Tag Archives: divine command theory

“Divine commands” and personal conscience

Fifteen years ago I visited Israel and can vividly remember the sight of a rifle-carrying guard on a bus full of school children in the north-east. It brought home to me the reality of religious and political extremism which can drive the ideologically committed to brutal, anti-human acts like attacking kids on a school bus.

israel-school-bus-hamas-attack-300x210

School bus hit by Hamas rocket in southern Israel. Credit: 3Sigma Systems

My theologically inclined sparring mate, Matt Flannaghan at MandM, brought that memory back with his recent blog post Divine commands and psychopathic tendencies.” In the post he’s at his old tricks – going into a frenzy of mental gymnastics to justify divine command theory (DCT) – the idea that if his god commands something then the believer must carry it out – no matter how evil the act commanded. Matt is specifically arguing that DCT implies blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do.”

Just that quoted phrase seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the divine command morality of religious apologists.

Where are those “divine commands” coming from?

A non-believer like me has no problem with divine commands. I know a god couldn’t possibly tell me to blow up a bus. No god has ever made any command – good or bad – for a very simple reason that gods don’t exist. And, hopefully, when that day comes that I do hear a voice in my head telling me to do something that evil I will not be silly enough to think the voice is divine and must be obeyed.

Hopefully I would recognise that I had a problem and get some professional help.

Yes, some believers may well hear voices like this – or claim to have heard them when facing the consequences of their actions in a court of law. Usually that raises the prospect of a not guilty due to insanity verdict. Worth a try?

But it’s probably far more common that political and religious soldiers, rebels or terrorists, get such divine commands “passed on” to them by their Imams, Priests, and theological, political or national leaders. You know, the ones directly in touch with their god or the fount of racial, political or national wisdom. Come on!! Think about it. What other way could they possibly get a “divine command?” Why else does their god seem to have exactly the same prejudices and hatred as the messenger?

The soldier, rebel or terrorist may well believe in a god (or nation, or race) which is a divine, “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person” (or race or nation). But that is irrelevant – they should really be looking at the messenger – the leader, priest, imam, politician, etc., who is claiming to speak for their god (race, state or nation). If they don’t they are just transferring these divine properties of their fictional god to the very real (and very human) “messenger.”

When can evil commands be morally “right?”

Matt argues that a divine command to blow up a bus full of schoolchildren is only hypothetical and therefore he has no qualms saying that if he did get such a command he would know it was morally “right.” He doesn’t believe it will happen because his god is a “morally perfect person.” But he is conceding that if his god commands such an act he will have to assume that the particular circumstances mean that in his case blowing up the bus of schoolchildren is not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational.”

Why? Because his god is an “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person”

But doesn’t that argument create a huge moral minefield for him? As a believer and advocate of DCT he believes that his god is the source of “right” and “wrong.” That if his god commands something (even blowing up a school bus) then it must, by definition, be “good.” Be morally “right.” Who is he to question? Because if he does question the command (supposedly “divine” because the messenger, or the voices in his head, tells him it comes directly from his god), isn’t he attempting to use a different, human, non-divine source for his morality? Hasn’t he just shown his idea that moral truths of “right” and “wrong” come from his god to be a sham.

So someone who accepts divine command morality, either for religious reasons, or for racial, political or national reasons, must accept that, no matter how evil the command seems, it is morally “right.” It must be because it’s divine! So they must follow the “divine” orders.

“Double checking” those “divine commands”

Of course, Matt has managed to fit in another somersault to deal with that argument (after all, that’s what theology is for, isn’t it?). He has set up another moral authority to check the divine commands from his god – just in case! He is appealing to an “impartial, compassionate person (who) would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse the killings.” so when he does get commanded to blow up that bus he has another moral authority to double-check with.

Bloody hell, would this be his Priest, his Imam, his national or racial leader? Or would it be another of his gods (because this impartial compassionate person sounds pretty omniscient and impotent to me – after all he is a back-up to check Matt’s god). And come on, Matt, surely the philosopher in you must see that you have set an infinite regress trap for yourself – who is going to be the back-up for your “impartial, compassionate person?” And so on.

Or would Matt’s back-up be his own conscience? Is he going to double-check these “divine commands,” whether they come via voices in his head or the declarations of his religious authorities, by contemplating how he actually feels about them? Even applying a bit of philosophical logic to the situation and coming to a reasoned conclusion?

After all, that’s what the rest of us do. Rely on our intuitions and the feelings they generate about ethical situations. And also complementing our emotional reactions by reasoned discussion and deliberation with our mates and the rest of society.

Hasn’t the world learned from experience what “just following orders” results in?

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Subjective morality – not what it seems?

