obeying certain obligations. But divine command theorists like Craig, Adams and Quinn, are clear they don’t understand justice this way. They rather understand Justice as a virtuous character trait which has certain descriptive content. So for example a just person is one who judges based on truth regardless of whether he is obligated to do this or not. A just person acquits those who are innocent and condemns the guilty regardless of whether he is obligated to do this or not, a just person treats people as equals in a certain respect, whether required to do this or not and so on.

    The trouble is that God would be cruel rather than kind unless he warned us against known dangers. A loving God would therefore have to command us to eschew cholesterol as well as killing. Consequently, the modified definition is too broad and therefore false. (Also, if God created the dangers he warned us against, he would be controlling rather than loving.)

    I don’t think either of these conclusions follow: First, I love my adult children, it does not follow I regulate their cholesterol eating a person can be loving without doing this. Second, many parents warn children against risks they created without being controlling, for example, I warn my children about the gas oven I had installed in the chicken does that make me a control freak?

    Furthermore, if the divine command theory were true, we could never know anything about morality. Since by definition God is all good and always speaks truly, we could certainly rely on his commands when deciding what we should do. But we could not know that an imperative actually was one of God’s commands unless we could prove on independent grounds that it accorded with morality.

    This confuses ontology with epistemology; I have addressed this line of argument before
    http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/09/walter-sinnott-armstrong-and-the-moral-scepticism-objection-to-divine-commands.html

    The fact moral obligations are constituted by Gods commands does not mean we rely on our knowledge of Gods commands to decide what to do. This would only follow if you assumed the following principle:

    If A constituted B, then one must rely on ones knowledge of A to determine what is a B.

    This principle however is false. Consider a paradigm of constitution, water is constituted by H20. The fact water is H20 does not mean that people rely on their knowledge of hydrogen to determine what is water. Most people can recognise accurately a bottle of water without any knowledge of hydrogen at all.

  • “So, Craig, in fact, maintains it’s impossible for God to command actions which are cruel, unjust and so on. ”

    Right. So when God commands the wholesale destruction of men, women and children in the OT, those action are NOT cruel, unjust and psychopathic simply because it is God who gives the order. Great
    Basically what you and Craig are saying is that when God does it, it’s OK. So it turns out God CAN command you to do something (say, rape a child), which then becomes your moral duty, and which without the command would have been wrong. That’s Craig’s argument in a nutshell.
    And if God can command the slaughter of women and children, and this doesn’t contradict the notion that God is morally perfect, then same goes for commanding any other action we’d consider wrong, including rape, torture, etc.
    That’s why the objection “A just and loving God cannot command such actions” is completely bogus. Besides, it’s always possible that he has morally sufficient reasons, right?

  • I’m not sure how strong the “arbitrariness” objection is, anyway. Couldn’t it be used of just any meta-ethical account, or even objective morality itself?

    “If the objective moral law required that one rape, that would make rape moral. Clearly, this is not the case, therefore, the objective moral law cannot be the basis of moral duties…?”

  • If you have stopped labeling me a hacker, my comments on your response are on my blog.

  • AgeOfUnreason,

    Sigh. It’s like talking to stumps sometimes.

    Great
    Basically what you and Craig are saying is that when God does it, it’s OK. So it turns out God CAN command you to do something (say, rape a child), which then becomes your moral duty, and which without the command would have been wrong. That’s Craig’s argument in a nutshell.

    Dude read what is being said before you spout off. No, God, if His commands flow from a necessarily loving, good, and just nature, COULD NOT command anything like rape and murder.

    Regarding the OT commands against the Canaanites or whatever, there have been so many good responses lately it’s not even funny. Even if God truly had in mind to off the entire civilization, if He commanded it and it comes from a necessarily just nature, then the killing would have been just. It wouldn’t have been malicious murder, but rather God, in His omniscience, would know that it was just and good to do. And if you know anything about the Canaanites, you’d probably agree.

    Good grief.

  • Age of reason, I am glad you raised that point because it involves an extremely common misinterpretation of Craig’s position.

    Right. So when God commands the wholesale destruction of men, women and children in the OT, those action are NOT cruel, unjust and psychopathic simply because it is God who gives the order. Great. Basically what you and Craig are saying is that when God does it, it’s OK. So it turns out God CAN command you to do something (say, rape a child), which then becomes your moral duty, and which without the command would have been wrong. That’s Craig’s argument in a nutshell.

    No that’s called careless reading. If you have in fact read Craig’s writings on divine command ethics at all.

    What Craig actually argues is that moral obligations are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God. Because God is understood as having certain character traits, such as being loving and just and so on, essentially it follows God cannot command just anything at all. He can only command what is compatible with possessing these traits. Craig has said this repeatedly in his writings, in fact almost every divine command theorist writing today has made a similar point, so please desist from claiming otherwise. I can give you detailed citations if you like.

