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Divine Command Theory is the view that right and wrong is simply whatever God decides it is.  As Socrates asked in the Euthyphro Dilemma:

1) is an act pleasing to the gods because it is good,

or rather

2) is an act good because it is pleasing to the gods?


The Divine command theory says 2 is correct.   An act is good because it is pleasing to God.   Whatever is God’s will to be good, is good.  That is what it means to be good.  Divine command theory is really a form of subjectivism where the person whose judgement is relevant is God.


Russ Schaefer-Landau argued against divine command theory (claim 2) along these lines:


  1. God either has good reason to will the way he does or he does not
  2. If God has no good reason to will the way he does then his view is arbitrary
  3. If God has good reason to will the way he does then something is good due to those reasons not due to God’s will. Therefore, we would be looking at case 1 in the Euthyphro dilemma not 2.

It follows that if divine command theory is true then morality is arbitrary.


I actually think the problem with divine command theory runs even deeper.  (And the problems equally apply to all forms of subjectivism/relativism)    I think that if we define moral good as whatever God (or some other person or group or entity) decide is good then the very notion of having a “good reason” to believe an act to be moral or immoral is unworkable.  The issue is dealt with by subjectivists when we consider the problems they have with moral progress.  Moral goodness on the subjectivist view is whatever the relevant person or group decides is morally good.  This decision need not accord with objective reality because under subjectivism morality itself is not based in objective morality.     Divine command theory seems to be just a particular form of moral subjectivism where the relevant person or group is God.


On moral subjectivism we make moral progress every time the relevant person or group changes their mind.  If they go from thinking slavery (however we want to define it) is sometimes permissible to thinking it is always wrong then it is moral progress.   Why is this moral progress?  Well they used to think wrongly and now they are correct.  They are by definition always correct in whatever they now believe about morality because their beliefs define what morality is.   They used to think slavery was sometimes permissible but since their current view defines what is moral and they now think slavery is never moral they now hold the correct view.


Of course, if they then change their mind again, and again start thinking slavery is sometimes morally permissible, that would again be moral progress!  Why?  Because, the current beliefs of that person (or group) defines what is moral.  So now that they believe slavery is sometimes morally permissible then it is by definition morally permissible.  Therefore they were in error, in the bad old days, when they thought slavery was always wrong.


So to that extent anything that causes the relevant person/God/group to change their mind is always good in the sense it leads to this vacuous sort of moral progress.  I hope that seems more distasteful than satisfying.  Is there any other sense that a subjectivist could have a “good reason” to hold a belief about morality?  I think the prospects are dim here is why.


As I explained in an earlier blog there are generally 2 different types of good reasons to believe something– theoretical reasons having to do with evidence – and pragmatic reasons which is more focused on consequences.   I agree that logic can also properly constrain a subjectivists beliefs – e.g., they should not lead logical contradiction.  So that might be a third type of good reason.  A fourth would be if it is self evident. (Do these four forms of reasons account for all good reasons for belief?  Feel free to comment below.)

But logical contradiction isn’t really going to rule out much in terms of bad reasoning about morality on its own.  Any detail of difference can be pointed to in order to avoid logical contradictions in moral views.  That killing did not happen at precisely 10:27 Am Central time at that exact location.  Therefore my believe that this killing is immoral does not logically contradict my belief this other killing was moral.   Edit: I address the problem of ad hoc logic being a good reason for subjective beliefs here.

Moral truths are certainly not self evident in the way that for example the axioms of logic are self evident.  To contradict our moral views does not need to lead us into a situation that is impossible to even imagine.   Like trying to imagine A and not A at the same time and in the same respect seems impossible to even conceive.  

To really get to the heart of the matter we need to go beyond just logical contradiction and look at whether there can be good theoretical, and/or practical reasons for an anti-realist to believe a moral claim.

Can there be good theoretical reasons to hold subjective moral beliefs?

So lets address whether there can be good theoretical reason for the subjectivist to believe something is moral.  That is, is there evidence the subjectivist might use to embrace a moral belief?   Because morality, according to the subjectivist, is not based on objective reality but rather subjective it is impossible that there is good evidence to say something is moral. Let me explain further:


Let’s say on the divine theory it so happens that racism displeases God.  So on this theory racism is evil.  And saying it is evil is the same as saying it is God’s will we avoid it.  Now someone might say well God has good reasons for that being his will.  Racism causes all sorts of problems and pain etc.  And we may nod along with some of those reasons.  But here is the problem.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons are if we are going to define what is good by whatever pleases God.  If they actually led God to his current view then they are all good reasons – to the extent they led to the current view which by definition is always right.  So maybe none of the reasons we think racism is wrong are the reasons it displeases God.  Maybe God used to think racism was good but then he was kicked in the head by a mule, or he believed that his stock portfolio would increase in value if he changed his tune or he did some tasseography and the tea leaves told him racism was wrong so he just went with that.


Now normally we would think well I am glad God now says racism is wrong but those aren’t really good reasons to reject racism.  But this notion of good or bad reasons to believe something is just our attachment to a realist view of morality.  We think racism is wrong because of things that have to do with reality outside of God’s opinion.  But that is not how it works in Divine command theory – or any form of subjectivism.  God’s opinion decides what is in fact good or bad.  So his current view is always the correct view because that is how the correct view is defined.   It is not based on objective reality so our normal notions of saying whether a reason is a “good reason” or a “bad reason” no longer apply at all.

