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Erik Wielenberg and the Autonomy thesis: part four Intrinsic goodness

March 31st, 2017 by Matt

In my last two posts, I argued that  Erik Wielenberg fails to show that Godless Normative Robust Realism (GRNR) avoids some of the standard objections to the autonomy thesis. This brings me to Wielenberg’s third claim III, Wielenberg suggests that GRNR is prima facie preferable to various theistic accounts of axiological properties. Several authors have defended accounts of the nature of moral goodness which identify goodness with certain types of relationships to God. Robert Adam’s has defended a platonic conception of goodness, where God is the paradigmatic good, and all finite things are good or bad depending on how they resemble Gods nature. Mark Murphy has defended an Aristotelian position whereby goodness consists in “being like God in ways that belong to the kind to be like God”[1]. Linda Zagzebski, by contrast, has appealed to Gods motives[2] and, and Thomas Carson has defended an account of Goodness whereby goodness is what God prefers[3]defaul1

Wielenberg refers to all these positions under the umbrella term “theological stateism” (TS). Wielenberg argues that prima facie GRNR is preferable to TS because, unlike TS, GRNR is consistent with the intuition that certain things have intrinsic value:

“I suggest that among our common-sense moral beliefs are the belief that some things distinct from God are intrinsically good: for example, the pleasure of an innocent back rub, or the love between parent and child,” …“[B]ecause non-theistic robust normative realism allows for the intrinsic goodness of things distinct from God, that theory fares better in this respect than its theistic alternatives.”[4]

By “the intrinsic value of a given thing” Wielenberg means the “value it has, if any, in virtue of its intrinsic properties.” Something’s extrinsic value by contrast “is the value it has in virtue of how it is related to things apart from itself.”[5]

Can Theological Stateism accommodate Intrinsic Value?

Wielenberg’s argument relies, crucially, on the claim that TS entails that nothing distinct from God is intrinsically good. His argument for this claim is as follows:

A second noteworthy aspect of Adams’s view is its implication that no finite thing is intrinsically good (or evil) since the goodness (and badness of things) of all finite things is dependent upon their relationship to God. Craig follows Adam’s in holding that finite goodness=resemblance to the necessarily existing divine nature. (emphasis mine)[6]

Later he cites Mark Murphy’s view as an example;

Back in section 2.2, I noted that Adam’s theory implies no finite thing is intrinsically good (or evil) since, on Adam’s view, the goodness (and badness) of all finite things is partly determined by how they are related to God. Consequently, Adam’s view holds that nothing distinct from God is intrinsically good. Murphy holds also holds that the goodness of things distinct from God consists in their standing in certain relationships to God: their goodness is extrinsic rather than intrinsic because it is explained not merely by intrinsic properties but also by certain properties of God.[7]

According to Wielenberg then reason TS  entails that “the value of all finite things is dependent upon their relationship to God” (emphasis mine)[8].  However, if a finite thing has intrinsic value, it is valuable “in virtue of its intrinsic properties” and not “in virtue of how it is related to things apart from itself.” Consequently, TS entails that that “nothing distinct from God is intrinsically good.”

For this argument to be valid, the kind of dependence that  TS postulates to hold between God and the goodness of finite things must be the same kind of dependence that Wielenberg’s definition of intrinsic value rules out. Consequently, the phrase “in virtue” in Wielenberg’s definition, must refer to the same kind of dependence relationship which TS entails exists between God and the value of finite things. However, a careful examination of Wielenberg’s definition, however, shows this is not the case.

Earlier in Robust Ethics  Wielenberg spends some time elaborating what he means when he defines intrinsic value something has in virtue of its intrinsic properties. On pages 9-15 he distinguishes between two[9] different types of supervenience relationship which can hold between finite things and their evaluative properties. The first is what Wielenberg calls “reductive supervenience” (or R supervenience) this is where a moral property M supervenes upon a base property B because the moral property is identical with the base property. The second is what Wielenberg refers to as “De-Paul supervenience” (D- supervenience). If a moral property M D supervenes upon a base property B then “M is not identical with, reducible to or entirely constituted by B” instead “B’s instantiation makes M be instantiated”.

D supervenience and R supervenience are distinct types of relationship.  M can R supervene upon B without D supervening upon B and  M can D supervene upon B without R supervening upon it.  GRNR is itself an example of this distinction. According to GRNR moral properties are sui generis irreducible non-natural properties that  D supervene upon natural properties. Consequently, GRNR presupposes that moral properties can D supervene upon natural properties without R supervening upon them.

Not only do are D and R supervenience distinct relationships. It appears they are mutually exclusive.  If B is reducible to or identical to M, it B cannot be a distinct property from M, which M causes to exist. That would involve self-causation. Similarly, if B is distinct from M and B makes M be instantiated, B is not reducible to or identical with M.