    Regarding the Canaanite issue, Craig argues that, because God is just and loving he prohibits homicide. Issuing a general command that we should kill and harm would be contrary to God’s loving nature. However Craig thinks it’s possible for a just and loving person to allow rare exceptions to rules against killing if there is some greater good involved. That is his position.

    Note it does not mean God can command anything or anything can be made justified by God commanding it. Craig thinks that a loving and just being would only permit killing in extremely rare circumstances and only when there is some greater good which justifies it. He cannot command anything at all for any reason at all He actually.

    This by the way it a fairly standard view in secular ethics that That there are rare exceptions to rules against killing if when is some greater good involved is widely accepted in contemporary ethics; threshold deontology, act utilitarianism, rule-utilitarianism, situation ethics, rossian deontology all accept this conclusion. Now if you think this is mistaken, if you think for example it’s never under any circumstances, permissible to kill innocent people. And that a virtuous person would never support this, even in rare cases where some greater good is at stake, but that is something you need to show by a compelling argument. Not by claiming Craig’s position is different to what is actually is, assuming that whatever straw man you have attributed to Craig I also hold, and then pointing out the straw man is ridiculous.

  • Just to let everyone know over the last few days our blog has been inundated with unsolicited spam and several people have informed us that there comments have been blocked as a hacker. In fact I was blocked this morning and am using the admin to comment. I don’t know why this is but we have people working on it.

  • Mhssu

    Yes I agree if the problem is simply that a divine command theory entails the conditional: if God commanded arbitrary torture then arbitrary torture is permissible. Then every ethical theory has the same implication, take any theory that claims actions are right if and only if they have property P. It will be true that if arbitrary torture has P arbitrary torture is right.

    For this reason, I think objection can’t just be that it entails the conditional: If commands torture torture is permissible. But must also show that this conditional could in fact occur in reality, so its not enough to say if God commanded torture, rather one must argue that a being with the attributes God is conceived to have could in fact command arbitrary torture.

    One of the point I made to Coyne was in fact when the objection is placed this way, evolutionary ethics of the sort he advocates actually falls prey to the objection and divine command ethics does not. To show a divine command ethic has this implication one needs to show that a loving just fully informed rational person could endorse some practice P is is wrong. That’s unlikely. For evolutionary ethics however, all he have to show is that its possible for evolution unguided by God to confer on us sympathies where by we judge that rape and murder are permissible, and that possibility is not ruled out the way it is for a loving and just fully informed rational person.

  • To love another or to feel compassion towards another seems to me to be a part of who we are. An essential element, if you like.

    This or a similar element is evident in many species. For example: Lion Prides, Bee Colonies. They are families/small societies. They protect those close from “invaders” The human species is also like this.

    This appears to me to be an evolved component of our species and in various readings (theist and non-theist) I cannot see how adding “a God” makes this a better explanation for the “good” that exists in all our societies. There is evidence for the evolution of “good” in our societies.

    Accordingly, the idea that a God assists us with being good is not acceptable to me.

    I read your blog entries and arguments and you still leave me with no doubt: “Man made God”. One of the evidences for this is the number of “Gods” that exist! Each follower claiming theirs is the one.

    I have listened to William Lane Craig and his arguments. From my limited time reading on this matter, it seems to me that most of the worlds religions have some sort of command theory that helps to justify their actions.

    I think you should challenge yourself. Be an athiest for a small period, and write a paper on why that position is the correct one. A bit like a scientific test for failure. Except, do it justice. Use how you might feel about the God Thor, or Zeus (who I presume you don’t believe in) as the starting point. Anyway, thats just a thought….

  • I dont think coyne always does the subject justice either but wouldn’t be easier to just rephrase ‘divine command theory’ to the ‘divine theory’ of ethics and avoid the claims that ethics and morality are separate from god? God IS love and one could say god is also logic and reason.

  • Peter, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
    It seems to me however that you don’t really understand the issues here.

    First, a divine command theory is an account of the nature of moral obligations, it answers this question by claiming moral obligations are identical with Gods commands. This explains several features of moral obligation, for example the fact that moral obligations are objective properties of actions, the fact they constitute a reason for acting that trumps all other reasons, that they have the content they do, how it is we know what moral obligations are, and so on.
    And while one can say that love and compassion are important parts of morality and also that they may play an important role in the evolution of moral psychology Its pretty evident to me that moral obligations cannot be identified with “compassion” if two things A and B are identical then it’s impossible for something to have the property of being A without it also having the property of B. For this reason the property of love and the property of being obligated are clearly not identical, one can have an obligation to do something when one does not love doing it at all, in fact one can hate the action but never the less do it because it’s one you recognise you are obligated to do, similarly one can love evil things. Similarly I can have obligations towards people I feel no compassion for at all.

