1. Donationbbarr
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    01 Jul '05 05:491 edit
    One can find, throughout the threads in this forum, theists claiming that morality depends upon God; that God is the source, or standard, or foundation of morality. What they are often expressing is a particular ethical theory, commonly called the Divine Command Theory (DCT). It has often been claimed, by myself and others, that this view succumbs to a decisive objection first found in Plato’s Socratic dialogue “Euthyphro”. Of course it is open to debate whether this claim is correct. So, below I attempt to lay out this dilemma as clearly as possible.

    Responses, by theists and others so inclined, are deeply appreciated. After we clear up any confusion concerning the argument, and run through some proposed responses, I’ll present what I take to be the best response available to the theist, if it has not already been articulated by another.

    Here is a preliminary expression of the ethical theory at issue:

    DCT: For any act A, A is morally wrong (right, permissible) if and only if God forbids (command, allows) A.

    Note: In what follows I am going to talk solely about moral wrongness. I am doing this solely for the sake of brevity.

    This is only one general formulation of DCT. Theists may differ as to whether an explicit prohibition by God is required to make an act morally wrong. These differences are wholly irrelevant to the argument I’ll present below. Any version of DCT that asserts that the moral status of an act depends on God, or that God makes it the case that an act has the moral status it does, or that moral facts supervene upon facts about what God wills, or…., will be subject to the argument I will present below. While I will use for expository purposes the formulation of DCT above, the argument will apply, mutatis mutandis, to any version of DCT.

    So, let us begin:

    1) Suppose that act A is morally wrong.

    2) Suppose that DCT is true.

    3) If (1) and (2), then either (i) it is the case that God forbids A because A is wrong or (ii) it is the case that A is wrong because God forbids A.


    Let us reflect for a moment on (3), because it is very important.

    DCT expresses a biconditional claim. Biconditional claims are claims of the form ‘P if and only if Q’. The truth functional operator ‘if and only if’ is itself logically equivalent to the conjunction of two instances of the conditional operator ‘if, then’. In other words, claims of the form ‘P if and only if Q’ are truth-functionally equivalent to the conjunction of the claims ‘if P, then Q’ and ‘if Q, then P’. That is, given some biconditional claim of the form “P if and only if Q”, one can deduce both “if P, then Q” and “if Q, then P”. One can also, of course, deduce the biconditional claim from the conjunction of these two conditionals. DCT, for instance, is truth-functionally equivalent to the conjunction of the following two conditional claims:

    a) For any act A, if A is morally wrong, then God forbids A.

    b) For any act A, if God forbids A, then A is morally wrong.

    Let us refer to (a) as the completeness thesis, and to (b) as the dependency thesis. A theist who rejects the completeness thesis will be committed to the claim that there is at least one act A such that A is wrong even though God does not forbid A. There may be any number of reasons a theist would reject the completeness thesis. For instance, a theist may claim that there are acts that God has not forbidden, but are wrong because they are particular instances of types of acts that God has forbidden (e.g., God has not forbidden file-sharing, but file-sharing is nonetheless morally wrong because it is an instance of theft, which is a type of act that God has forbidden). Further, a theist may reject the completeness thesis because he thinks there are acts that are wrong even though they are neither explicitly forbidden by God or nor are they instances of more general acts forbidden by God. There are interesting issues here. For instance, it may be the case that whether a theist must reject the completeness thesis will depend on the specific form of DCT that he endorses. Nonetheless, I mention the completeness thesis just to set it aside. My issue with DCT relates to the dependency thesis, not the completeness thesis.

    The dependency thesis entails that if God forbids some act A, then A is morally wrong. Now, as noted above in premise (3), this could mean either of two things, depending on the nature of the relationship between God’s forbidding A and A’s moral wrongness.

    First, it could be the case that God forbids A in virtue of A being wrong. That is, it could be the case that A is wrong for reasons independent of God’s forbidding A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God does not bestow upon A the property of moral wrongness. He does not bring it about that A is morally wrong, or imbue A with moral wrongness, or cause A to be morally wrong. The fact that A is morally wrong is explanatorily prior to God’s forbidding A. On this reading of the dependency thesis, it is A’s being morally wrong independently of God’s forbidding A that explains why God forbids A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God functions like a moral Geiger-counter; He sees that A is wrong and because A is wrong He forbids A. These are all slightly different ways making the same general point. In premise (3) above, option (i) corresponds to this reading of the dependency thesis.

