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Erik Wielenberg and the Autonomy Thesis: part one Wielenberg’s criticism of Divine command meta-ethics

March 11th, 2017 by Matt

The autonomy thesis contends that there can be moral requirements to φ regardless of whether God commands, desires, or wills that people φ. In his monograph, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism,[1] Erik Wielenberg offers arguably one of the most sophisticated defences of the autonomy thesis to date. Wielenberg argues that: I the most plausible alternative to the autonomy thesis, the divine command theory, is problematic because it cannot account for the moral obligations of reasonable unbelievers;  II robust realism, the thesis that moral requirements are sui generis non-natural properties which supervene upon natural properties, can be formulated in a way that avoids the standard objections to the autonomy thesis and,  III robust realism provides a better account of intrinsic value than any meta-ethical theory that identifies moral goodness with states of God.

In this and future blog posts, I will argue Wielenberg’s defence of the autonomy thesis fails. This post will address I. Future posts will look at II and III

defaul1Let’s look at the first claim, that the divine command theory, is problematic because it cannot account for the moral obligations of reasonable unbelievers.

By divine command theory, Wielenberg has in mind the command meta-ethics (DCM) defended by Adam’s, Craig, Alston, Evans which holds the property of being morally required is identical with the property of being commanded by God

Wielenberg takes for granted the existence of “reasonable non-believers”[2] people who “have been brought up in nontheistic religious communities, and quite naturally operate in terms of the assumptions of their own traditions.”[3] Or the “many western philosophers, have explicitly considered what is to be said in favour God’s existence, but have not found it sufficiently persuasive.” Wielenberg assumes that many of these people “reasonable non-believers, at least in the sense that their lack of belief cannot be attributed to the violation of any epistemic duty on their part.”[4]

Wielenberg argues that If the property of being morally required is identical with the property of being commanded by God these people would have no moral obligations, they clearly do have moral obligations. Consequently, DCM is false.

Wielenberg cites the following exposition of the problem from Wes Morriston:[5]

Even if he is aware of a “sign” that he somehow manages to interpret as a “command” not to steal, how can he [ a reasonable non-believer] be subject to that command if he doesn’t know who issued it, or that it was issued by a competent authority? To appreciate the force of this question, imagine that you have received a note saying, “Let me borrow your car. Leave it unlocked with the key in the ignition, and I will pick it up soon.” If you know that the note is from your spouse, or that it is from a friend to whom you owe a favor, you may perhaps have an obligation to obey this instruction. But if the note is unsigned, the handwriting is unfamiliar, and you have no idea who the author might be, then it’s as clear as day that you have no such obligation. In the same way, it seems that even if our reasonable non-believer gets as far as to interpret one of Adams’ “signs” as conveying the message, “Do not steal”, he be under no obligation to comply with this instruction unless and until he discovers the divine source of the message[6]

Morriston’s argument contains a subtle equivocation, in the first line he expresses a disjunction: a person is not subject to a command if he doesn’t know (a) who issued it, or (b) that it has an authoritative source. The example he cites, the case of an anonymous note to borrow one’s car, is a case neither of these disjuncts holds. The owner of the car knows neither who the author of the note is, nor whether its source is authoritative.

However, the conclusion Morriston apparently draws is that failure to know who the author is, by itself, is sufficient to exempt someone from being subject to the command. This clearly doesn’t follow.[7]

The mistake can be illustrated, by reflecting on examples where, a person doesn’t know who the author of a command is, but does recognise that it has an authoritative source. Suppose I am walking down what I take to be a public right of way to Orewa beach I come across a locked gate with a sign that says: “private property, do not enter, trespassers will be prosecuted”. In such a situation, I recognise that the owner of the property has written the sign, though I have no idea who the owner is. Does it follow I am not subject to the command? That seems clearly false. To be subject to the command a person does not need to know who the author of the command is. All they need to know is that the command is authoritative over their conduct.