    Moreover, as I pointed out in my first response to Coyne, the Euthyphro argument which is often falsely believed to be decisive against divine command ethics is applicable here.

    Is something right because you have an evolved capacity to love it, or have you evolved a capacity to love it because it’s right?

    If the latter is true, then, things are right prior, to us loving it and hence things are right and wrong independently of evolution.

    If the former is true, then it follows that morality is arbitrary, if rational creatures had evolved a tendancy to love rape or genocide of the neighboring tribe, or slavery, or male dominance, then those things would be right.

    As to your last comment, I am a convert, I have been a non-believer and I suspect I have read more rigorous intellectual defences of atheism than most have, certainly during university and my subsequent studies ( most of which were in secular philosophy departments and relatively liberal theology departments) I studied more critical arguments against my beliefs than most secular people have read against there’s.

  • John,
    First, I think the commands section is important because moral obligations have certain features that suggest they are commands. Moral obligations for example are demands up on, they prescribe our conduct, if we do not do our duty we are guilty of wrongdoing and others can blame and censure us, and we can expiate guily through gaining forgiveness and so on, this suggests moral obligations are a kind of demand made by another.

    Second, I agree with the phrase “God is love” is true. But I don’t think one should take this as a literally true identity statement so that God is identical to love. Love is an emotion or an act of the will, God is not an emotion or an act of the human will. I love my wife it does not follow I God my wife and so on. Taken as a literal identity claim the phrase “God is love” leads to absurdities.

    On the other hand divine command theory’s do often understand Gods commands and obligations to be identical.

  • Matt – Your reply (while long and a little difficult to read – went through it a couple of times) actually supports my point of view (in my opinion). Your reasoning about moral obligations etc are fine and “reasonable” In fact I could support them in the way you expressed them in your response to me.

    Your response didn’t require the inclusion of a “devine” (and I’m letting your mild slip of DCT at the beginning go) to be an adequate rebuttal of my response. In fact the tone of your response was mostly non-theist. Consequently, it become a better argument – In my opinion.

    With regard to your conversion. My apologies, I had read some months ago that this was the case. However, I’m not altogether convinced that you were an “atheist” prior to the conversion, but this would be another discussion

  • Matt just used a non-theistic argument against a non-theistic position. brilliant!

    Pete’s argument is right, but then Matt also proved that there are other qualities that people can be capable of that is just as tenable as Peter evolved view of love like hate, hypocrisy, lying, scheming and thieving that people value most because it helps them to survive or thrive.

  • Matt wrote “I studied more critical arguments against my beliefs than most secular people have read against there’s. (sic)

    And yet, Matt believes that his invisible friend in the sky watched the universe expand for 13.7 billions years and then said “Hey, you know what really needs to happen now? I need to turn myself into a man and personally trot around amongst a bunch of ignorant, goat sacrificing, slave trading, penis obsessed , pre scientific peasants in the Middle East desert for the blessed purpose of allowing my very own creation to hang me to a tree and savagely beat me to death in the most disgusting, vile and wicked manner possible.
    All for love, of course.”

    Stone Age lunacy, thy name is Christian doctrine.

  • I dismiss this whole line of thought on the grounds that both the Theists and the Atheists presuppose God is a moral agent.

    God is not a moral agent. God can’t coherently be called morally good but He can & must be conceived of as metaphysically and ontologically good.

    God given his nature in the Classic Sense can’t command what is intrinsically evil nor can he command evil as an end in itself.

    As Brian Davies once said Atheists and Theists who argue Theodicy are wasting their time and wasting their lives.

    They are like persons arguing wither or not tennis players should be able to run the mile in under 10 minutes or not as opposed to playing tennis well.

  • Matt,

    Found this one by Brian Zal that addresses this post.
    http://zamulinski.com/blog/2012/02/23/propaganda-is-not-philosophy/

    What do you think?

  • Excerpt from the above link as follows
    “You quoted me as part of your attack on Coyne, who has made errors, and I wanted to make it clear that I am not on your side when it comes to the substantive issue.

    Socrates’ argument has been adapted to monotheism. Your pedantry proves nothing substantive.

    The switch from deontology to virtue theory accomplishes nothing.

    As for God’s being controlling, threatening people with hell or natural disasters if they do not behave in desired ways is controlling.

    It is arguable that a loving God would have commanded that physicians wash their hands before examining patients, operating on them, or performing autopsies instead of leaving the discovery of antisepsis to Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s. God was silent. However, if he did issue commands with respect to all the dangers that a truly loving God would issue commands about, he would go beyond moral matters to matters of prudence with the consequence that the definition of morality per the divine command theory would be too wide. You miss this point entirely.

