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Divine Command Theory and The Masked Man Fallacy

October 8th, 2017 by Matt

In almost every talk I give on divine command theory someone in the audience inevitably will interpret me as saying that atheists can’t believe in moral requirements and will cite the fact unbelievers can know what’s right and wrong as a reason to reject the theory. This happens even when I have spent some time pointing out that this isn’t the case. I am not alone in this experience. In the book “Is Goodness without God is good enough” this objection is raised by Paul Kurtz to Craig and is pressed by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, amongst others. I recently addressed a paper by Richard Carrier where he defends this kind of claim.

Outside of philosophy departments, probably the most well-known response to this objection is that given by Willaim Lane Craig. Craig responds to this objection in his debates by noting it confuses moral ontology with moral epistemology. This is correct I think, however many sceptics outside philosophy departments don’t really grasp these terms or distinctions and think it’s a kind of philosophical triviality.

Perhaps a more straightforward response is to point out that this argument seems to commit the “Masked Man” fallacy ( a fallacy you can find mentioned interestingly on some sceptic websites on critical thinking)zorro1

Consider the paradigmatic example of the fallacy:

1.I know who my father is

2. I don’t know who the masked man is


3. The masked man is not my father.

Or another less used example:

1. Lois Lane knows that Superman can fly

2. Lois Lane doesn’t know Clark Kent can fly


3. Superman is not Clark Kent

The mistake in each case is assuming that because A and B are identical and I know something about A, it follows I also know it about B.

Now compare these fallacious inferences with the following one:

1 Atheists know that right and wrong exist

2. Atheists don’t know that Gods commands and prohibitions exist


3. Moral rightness and wrongness are not Gods commands and prohibitions.

It seems to me this is an analogous inference, with the same form as the fallacious ones. If I am correct this provides a simpler way of providing a response to the objection that moral requirements can’t be divine commands because atheists have moral knowledge than attempting to explain the difference between ontology and epistemology. One doesn’t need to do this, one needs only to point out it commits a well-known fallacy.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Id agree with you here, and as you state it its unfalsifiable, but i think most people who remain unconvinced by DCT would say you’re oversimplifying and ignoring the other masked men in the room.
    Yes atheists generally agree that right and wrong exist and but gods commands are not the only reasonable explanation for them. There are a number of masked men in the room and some would argue that many are more tangible than others hence reasonably shelving DCT

  • John, your phrase “other masked men in the room” makes me wonder if you have misunderstood what the “masked man” fallacy is. As I explained, the masked man fallacy is a common mistake where one mistakenly reasons that because two properties are identical, they must also share what philosophers call “intensions” this is invalid. I contend that a certain argument against DCT commits this fallacy.

    Whether there are other considerations against DCT doesn’t change this. It will still mean this argument is invalid.
    But, to your claim, I agree there are other important explanations for the existence and nature of moral obligations which have been offered. But that by itself isn’t sufficient to refute DCT, what the opponent of DCT needs to show is either: (a) one of those theories is a better theory than DCT, it provides a better account of the nature of moral obligations. Or (b) while they can’t come up with a better theory there are powerful objections to DCT which render it an inadequate theory. I don’t think (a) and (b) have been done. I agree if they could be it would be a reason for “shelving DCT”, but until they do it’s premature to do so.

    You also raise the issue that the “statement” is unfalsifiable. I am not sure what the import of this is supposed to be. Because lots of sensible claims in philosophy and science are unfalsifiable. In science in falsifiability only works as a test for theories not claims or statements. And in ethics and metaethics few claims or theories whether secular or theological “verifiable” or “falsifiable”. The early proponents of verifiability as a test for the meaningfulness of statements actually argued that all moral claims were meaningless precisely because it could be applied to ethical claims.

  • Then we agree on the fact that if atheists are making claims like that then they are committing the fallacy you claim.
    I would think that if you had the chance to point it out directly they may simply rephrase.

    I give that falsifiability is not always a good test in some categories, but it can work to weed out some unreasonable claims and can provide a framework and controls for the sociological studies that would provide the basis for getting closer to the truth.

    My difficulty with DCT the theory is that the arguments may hold together but the mechanism (god) is simply beyond the reach of interrogation and can be reformulated as needed.

    I’m curious whether you pursue DCT as a fundamental (possibly basic) belief to be defended or are you interested in using it to find god?

  • There’s morals I have that you don’t. I would stand up for your children and prevent someone going into their classroom to teach that there is no god. That would be immoral, unethical and discriminatory. On the other hand, you are all good with that as long as it’s your beliefs being taught.

    Unfortunately just making stuff up doesn’t make it true.

