Monday, February 20, 2012

On "The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics"

"Believers can argue that morality requires God all they want, but until they can provide some legitimate reasoning or evidence for it, they do not deserve the benefit of a doubt. Who's to say that a universe without God could have no morality? We aren't 100% sure that this one has a god, and yet many of us seem to have no difficulty in making moral decisions. Being good without God is not a problem."1
While I agree with Taylor Carr that better reasoning or evidence is needed to make divine command ethics a convincing position for those of us who don't subscribe to it already, I think he goes one step too far when he raises what is known as the epistemological objection (i.e. the knowledge-based objection). Essentially:

How could morality require God, if knowing right from wrong doesn't require knowing God?

The not-entirely-absent moral sense of atheists is supposed to demonstrate God's irrelevance to morality. But does this objection work? My short answer is: no, because it's possible for our moral sense to rely on God somehow, without us realizing it.

Knowing vs. Knowing How One Knows

In case my short answer didn't totally satisfy you, let's take a look at Glenn People's recent paper "The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics." Or, if you're more of an auditory learner, I can recommend his podcast episode on the topic.

First, let's see how he characterizes the basic epistemological objection.
"The underlying argument is as follows, where Q is the act of knowing moral facts and C is anything.
  1. If C is the cause of our ability to Q, then person p cannot Q unless he believes in C.
  2. p does Q, and does not believe in C.
  3. Therefore C is not the cause of our ability to Q."2
As an example, take Aristotle's views on the heart and the brain:
"Moreover, the motions of pain and pleasure, and generally of all sensation, plainly have their source in the heart, and find in it their ultimate termination. This, indeed, reason would lead us to expect. For the source must, whenever possible, be one; and, of all places, the best suited for a source is the centre."

"The brain, then, tempers the heat and seething of the heart."3
So...if [electrical activity in the brain] is the cause of our ability to [think and feel], then [Aristotle] cannot [think and feel] unless he believes in [electrical activity in the brain]. Yet Aristotle could think and feel even though he didn't believe his brain contained any such activity. (1) is false. It stays false when filled in this way:
  1. If [God] is the cause of our ability to [know right from wrong], then [Richard Dawkins] cannot [know right from wrong] unless he believes in [God].
  2. [Richard Dawkins] does [know right from wrong], and does not believe in [God].
  3. Therefore [God] is not the cause of our ability to [know right from wrong].
Since (1) is false, (3) is an invalid conclusion to draw from (2).

31 Flavors

What counts as a "command" in divine command ethics? There isn't a consensus here. At one extreme, divine commands might be aspects of God's unexpressed private will. At the other extreme, a divine command might be a literally voiced, undoubtedly divine imperative given directly to the individuals expected to follow it. Let's label these extremes secret and explicit respectively.

If divine commands were secret, the epistemological objection would be quite strong since there would be absolutely no reason for our moral sense to bear a relationship with God's will. If divine commands were explicit, we'd all know it! Philosophers who actually subscribe to divine command ethics are at various points in between. They hold that God expresses his will somehow, but not as spoken commands to each person.

Here's a moderate form of divine command ethics:
"Consider for example the possibility that God conveys the “sign” to people regarding some act (let’s pick murder) via a proper function of the human conscience. Nobody needs to know what conscience is, how we got one, or that God uses it to ensure that we have some true beliefs in order for them to know, via conscience, that murder is wrong (assuming, of course, that there were a conscience with proper functions)."4
So God does express his will, not as a verbal command, but in the design of our consciences. Whether we believe in God or not, we have an innate sense of moral outrage when we witness certain kinds of killing.

I don't think this is how the world actually works, but it's not easily disproven.

Oh, Academics!

Up to this point, I haven't actually addressed the core of Peoples' paper. He's writing in response to a paper by Wes Morriston called "The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-Believers" who is himself writing in response to a book and some papers of Robert Merrihew Adams.

Adams is well known for developing a form (or two or three) of divine command ethics intended to steer a respectable path between the extremes of secret and explicit.

Morriston seizes on the most explicit-leaning aspect of Adams' work, and applies an epistemological objection to it.

Peoples responds to Morriston's paper by (1) pointing out that Morriston's objection is so narrowly aimed that it doesn't threaten divine command ethics in general, and (2) accusing Morriston of misconstruing Adams' position anyway.

I have no interest in taking sides on the interpretation of Adams' divine command ethics. It's a minor battle which isn't going to sway the campaign. But then...that does appear to be Peoples' main point.

1. Carr, T. (2009, July 24). Being good without God. GodlessHaven. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from
2. Peoples, G. (2011). The epistemological objection to divine command ethics. Philosophia Christi 13(2). La Mirada, CA:Biola University. p. 389
3. Aristotle, On the parts of animals. Heart quote from Book III. Brain quote from Book II. Peoples used a different example, so blame any defects on me.
4. Peoples, G. (2011).

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