    Yes, there’s a difference between ontology and epistemology. But ontology can impinge on epistemology. It would be impossible to have moral knowledge if morality were constituted by the commands of a God, loving or otherwise, no matter how the commands were expressed and no matter how we become aware of them. But we have moral knowledge, which even the divine command theorist would affirm. Hence, morality is not constituted by the commands of God.

    Your previous discussion of others’ arguments does not address the point. Yes, we can identify water as water in the actual world without knowing that water is H20. But the point is that we are in a world where there are moral counterparts to both H20 and XYZ, which is indistinguishable from water when we cannot identify H20 qua H20, and where there is no way to tell which is which without circularity.

    The divine command theorist’s supposed inference to the best explanation is that, since morality exists, there must be a morality maker. To avoid the Socratic type refutation, it is added that the morality maker is loving. But, loving or not, a hypothetical morality maker is no explanation at all unless hypothesizing the morality maker enables us to make new predictions that are confirmed by observation. Hypothesizing a morality maker does not enable us to make any new predictions. Even if it did, there would be no reason to identify the hypothetical morality maker with the hypothetical maker of the heavens or the hypothetical maker of the earth. So, to claim that God created morality as the divine command theorist does, it is necessary to establish independently that God exists, that he has the ability to create morality, and that he actually did create morality. You accuse Coyne of circularity when he demands that you prove the existence of God but it is a legitimate intellectual demand. You are the one who is mistaken on this point: you are making an appeal to ignorance.”

  • Alvin, yeah I saw that, I am don’t think much of it I am afraid.

    “You quoted me as part of your attack on Coyne, who has made errors, and I wanted to make it clear that I am not on your side when it comes to the substantive issue.

    I never said Brian was on my side, nor did I imply that, like I said I was responding to Coyne not to him and so writing on what he thought or did not think was outside the perview of the article. This is an argument from silence, i did not mention X therefore I was denying X.

    Socrates’ argument has been adapted to monotheism. Your pedantry proves nothing substantive.
    The switch from deontology to virtue theory accomplishes nothing.

    This are mere assertions that particular arguments accomplish nothing.

    As for God’s being controlling, threatening people with hell or natural disasters if they do not behave in desired ways is controlling.

    That’s an objection to belief in Hell or belief in a God who threatens natural disasters not an objection to divine command ethics. So is strictly speaking irrelevant. Even if the doctrine of hell is false it does not follow a divine command theory is.

    Also I think this is a bad argument against hell as well. Either hell is a just punishment or its not a just punishment. If the former then he is commited to claiming that threatening a just punishment is “controlling”. By that logic any government with a court system or a parent who disciplines there children by grounding them when they misbehave is controlling. The logical implication is anarchy. If hell is not a just punishment then the argument assumes hell is problematic to begin with and hence is circular.

    It is arguable that a loving God would have commanded that physicians wash their hands before examining patients, operating on them, or performing autopsies instead of leaving the discovery of antisepsis to Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s. God was silent. However, if he did issue commands with respect to all the dangers that a truly loving God would issue commands about, he would go beyond moral matters to matters of prudence with the consequence that the definition of morality per the divine command theory would be too wide. You miss this point entirely.

    I responded to this in the comments above, first I noted it does not follow that if a person is loving they will command these things, second I noted that divine command theorists usually claim God is loving and just and argued that this was not circular. All that’s happening here is that the argument I refuted is being repeated and the rebuttal ignored.

    Yes, there’s a difference between ontology and epistemology. But ontology can impinge on epistemology. It would be impossible to have moral knowledge if morality were constituted by the commands of a God, loving or otherwise, no matter how the commands were expressed and no matter how we become aware of them. But we have moral knowledge, which even the divine command theorist would affirm. Hence, morality is not constituted by the commands of God.

    This again simply re asserts the objection, he asserts that if moral obligations were divine commands they are unknowable. But assertion is not an argument.

    Your previous discussion of others’ arguments does not address the point. Yes, we can identify water as water in the actual world without knowing that water is H20. But the point is that, which is indistinguishable from water when we cannot identify H20 qua H20, and where there is no way to tell which is which without circularity.

    This argument fails: in the analogy water is the analogue of moral obligation and H20 the analogue of divine commands. This creates two immediate problems for Brian’s argument here.

    First, we are in a world where there are moral counterparts to both H20 and XYZ only if in the world we live in there are other equally plausible explaining moral obligation and we can’t tell which is correct, this however assumes that divine command theories are not the best explanation from the outset, so one can’t use this argument against this conclusion with out reasoning in a circle.

