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Richard Carrier on the Moral Scepticism Objection to Divine Command Theory 

October 7th, 2017 by Matt

In my paper “Is Ethical Naturalism More Plausible than Supernaturalism: A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong”. I discussed the what I called the “Moral Scepticism objection’ to a Divine command theory (DCT) of ethics.  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong had argued as follows:

[1] If DCT is true then we cannot know whether an action is wrong unless we know that God has it.Carrier

[2] We have no sound way to determine what God commanded.

 From which it is concluded that:

[3] If DCT is correct, we cannot know whether an action is wrong. [1]

In response, I suggested [1] is false. A DCT contends that the property of being morally wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to Gods commands. However, [1] contends we cannot know whether an action is wrong unless we know that action is contrary to Gods commands.  Armstrong’s argument, therefore, presupposes the following inference:

I1:  If A is identical to B then one cannot know whether something is an unless one knows it’s a B.

But, I1 is false. Consider the following counterexample:  The property of being water is identical with the property of being H20. For thousands of year’s people have been able to perceive water, drink water, detect water, and use water, without knowing the first thing about atomic theory. Obviously, one two things A and B can be identical without it being the case that a person knowing something is an A unless they know it’s a B.[2]

In “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Richard Carrier rejects this line of response. As far as I can tell he provides two lines of response.
His first response is to offer an argument for [1].

Flannagan claims we can discover that x is moral by some means other than ascertaining what God has commanded and that it can still be the case that x is moral because God commands it. But this is not true, or at least not true in any relevant sense. If we can verify that x is moral by virtue of some property p, then all we need in order to ground the morality of x is p. We then have no need of God commanding it. DCT is therefore false—even if God commands x. Thus, Flannagan’s rebuttal only ends up disconfirming DCT. We call that an “own goal.” [3] 

Here Carrier defends [1] by arguing that “If we can verify that x is moral by virtue of some property p, then all we need in order to ground the morality of x is p.” This, however, is simply false. As I noted in my article, the kind of “grounding relationship” relevant to the truth or falsity of DCT is the relationship of identity. DCT contends moral that the property of being morally wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to Gods commands. What carrier seems to be presupposing is the following:

[CP] If we can verify that x has the property of being q by virtue of some property p, then p is identical with the property of being q

I have labelled this CP for Carrier’s premise. Why should anyone assume that CP is true? In fact, it appears to me to be clearly false. Suppose I want to verify whether it was Tom who robbed a particular safe, I verify this by noting that it was Toms fingerprints that were on the safe. Does it follow that the action of Tom robbing the safe is identical with my discerning Toms fingerprints? Or suppose I determine whether my car has petrol in the tank by looking at the dial on the dashboard, does it follow that the property of “having petrol in the tank” is just identical with the dial on my car? Or, to take another example, I determine who the author of a particular online hit piece is because it has the words “written by Richard Carrier” under it. Does it follow that Richard Carrier is identical with the words “written by Richard Carrier”?  This is frankly silly.

Carrier’s second response is to take issue with my counterexample to I1.

Flannagan’s analogy of laymen identifying water without recourse to molecular instruments only verifies the point: God’s commandments are more like faeries than water. Water is consistently, reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time. The will of God has never been. Not even remotely. Flannagan’s rebuttal to Armstrong thus again makes Armstrong’s point for him. A rebuttal that proves your opponent’s point is, well, not really a rebuttal. .[4]

Carrier’s here takes me to be drawing an analogy between the way we know the water exists and the way we know God’s will. He then suggests that, because “Water is consistently, reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time” whereas “The will of God has never been.” So the two aren’t known the same way.

This, however, misfires on several fronts.

First, when, I  used the example of water being identical to H20 in response to I1 I wasn’t offering an “analogy”. I was offering a straightforward counterexample to I1. I1 contends that if:  If one thing A is identical with another thing B, then one cannot know whether something is an unless one knows it’s a B. The example of water and H20 shows this is false. Here we have a case where one thing, water, is identical to another thing, H20, yet it’s not true that we cannot know whether something is water unless we know its H20. The example, therefore, doesn’t “prove” Armstrong’s point it rebuts it. It also rebuts Carriers attempted response, the fact two things are identical does not mean that you know the existence of one in virtue of the other.

Of course, earlier in my paper, I did use the example of water and H20 as an analogy. There I said :

Craig’s contention is that if theism is true then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands, analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion. [5]

Here I do draw an analogy, but it’s not an analogy between the way we know water exists and the way we know about Gods will. What I am saying is that the explanatory relationship between water and h20 is analogous to the explanatory relationship between moral requirements and divine commands. Both are explanations via informative identity.  Nothing commits me to saying our knowledge of water is analogous to our knowledge of Gods commands. So here Carrier is attacking a straw man.

A second problem is that Carrier seems to miss how this analogy works. In the analogy, the property of being water parallels the property of being morally required. In both cases, this is the explanandum, the phenomena being explained. God’s will or commands parallels, not the property of being water, but the property of being H20.  H20 and Gods commands are both explanans, the thing doing the explaining.

So, if even I was making an analogy about the way we know, the question is not whether Gods will is relevantly like water. It’s about whether it’s relevantly like H20. Here Carrier’s point has no traction at all. Neither H20 or Gods will is “reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time.” Belief in the existence of hydrogen and oxygen and molecular structures is something that arose in western culture at a particular point in time in history.  Most people in most cultures historically knew nothing about H20, did not believe in H20 and did not conceptualise the physical world in the atomic way it presupposes.

As far as I can tell then Carrier’s attempt to rebut my rejoinder carries no weight. Carrier gleefully describes my arguments as “an own, goal” and one that “makes Armstrong’s point for him”. However, as confident as he may be, he provides no reason for thinking that [1] of Armstrong’s argument is true. It simply does not follow from the claim that moral requirements are identical with divine commands, that one cannot know what is right and wrong unless they believe in the existence of divine commands.

[1] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” 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), 109

[2] Matthew Flannagan “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012)

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid. 207.

[5] Matthew Flannagan “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012)

 

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