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The Arbitrariness Objection (once more): A brief reply to Jason Thibodeau

November 7th, 2014 by Matt

Jason ThibodeauJason Thibodeau over at The Secular Outpost has written a thoughtful discussion and response to the critique I made of Walter Sinnott Armstrong’s arbitrariness objection in my article, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism: A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.”

Jason suggests that when you disambiguate the premises of Armstrong’s argument, it is formulated 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 God’s commands are arbitrary.

(3’’) If there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape then r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.

(4’’) If r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape then God’s commands are explanatorily superfluous.

The word “constitute” in premises (3”) and (4”) is a technical term for a  particular  kind of explanatory relationship. Mark Murphy explains, “The sense of explanation at stake is that of informative identification, as we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.”[1]

In my paper, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism“, I argued that  (4’’) was false; (4’’) relies on a particular principle:

PI: If A is constituted by B, and someone has reasons, r, for bringing about B, then A is constituted by r.

However, PI is false. Consider a counter-example drawn from Stephen Sullivan. Consider Giorgio who is bachelor. Giorgio is unmarried because he prefers to live alone. Given that the property of being a bachelor is constituted by the property of being an unmarried man, and Giorgio’s love of living alone provides a reason for him to be an unmarried man, PI entails that the property of being an unmarried man is constituted by the property of preferring to live alone, but this is clearly false. Giorgio’s preference for living alone provides him with a reason for being a bachelor, in the sense that it is what motivates him to continue to be one, but his preferences do not constitute him being a bachelor.[2] There are, after all, many people who are bachelors who would prefer not to live alone.

Thibodeau  agrees that this counter example refutes PI, he  suggests a repair:

“Is Flannagan correct that the arbitrariness argument relies on PI? I don’t see that it does. PI is extremely implausible on its face and does not capture the insight involved in the argument. In any event, the argument does not need it. A defender of AA need not be committed to PI but to something much more narrow in scope. A defender of AA can accept that PI is not generally true but assert that it is true of phenomena that involve reasons in the way that moral obligations do.

Morality involves reasons in two different respects; if I am morally obligated to do something, then I have a reason (or reasons) to do it. But, more than this, if I am obligated to do something, then there are reasons that I am under that obligation. For example, a parent is morally obligated to care for her children. But there are also reasons for this obligation. A parent is so-obligated because she is partly responsible for bringing the child, who is helpless on his own, into existence. A stranger living 500 miles away from the child has no reason to provide for that child and, again, there are reasons for this lack of obligation (namely, that the stranger does not know the child (or even that the child exists) and so does not have a special connection to the child and can do very little in any event).”

For this reason Thibodeau suggests that instead of PI, the inference in (4’’) should be based on a more specific principle PR:

“PR: If A is constituted by B, A is grounded in reasons and is itself a reason, and someone has reasons, r, for bringing about B, then A is constituted by r.

This enables the inference in (4’’) to go through and it is not subject to the Giorgo counter example.

This is a thoughtful response, and a considerably better one than the one proposed by Richard Carrier. Despite this, however, I suggest that PR is false for the same sort of reasons PI is.

Consider a second example drawn from Stephen Sullivan. Certain laws are  constituted by an Act of Parliament. Laws constitute reasons for action, they tell us what we can and what we cannot do. There are reasons why citizens are under laws. Parliament has reasons for passing particular Acts of Parliament. However, it is clearly not the case that Parliament’s reasons can be informatively identified with a law. The reasons existed prior to that law. Even if Parliament irrationally ignored the reasons and did not make a particular law, the reasons for that particular law would still exist while the law would not.[3]

Consider another example. Under certain circumstances a decision made by a Family Court Judge constitutes a Protection Order, judicial decisions constitute reasons for action and there are reasons why we have court decisions of this sort. Consequently PR entails that if a judge, reflecting on the evidence submitted, decides that he or she has good reasons for ruling a particular way then those reasons themselves constitute the Protection Order, prior to, and independent of, any judicial decision. But,that is clearly false. These reasons existed before the judge’s decision and would exist, even if the Judge ruled the other way, yet no Protection Order exists unless and until the Judge makes the ruling. So the reasons cannot be  identical with the Protection Order.

Examples like this, I think, illustrate the problem with arguing that if God has reasons for issuing the commands he does then those reasons themselves, and not his commands, constitute our obligations.


[1] Mark C Murphy, “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value”, 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) 127.
[2] Stephen Sullivan, “Arbitrariness, divine commands, and morality” International Journal of Philosophy of Religion 33 (1) (1993) 37-39.
[3] Ibid.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Thanks for your response in the other comment thread. And, thanks for making another post here, on a similar (same?) topic. I will read it soon.

  • Actually, it seems like PR isn’t helpful here since it requires that moral duties are themselves reasons, and not merely grounded in reasons. (By the same token, your counter-examples don’t appear to actually be counter-examples, which you wouldn’t even need in this case.)

    But this whole business of using a general principle to justify (3”) seems misguided to me. Why do that? Why not just stick to (3”) without trying to show anything more far-reaching?

    I also disagree with the language of the argument. The reasons don’t constitute moral obligation in the sense quoted above, because those reasons don’t fully explain the relevant parts of our moral experience. Of course, DCT doesn’t do that either—not without some additional story of how God uses his supernatural powers to cause our moral experiences. But even given such a story, what we call moral obligation might as well be grounded in the reasons theists take God to have.

    The point is, whatever other work you think God does in DCT, it’s the reasons—not God—which prevents that work from being arbitrary. This is so by hypothesis—according to the theist’s own account, as I have heard it anyway. So, whatever naturalistic story we tell, so long as it is compatible with those reasons, need be no more arbitrary than the theist’s.

