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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VII

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

CoverSL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

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