Religious apologists claim morality is objective and moral truths or laws need a divine lawmaker. But, in my last post, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, I suggested if a divine lawmaker imposed the laws of nature on reality that would make them subjective – arising out of the whims, desires and fancies of the lawmaker and not out of objectively existing matter/energy and its interconnections.

Similarly, the “objective mortality’ or “divine command ethics” of the religious apologist really describes a subjective morality. A morality based on the whims and fancies of the divine lawmaker and open to the charge of relativism. (This interpretation is consistent with differing moral codes of different religions. Their lack of consistency has all the hallmarks of arbitrary whims and fancies).

Religious “objective morality” is caught in a dilemma here – the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is what their god commands good because their god commands it (a subjective morality open to relativism)? Or is what their god commands good for some other reason (providing for some sort of objectivity, and the possibility that we humans may also discover that objective basis for our morality).

So, while religious apologists love to talk about “objective morality” this is a misnomer. Their morality is actually subjective – and usually relativist. On the other hand, some (but not all) non-religious commenters describe their morality as “subjective.” Are there also problems with the way they use that term?

First off, I think some people may use the term simply as a reaction to claims of “objective morality” by the religious. Mind you I think some non-religious also describe their morality as objective (eg. Sam Harris) because they do not wish to concede objectivity to the religious alone.

Subjective confusion

But I want to consider the discussion of subjective morality by Zach Weinersmith (see Pankration Ethics) and Sean Carroll (Morality and Basketball). Weiner thinks subjective moral “rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.” In contrast he quotes Matt Dillahunty, a US atheist who who defines objective ethics, “nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong.”

We can come back to the example of slavery and changes in human attitudes later. But meanwhile I really think Weiner’s use of “subjective” is confused. Dictionary meanings are usually clear that “subjective” refers to “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).” Sure, for humans to conceive ideas and formulate rules is subjective. But that normal humans usually have two legs, two arms, one mouth, two eyes, one heart etc., is are objective facts. If humans perished those objective facts would no longer be relevant, except as a description of an extinct species. But that does not make them subjective.

Weiner does seem to allow for at least a bit of objectivity in ethics. This may prevent his subjective morality being a bit more than just human whim and fancy. He says “we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering.” Being sad, like with other emotions and feelings, requires more than just exercising the mind.

He ruins that a bit by going on to say: “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.” I find such thought experiments very naive. Humans don’t live in video games – no real creatures do.

However, by vaguely considering emotions as a factor in moral beliefs he has moved beyond the subjective mind, he has opened the door, a little,  to the influence of objective facts on the human mind via the human body and its interaction with its environment. Perhaps there is, at least to some extent, an objective basis for these apparent subjective decisions. Decisions which seem to arise simply from whim and fancy of the individual.

“Subjective” but not arbitrary

Sean Carroll also rejects “objective morality:”

“I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball!”

“The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.”

But he adds:

“The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.”

While the rules of baseball are human intentions, therefore apparently subjective, they are also influenced by some objective facts about reality – the playing field, the size and power of the individual players, etc. Again, my point. At least to some extent Carroll’s description is acknowledging some sort of objective basis for the rules of basketball and human ethics.

He puts it more clearly here:

“The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.”

Morality may not be “inherent in the structure of the universe” but it may be inherent in the nature of a social species like ours.

Objective basis for human morality

Both Weiner and Carroll  have agreed a role for human desires, feelings, emotions, etc., in human ethics. They are acknowledging that morality is more than about rules. Here they are supported by most scientists currently investigating human morality. They see a key role for emotions and feelings – to some extent rediscovering what Hume outlined 350 years ago. Many don’t even consider the question of moral rules or laws. They are interested in what actually motivates and drives humans on moral issues. And this turns out to be largely, and in most situations, unconscious emotional reactions and not intellectual consideration of each situation.

We can go further away from the subjective mind. Emotions and feelings are the body’s mechanism for motivating and initiating action or reaction. Feelings of pain, cold, warmth or hunger motivate us to move or otherwise react. And these are just feelings we are conscious of. Most of the work done in regulating the body, its homeostasis, occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotions and feelings are probably the modern expression of more mechanical mechanisms used by simpler organisms. In the early stages of evolution simple cells may have reacted to heat and food gradients detected by simple sensors. This early ability to react to the environment is an expression of biological value. Organisms which evolved sensors and reaction mechanisms were the ones that survived to reproduce. They had a value system or mechanism to aid survival. An objectively based value system.

Evolution of species with neuronal structures, brains, and eventually consciousness and self-awareness, has enabled a clearer biological value system. Rather than simple mechanical reaction our body produces complex reactions to stimuli – often involving mental and physical feelings or emotions. Here we have an objective basis for human moral behaviour.

Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.

