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Erik Wielenberg and the Autonomy Thesis: Part Three Standard Objections to the Autonomy Thesis, Human Rights and Dignity without God

March 25th, 2017 by Matt

In my last post I looked at Erik Wielenberg’s response to the objection that, in the absence of God, people lack compelling reasons to comply with morality’s demands.  A second objection Wielenberg briefly addresses is that without certain theological doctrines, one cannot provide a plausible basis for human rights and dignity.  Wielenberg, here again, takes Craig as paradigmatic.

defaul1If there is no God, then what’s so special about human beings? They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and that are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time[1]

Craig’s rhetorical question alludes to a serious point, made in more detail by Peter Singer, Louis Pojman, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, this is that it is hard to plausibly accommodate the thesis that all human beings have equal dignity and rights outside a theistic framework. Wielenberg’s response is that human rights are grounded in “non-moral intrinsic properties of human beings” He notes: “Human beings can, reason, suffer, fall in love, set goals for themselves and so on. God or no God, human beings obviously differ when it comes to intrinsic properties than dogs or mere lumps of clay[2]

Wielenberg here appeals to certain higher cognitive capacities human beings possess that other animals lack.

This brief response to Craig is central to his Wielenberg’s rebuttal of evolutionary debunking arguments against moral realism latter in the book. Sharon Street and others have raised epistemological challenges to moral realism by noting that many of our basic evaluative capacities, our disposition to judge certain types of behaviour as morally wrong, has been shaped by naturalistic evolution.  Naturalistic evolution, however, isn’t guided by considerations of truth, in selecting such dispositions, but by adaptability, these basic evaluative judgements exist, because making such judgements enabled our ancestors to reproduce effectively in the environment in which they lived. Street notes “the striking coincide between independent moral truths posited by the realist and the normative views evolution has pushed us towards” and “challenges the realist to explain this coincidence.”[3]

Wielenberg proposes that “our cognitive capacities” explain the coincidence. Moral rights D supervene upon any creature that possesses certain cognitive capacities.  Seeing these are the same cognitive capacities which produce moral beliefs. It follows that any being which believes it has moral rights will necessarily have them.[4]

Wielenberg specifies that the supervenience relationship here involves both modal covariation, and a form of “robust causation” analogous to the way theist understand God’s relationship to the created universe, just as Theists believe that God immediately sustains the universe in existence moment by moment simply by willing its existence. So, natural those properties which constitute our higher cognitive faculties, robustly cause the existence of moral rights, without any intermediatory agency or laws of nature.

This answer both to the grounding of human rights and evolutionary debunking arguments has a cost.  As Wolterstorff [5] and Singer [6].  have both pointed out, while it is true that normal adult humans have the cognitive capacities in question, many important categories of human beings do not. Infants and small children cannot reason, or fall in love, set goals for themselves, nor do they have the developed moral cognition Wielenberg refers to. In fact, David Boonin has noted: “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows, and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant.”[7].

So, Wielenberg’s answer gives us no reason for thinking a child or infant has a rights or dignity, over and above any other animal. In fact, seeing moral rights modally covary with possession of the relevant cognitive faculties, such capacities are necessary and sufficient for the possession of moral rights.  Consequently, His position seems to entail that infant’s small children, and mentally impaired human adults have no moral rights.

[1] Wielenberg, Robust Ethics 51, the citation is from William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 18

[2] Ibid 51

[3] Ibid 155

[4] Ibid 134-175

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) 325-341.

[6] Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001) 186-187

[7] David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 121, the neurological data is summarised in Michael Tooley’s Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) Ch. 11.5.

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Erik Wielenberg and the Autonomy Thesis: Part Two Standard Objections to the Autonomy Thesis, Reasons to be Moral Without God

March 20th, 2017 by Matt

defaul1The 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 three things. First, 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. Second, 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. Third, III robust realism provides a better account of intrinsic value than any meta-ethical theory that identifies moral goodness with states of God.

In a previous post I discussed I, I argued Wielenberg’s critique of divine command meta-ethics fails. This post will begin looking at his second major claim II. As an alternative to DCM, Wielenberg proposes a position he labels Robust Realism, the thesis that moral requirements are sui generis non-natural properties which supervene upon natural properties. By itself, robust realism is compatible with both theism and atheism. Wielenberg refers to the conjunction of robust realism and atheism as Godless Robust Normative Realism (GRNR) Wielenberg contends that his formulation of GRNR avoids the standard objections to the autonomy thesis.  Here I’ll look at one such objection.

Reasons for being Moral without God.

One objection Wielenberg discusses is the perennial concern that, in the absence of God, people lack compelling reasons to comply with morality’s demands. Wielenberg takes the following comments by Craig as representative of this objection.

Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint…Why should you sacrifice your self-interest and especially your life for the sake of someone else? There can be no good reason for adopting such a self-negating course of action on the naturalistic worldview… Life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest. [2]

 Wielenberg initially suggests that Craig is arguing that “if people had moral obligations, but God did not exist, then people would have no normative reasons to carry out their obligations”.[3] He re-joins, plausibly, that people often do have normative reasons to refrain from wrongdoing. “the fact rape harms its victims is a compelling reason for me not to rape, regardless of whether refraining from rape benefits me” (emphasis mine).[4]

Wielenberg then suggests that Craig might be offering a different argument. He might be contending that “if God does not exist then people lack self-interested normative reasons to perform their obligations” Wielenberg suggests taken this way, there are two problems with the argument. First, even if it were true, it wouldn’t follow that people lack any normative reasons to perform their obligations.  Second, this claim isn’t true “people often do in fact do have powerful self-interested reason’s for caring about fulfilling their obligations”[5] Wielenberg cites various empirical studies which show that immorality tends to disrupt, and damage people’s social relationships and harm meaningful connections.[6]

However, it seems implausible to me that Craig is maintaining either of these positions. Elsewhere.  Craig clarifies his position as follows:

[I]f God does not exist, then prudential reason and moral reason can and often do come into conflict, in which case there is no reason to act morally rather than in one’s self-interest. That’s consistent with saying that in other cases it is, indeed, prudent to act morally.[7]

Here Craig affirms that if atheism is true, people often can have both moral and prudential normative reasons to carry out their moral obligations. So he doesn’t affirm, either of the positions, Wielenberg attributes to him.  He isn’t saying that no one ever has reasons to refrain from wrongdoing, nor is he claiming that no one ever has prudential reasons to refrain from wrongdoing.  Craig’s objection is rather that, if atheism is true, moral and prudential reasons can and do come into conflict. When they do people lack any reason to comply with what morality demands. “One has moral value pulling in one direction and prudential value tugging in the opposite, and no way to decide rationally which choice to make”[8].

Latter Wielenberg suggests a different way of formulating the argument:

[1] If GRNR is true then morality and self-interest sometimes diverge in the long run.

[2] But, morality and self-interest never diverge in the long run.

[3] Therefore, GRNR is false[9]

Wielenberg grants the truth of [1], the empirical studies he earlier cited show only that people “often” have powerful prudential reasons to do what is right, not that they always or necessarily do. Wielenberg states that “an important different between a theistic universe and a godless universe” is that “without God, there is always the possibility that we will face a deep conflict between what is in our self-interest and what morality requires of us”. On the other hand, if God exists “there is a perfect correlation between morality and self-interest”[10]

Wielenberg’s rebuttal, therefore, focuses on denying [2], his treatment of [2] consists of a single paragraph:

It is hard to imagine a convincing non-question begging rationale for (2) that wouldn’t at the same time tell against (1). One might appeal to the existence of God to support (2) but this obviously begs the question. Alternatively, one might find a secular ground for (2)-but to the extent that such a ground is convincing it undermines the first premise…Craig often proceeds as if (2) were a datum for which any plausible moral theory must account. But such an approach has nothing to commend it. It is no more plausible than the falsity of (2) as a datum and arguing against Craig’s view. Such arguments get us nowhere.[11]

Wielenberg provides two reasons for rejecting [2]. These are (a) that there is no non-question-begging reason for affirming [2] which does not undermine [1], and (b) that [2] is not a datum to be explained by a moral theory.  Neither is compelling.

Regarding first (a), the problem is that several people, including Craig, have offered reasons for affirming [2] which neither assume theism or tell against [1].

Robert Adam’s, for example, has appealed to the intuition that moral judgments “have an action- and preference-guiding force that they could not have unless everyone had reason to follow them in his actions and preferences.”[12]  Adam’s argues that “if happiness will, in the long run, be strictly proportioned to moral goodness, that explains how virtually everyone does have an important reason to want to be good.”[13] However, if this is not the case, it’s hard to justify the conclusion that “everyone does have reason always to be moral.”[14]

Adam’s here focuses on the idea that everyone has a reason to be moral.  That if an action φ is morally wrong for a person P to perform, then P has a reason to not φ. Stephen Layman has offered a similar line of argument, focusing instead on the idea that people always have decisive reasons to do what morality demands.  Layman refers to what he calls the “The Reasons Thesis: The strongest reasons always favor doing what is morally required.” The idea that if something is obligatory, we not only have a reason to do it but that this reason is always decisive. Other reasons we may have for not complying such as reasons of self-interest or economics do not override it. Layman provides several examples which suggest that “If there is no God and no life after death, then there are cases in which morality requires that one make a great sacrifice that confers relatively modest benefits (or prevents relatively modest harms).” Layman argues that if such cases obtain,  reasons of prudence will override moral reasons we have doing the action in question.[15]

Neither of these arguments begs the question by assuming God exists. They appeal not to God’s existence, but theses about the authority of moral requirements, that they provide virtually everyone with decisive reasons for acting.  Nor do these arguments give us reason for questioning [1]. Both, of them, in fact, concede and incorporate [1] in their thinking. So, Wielenberg’s claim, that it’s hard to imagine a non-questioning begging rationale for [2] that doesn’t undermine [1], is false. Several such rationales have been offered in the literature which he does not even mention let alone address.