    Second, even if there were several equally plausible explantaions of the nature of moral obligation it would not follow we could not know what moral obligations there are. Anymore than the fact there are two equally plausible explanations as to who commited a murder means we can’t know someone was murdered.

    The divine command theorist’s supposed inference to the best explanation is that, since morality exists, there must be a morality maker. To avoid the Socratic type refutation, it is added that the morality maker is loving. But, loving or not, a hypothetical morality maker is no explanation at all unless hypothesizing the morality maker enables us to make new predictions that are confirmed by observation.

    I think the key assumption here is that something does not count as a legitimate meta-ethical theory unless it makes empirically predictable observations I know of no reason for thinking this assumption is correct. It might be true of scientific theories, (though that itself is questionable given the existence of empirically equivalent theories). But philosophical or moral theories are not unusually tested in this way. Moreover, I doubt any meta-ethical theory can make testable empirical predictions of this sort.

    Hypothesizing a morality maker does not enable us to make any new predictions. Even if it did, there would be no reason to identify the hypothetical morality maker with the hypothetical maker of the heavens or the hypothetical maker of the earth.

    Again this is mere assertion that there is no reason for identifying moral obligations with Gods commands. You don’t refute arguments by simply asserting they don’t exist.

    So, to claim that God created morality as the divine command theorist does, it is necessary to establish independently that God exists, that he has the ability to create morality, and that he actually did create morality.

    I addressed this point at the end of my response to Coyne in the article above. This is again mere repetition.

    You accuse Coyne of circularity when he demands that you prove the existence of God but it is a legitimate intellectual demand. You are the one who is mistaken on this point:

    Again this is simply an assertion my argument is flawed and then a repetition of the assertion in the form of an assertion my response is mistaken.

    you are making an appeal to ignorance.

    No pointing out someone reasons in a circle is not an appeal to ignorance. Coyne is his first article argued that moral obligations are not evidence for God’s existence because a divine command theory fails, his second argument was that a divine command theory fails because there is no evidence for Gods existence. That’s pretty evidently circular, Brian repeating a circular argument does not make it uncircular.

    Finally, I note the almost paranoid uncharitable tone of the post, suggesting I deliberately blocked him presumably because I can’t handle criticism of my position. That is false, as I pointed out I regularly read and respond to criticisms of my position. Its unfortunate that some people so quickly jump to person insinuations when they are disagreed with.

  • Matt, if god is not love or logic in a literal sense, then his existence makes them necessary and defines them. If there is no love or logic without god (ie there is no code external to god) then love or logic has to be defined by the very existence of god.?
    I think the underlying problem that someone like me has with DCT is not whether it is probable or not but rather if it is practicable. While god is necessarily good his commands (such as do not kill) are not absolutes but are applied relative to the outcome. Of course this is true with secular theories as well. However, a secularist must provide a clear justification whether right or wrong of how the action achieves a good outcome. With DCT, while reasons may be given for seemingly unjust actions the ultimate explanations sit with god. Therefore with DCT one can never fully know what actions are good or bad any more than one can know if an individual is commanded or compelled by god. Of course with DCT one can also always appeal to the exception and claim God’s sanction on their actions with no other explanation necessary.

  • BenYachov

    I don’t think the position I sketch requires God be a moral agent in the sense Brian Davies objects to. In fact a divine command theorist would probably agree with Davies that God is not a being by moral obligations, given moral obligations are constituted by Gods commands this would follow only if he issues commands to himself.

    Davies does not however deny that God can be said to be good, in the sense that he acts in a way good people act or that he has certain character traits such as being reliable and truthful or that he commands the kinds of actions we consider good. and thats all that is needed for a divine command theorist to escape the arbitrariness objection. The divine command theorist does not need to claim that God is required or obligated to do certain things, nor does he even need the claim that good is God if he does certain things, all he needs is the claim that Gods character traits which are analogous to those we commend as loving and just in humans.

  • Matt, if god is not love or logic in a literal sense, then his existence makes them necessary and defines them. If there is no love or logic without god (ie there is no code external to god) then love or logic has to be defined by the very existence of god.?

    I don’t think this follows, if love and logic are not identical with God, then in some sense these things must depend on him but that does not mean he “defines them”. But perhaps I am just using the term “defines” in a more precise philosophical way than you intend.

    I think the underlying problem that someone like me has with DCT is not whether it is probable or not but rather if it is practicable.

    I must admit that I find this mind set very troubling, note carefully what you say, you seem to suggest that you don’t care whether a position is probably true or false but wether its practical. That seems to suggest that if a delusion or false hood is practical and helps you then that seems to me to be quite clearly irrational

    While god is necessarily good his commands (such as do not kill) are not absolutes but are applied relative to the outcome.