Morality in the “auto” mode

This objectively based values system and the emotional feelings and emotions it causes do not need conscious deliberation. Just as well as the system has evolved to enable rapid reaction to situations we face. Not only in reacting to danger – but in reacting to other members of our species. We are social by nature and this has meant evolution of systems to enable efficient and rapid reaction to social situations. We have the ability to communicate, assess other individuals, judge them, etc., all without conscious deliberation. Effectively this is like using your camera in the “auto” mode. You can go ahead and take photos without thinking – the camera does your thinking for you. And much quicker than you could do it.

Joshua Greene compared the human brain to a camera during a discussion titled “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” The trouble, argued Greene, is that the ingrained automatic responses that guide some judgments may not be as effective in addressing modern complex moral problems, such as global warming.

Of course we can also use our camera in the “manual” mode – and we can do moral “arithmetic,” consider situations, deliberate over moral rules and laws etc. consciously. In a “manual mode”.


I will discuss the role of conscious moral deliberation in the next post. Together with Matt Dillahunty’s assertion “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” See Drifting Moral Values

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Theological pretzel twisting

I guess we should not be surprised that theological arguments often fall back on authority -  after all they have invented the biggest authority ever. The answer to everything (and you don’t have to be able to count to 42 – 3 will do).

Their god!

But it does provide them a useful cop-out whenever they run into problems during discussion with others – especially non-theists. Appeal to authority!

Usually they are savvy enough to use a more worldly authority – often themselves but usually other theologians, or philosophers of religion, who have “destroyed” the argument presented many times over. And because it is an appeal to authority you must take their word for it. Your argument has been destroyed, and so thoroughly they are not going to bother with the details.

So it was nice to see another philosopher dealing them some of their own medicine (see God fails triple morality test). And on a specific argument I referred to previously in my post The argument from authority (or lack thereof). In that I mentioned how a local blogger advocating a religious divine command morality had “destroyed” the Euthyphro Dilemma:

“Applied to this situation the dilemma for “divine command” ethicists is – are “moral truths” ” good and just because God wills it.” Or does “God wills it because it is good and just.” Inevitably in any real situation such an ethicist is making her moral decision for her god by appealing to some other outside source of morality. Or they talk themselves into the silly position the apologist W. L. Craig did recently when he ended up justifying biblical infanticide, genocide and ethnic cleansing – because it was commanded by his god (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

The blogger resorted to an argument from authority by declaring “Euthyphro Dilemma has been well and truly dealt with by divine command meta-ethics. This has been done so many times I find it incredible that anyone still brings it up!” As far as he was concerned that was the end of it. No details were going to be discussed under his watch.”

Well, here is what Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York, thinks of such “destruction.” Referring to the “popular idea that morality comes from God” he says:

That was soundly refuted by Plato in the Euthyphro, and despite thousands of years of desperate theological pretzel twisting the refutation stands.

Nicely put!

I must remember that term – “pretzel twisting.”

via Rationally Speaking: God fails triple morality test.

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Demolishing Craig on morality

Here’s another video on human morality.

This from a series produced by Qualia Soup. It’s the third in a series of four, so far.

Morality 3: Of objectivity and oughtness.

This one is interesting because it demolishes the naive deductive logic used by William Lane Craig who claims morality as a “proof” for the existence of his god. It also deals with the common misinterpretation of Hume’s “is-ought” problem.

Thanks to: Debunking Christianity.

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Outsourcing moral decisions to justify genocide

A while back I participated in a discussion involving a number of non-theists and theists. You can guess which side I was on. But I bore no ill feelings to the theists – and why should I have? These discussions are largely harmless.

But when the discussion turned to biblical genocide I found I had very strong feelings of hostility to one of the theists, a local minister of religion. Why? Because here I found someone who was blatantly justifying the slaughter of thousands of people. Genocide! And he justified it because he thought those people had been sinful!

Perhaps some people might think my reaction naïve. But I feel exactly the same hostility towards people who justify the Stalin terror, the victimisations and murders of Mao’s so-called “cultural revolution”, Pinochet’s slaughter of Chilean democrats, Hitler’s slaughter of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and communists, Pol Pot’s murder of intellectuals, and so on. And in my life I have come across people arguing to justify the genocide in all these cases. I really don’t see the justification of biblical genocide any differently. If you can make such  justifications perhaps you are also capable of carrying out such atrocities.

So I can understand why Richard Dawkins recently expressed such feelings of disgust about the justification of biblical genocide by William Lane Craig (see Dawkins responds to a stalker – Craig gets his debate).

We have yet to hear Craig’s response. But he has clearly endorsed that genocide
and I can’t see that his response can be at all human – unless he withdraws that
endorsement.

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Can science answer moral questions?

Here’s a great TED talk by Sam Harris. He is well known for his best selling books The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and its follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation. But he has recently been researching the neuroscience of morality and ethics. Sam has a a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.

Harris has a new book coming out in November – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It should be fascinating.

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