    Second, it could be the case that A is wrong in virtue of being forbidden by God. That is, it could be the case that God brings it about that A is wrong by forbidding A. On this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God bestows upon A the property of being morally wrong, or imbues A with this property, or causes A to be morally wrong. In short, on this interpretation of the dependency thesis, God’s forbidding A is explanatorily prior to A’s being morally wrong. The fact that God forbids A explains the fact that A is morally wrong. On this reading of the dependency thesis, it is God’s forbidding A that makes A morally wrong. . These are all slightly different ways of making the same general point. In premise (3) above, option (ii) corresponds to this reading of the dependency thesis.

    O.K., now back to the argument:

    4) If (i), then the moral wrongness of A is completely independent of God’s forbidding A.


    If the theist accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis, then he must give up the claim that morality is in any way dependent upon God. Hence, any theist who accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis will have to adopt some other ethical theory that explains why A is morally wrong. In short, a theist who accepts reading (i) of the dependency thesis will not be able to claim that morally wrong acts are wrong because of God’s forbidding them. So, a theist who thinks that homosexual activity, for instance, is morally wrong, will not be able to explain this putative moral wrongness by reference to anything about God. He will have to come up with some other reason to justify this claim. Of course, very few theists will accept reading (i) of the dependency thesis, because it entails that God’s will is completely irrelevant to issues of morality. So, let us move on.

    5) If (ii), then the moral wrongness of A is dependent on God’s forbidding A.


    This is the reading of the dependency thesis that the vast majority of theists will accept. But there is a dilemma facing the theist who accepts this reading of the dependency thesis:

    6) Suppose that A is wrong in virtue of God’s having forbade A. If so, then either there was no reason in virtue of which God forbade A, or there was at least one reason in virtue of which God forbade A.

    7) If there was no reason in virtue of which God forbade A, then he could have just as well been silent concerning A or commanded A.


    The idea behind (7) is that if there were no reasons in virtue of which God forbade A, then there were no reasons favoring forbidding A rather than commanding A. After all, if there were good reasons not to remain silent concerning A nor to command A, then these would thereby serve as reasons for forbidding A. But if there were no reasons for God’s forbidding A, then there was nothing that prevented God from having remained silent concerning A or commanding A. Hence, prior to God’s forbidding A, it was logically possible that God could have remained silent concerning A or commanded A. But this presents a problem for the theist if, for instance, A is an instance of rape or torture or murder. If DCT is true, and if it was logically possible for God to have commanded A, then it follows that it would have been logically possible for rape or torture or murder to have been morally right, while everything else in the world remained the same. But it is logically impossible that rape or torture or murder could be morally right while everything else in the world remained the same. Hence, if DCT is true, then God’s having forbade A cannot be completely arbitrary; there must be some reason or other that God forbade A. [b]
  2. Donationbbarr
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    01 Jul '05 05:512 edits
    Continued from above...



    8) If God had at least one reason to forbid A, then it is this reason that ultimately and directly determines the moral wrongness of A, and not the mere fact that God forbade A.


    To get clear on the reasoning behind (8), consider the following mini-dialogue:

    T: Murder is wrong because God forbade murder.

    A: Did God have a reason to forbid murder?

    T: Of course. God forbade murder because he loves us and wants us to be happy, and if people went around murdering each other, we would all be significantly less happy.

    NOTE: T could just as well claim that God forbade murder because murdering prevents victims from achieving various ends, or that it violates their autonomy, or that it is cruel, or….Whatever reason T identifies, A will respond, mutatis mutandis, in the manner below:

    A: Well, I understand that widespread murdering would make us all less happy, but if God forbade murder for this reason, then it seems like murder is actually wrong because of its effects on our happiness, and not because God forbade it. In effect, you seem to be tacitly rejecting DCT in favor of a eudaimonistic (or hedonistic, depending on just how “happiness” is construed) version of Rule Utilitarianism. In short, you are construing God as a morality detector; God sees that it is morally wrong for us to murder because he sees the effects widespread murder would have on our happiness, and it is in virtue of murder having this effect or property that God forbids murder. His forbidding of murder tracks an independently specifiable moral order.

    T: Not so fast! Although God does forbid murder because widespread murder would make us all less happy, this doesn’t entail that it is its effects on happiness that directly determine the moral status of murder. Rather, murder is wrong because of its effects on happiness, and our happiness is morally important because God wills us to be happy. It is still God’s will that ultimately and directly determines the moral status of murder. Effects on happiness only indirectly determine the moral status of murder, and effects on happiness are only morally important because God wills that happiness is morally important. So, DCT is still in effect.

    A: O.K. So, does God have a reason to will that we be happy? If so, what is it?

    T: Uh….

    Those of you familiar with the Euthyphro dilemma will recognize that step (6) is where you find the real meat of the dilemma, and steps (7) and (8) are the purportedly decisive objections to taking the first or second horn of the dilemma respectively. Everything up until there is stage setting. So, the theist will apparently either have to reject (7) or (8).