  • Matt,
    Thanks for the compliment and for the challenging response. I’ve written a longish response to the Sullivan examples over at the original post here.

    I’ve been thinking about these examples quite a bit, and I am still not sure whether they are counterexamples to PR. Take the Act of Parliament example. Part of my problem is that I am not sure that laws constitute reasons for action. Certainly laws give us reasons for actions, but I don’t know that an individual law is, all by itself, a reason for action. It seems to me that laws give us reasons for action against a background principle that says that we ought to obey laws. [This background principle may involve moral reasons, prudential reasons, or both]. In the absence of such a principle, I don’t see that we would have any obligation to obey any particular law passed by a legislative body. So, yes, our legal reasons to obey a law are grounded in the law; but they are also grounded in a more general principle that we ought to obey laws.

    Notice that, on Adams’ version of DCT, our obligation to obey God’s command to not kill does not depend on a more general obligation to obey God’s commands. A divine command constitutes a moral obligation, full stop. What I am saying is that I’m not sure that a law, by itself, constitutes a reason for action.

    Now, maybe I am confused about this example, and maybe my worry is irrelevant in any event. If so, please help me out.

  • Hi Jason,

    I think a key to understanding Adam’s here, is his point that there can be social requirements or obligations which are not moral obligations.

    Suppose for example a person I am in a social relationship with, say my wife or a close friend, demands that I do some action X, suppose further that if I fail to do this the person will be angry at me, and censure me and the so that I will be alienated from the relationship. For Adam’s this counts as social obligation and in so far as the relationship is valuable, i have reasons to comply with the demand.

    Note that this kind of requirement does not depend for its existence on prior obligations, it simply the case that (a) the demand is made and (b)the relationship is valuable.

    Now turning to your comments

    You write

    “Take the Act of Parliament example. Part of my problem is that I am not sure that laws constitute reasons for action. Certainly laws give us reasons for actions, but I don’t know that an individual law is, all by itself, a reason for action. It seems to me that laws give us reasons for action against a background principle that says that we ought to obey laws. [This background principle may involve moral reasons, prudential reasons, or both]. In the absence of such a principle, I don’t see that we would have any obligation to obey any particular law passed by a legislative body. So, yes, our legal reasons to obey a law are grounded in the law; but they are also grounded in a more general principle that we ought to obey laws.

    There seems to me to be some equivocation here, you state that “In the absence of such a principle, I don’t see that we would have any obligation to obey any particular law passed by a legislative body” But you seem to infer from this that it follows laws cannot give us reasons for action in the absence of a background principle. That however seems to me we can have a reason for doing something without having a moral obligation to do it. This is compounded by the fact that in the last line you suggest our legal reason’s to obey a law are grounded in part by this general principle.

    But of course legal reasons to do some action are different from the action being morally obligatory. It seems to me one can have a legal obligation to perform actions which are morally wrong and also detrimental to ones self interest the whole notion of civil disobedience turns on this. I think its implausible then to ground legal reasons in a more basic moral or prudential principle. And it would be incoherent to argue that before a law constituted a reason there must be a prior law requiring you to obey the law.

    But more to the point, it seems social requirements provide an example here. By issuing a law the parliament makes a demand on us and threatens sanctions. If our relationship to the government is valuable, then this demand constitutes a social requirement. Of course a social requirement is not a moral obligation, but nether the less it’s a demand which constitutes a reason for action, and it doesn’t require a prior obligation to ground it.

    Notice that, on Adams’ version of DCT, our obligation to obey God’s command to not kill does not depend on a more general obligation to obey God’s commands. A divine command constitutes a moral obligation, full stop. What I am saying is that I’m not sure that a law, by itself, constitutes a reason for action.

    Sure, but important for Adam’s is that moral requirements are a particular type of social requirement. It’s a social requirement in which , the person who makes the demand has certain attributes, and the relationship is of a certain type. Seeing social requirements are not based on prior obligations in this way, one doesn’t need a prior obligation to ground it.

  • Matt,
    I am not sure that my comments have been completely clear . What I am suggesting is that an obligation to obey a law (whether that obligation is purely legal, partly moral, prudential or whatever, it doesn’t really matter) is not constituted entirely by an act of parliament even when that act creates the law. As I indicated in my previous comment, I am not certain that this is completely relevant, but it might be.

    In the case of DCT, God’s commands constitute moral requirements. Nothing else is necessary. Right? God commands that I tell the truth, I am morally obligated to tell the truth. Period. True, this is a social requirement in that it depends upon our relationship with God. However, and importantly, even if I do not value that relationship and even if I do not believe in God, it remains true of me that I am morally obligated to tell the truth. Isn’t that correct?

    Now, in the case of laws, these are institutional facts; that is, they depend upon institutions. Parliaments only have the power to create laws because they are granted that power from some other authority (a Constitution, for example). Furthermore, as you indicate, my obligation to obey the laws depends, in part, on whether or not my relationship with the government is valuable. If it is not, because, for example, the government is pursuing extremely harmful and immoral policies, then it seems to me that the laws passed by the government do not bind me. At the very least we must audit that this is so in extreme cases. It is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that 1930’s German citizens had no obligation to obey the cruel laws of the Nazi regime, is it?

    Given this, I am not sure that we ought to say that a law is ever fully constituted by an act of parliament. The reason-giving force of the law depends upon many other factors, such as that the government is not pursuing immoral ends, that there is a fair and impartial judicial system to adjudicate disputes between the government and its citizens, and that the parliament has the backing of the citizenry. These factors, it seems to me, complicate the case that the Act of Parliament example is a counterexample to PR.

    I am going to work on a follow-up post in which I try to articulate my worries a bit more carefully and clearly. I’ll let you know when it is posted.

  • You can read my complete response here.