    I don’t recall saying all Gods commands are absolutes, that said I don’t see why one must hold Gods commands are relative to the outcome, that assumes God is a kind of ultitarian and I don’t think that is a given. Not all ethical theories make moral rules depend on the consquences or outcomes, this is a matter of substantive debate that needs justifying.

    Of course this is true with secular theories as well. However, a secularist must provide a clear justification whether right or wrong of how the action achieves a good outcome. With DCT, while reasons may be given for seemingly unjust actions the ultimate explanations sit with god.

    This assumes all secular theories are focused on consquences, that’s false. Consquentialist theories are but Kantian or neo Kantain views are not. Moreover, even consquentialists don’t typically argue that every action must be demonstrated as being justified by the consquences, in fact the problems with doing so tends to lead them to reject this method and claim the outcomes will be better if people typically don’t do this. Similarly, intutionist theories of morality would not do this either. This seems to me like you have a very trundicated understanding of contemporary ethical theories.

    blockquote Therefore with DCT one can never fully know what actions are good or bad any more than one can know if an individual is commanded or compelled by god.

    Easy to say this, hard to actually show it. If I can know that X is wrong without believing in God, then discovering that wrongness just is the property of being commanded by God, does not change this. It simply means that you now know what the nature is of the thing you already knew and recognised.

    <blockquoteOf course with DCT one can also always appeal to the exception and claim God’s sanction on their actions with no other explanation necessary.

    In fact any ethical theory will at some point appeal to some non empirical moral principle or claim and offer no further explanation, if this were not the case then one would have an infinite regress of explanations. The utilitarian has to end with “it promotes happiness” the Kantian with “its in accord with categorical reason” the virtue theorist with “its virtous” how are these any more are less problematic that, they are commanded by a virtous rational God who seeks your happiness? I fail to see anything but special pleading here.

  • Matt,

    As you’ve deduced, I’m no moral theorist but am looking for a way to explain things and make moral decisions.

    I should (try) clarify. Sorry, I do care what is ultimately the truth but I think that the issues for DCT or any theory lie in their application. Of course it may be that the practical application of a theory does not affect the probablity it’s right or not.

    “…how are these any more are less problematic that, they are commanded by a virtous rational God who seeks your happiness”

    I don’t think they are less problematic but they are problems we can examime and explore. God is not subject to my scruitany and I for one do not know what he will and will not do tomorrow.

    Maybe the answer to advancing ethics with DCT is to get to know God…. an equally if not more problematic problem.

  • “all he needs is the claim that Gods character traits which are analogous to those we commend as loving and just in humans.”

    Wouldn’t this suffer from a relativity problem of what exactly do people define as loving and just?

    I mean people have a universal and cross-cultural need for order and kinship like family and society. A Taliban controlled afghanistan would liken God to be rigid, inflexible and patriarchal because that is what a righteous person as defined by them would look like and therefore God’s commands would be of similar note. But in a Liberal United Church in Canada, God’s commands would take on to be more tolerant, flexible, egalitarian, because that’s how many Canadians view their ideal version of what a citizen ought to be and so God is basically a super citizen of infinite goodness.

    Also in your response to Brian, does it really matter if Socrates was attacking the polytheistic system of divine authority on arbitrariness when it could also apply on a monotheistic system as well. Sure, in polytheism one god’s commands might run contrary against another goddess’ about what should be done with mortals, but henotheism and monotheism final line of authority begins and ends with a divine being or beings.

  • Hi Matt,
    In my opinion the following link showing a billboard in NZ is an outrage worth ridicule
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/02/28/new-zealand-billboard-claims-that-jesus-cures-cancer/
    Where is the compassion to all sufferers?

  • Pete I read that this morning, and frankly disagree with you. whats wrong with a Church expressing its belief that jesus can heal in public?

    What I found offensive is this: a few years ago I watched my mother die of cancer, it was a deeply difficult and upsetting time. I currently teach at a church whose Pastor died of Luekema and they hired me to fill the vacant teaching role.

    To see people claim to speak for all those who have “family members suffering of cancer” saying that a church can believe Jesus can heal in private but should not say so in public, quite frankly offends me. I dislike it when people highjack my grief and others grief to try and threaten my civil rights.

    The article in the herald was also deceptive in many respects. The church said only they believed Jesus could heal, which is of course what the gospels contend. They did not say “in fact they denied” that people suffering from cancer should refrain from medical treatment, yet the article proceeded to have a lengthy quote from the cancer society rebutting this proposition. This of course creates a misleading impression. The mother in question also, inaccurately, suggested the billboard said “come to our church and you’ll be healed of cancer” but it did not say this either. If they had said this I agree it would be outrageous, but they didn’t.