In fact, being subject to a command is compatible with having mistaken beliefs about who the author of the command is. Suppose I believe that the beach property I am in front of is owned by Holly Holmes, having read about her purchase in the New Zealand Herald, in fact, the Herald, has gotten details wrong and the house was sold to Kim Schmidt. In this situation, it is still the case that, when I read the sign, “private property trespassers will be prosecuted”, I am subject to the command. The fact I have all sorts of mistaken beliefs about who the author of the command does not seem to make any difference.[8]

Wielenberg concedes the problem, and concludes that a reasonable unbeliever does not need to recognise moral obligations as God’s commands to be subject to them, all that’s needed is that they recognise these commands as coming from “some authority or other” However, he thinks this rejoinder “doesn’t address the central worry” Morriston raises. Taking Robert Adam’s version of DCM as paradigmatic, Wielenberg notes:

An important part of Adam’s strategy for accounting for the moral obligations as of non-theist’s is the idea that some divine commands are issued by ways of “moral impulses and sensibilities common to practically all human beings since some (not too recent) point in the evolution of our species[9]

The problem is that “reasonable non-theists lack of belief prevents them from recognizing any divine signs they receive-including their own “moral impulses and sensibilities”- as commands issued by someone who has authority over them”[10] while they will recognise certain actions as obligatory, “some reasonable non-believers do not construe the deliverance of their consciences as commands at all”[11]

There are two problems with Wielenberg’s objection.

First, he misconstrues Adam’s position. Consider Adam’s reference to “moral impulses and sensibilities common to practically all human beings” the full quotation is as follows:

[P]rinciples of moral obligation constituted by divine commands are not timeless truths because the commands are given by signs that appear in time. People of who are not in the region of space-time in which a sign can be known are not subject to the command given by it. Of course, if the signs by which divine commands are given are moral impulses and sensibilities common to practically all human beings since some (not too recent) point in human evolution, all of us can be fairly counted as subject to those commands. But the conception of a divine command allows for divine commands with historically restricted audiences. (emphasis added)[12]

Adam’s the words “if” and “but” here suggest Adam’s isn’t claiming that divine commands are “given through, moral impulses and sensibilities common to practically all human beings”. Adam’s is alluding to a hypothetical possibility to which he thinks there are alternatives.

And in fact, Adam’s, elsewhere explains he thinks that “divine commands are revealed” largely “through human social requirements”.[13] That is through requirements and demands other people make on our conduct and blame us for not complying with. He states “a divine command against murder” has “been made known very widely to the human race” and “dissemination of such prohibitions has surely taken place largely through human systems of social requirement”.[14] He elaborates:

On this view, divine ethical requirements will not form an entirely separate system, parallel and superior to systems of social requirement. Rather human moral will be imperfect expressions of divine commands, and the question of their relation to God’s commanding will be whether and how far they are authorized or backed by God’s authority, not whether they agree with an eternal divine command laid up in the heaven[15]

This takes the sting out of Wielenberg’s criticism, because even though reasonable non-theists don’t construe “own moral impulses and sensibilities”- as commands issued by someone who has authority over them” they will inhabit social relationships where other people other people, parents, teachers, spouses, children, employees, courts, governments, make demands upon them which they recognise as authoritative, and demands will clearly be understood as real commands.

Second, it’s not clear that Wielenberg is correct, that “reasonable believers” don’t perceive the deliverances of their conscience as authoritative commands.

Consider, John Hare’s recent analysis of a divine command[16]. Hare, starts by noting that commands are a type of speech act, and in particular they are prescriptive speech acts which involve imperatives. However, commands differ from other imperatives such as exhortations, advice, warnings, requests, advice “instructions for cooking omelettes”[17] in certain important respects. Commands differ from advice or exhortations, in that commands presuppose authority on the part of the commander, additionally “in command there is standardly some expectation of condemnation if the command is not carried out.”[18] And one is not permitted or given consent by the commander to not follow the command. Similarly, commands, unlike say cooking instructions aren’t “conditional, or, in Kant’s term, ‘hypothetical.”[19]

Commands then are categorical prescriptions “with which the person commanded is not permitted not to comply, and a prescription in which there is an internal reference, by the meaning of this kind of speech act, to the authority of the speaker, and to some kind of condemnation if the command is not carried out.”[20]

It is striking how these features of a command are also features of moral obligations. Moral requirements are prescriptive, telling us what to do, and purport to be not just advice but authoritative, telling us what we must do and are not permitted to not do. Similarly, moral requirements are categorical in that their applicability is not contingent on some goal or end those subject to them have. Similarly, moral requirements condemn our behavior, failure to comply without an adequate excuse render us guilty and blameworthy, and others can justifiably censure us, rebuke you and even punish you, and even punish you.

So, while, reasonable non-believers won’t construe the deliverances of conscience as literally a speech act by a person, it’s not implausible that, their pre-theoretical concept of a moral requirement is something very much like a command in all other respects.

This, I think, undermines Wielenberg’s objection. Because, it’s plausible to suggest that a person who is aware of all aspects of a command while not recognising it as a speech act from a person, is still subject to the command.