When Wielenberg defines a finite thing’s intrinsic value as the value, it has in virtue of its intrinsic properties,  he uses the phrase “in virtue” to  refer to a relationship of D supervenience.

If there are entities distinct from God that possess intrinsic value, then Craig is mistaken. I think there are such entities. As I suggested in chapter 1, some finite things pass the isolation and annihilation tests which, which suggests such things are intrinsically valuable. The intrinsic value of such entities D supervenes upon some set of their intrinsic properties and not on how they are related to other things.[10]

Earlier he writes:

In my view, the most plausible way of understanding the “in virtue” relationship which I earlier claimed holds between the intrinsic properties of certain things and their intrinsic value is making. To claim that a given thing is intrinsically valuable is to claim that some of that thing’s intrinsic properties make it valuable… More generally, I think that moral properties indeed all moral properties D supervene upon non-moral properties.(emphasis mine)[11]

The problem is that proponents of TS are not committed to denying that moral properties D supervene on the intrinsic properties of finite objects.  When people like Mark Murphy or Robert Adam’s or William Lane Craig contend that the goodness of all finite things is dependent upon their relationship to God, they are not claiming that goodness D supervenes upon this relationship. They are claiming it R supervenes upon this relationship. Consider how Wielenberg himself describes Adams’s position.

 A noteworthy feature of Adams’s view is its implication that no finite thing is intrinsically good (or evil) since the goodness (and badness of things) of all finite things is dependent upon their relationship to God. Craig follows Adam’s in holding that finite goodness=resemblance to the necessarily existing divine nature...  Murphy holds also holds that the goodness of things distinct from God consists in their standing in certain relationships to God: their goodness is extrinsic rather than intrinsic because it is explained not merely by intrinsic properties but also by certain properties of God. (emphasis mine)[12]

It is true that according to Adams the goodness of finite things is “dependent” upon their relationship to God. However, but in the highlighted sentence, Wielenberg spells out the kind of dependence Adam’s has in mind. The dependence Adams refers to is one where “finite goodness=resemblance to the necessarily existing divine nature”.  Adam’s is, therefore, saying that the goodness of finite objects R supervenes upon the divine nature. Wielenberg notes this when a few paragraphs earlier he describes Adam’s (and Craig) as holding that:

[S]ince the Good just is God, the existence of God cannot explain or ground the existence of the good. In the context of Adams’s view, the claim God serves as the foundation of the Good is no more sensible than the claim that H20 serves as the foundation of water. Indeed, once we see that on Adams’s view the good = God, we see that Adams’s  theory entails that the Good has no external foundation, since God has no external foundation.[13]

Similarly, when Wielenberg discusses Murphy he notes that according to Murphy the goodness of things distinct from God “is explained”, not merely by intrinsic properties, but also by certain properties of God. However, he clarifies that, by this, Murphy means the goodness of finite things “consist in” their relationship to God So again, Murphy is talking about R Supervenience, not D Supervenience.

So, contrary to Wielenberg TS does not entail that things distinct from God cannot have value in virtue of, their intrinsic properties. TS entails that the value of something distinct from God  R supervenes upon its relationship with God. However, that does not entail its value D supervenes upon this relationship. So TS is not incompatible with the common sense intuition that finite objects can have intrinsic value.

If the objection to TS is just that it denies that value of finite R supervenes upon its intrinsic properties, then GRNR fares no better. According to Wielenberg, the proponent of GRNR holds that moral properties are “real and sui generis; they are non-natural and not reducible to any other sort of property” (emphasis mine). If moral properties are not reducible to other properties, then they do not R supervene to the intrinsic properties of finite things. In fact, on GRNR and the goodness of every distinct and finite thing will R supervene, not upon its intrinsic properties but on its relationship to distinct irreducible non-natural properties and so finite things will have only extrinsic value. This objection, therefore, is a non-starter.


[1] Mark Murphy God and The Moral Law: A Theistic Explanation of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 155

[2] Linda Zagzebski Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

[3] Thomas Carson Value and the Good Life (Notre Dame Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000)

[4] Erik Wielenberg Robust Ethics 84

[5] Ibid. 2

[6] Ibid. 44

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wielenberg actually spells out three relationships, but mentioning the third would only complicate this discussion unnecessarily. The proceeding argument applies equally well when the third type of supervenience is taken into account.

