Sunday 30 June 2013

Grounding Obligation in Divine Command: A blanket objection to divine command theory

Divine command theory tries to explain the 'true' nature of moral obligations by reducing them to divine commands. As such, you have a moral obligation just in case you've been issued a command from God. Commands are, of course, natural entities, and so divine command theory is an naturalistic theory of moral ontology. How exactly God produces these commands is not clear, but I would imagine it works the same way he produced the natural world: ex nihilo.

So what is the problem with this? Only that moral obligations cannot simply reduce to divine commands. Why? Because they have inconsistent properties. Obligations exist necessarily, are immutable and objective. Commands, on the other hand, exist contingently (if the agent issuing it enjoys libertarian freedom, then this point is all the more obvious), possibly change, and are subjective. No one can choose something to be right or wrong, but persons choose to issue commands and choose the content of those commands. Obligations are categorical imperatives; they give us an unconditional reason to act. On the other hand, if someone were to just not care about divine retribution, they'd have no persistent reason to obey divine commands. As such, if obligations were metaphysically identical to divine commands, then supposing their existence would involve supposing the reality of contradictions. And so any obligation would have to be both necessary and contingent, immutable and mutable, objective and subjective.

In fact, the only property that seems common between moral obligations and divine commands is that they're both normative, in other words they're both action guiding. But it's a pretty bad metaphysical theory that tries to identify two entities in virtue of them sharing just one property!

The divine command theorist might just say that their concept of an obligation and their concept of a divine command are not inconsistent in this way. That obligations are subjective, that divine commands are necessary, and so on. But then the divine command theorist is twisting the commonly held concepts of obligations and commands, and without a very good argument for why divine commands are necessary, or why obligations are subjective, the theory is a very very poor one. I'd dare say it's better to have no theory at all, than to prop up a really bad one.

I think this problem would persist no matter what natural property we tried to identify moral obligations with. Indeed, I cannot imagine any natural property that is sufficiently like a moral obligation that the two could be married in this way. Because of this, I think the best option for the ethical naturalist is to just not reduce moral properties to anything, but rather consider them sui generis. This shouldn't be a problem, though, there are a whole host of natural properties in many different areas of discourse that we may also want to see as sui generis: "organism" from biology, "force" from physics, "meaning" from linguistics, "intentionality" and "consciousness" from philosophy of mind, and so on.


  1. Okay, so, I believe Alston, Adams, and Quinn would have it that obligations are not necessary on their divine command theories. Perhaps they're biting a bit of a bullet.
    But besides, I think this post gives a good explanation of what's disanalogous between the reductionist view of DCT and the metaphysical identification of water and H20. When chemists discovered that the chemical properties of water were H20, they did not have to *deny* any of the putative properties of water. They got to add more information into the concept of water, rather than having to take any away.
    On the other hand, if we metaphysically reduce obligations to commands, then we *do* have to deny many putative properties of obligations. So rather than adding information to our concept of obligation, we'd instead be *explaining away* the concept; we'd be explaining why obligations don't really exist, but instead they're the illusions created by a fundamentally different sort of thing (divine commands).

    1. Following up, let's say there's two different kinds of metaphysical reduction: one's that preserve the objective existence of the reduced entity, and ones that do not.
      An example of the first: when we metaphysically reduce water to H20, we can still say that water objectively exists because its reduction, H20, does not negate any (or many) of the perceived properties of water.
      An example of the second: when we metaphysically reduce colour to wave vibrations, we shouldn't then still say that colour exists in any mind independent way, because it's reduced to something radically different than the concept of colour. This reduction implies that colour properties are subjective illusions created by something radically different than colour.

      Your argument implies that the reductionist view of DCT is of the latter sort of reduction, not the former. It's quite consistent for the DC theorist to say that "our perception of obligations are like our colour perceptions, they are the illusions created by a fundamentally different sort of thing in reality." But this will wreak havoc on the moral argument; because the premise "objective moral obligations exist" would have to be replaced with "the perception of objective moral obligations exist," and the other premise would then have to be replaced with "God is necessary for the perception of objective moral obligations" <- a clearly false premise.