From Left to Right: Kant, G.E. Moore, David Hume, Plato

Prescriptive Realism — Part Two

A Defense of Divine Command Theory

In my prior post, I outlined John E. Hare’s prescriptive realism. Here, I will give it a defense. There are four arguments against the divine command theorist which might be thought insurmountable, they are;

  1. The open question argument
  2. The is-ought gap
  3. The Euthyphro dilemma
  4. The argument from human autonomy.

Here, I’ll go into detail about each argument and then provide some response to them.

The first argument, the open question argument, comes from G.E. Moore. Moore writes,

When we think that A is good, we are thinking that A is one of the things which we desire to desire, our proposition may seem quite plausible. But, if we carry the investigation further, and ask ourselves Is it good to desire to desire A? it is apparent, on a little reflection, that this question is itself as intelligible, as the original question, Is A good? — that we are, in fact, now asking for exactly the same information about the desire to desire A, for which we formerly asked with regard to A itself. But it is also apparent that the meaning of this second question cannot be correctly analysed into Is the desire to desire A one of the things which we desire to desire?: we have not before our minds anything so complicated as the question Do we desire to desire to desire to desire A? Moreover any one can easily convince himself by inspection that the predicate of this proposition — good — is positively different from notion of desiring to desire which enters into its subject: That we should desire to desire A is good is not merely equivalent to That A should be good is good. It may indeed be true that what we desire to desire is always good; perhaps, even the converse may be true: but it is very doubtful whether this is the case, and the mere fact that we understand very well what is meant by doubting it, shews clearly that we have to different notions before our mind [1]

To speak of “desire” (or some other natural property) as being identical to the good would, as Moore argues, cease to make the question of “what is good” doubtful. Contrast this to the tautological statement “Is a married man married?” where the answer is embedded into the question and is true by definition. Since the question “what is good” cannot be trivial (it’s an open question after all), it follows that it could not be identical to some natural property, so we need to remain in doubt. While it might turn out whatever we desire is good, and what is good is whatever we desire, they are not identical, since that would entail they analytically mean the same thing, making it a closed questions.

In response to Moore, Hare cites David Brink’s new-wave realist strategy of denying “that failure of property identity does not follow from the failure of meaning identity”. That is, two things can still be the same property, while still baring separate meanings [2]. Hare uses the example of H20, but recognizes its limits. Following Putnam, Hare asks us to imagine a twin earth with a substance identical to water, except it has the structure of XYZ, as opposed to H20. While both Earthlings and Twin Earthlings dub their respective substances ‘water’, they are not the same as the term must designate the same thing in all possible worlds.

It is the causal contact which gives the referents the same term, despite being different natural kinds[3]. Likewise, God’s call can be the non-value property, while the good is what we call it, and what supervenes on it. A naturalist might claim to do the same thing, but as I wrote in my last post,

while they [natural properties, and value properties] could in theory be inextricably linked, we do not need to concede that they are. What would happen if we were to discover a hypothetical twin earth, that is an earth with a substance that held the same phenomenal qualities of water, but had a chemical structure of XYZ? John Searle argues — against the likes of Putnam — that when we make the discovery concerning water, we either provide a redefinition the term (making it once more analytic), or continue to allow the term to be used to identify the surface properties (thus we would have two types of water)
This is a problem faced by identifying the good with a natural property, however, this is not the case with identifying the good with a [necessarily existent] supernatural property. As Hare explains,
“we would say that the inhabitants of Moral Twin Earth are using “good” in the same way as us, namely to commend, but with different beliefs and theories about what is good. An essential function of “good” is to commend. Within a value judgment, the function is to endorse such a commendation. Genuine dispute between us and the Moral Twin Earthers about the good is therefore possible [that is, would remain open], whereas dispute about water with the Twin Earthers would be silly, since we would be talking past each other”
Since it would be silly to say that “this act is good, but I detest it and refuse to ever do it”, we would have to conclude commending is an essential trait of saying something is good. The difference between earth (supposing everyone on it is a divine command theorists) and moral twin earth is that underlying structure remains the same, and while we are both being morally drawn, one recognizes what it is we are being drawn to, while the other does not.