    First, I was clear that I said I support RI in a secular school providing its voluntary. So, I never said I support someone going into your kids class room and teaching God exists, unless you choose for your child to attend.
    Second, I was clear that I believed that the school board should be allowed to decide the kind of religious instruction if any, on the basis of what the school’s community needs are, so I grant that if a school has a large Muslim clintel and decides to have voluntary. Islamic studies classes that should be legal. I might have moral or theological objections to what is taught. But I don’t think it should be legally prohibited from being taught.
    We also established in the previous comments that you are actually quite happy for people to teach the children of seven-day Adventists that their core beliefs are false and you in fact defend this and claim that these parents don’t have a right to not have this happen. So, in reality it isn’t true that you apply this consistently, you limit it to those religions you consider to not violate “fact” or “science”, given that many skeptical organizations believe that belief in God isn’t a fact and is contrary to science this really leaves the door rather narrow.

    Yes, school boards of trustees can freely choose to promote one religion without any requirement to fairly consult the school community or provide unbiased information.

    I mentioned that I believe parents should be allowed to choose, so I wouldn’t support it without consultation. But that’s an objection to the way RI is implemented in a given case, not the fact its implemented. Let me ask you this, suppose they did consult and suppose parents were informed, would SEN still oppose it? The answer is obviously yes, which means that this is a red herring isn’t it.

    You’d be screaming blue murder if your kids had to leave their own classroom if we had a school board who voted for Islamic faith teaching in place of bible classes.

    I just pointed out that’s untrue, suppose I lived in an area with large Muslim constituents and I knew that because of this the school my children attended allowed those kids who were muslim pray five times a day and had voluntary Islamic studies classes.

    I can honestly say that if I knew this I wouldn’t ask the government to make those things illegal. I might choose to go to another school or ensure my children didn’t attend the classes. But the idea that I’d lobby to have this banned by law is simply false.

    There are not evangelical atheists going into Sunday School classes insisting on teaching the kids about why god doesn’t exist! I know that equality can feel like oppression when you’re so used to Christian privilege

    Unfortunately that analogy works against you, true at the moment evangelical athiests don’t do that, but that’s because the elders of those churches don’t allow it. Suppose however that a large percentage of the congregation were extremely liberal and held Geering like views. They gain a majority on the eldership and the elders choose to allow athiests to come in and do just that, would that be “illegal” no, could I demand the church be legally prohibited from doing this, No. I could try and persuade the elders to stop, or I could refuse to send my kids to Sunday school or the conservatives could leave and form a different church. But they couldn’t demand by law that the elders not do this.

    So your not really demanding equality here like you say. Even a church couldn’t do what your be the case regarding schools

    I know that equality can feel like oppression when you’re so used to Christian privilege

    I already pointed out the idea that evangelicals and Catholics have a history of some kind of social privilege is false. In the Westminster system from England the opposite is true.

    What is it about the attempted religious indoctrination of young children in a secular education system you find acceptable?

    I find freedom of religion acceptable, and that means you cant legally ban people from teaching religious beliefs because you disagree with them.

    Ironically, the thing that you say you want (religious freedom) does not allow an atheist to come into a primary school under the laws that allow religious instruction and promote atheism… because atheism is not a religion.

    Theism isn’t a religion either, there are certain theistic world views such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity which are religious just as there are atheistic world views like Theravada Buddhism which are religious. So that statement is just false. The law doesn’t prevent Theravada Buddhists teaching atheism is true as part of Buddhist Religious Instruction.
    But not also that secular world views and philosophies are in fact privileged under the law. If education must be of an entirely secular nature, that wouldn’t rule out teachers expounding or teaching secular philosophical perspectives on various topics with the school open. Its only when they start teaching Christian or Islamic perspectives that the school must be shut and opt outs have to happen. So if anything secular world views get the upper hand in the current law.

    You’re repeating tired old arguments about “choice” (forced choice) that didn’t make any sense or hold any moral high ground the first time you wrote them, so I won’t bother repeating myself.

    That’s simply ignoring my counter argument and confidently asserting it fails. That’s simply bluster.

    You repeat arguments I’ve heard over and over… nothing new to read here. “It’s only 30 minutes a week”… it’s only a little bit of discrimination. Yes adding numbers up gets a bigger number. Your commuting time is not remotely relevant.

    I actually pointed out its not discrimination , I also pointed out having all public schools secular and allowing only private and integrated schools as religious, which means only religious school patrons pay fees. Is discriminatory, by the logic of the very text you cited.
    So again your just repeating the points I refuted and hoping repeating them will convince people.

    The problem you cite of not being able to force religious indoctrination on all kids would be pretty easily solved if you would just be satisfied with indoctrinating the kids in church. However, I suspect that the church and you will object to it occurring in churches only, which means the issue isn’t really the ability to freely choose religion. It’s that someone else’s kids aren’t getting indoctrinated… See what I did there?