    So, what do y'all think?

  3. Hmmm . . .
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    01 Jul '05 06:452 edits
    But it is logically impossible that rape or torture or murder could be morally right while everything else in the world remained the same.

    Some theists seem to have claimed that, absent God, you have inadequate grounds for making such a claim—or at the very least have “stood pat” on God, while insisting that you articulate a full moral theory first. I seem to remember this going round and round on here before. I assume you would like to avoid getting bogged down on this at the get-go….
  4. Not Kansas
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    01 Jul '05 07:13
    If God created the universe, couldn't he have created it in such a way that A is morally wrong in any case? So that the act of creation and the ban on A are part of the same process?
  5. Donationbbarr
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    01 Jul '05 07:20
    Originally posted by vistesd
    [b]But it is logically impossible that rape or torture or murder could be morally right while everything else in the world remained the same.

    Some theists seem to have claimed that, absent God, you have inadequate grounds for making such a claim—or at the very least have “stood pat” on God, while insisting that you articulate a full moral theory first ...[text shortened]... on here before. I assume you would like to avoid getting bogged down on this at the get-go….
    [/b]
    Since nothing in this argument presupposes that God does not exist; indeed, since this argument is completely silent on the issue of God's existence, I fail to see how this claim is germane. Whatever the case, either the theist will agree that it is logically impossible for rape, torture, murder, etc. to be morally right while everything else in the world remains the same, or they will disagree. If they agree, then the argument proceeds as above. If they disagree, then they will be committed to the claim that had God altered his commands, we would have been morally obligated to rape, torture, murder, etc. This certainly seems like a reductio to me. Of course, they could simply bite this bullet (one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens, as the saying goes), but then it seems that what they mean by the term 'morality' is so radically divorced from our common and overlapping conception of morality that we need not take their claims concerning morality seriously. As an analogy, suppose that you and I are discussing the nature of the divine. Suppose that you are approaching the debate as a Sufi, and I as an Advaita Vedantist. Clearly, there will be all sorts of things on which we agree; that is, there will be substantial enough everlap between our conceptions of the divine that it makes sense to say that the word 'divine' uttered by you and the word 'divine' uttered by me refer to the same thing, and our debate concerns the extent to which our respective concepts of the divine are accurate. Now suppose that somebody comes along and claims that we are both radically in error concerning the divine, and that the divine is actually nothing over and above two beer cans tied together with string. We would rightly infer that this fellow just uses the term 'divine' differently than we do, and that hence there is really no debate between he and us. Similarly, if a theist claims that it is logically possible that rape, torture, murder, etc. be morally right, we should reply that he simply doesn't use the term 'morality' to refer to the same thing we do, and hence he does not (cannot, in fact) disagree with us concerning the nature of morality. Contrary to what seems to be a trend here amongst theists, the use of words is a normative endeavor; it is constrained by rules of proper usage. One can, of course, stipulate that the series of letters "m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y" will henceforth refer to something radically different (a particular dog, perhaps, or the planet Jupiter), but this does not mean that we must take seriously the notion that we have heretofore been in error in our use of the term 'morality'. Colettiesque is simply a different language, wherein series of letters are baptized with new meanings.
  6. Donationbbarr
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    01 Jul '05 07:25
    Originally posted by KneverKnight
    If God created the universe, couldn't he have created it in such a way that A is morally wrong in any case? So that the act of creation and the ban on A are part of the same process?
    Yes, but this doesn't change anything in the argument but the necessary phrasing. The question will be whether God had a reason or not for having created the world in a manner such that A is morally wrong.
  7. Hmmm . . .
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    01 Jul '05 07:321 edit
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Since nothing in this argument presupposes that God does not exist; indeed, since this argument is completely silent on the issue of God's existence, I fail to see how this claim is germane. Whatever the case, either the theist will agree t ...[text shortened]... anguage, wherein series of letters are baptized with new meanings.
    If they disagree, then they will be committed to the claim that had God altered his commands, we would have been morally obligated to rape, torture, murder, etc. This certainly seems like a reductio to me.

    Yes, and I think some have come at least close to claiming that.

    Of course, they could simply bite this bullet (one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens, as the saying goes), but then it seems that what they mean by the term 'morality' is so radically divorced from our common and overlapping conception of morality that we need not take their claims concerning morality seriously….Similarly, if a theist claims that it is logically possible that rape, torture, murder, etc. be morally right, we should reply that he simply doesn't use the term 'morality' to refer to the same thing we do, and hence he does not (cannot, in fact) disagree with us concerning the nature of morality.

    Okay. I just thought it might keep it cleaner to get that cleared away up front. 🙂
  8. Standard memberNyxie
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    01 Jul '05 09:22
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Continued from above...