The naturalist on the other hand is always open to Searle’s analytic reduction, since natural kinds are not necessary. This solves the open question argument, without leaving it open to the naturalist. The next argument is the is-ought gap. This is the problem was brought forth by David Hume,

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence.
For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion [4]

The question comes down to, from a description (an ‘is’), how do we get an ‘ought’? Suppose that someone says “We should pay women equally to men, since it is fair”. However, we can retort “why ought we be fair?”, and for any other justification, it would seem you can go back one step. Hare holds that since God’s call is just something we all, knowingly or not, value, it is the good which attracts us all. We ought to follow God’s call because for anything else we might seem to value, we have greater reason to value God’s call because it is the source for all other values. Hare likens God’s call and our values to a

magnetic force…to an iron ring through other iron rings that are attracted to the original magnet. This is Plato’s image (Ion 536a): “Well, do you not see that the spectator is the last of the rings I spoke of, which receive their force from one another by virtue of the magnet? … But it is the deity who, through all the series, draws the spirit of men wherever he desires, transmitting the attractive force from one into another.” [5]

While there is no contradiction in rejecting the source of value while accepting contingent values, just like there is no contradiction between rejecting H2O as the source of water, it would be irrational to disentangle the two.

The third objection is the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is (1) X good because God commands it, or (2) does God command X because X is good. If you go with (1), the problem is that God can in fact do anything by divine fiat. It makes God’s commands arbitrary. If you go with (2), God isn’t necessary for something to be good. Furthermore, it would mean that the good is beyond God, which attacks the notion of aseity. Hare writes,

Our duties to our neighbor are right both because God chooses that route and because it is a route to the final good. God has an essential tendency to self-affirmation, and when God creates us (which is not necessary) God must desire that our strivings should be directed in accordance with our highest good [6]

The response here is that God, as a matter of necessity, recognizes himself as his highest good, and wills other contingent goods as a fitting means to achieve those ends.

However, we can revise the dilemma and ask “(1)* Does God recognize himself as the highest good because he has certain properties, or (2)* Does God declare himself to be the highest good. If (1)*, than those properties are good, and not God himself, and if (2)* the highest good is arbitrary. The response here is to accept a platonic notion of predication, rather than one of necessary and sufficient conditions. That is, X is not good because it has the properties of XYZ, but because we participate in X for our goodness. Thus, we have another false dilemma.

Think of a pre-scientific conception of heat as if it were a basic entity not reducible to any other. Heat is not hot, but hot things are heated. The Neo-Platonist Plotinus likened heated things as shadows of the true form of heat [7].While we might have a greater knowledge of heat by studying each ascending intensity of hot environments, we will only approximate but never capture the essence of heat.

Likewise, God is also a basic entity (more specifically the simplest entity so he can exist through himself), and the highest in all existence with all lesser entities forging a descending hierarchy [8]. If God is “something than which nothing greater can be” then he is the standard of greatness we participate in. To predicate goodness, intelligence, personality, etc, onto God is not to say they fully describe God, but better approximate God since those things as we know them through finite agents, have limits and break down at some point in greatness. Just like instances of hot environments are not heat itself, but help us to better approximate the form.

Heat can have different effects on objects when heating them, and when we notice it we can say the heat is scorching, burning, etc. These are effects we can see in the world, without knowing about heat itself. There is only one way in which heat exists, but because we do not know it directly, we approximate by conceiving of more heat enriched models. For instance, if I wanted to gauge how hot infinite heat would be, I would be closer by using the center of the earth’s core, as opposed to the polar ice caps. Even if we have moved away from the classical conception of heat, speaking of heat in this way is still comprehensible. Likewise, we feel the pull of God to do the moral thing, and sense that not only does ‘good’ better approximate him, but , with further argumentation, so do his other qualities of being ‘loving’, ‘personal’, omniscient’, ‘omnipotent’, etc.

The last argument is that having God as the administrator of the good takes away human autonomy, given it takes away the notion that we should be good for its own sake, and makes us moral because God commands it. Hare spends the last chapter on giving an exegesis of Kant, while he provides content to rid ourselves of this objection. Hare argues,

there is nothing heteronomous [acting in accordance with one’s desires rather than reason]about willing to obey a superior’s prescription because the superior has prescribed it, in a discretionary way, as long as the final end is shared between us, and we have trust also about the route.

Both us and God love our final end as the good in-itself, this is why we ought to obey his commands. Those commands are a route to loving the good in-itself, not the sole reason why we ought to. Divine commands do not rob human autonomy of reason, they assist us in performing our duties, and because they come from a trustworthy authority, it would be negligent and irresponsible to reject it.

End Notes

[1] G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Chapter I, § 13, Link

[2] John E. Hare. God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Kindle Location 347). Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Location 347

[4] Hume, A Treaties on Human Nature, Link

[5] John E. Hare. God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Kindle Locations 500–502). Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1001–1003

[7] J.M. Rist, Plotinus: Road to Reality,68–69

[8] Anselm, Basic Works . 41

[9]John E. Hare. God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Kindle Locations 1153–1154). Kindle Edition.