    No I see what I think you did there, because again in my example the kids “indoctrinated” weren’t “someone else’s” it was those who choose their kids to do so, despite the fact you keep insinuating it nowhere have I suggested the church should be allowed to educate the children of non Christians without the consent of the parents . There are lots of good pedagogical reasons why a school, a place designed for teaching is a better place for educating people than 30 minutes once a week in a worship service.

    There however are no such reasons why a school which charges fees to cover buildings can be allowed to where as a school which gets subsided buildings don’t. Unless of course your purpose was to deliberately rig the market so that its more expensive for people to access RI.

    Yes, that is what the MOE legal report was created for. To identify inconsistencies between two pieces of legislation. Personally, I place everyone’s human rights above the ability for some religious evangelists to plug their deity but hey… you see it differently I guess.

    Actually in NZ human rights law legal rights don’t override existing laws. Courts cant strike down legislation, that’s a difference between NZ’s westminister system with parliamentary sovereignty and the US system where courts do that all the time.
    But your ignoring my point is that (a) I think the legal reasoning is questionable (b) the document actually has the entailment that having only secular public schools was discriminatory.

    If you read the document it says that if one group (adults) pay fees for education and another (children) get it free that’s discrimination. Now replace that with people who are religious and want to exercise their right to have their children educated in their religion. Those who fit this criteria will have to go private which means they pay fees either full tuition or building costs. Those who want only a secular education get it free. That’s discrimination. Why do you support discrimination Dave? Why should someone have to pay fees for the same education your daughter gets simply because they wanted religion taught as one subject? They paid educational tax as much as you did. Care to explain why economic discrimination like this is Ok.

    Considering the bulk of education at religious schools is not religious (I hope), it is reasonable that religious parents pay taxes toward these heavily subsidised schools.

    You need to stop quoting the Catholic church on morals and values. They have utterly lost any credibility for anyone who bothers to learn about the atrocities both historic and recent that they have been active and complicit in.

    That’s actually the ad homien fallacy, and I think its fairly selective history your citing and I think I have learnt more about the history here than most people have. Perhaps you might want to look at some advocates of secular education in places like Revolutionary France or the Soviet Union before you go down that track.

    But whether the Catholic church is credible isn’t the issue. I wasn’t claiming they were. All I pointed out was that health classes can and do teach things which entails that their religious beliefs are false. So the claim secular education of this sort is neutral is bogus.
    Freedom of religion isn’t limited to those religions you consider credible. The whole point is to tolerate those beliefs you don’t agree with.

    SEN supports equal treatment of faiths by ensuring secular education. That has nothing to do with what individual members think of any religion. Nor does it mean that faith should take precedence over fact.

    The example I gave and your response shows that isn’t true. You said quite clearly that seven-day Adventist beliefs weren’t worthy of equal respect and in fact here is what you said
    You can be certain that fairies made the earth from toothpicks three days ago if you like but that does not mean that your beliefs should automatically gain respect. You could not believe in maths or physics. The difference is that some beliefs are demonstrably ridiculous and should not be tolerated.
    Here you deny that religious beliefs are entitled to respect, if they are demonstrably false, they should not be tolerated. So, it simply isn’t true, is it? What you really think is all religions which you think aren’t demonstrably false, should be respected.
    This in fact undercuts any principled stance on freedom of religion because in many paradigmatic cases the doctrine is one outsiders think is demonstrably false.

    Your history is selective.

    Actually its not, youll find that in English history protestant dissenters haven’t been in a position of priveledged power and nor have Catholics since the time of Mary Tudor. There is a long history of legal penalties and suppression of these groups. These are the two main groups that set up educational alternatives to the secular system. Also Muslims have never held power in the west other than Spain in the early middle ages. On the other hand secularist have gained and abused power in Revolutionary France. Aisa, and Russia, often by closing down religious instruction and insisting all education be free public and secular.
    Your view of history is just false

    Go and check the comments on any facebook thread or media report about it. Most parents don’t have any idea what is being taught, that it’s not compulsory or that the school is closed. I know from personally talking to people. You know why? Because you have to keep people ignorant to get away with religious

    I don’t base principled positions on the role of religion in education and public life on facebook likes, sorry, I try to be a bit more rigorous than that.

    However, Christianity is declining rapidly in NZ and I suspect that the census next year will see another significant drop in Christian affiliation. Not long from now, you’ll be asking us to protect your religion instead of complaining that we don’t want it.

    No one complained you don’t want it, as I said I never said RE should be compulsory to those who don’t want it. I didn’t say schools should be compulsory and religious. You however support them being compulsory and secular.

    Also watch census figures btw there is a lot of sociology of religion literature which notes that surveys based on religious self-identification aren’t reliable because they don’t distinguish nominal from practicing and the shifts between these groups. They also have as a result a subjective definition of “non- religious”.