Suppose for example that an owner of one of the beach front properties in Orewa puts up a sign that states “private property do not enter, trespassers will be prosecuted”. John sees the sign and understands clearly what it says. He understands the sign as issuing an imperative to “not enter the property”. John recognises this imperative is categorical and is telling him to not trespass, he also recognises this imperative as having authority over his conduct, he also recognises that he will be blameworthy if they don’t comply with this imperative. However, because of a strange metaphysical theory, he doesn’t believe any person issued this imperative and so isn’t strictly speaking a command.  He thinks it’s just a brute fact that this imperative exists. Does this metaphysical idiosyncrasy mean that the command does not apply him and he has not heard or received the command the owner issued? That seems to me to be false. While John does not realise who the source of the command is, he knows enough to know that the imperative the command expresses applies authoritatively to him and that he is accountable to it.


[1] Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

[2] Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics, 77

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

[5] Interestingly, Morriston states “This example is adapted from Wielenberg.” So Wielenberg is citing an example from Morriston, which Morriston cites as an example from Wielenberg. See, Wes Morriston “The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-Believers: A special problem for divine command metaethics,” International Journal of Philosophy of Religion 65 (2009), 5

[6] Wes Morriston “The moral obligations of reasonable non-believers” 5-6

[7] The inference here would be If P then (Q or R), not R, therefore not P.

[8] Stephen C Evans gives a similar counter example, see God and Moral Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 113-114 as do Paul Copan and I in Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Publishing House, 2014) 157

[9] Wielenberg Robust Ethics 76

[10] Ibid 79

[11] Ibid.

[12] Robert Adam’s Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 270

[13] Ibid 264.

[14] Ibid 264-265

[15] Ibid

[16] John E Hare Gods Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 32-44

[17] John E Hare Gods Command, 37

[18] Ibid 44

[19] John E Hare “What is a Divine Command?” Wilde lectures, Oxford University, Wednesday 08 February 2012, 26

[20] John Hare Divine Command 49

 

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Matt,

    Just a quick comment on the issue of social interaction:

    This takes the sting out of Wielenberg’s criticism, because even though reasonable non-theists don’t construe “own moral impulses and sensibilities”- as commands issued by someone who has authority over them” they will inhabit social relationships where other people other people, parents, teachers, spouses, children, employees, courts, governments, make demands upon them which they recognise as authoritative, and demands will clearly be understood as real commands.

    That may be so, but a modified version of the criticism would avoid that reply:
    Humans in general – theists or otherwise – sometimes have moral obligations that are not in line with the demands of any community members. This happens – for example – when a community is mistaken about a moral matter.
    So, there are humans who inhabit a social world in which no community member demands that they X), but they still have a moral obligation to X.

    In such cases, as long as “some reasonable non-believers do not construe the deliverance of their consciences as commands at all”[11], they do not recognize some of their obligations as commands from anyone, and yet, they do have those moral obligations – even if they do not know they have them.

    As for your second reply, you say:

    This, I think, undermines Wielenberg’s objection. Because, it’s plausible to suggest that a person who is aware of all aspects of a command while not recognising it as a speech act from a person, is still subject to the command.

    But what happens when they are not aware of the moral obligation to X, because – say – they grew up in a social environment in which they were indoctrinated to believe that they have a serious moral obligation to ¬X?

  • I’d like to add a couple more points:

    a. The issue of not being aware of a command – of any sort – to X while there is an obligation to X is not limited to reasonable non-believers: even people who believe in God – and even those who believe that God gives them commands – sometimes have moral obligations that their social environment tells them nothing about – and perhaps as a result of the wrong indoctrination, neither does their conscience.
    So, if there’s a problem for DCT, it seems to me the problem is not limited to the case of reasonable non-believers, and if there is no problem, then it’s for reasons other than the social environment or whether they generally construe their obligations are related to any commands.

    b. Regarding the assessment that “It is striking how these features of a command are also features of moral obligations.”, I don’t agree it’s striking, for the following reasons:

    1. If by the command of a competent authority is a command one has a moral obligation to follow, then it’s unsurprising that the class of moral obligations that involve following a command share the general features of moral obligations. But that provides no good reason to suspect that all moral obligations fall into the category of moral obligations consisting in a moral obligation to follow a command.

    2. If the command of a competent authority is not always a command that we ought to follow, then the “competent authority” part does not seem to be doing any work: commands of non-competent authorities can also tell us what the commanders permit or ban. But we have no moral obligation to follow said commands. They may give rise to prudential reasons to follow them (e.g., to avoid punishment), but they do not share key features of moral obligations such as blameworthiness in case of failure to comply.