    There are some churches whose beliefs about healing are outrageous, I have seen some charismatic churches suggest no believer should get sick and anyone who does lacks faith. I will gladly tear into those who express this kind of dangerous teaching, but I don’t see that here.

  • @Matt
    My Father has a fast moving melanoma, and is unlikely to see out this year. Be careful bringing your own “experiences to the table” as we all have something we are dealing with.

    I object to a claim that can not be substantiated. Even if the claim was worthy, then why those people. Why not my father or your mother, or your Pastor? Please don’t say it’s the mysterious ways of [Insert your gods name here] because that would be insulting to the memory of those that died from Cancer.

    And, if we are bothering to make a public claim celebrating these few that have been saved. Why not a billboard listing those believers who didn’t merit saving? Were there deaths ordered?

  • Ok I’ve only read half the comments, but I don’t get it…

    “moral obligations are identical with Gods commands.
    This explains several features of moral obligation,
    for example the fact that moral obligations are objective properties of actions.”

    If “moral obligations are objective properties of actions” then why is it necessary to believe that
    “moral obligations are identical with Gods commands??”

    Surely God has not explicitly commanded that we do not do everything that is wrong.
    He has not spelt out every possible sin.
    Why wouldn’t we just ‘Do good and avoid evil’
    or “love and do what you will.” And have morality naturally applied as attributes of the actions themselves?
    (e.g. Rape has the attribute of being wrong)
    This seems simpler than both DCT and his harm theory.
    If God commanded everything that is good, then we are all breaking His commandments,
    by doing some good but not all good.

    For most times we choose something good it is at a cost of another good.

  • Pete
    Sorry to hear about your father.
    I was “bringing my experience to the table” to simply show how subjective this, I am a victim of X and I find it offensive, can be and how when people claim that “all people who have had family members with cancer will think Y” are clearly false.

    First, let me be clear that I am relatively sceptical of miracle stories in Charismatic churches.

    But on this issue, let me express my concerns, your objecting to them making the claim in public for three reasons, First, its not substantiated by this you mean empirically substantiated I suppose. Second, you bring up the problem of evil, why does God allow some to suffer and not others. Third, you rule out certain sceptical theist answers on the grounds they are offense.

    The problem is that these three reasons are such that they would mean it was wrong for a church express in public its belief in the gospels, suppose for example a church mentioned the story of Lazarus being risen from the dead, or the story of the man healed of blindness. The above arguments you state would mean it was “offensive” to anyone who has lost some one or who has a blind child. If we are going to go down that road then religious tolerance and religious freedom would be under serious threat.

    Athiests have an objection to the existence of God, the problem of evil, the cogency of that argument is a matter of significant controversy, you can’t decide that because you accept this and your suffering religious people are required morally to not express their faith in a loving God. It really frightens me to think that society really are that intolerant towards people who do have such faith.

    I will note one other thing you mention here, you seem to think that the claim was that these people were healed because they were worthy and those who do not but I don’t think anyone has said that.

    Moreover, for every person who is offended at the claim that suffering and pain happens for some greater purpose and ultimately God brings good out of it in the end, I can find someone who has struggled with suffering, has been supported with their faith, and finds it offensive to be told it all happened for no reason at all and its all purposeless and meaningless. Can these people demand athiests never express a contrary view in public?

  • With regard to the original blog topic. Is there a reason that USA Today has not published a counter argument to Coyne? It seems from your comments that there has not been one. This appears to be a rigged competition if this is so. I thought in the market place of ideas allowing opposing views would be the professional response. I wonder what the result would be if people read that some of the problems within the viewpoint. I ask why not present a fully informed argument for the readership. If being a US citizen was a criterion then Craig could write a response couldn’t he?

  • Matt Flannagan

    >Davies does not however deny that God can be said to be good, in the sense that he acts in a way good people act or that he has certain character traits such as being reliable and truthful or that he commands the kinds of actions we consider good.

    To quote from Memory Davies says he doesn’t deny God is in some sense what a moral person is.

    You say TOE-MAY-TOE I say TOW-MAT-TOW etc….

    But like Feser I am against Locke’s idea that God could have commanded evil.

    That is the form of Divine Command Theory we don’t need.

    Cheers.

    BTW I did stop by that Brian Zamulinski’s blog. What a basket case. He made some stupid remarks about how science refutes Aquinas’ theory on essence. I corrected him & gave him some jazz. The Big baby took down all my responses.

    Gnus ya gotta love ’em.

  • Dear Matt,

    You said:

    “According to Coyne, Craig’s response is “whatever God orders is good and morally obligatory simply by virtue of the fact that He is God.” He cites this as a quotation but fails to provide a source.”