Moreover, Craig himself provided a similar rationale.   Craig claimed that:“[I]f God does not exist, then prudential reason and moral reason can and often do come into conflict, in which case there is no reason to act morally rather than in one’s self-interest[16]. Elsewhere, Craig has stated:

“I agree with Layman that on atheism, what he calls the overriding thesis ( namely that moral value always trumps prudential value) is not true, for one can have extremely strong prudential reasons for not acting morally, and there seems to be no common scale in which to weigh moral against prudential considerations”[17]

This brings us to  (b), Wielenberg’s objection that [2] is not a datum to be explained by a moral theory. While he is correct that [2] itself is not a datum of moral theory, the claim that moral demands are authoritative so that everyone always as a decisive reason to be moral is something that, at least prima facie, a meta-ethical theory should explain.[18]  Wielenberg himself seems to accept this. He states “as I suggested in Chapter 1, to have an obligation just is to have decisive reasons to perform a certain action.” Therefore, according to Wielenberg, it is a necessary truth that we always have decisive reasons to do what we are moral required to do, and it is impossible, for people to not have such reasons or them to be overridden by other reasons such as self-interest”. Adam’s, Layman and Craig, therefore, appeal to something that is, on his view, a datum a meta-ethical theory should explain.

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

[2] Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics, 56-57, the citation is from William Lane Craig “The Indispensability of Meta-Ethical Theological Foundations for Morality” available at

[3] Ibid, 57

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Wielenberg’s examples all deal with Hume’s idea of the sensible knave, the individual who has a reputation for morality but engages in undetected wrongdoing when it’s in his self-interest. They don’t, however, address Kai Neilsen’s example of a “classist amoralist” who forms deep and genuine relationships with others within his class but ruthlessly exploits members of other classes to his advantage. See Kai Nielsen Why be Moral (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1989) 295-296

[7] William Lane Craig  “Q&A 230 Is Life Absurd without God?” available at Accessed 6/2/2017

[8] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 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) 182-183

[9] Wielenberg, Robust Ethics 59

[10] Ibid, 59

[11] Ibid, 59

[12] Robert Adams “Moral Argument for Theistic Belief” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). 158

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid.

[15] See C Stephen Layman “God and the moral order”, Faith and Philosophy, 19: 3 (2002) 304-16.

[16] William Lane Craig “Q&A 230 Is Life Absurd without God?” available at Accessed 6/2/2017

[17] William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 183

[18] Terence Cuneo makes this point, see  Terence Cuneo “Erik J Wielenberg Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2015.03.24 available at accessed 7/2/17

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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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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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Is it Immoral to Believe in God? Matt responds to Michael Ruse

November 28th, 2016 by Matt

The Christian Research Journal have published an online copy of an article I wrote for their journal last year:

downloadIn a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, the distinguished philosopher of science Michael Ruse raises the question, Is it morally wrong to believe in God? Some skeptics maintain there is something irrational about theism. But is it immoral?

Behind the question is the rhetoric of the New Atheism represented in the writings of people such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Ruse historically has been fairly critical of New Atheism and maintains that, although New Atheists are “self-confident to a degree that seems designed to irritate,” they display “an ignorance of anything beyond their fields to an extent remarkable even in modern academia.”

However, behind their remarkable uninformed hubris is a “moral passion unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament.” Ruse notes that “atheists of Dawkins’ stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods.” Ruse appears to have some sympathy with this motif of their thought and attempts to defend it.

See the rest of my article here

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Thank God for the New Zealand Anti Terrorist Squad: Online

October 16th, 2016 by Matt

Matt’s article is available at this link flannagan-pc-18-1

Permission has been granted from the Editor of Philosophia Christi to upload this contribution. Learn more about the journal by going to

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“Thank God for the New Zealand Anti Terrorist Squad” Published

October 6th, 2016 by Matt

At last years the conference of the American Academy of Religion I participated in a panel discussion on the topic “Just War as Deterrence Against Terrorism”.

The papers from this symposium have now been published in issue 18: 21 of Philosophia Christi

The abstract to my article “Thank God for the New Zealand Anti-Terrorist Squad” is as follows:

On November 14 1990 David Gray’s 22 hour shooting spree ended when the New Zealand Anti-terrorist squad (ATS) shot Gray dead. In this paper I argue that Christians should support the existence of state agencies like the ATS who are authorized to use lethal force. Alongside the duty we as Christians have to love our neighbors, live at peace with others and to not repay evil for evil, God has authorized the government to use force when necessary to uphold a just peace within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction.

This panel involved contributions from  Paul Copan, Myles Werntz, Gregory Boyd, Keith Pavlischek, and J. Daryl Charles and consquently contained an interesting mix of pacifists and just war theorists.

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