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Carrier on infantile moral reasoning: one more time

March 16th, 2017 by Matt

In a previous post, I discussed Carrier’s defence of “The infantile Objection” to divine a command theory (DCT) of meta-ethics. Some comments he makes in the same paper, suggest a slightly different version of the argument. Seeing I have found this version of the objection relatively common in oral discussions. It is worth having a second look.

As we saw, Carrier distinguished between “mature” or “adult” moral reasoning which is “based on actually caring about the people affected by our actions” and immature reasoning “which involves “actually not wanting to do good but begrudgingly doing it anyway to avoid punishment (or get paid).”

At one-point Carrier argues as follows:

CarrierDCT in practice (regardless of what claims are made of it in theory) interferes with the development of this mature form of moral reasoning, by not basing moral motivation on the compassion of the agent (and their own reasoning and observation), but on the commands of a third-party (God) who supposedly knows better. DCT thus abrogates moral reasoning, and all too often becomes an excuse not to engage in it (we just do what God commands; we don’t think about whether that’s actually good or right). It also replaces an agent’s own compassion with the hypothetical compassion of a hypothetical being constructed in the imaginations of certain supposed religious authorities. Though one can theoretically avoid these defective forms of moral reasoning on DCT, in practice DCT is not very successful at it. That Christianity has endorsed slavery and war and mass torture and murder as moral only verifies the point. When it comes to actual adult decision-making, ethical naturalism works far more consistently, because it requires the agent to engage their own moral reasoning and to motivate their behavior on their own compassion for others (and not someone else’s). [1]

What carrier here claims is that, whatever may or may not be true of in theory in practise, DCT interferes with mature reasoning, as he defines, it and encourages immaturity. On the other hand, Naturalism more consistently leads to mature reasoning.

He provides two reasons for this conclusion. The first (a) is that DCT, identifies moral requirements with on “the “hypothetical compassion” of “a hypothetical being” “who knows better” whereas ethical naturalism which requires the agent to engage there “own” reasoning, and their own compassion not someone else’s. The second is that (b) “Christianity has endorsed slavery and war and mass torture and murder as moral”. Neither argument is compelling,

Actual Compassion Vs Compassion of a Hypothetical Being who knows better

let’s turn to (a). Only a few paragraphs earlier, Carrier spells out his own version of ethical naturalism. He states: “I have demonstrated elsewhere that the ground for morality must be motivational (the consequences of moral behavior must actually be what the moral agent would most want, if he or she knew better)”[2] Carrier here is explicit, on the view he defends, which he takes to have demonstrated, is that morality is based on what a person would most want, if he or she knew better. Hence, Carrier grounds moral requirements in the claims of a hypothetical being who knows better.

Similarly, on p 208 he states:

S morally ought to do A” means “If S’s desires were rationally deduced from as many facts as S can reasonably obtain at that time (about S’s preferences and the outcomes of S’s available alternatives in S’s circumstances), then S would prefer A over all the available alternative courses of action (at that time and in those circumstances).”[3]

Notice the word “if” in the first line here, Carrier does not base moral requirements in the actual compassion of the agent, but rather in the compassion the agent would have under hypothetical circumstances where they knew better. So, it’s difficult to understand why, when he wants to accuse DCT of being immature, he claims that DCT relies on a hypothetical being who knows better, whereas naturalism relies on a person’s actual compassion. Because this is false.  Both views attempt to identify moral requirements with the demands of a compassionate person who knows better.

Slavery, War, and Torture

I turn then to (b) Carrier’s second reason for thinking that, in practise DCT encourages “immature reasoning” while naturalism more consistently leads to mature reasoning. This is verified by the fact “Christianity has endorsed slavery and war and mass torture and murder”

An initial question that could be raised in this context is whether it is a fact that  Christianity has “endorsed slavery and war and mass torture”. Part of the problem with saying this, is that in many cases it’s not easy to answer the question of whether a historical person endorses war slavery and torture.

Take for example the issue of war. Many theologians, (in fact most) such as Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria. Suarez, Calvin, Luther, held to what is called the just war theory, this theory holds that war is justified in certain narrow situations such as when a king is defending his realm from aggressive invasion. But it’s not justified for the purpose of empire building or conquest, does this make them in favour of war or against it?

Or take several 18-19th-century theologians who addressed the issue of slavery.  They argued that, while there are circumstances under which the institution of slavery in and of itself was justified, such as when a person sells their labour to pay a debt or as a punishment for a crime, the way it was concretely practised in their culture was unjust and immoral. For this reason, they advocated slavery’s abolition.  Were they defenders of slavery or opponents of it?