    I believe Coyne was referring to the Louise Antony v William Craig debate… He basically used those exact words to “clarify” the relationship between “good” and “god”…

  • D, I have not heard that debate. However, if Craig used that phrase I would love to see the exact context, because the position Coyne appears to insinuate that Craig holds, the idea that anything at all can be made good by God commands it, is not a position Craig has ever held. Nor for that matter is it a position any prominent divine command theorist I know of today holds. So I doubt very much Craig ever used those words to defend this position.

  • D another thing, Craig in his written exchanges with Louise Antony is quite clear that he does not understand the relationship between “good” and “god” in that way at all. Craig holds that God and goodness are identical, because God has certain character traits such as being loving, just and so on, essentially his nature is the paradigm of goodness against which the goodness of other things are measured. In this he particularly follows Alston and Adams. I am quite suspicious when people quote “one liners” from a philosopher and then claim on the basis of this that they hold and defend a position the opposite to what they have actually held and defended in their work. I am inclined to think when this happens the person in question is misunderstanding what was meant.

  • […] an interesting objection to Adams’ version of the DCT in a comment to Matthew Flannagan’s most recent article on the […]

  • […] know people dealing with cancer.  Whilst, I have no personal experience of such I resonate with Matt Flannagan’s comment on his blog post where he points out that we are effectively censuring Christians and […]

  • Matt, you said – “Moreover, as I pointed out in my first response to Coyne, the Euthyphro argument which is often falsely believed to be decisive against divine command ethics is applicable here.

    Is something right because you have an evolved capacity to love it, or have you evolved a capacity to love it because it’s right?

    If the latter is true, then, things are right prior, to us loving it and hence things are right and wrong independently of evolution.

    If the former is true, then it follows that morality is arbitrary, if rational creatures had evolved a tendancy to love rape or genocide of the neighboring tribe, or slavery, or male dominance, then those things would be right.”

    An atheist I know doesn’t have a problem with subjective morality that is adaptive, even if it lead to murder. His problem with that conclusion for the Euthyphro dilemma is that God cannot be issuing arbitrary commands, but he doesn’t have a problem with evolutionary ethics doing that. In fact, he believes that what we consider moral today is simply evolved ethics, and hence not morally objective, and that there is no such thing as a moral fact or objective value. It does mean that what Hitler did was not morally wrong, if it suited him, and he doesn’t have a problem with that as he doesn’t see any reason to believe that there ARE moral facts. What do you make of that position?

  • CA
    First, the issue is not “what you have a problem with” the issue is our concepts of moral obligation presuppose objectivity or not. There are numerous features of moral obligation which do presuppose objectivity: we believe both ourselves and societies can be mistaken in moral judgements, we criticise social codes and mores. We argue about moral claims and use moral principles as premises in arguments. The word “‘wrong’ has the syntax of an ordinary predicate, and we worry we may be mistaken in our moral judgments”. Neither we nor society can “eliminate all moral requirements just by not making any demands” 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”. Morally outstanding people often see blind spots and reform societies for the better and so on. An account of moral obligation which fails to account for these features of moral obligation is prima facie implausible.

    Second, I am inclined to suggest your atheist friend is being inconsistent and engaging in special pleading. If there is nothing wrong with moral rules being arbitrary and a rational person can accept a code that is arbitrary, what basis does he have for claiming it’s a problem with Gods moral code is arbitrary. Moreover if and a loving , just and rational being would never endorse a moral code which is arbitrary then your friend cannot claim our obligation are identified with the code evolution confers on it unless he is either ignorant unjust or hateful.

    It sounds to me that what your friend really endorses is nihilism the idea that nothing in right or wrong. Some people believe certain things are wrong others do not, but there is no truth of the matter, this of course entails that all moral statements are all false. I myself think this really is a reductio ad absurdium of his position, if he really thinks rape is not wrong and a person who tortures children to death for fun does nothing wrong, he is I think adopted a pretty desperate position, its hard to reason with someone who really believes things like this. I’d be tempted to steal something of his and then when he complains tell him what you did was not wrong and walk off, she is he is willing to abide with what he says.

    I suspect however your friend does not really think this, consider the other arguments Coyne gives, about how barbaric or immoral the old testament is for example and his attack on Craig for saying that certain actions are not wrong if God commanded them. or None of these arguments make any sense if nothing is right and wrong. How can the old testament teach immoral practises if nothing is immoral. How can God command immorality if nothing is immoral. If someone is going to bite the bullet they should bite it consistently and not just when it helps them justify atheism.

  • […] Coyne to put in writing a response. I wrote a following up piece the subsequent yr, “Jerry Coyne on God and Morality Revisited,” my conclusions weren’t flattering. I […]

  • […] documented this, noting the way that Coyne’s attempt to fend off criticism has failed, and noting that his […]