[10] Ibid. 44

[11] Ibid. 13

[12] Ibid. 44

[13] Ibid. 43

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2 responses so far ↓

  • “For this argument to be valid, the kind of dependence that TS postulates to hold between God and the goodness of finite things must be the same kind of dependence that Wielenberg’s definition of intrinsic value rules out. ”

    I don’t see the force of this. I read Wielenberg as arguing that for an object to have intrinsic value, it must be the case that its value depends on its intrinsic properties. But “depend on” can be given different readings. In particular, to say that the intrinsic value of M depends on its intrinsic properties might mean,

    (a) M’s value R-supervenes on M’s intrinsic properties

    or

    (b) M’s value D-supervenes on M’s intrinsic properties.

    If either (a) or (b) is true, then M’s intrinsic value depends on its intrinsic properties.

    The problem is that, on theistic accounts of value, for all finite objects, neither (a) nor (b) is true.

    Wielenberg is committed to claiming that D-supervenience is the appropriate account of the dependence relationship between an object’s moral properties and its intrinsic natural (non-moral) properties. And so he argues that, on TS, a finite object’s value does not D-supervene on its intrinsic base properties. However, it is also true that, on TS, a finite object’s value does not R-supervene on its intrinsic base properties.

    This makes your closing paragraph misdirected as a criticism of Wielenberg. It is true that, on GRNR, value does not R-supervene on natural properties. But that is irrelevant since, on GRNR, value does depend on an object’s intrinsic (natural) properties since its value D-supervenes on those properties. The problem for TS is that, on TS, a finite object’s value neither R-supervenes nor D-supervenes on its intrinsic properties. Since neither dependence relation is true on TS, it is not clear how a defender of TS can maintain that value depends (In any way) on an objects intrinsic properties.

  • Jason, you write:

    Wielenberg is committed to claiming that D-supervenience is the appropriate account of the dependence relationship between an object’s moral properties and its intrinsic natural (non-moral) properties. And so he argues that, on TS, a finite object’s value does not D-supervene on its intrinsic base properties. However, it is also true that, on TS, a finite object’s value does not R-supervene on its intrinsic base properties.

    I think that’s what Wielenberg would have to argue for his argument to be sound. The problem is that I don’t think he does argue or justify that claim that “on TS, a finite object’s value does not D-supervene on its intrinsic base properties.” What he does is point out that on TS moral properties depend on extrinsic properties. The problem is that in the examples he uses to show this, the dependence at issue is R-supervenience. He doesn’t provide any argument or reason for thinking that according to TS moral properties don’t D supervene upon intrinsic base properties.
    Moreover, I am inclined to think that the claim that on TS action’s moral properties can’t D supervene on its intrinsic properties is false. D supervenience is a relationship where the moral property M and the B Property B are distinct (non-identical properties) which modally co-vary and where the instantiation of M depends on B.

    But consider an example Wielenberg himself uses. The divine command theory of William Paley. Paley writes that because God is essentially benevolent one can conclude:

    God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures. And this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, “that the method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness

    George Berkeley made a similar and more dense and precise version of this argument several decades earlier:

    For Laws being Rule’s directive of our Actions to the end intended by the Legislator, order to attain the Knowledge of God’s Laws, we ought first to enquire what that end is, which he designs should be carried on by human Actions. Now, as God is a Being of Infinite Goodness, it is plain the end he proposes is Good. … The end, therefore, to be procured by them, can be no other than the good of Men. But as nothing in a natural State can entitle one Man more than another to the favour of God, except only Moral Goodness, which consisting in a Conformity to the Laws of God, doth presuppose the being of such Laws, and Law ever supposing an end, to which it guides our Actions, it follows that Antecedent to the end proposed by God, no distinction can be conceived between Men; that end therefore it self or general design of Providence is not determined or limited by any Respect of Persons: It is not therefore the private Good of this or that Man, Nation or Age, but the general well-being of all Men, of all Nations, of all Ages of the World, which God designs should be procured by the concurring Actions of each individual. Having thus discover’d the great end, to which all Moral Obligations are Subordinate; it remains, that we enquire what Methods are necessary for the obtaining that End.

    As I read these writers, both contend that moral wrongness and rightness consist in agreement and disagreement respectively with Gods commands. So they plausibly can be read to be claiming that claim that moral properties R supervene upon Gods commands.

    However, they also think God commanded certain actions because those actions had certain natural properties. Certain actions or rules have a tendency to promote human happiness, which is on their accounts a natural property. Hence, there will be distinct natural properties involving somethings tendency to produce happiness the universal, which modally co-vary with Gods commands and God issued his commands because those actions had those properties.
    So I am inclined to think both GRNR and TS are on par here. Both think moral properties aren’t reducible to natural properties. However, both think the distinct moral properties things have depend upon their natural properties in some non-reductive sense.

    Examples like this suggest TS doesnt entail that moral properties can’t depend on the natural properties of actions or rules in some non reductive sense of dependence.