Or consider medieval jurists who held (following secular law) that gaining information by torture was normally prohibited, it could be used in rare circumstances where there was compelling circumstantial evidence the accused was guilty and more information was needed to gain a conviction, were they in favor of torture or opposed to it?

Let’s, however, put this initial question to the side and assume it’s true that there is a clear, unambiguous sense in which it is true that Christianity “endorsed slavery and war and mass torture”. Does  this support the conclusion that DCT in practise his “abrogates moral reasoning, and all too often becomes an excuse not to engage in it” whereas “ethical naturalism works far more consistently.”

The answer is “No”, Carrier’s reasoning here seems to me to be rather weak. I will highlight three problems with it.

The first problem is that the conclusion and premises refer to different groups of people. The premise here is that Christians have endorsed slavery and war torture. The conclusion is that divine command theorists have a tendency to engage in immature patterns of reasoning.

But obviously divine command theorists and Christians are different groups. There are divine command theorists who are not Christians, such as Jewish and Islamic divine command theorists[4] and there are Christians who are not divine command theorists. It’s true that some Christians thinkers have endorsed divine command theory of meta-ethics, but it’s also true that many have not. Given the prominence of natural law reasoning in Christian theology many Christian thinkers have in fact been ethical naturalists.

So the first problem is that there is a gap between conclusion and premise here. The premise attributes a tendency to one group, and the conclusion attributes a tendency to a different group. Such an inference doesn’t follow.

The second problem is that Carrier’s conclusion asserts a  claim about the comparative merits of divine command theory and meta-ethical naturalism. claim. His claim is that the in practise DCT leads to immature reasoning whereas “ethical naturalism works far more consistently”. The premise, however, tells us only what Christians have done.

It’s pertinent, in this context,  to remember that the actions Carrier mentions are war, slavery and torture.  After all, the vast majority of on-Christian cultures have also endorsed war and slavery, Ancient Rome, for example, practised both before Christianity came on the scene.  As did ancient Greece, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and so on. Modern secular philosophers today defend various military actions including the killing of non-combatants and terrorism. Consider such things as nuclear deterrence or the bombing of Hiroshima. Slavery was given a spirited defence by Aristotle, an ethical naturalist over 300 years before the birth of Christ, and so on.

What is needed  is evidence, not just that Christians have supported these things, but that Christians have been more prone to doing this than non-Christians have.  We would need some evidence for example that Pacifism has been less commonly justified by Christians than other groups. That Slavery has been abolished more frequently in non-Christian cultures than others. That Christians have been less likely to defend absolute prohibitions on killing non-combatants than secular utilitarian’s who appeal to impartial benevolence. That torture was more frequently justified and used in ecclesiastical justice than was common in secular courts and so on.  Carrier of course hasn’t provided any evidence for these sorts of claims.

This brings me to the third problem in Carrier’s argument. His conclusion regards the kind of reasoning engaged in by divine command theorists. The premise, however, gives us information about some of the conclusions  Christian’s have come to, they have “endorsed slavery, war and mass torture as moral”.

Such an inference, however again, doesn’t follow. People can and have supported war, slavery and torture out of a sense of “their own compassion” and have been motivated by care “about the people affected by our actions” Aristotle for example famously argued that slavery was necessary for the welfare of the slave. The Crusades were often defended on the grounds of love and humility, liberating Eastern Christians from the threat of Muslim invasion was seen as self-sacrifice for the good of one’s neighbour.[5].

So we can’t conclude from the mere fact that a Christians endorsed slavery, or war or torture, that they were engaging in immature as opposed to adult reasoning. To determine that, we would need to know not just the conclusions they drew, but the reasoning they used to get to moral conclusions. We would need to know why various Christian thinkers endorsed these practises.  What were the reasons?  What kind of reasoning lead them to support war or torture or slavery?  Did they do so “begrudgingly to avoid punishment” reasoning that “we just do what God commands; we don’t think about whether that’s actually good or right” Or did they appeal to altruistic reasons such their own compassion and concern for the good of others to justify these things.

For these reasons I think that Carrier has failed to establish in practise, DCT interferes with mature reasoning and encourages immaturity. Both naturalists and theists ground morality in the compassion of a hypothetical being who knows better, and Carrier’s inference from undefended claim that Christians have endorsed war and slavery, to the conclusion that divine command theorist have engaged in immature moral reason more than other groups involves multiple unjustified leaps in logic.


[1] Richard Carrier “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012) 206.

[2] Ibid. 205.

[3] Ibid. 208.

 [5] See, for example, Douglas Earl, “Joshua and the Crusades,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and

an Old Testament Problem, ed. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (Downers Grove,

IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 19–43.

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