To better understand my point let’s consider what good and bad theoretical reasons for believing an event that occurs in objective reality.  Lets use history as an example.

If someone believes Russia and Germany reached an agreement to divide up Eastern Eurpope before World War II, we might agree because based on what we read about the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact it seems that is likely true.  But what if they say no that is not why they believe it.  They believe it based on tasseography. (again based on pattern the tea leaves left in their mug) Ugh another tasseographer! (blame Richard Joyce for teaching me about this craft)


But why is that a bad reason to believe?  We may not be able to show such a belief contradicts other views they hold.  But that is not the problem.  The problem is that reason has no connection with the reality of Russia actually having an agreement with Germany before World War II.  The information we read about the Ribbontrop Molotov pact does in fact have a connection to the objective reality of that agreement.  That is we think the history book (or Wikipedia article) traces back to information and documents used by the people actually in leadership positions in Russia and Germany and this connection with objective reality is what makes it a good reason to believe.


If the Wikipedia article or book was a complete fabrication made up by some crazy person who decided to write down a dream, then the Wikipedia article would not be a good reason to believe there was an agreement.  Why does the evidence or reason to believe have to track/link with objective reality?    Because the claim “that Russia and Germany reached an agreement to divide Eastern Europe before WW2” is a claim about what happened in objective reality.    If the claim we are considering is not itself one about objective reality then it is far from clear why any reasons to believe it must have any connection with objective reality.    So our normal theoretical reasoning as to what constitutes a “good reason” to believe something no longer applies when we are talking about anti-realist morality positions.

Can there Be Good Practical Reasons Supporting a Subjectivist Moral Belief?

So what about pragmatic reasons?  Are there any good pragmatic reasons that can lead a subjectivist to believe one action is moral as opposed to another?   I certainly agree that practical reasons can be a good reason to believe something.  Indeed I think there are good practical reasons to believe in God as that belief will lead us to live a moral life.  But again I am understanding morality as a moral realist does.  That is a very different thing than what a moral subjectivist believes.  Here  and here are earlier blogs where I talk about some of the differences.


If you have certain goals that the belief will serve then you may have pragmatic reasons to believe.   So for example if believing you can beat cancer were to really improve your chances of beating cancer then that would be a good pragmatic reason to believe you can beat cancer.   This practical reason is independent of theoretical good reasons based on the evidence that you actually will beat cancer.


But it is hard to understand how this could apply in the case of subjective morality.   How would calling something moral actually lead to more rational action/belief?   I think Professor Shaffer-Landaus point comes into particular focus here.  If we say we want to believe this conduct is moral because it will lead to happiness or less pain for myself or others, why would adding the claim that therefor this is “moral” add anything?  Why not just say I want to believe I should act this way because I  want happiness and less pain.  Should the label that this action is subjectively moral motivate us to act that way more then the underlying reasons?  Certainly I would say yes if we were considering an objective morality.  But when we are well aware that morality is a label we subjectively assign then what is the point of even using that language.  To the extent it motivates beyond the underlying reasons it would seem to do nothing but distort motivation beyond the proper reasons.


It would seem that since we rule out evidentiary reasons and objective reality then we are only left with motivating reasons.  But then to the extent the morality label adjusts the motivation it would seem only to distort it in a way not supported by the reasons.    The nihilist/error theorist would seem to accept the same reasons and simply cut out the morality talk as to the extent the morality label does anything it would distort the motivation beyond the underlying reasons – which would lead to less rational action not more.


But there are two more problems with coming up with good pragmatic reasons.  One is that saying what we want is not really in our control rationally speaking.  It would be great if it was.  But even though I know certain foods are bad for me I still want them.  The notion that our wants are driving the ship is sort of like admitting we are giving away the keys to matters beyond our control.   Although on this point I would agree the more argument is needed.  Just because I can’t control all my desires that does not mean I can’t control any of them.  But then again what is driving my will to desires some wants and not others – if not beliefs about objective morality?  Just other wants and desires?  If so then it would seem we just say we act this way for those reasons and adding the label of moral or immoral to actions seems superfluous.


The second problem arises because fundamentally morality involves ultimate goals.    Morality is generally understood as the end good in itself not something we do so that we can become faster stronger smarter or even pain free etc.  To the extent I wanted to do action X because it would gave me a leg up in my career or to relieve pain, does not mean action X was moral.   It might be moral or it might not.  But an action serving some alternate goal is usually seen as an independent reason to it being moral.  Yes if your boss dies you may end up in his corner office but that does not mean killing him is less immoral.  We should be motivated to do good for the sake of doing good.   So to say some ulterior motives are a good pragmatic reason to say something is moral seems contrary to our fundamental understanding of how morality works.


The moral person does not act morally solely because doing so will help her pursue other goals.  To be sure the same act might be moral and it may help us achieve other goals.  But that is a coincidence that can go either way.  Sometimes acting morally can defeat those other goals but we still should act morally.   Morality is the end itself it is not the means to an end.


Thus in the end I think Divine Command theory as well as Subjectivism and other anti-realist views of morality generally will have difficulty explaining any sort of “good reason” to believe something is moral.   The whole anti-realism view rules out what we normally think of as good theoretical reasons to believe and the combination of core concepts of “anti-realism” and “morality” also rules out the possibility that there are any good pragmatic reasons to believe a moral claim.   Thus the very notion of an anti-realist having a “good reason” to believe a moral claim is ruled out.