    [b]
    8) If God had at least one reason to forbid A, then it is this reason that ultimately and directly determines the moral wrongness of A, and not the mere fact that God forbade A.


    To get clear on the reasoning behind (8), consider the following mini-dialogue:

    T: Murder is wrong because God forbade murder.

    A: Did ...[text shortened]... the theist will apparently either have to reject (7) or (8).

    So, what do y'all think?

    [/b]
    Think, I don't even understand what you're talking about. Could you as a favor to me, break this down into a simpler langauge form? I'd love to be able to comment but I don't have a college degree in phylosophy.
  9. Not Kansas
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    01 Jul '05 17:10
    Originally posted by bbarr
    Yes, but this doesn't change anything in the argument but the necessary phrasing. The question will be whether God had a reason or not for having created the world in a manner such that A is morally wrong.
    Would that mean that the reason existed before the creation or am I barking up a wrong tree?
  10. Donationbbarr
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    01 Jul '05 20:34
    Originally posted by KneverKnight
    Would that mean that the reason existed before the creation or am I barking up a wrong tree?
    You are barking up the wrong tree, I think. At least some reasons must have existed prior to creation, if God had a reason to create the world. Similarly, if God had a reason to will that A be morally wrong, and if the moral wrongness of A came about with the act of creation, then God had a reason to will that A be morally wrong that existed prior to creation.
  11. Standard memberDoctorScribbles
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    01 Jul '05 21:372 edits
    Originally posted by bbarr

    Those of you familiar with the Euthyphro dilemma will recognize that step (6) is where you find the real meat of the dilemma, and steps (7) and (8) are the purportedly decisive objections to taking the first or second horn of the dilemma re ...[text shortened]... ther have to reject (7) or (8).

    So, what do y'all think?

    It is my understanding that most Christian theists accept (7) and reject (8), thereby escaping the dillemma.

    They must accept (7), since the OT God explictly condones rape, torture and murder numerous times. To deny (7) entails that either God is mutable, since the NT God would no longer condone such things, or that the Bible is errant in its attributing certains actions and characteristics to God. But for many, this denial would corrupt the basis of their faith, and thus they are resigned to accept (7).

    Dr. S
  12. Not Kansas
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    02 Jul '05 07:11
    Originally posted by bbarr
    You are barking up the wrong tree, I think. At least some reasons must have existed prior to creation, if God had a reason to create the world. Similarly, if God had a reason to will that A be morally wrong, and if the moral wrongness of A came about with the act of creation, then God had a reason to will that A be morally wrong that existed prior to creation.
    I don't see it.
    If God is the creator of all things, then He must have created the reason for A to be morally wrong at the instant He created everything else, assuming the Creation was done in one fell swoop.
    Unless there was some kind of latency period where God was mulling things over before creating anything, setting the stage for creation to occur.
    It's hard to see how the ultimate creator could be preceded by anything at all, moral precepts included.
  13. Donationbbarr
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    02 Jul '05 09:41
    Originally posted by KneverKnight
    I don't see it.
    If God is the creator of all things, then He must have created the reason for A to be morally wrong at the instant He created everything else, assuming the Creation was done in one fell swoop.
    Unless there was some kind of latency period where God was mulling things over before creating anything, setting the stage for creation to occu ...[text shortened]... d to see how the ultimate creator could be preceded by anything at all, moral precepts included.
    First, God is not the creator of all things, because he did not create himself. Second, if you were right, then then it would be contradictory to claim that God had a reason for creating the universe. Finally, if a theist took this line, and claimed that God could not have had a reason for creating the world such that A was morally wrong, then this would commit that theist to (7) above.
  14. Cosmos
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    02 Jul '05 11:04
    An interesting and convoluted exposition of the problem of divine morality.

    It formally illustrates the fact that "morality" is something necessarily defined by the people, for the people. Not by an entity divorced from and not subject to the constraints and laws of ethics.

  15. Subscriberno1marauder
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    02 Jul '05 15:271 edit
    Originally posted by howardgee
    An interesting and convoluted exposition of the problem of divine morality.

    It formally illustrates the fact that "morality" is something necessarily defined by the people, for the people. Not by an entity divorced from and not subject to the constraints and laws of ethics.

    I don't think that Bbarr would agree that "morality" is something NECESSARILY defined by the people in the sense you are using that phrase. While all words are, of course, NECESSARILY defined by people (animals are quite lazy in this regard), I think you are saying that people can merely decide what is moral and that's it. This would be just as arbitrary and unjustified as saying God says what is moral and that's it. I think there is an underlying morality that Man may discover by use of his reason, but I don't think that means that whatever definition Man gives to the word "morality" in effect creates morality where it did not exist before.
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