Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part II

In his work Practical Ethics Singer proposes a version of the Euthyphro dilemma to criticise a divine command theory of ethics,

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

In my previous post, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command theory is not typically proposed as a theory about what is good but is usually restricted to deontic properties such as right and wrong. Its worth noting however that, this fact is not fatal to Singer’s position; it is possible to develop analogies to the Euthyphro that do not rely on this straw man. James Rachels is an example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy he suggests that an action is right either because God commands it or he commands it because it is right. He then offers the same arguments Singer does to suggest that only by embracing the second horn of the dilemma which amounts to giving up divine command theory, can one escape absurdity.[ii]

The key argument Singer raises against divine command theory is, “if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad”.[iii] Singer couches this objection in terms of goodness and badness but the same objection can be raised with regards to claims that Gods commands constitutes what is right and wrong. Rachels for example states that divine command theory “leads to trouble” because “it represents Gods commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness would be right.”[iv]

The objection is that divine command theory entails a certain counter-factual conditional; to use Singer’s example, if God commanded torture then torture would not be wrong. While Singer does not state that this conditional is false, he appears to take it for granted that it is. After all, if the conditional were true then the fact that divine command theory entails it would not constitute an objection to the theory. Unfortunately Singer provides no reason for thinking this conditional is false. He appears to think that it is obvious.

Phillip Quinn has given reasons for questioning this assumption. Quinn notes that a counter-factual conditional such as ‘If God commands torture then torture is not wrong’ is false only if the antecedent is true and the consequent false.[v] In other words, the conditional is only false in a situation where God in fact does command torture and torture in that situation is wrong. In order for Singer’s objection to be sound there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?

It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

A former teacher of mine, Mane Hajdin, suggested to me that this assertion is too hasty a few years ago he offered me the following criticism,

[I]t is assumed that being good involves being loving, forgiving, etc, in all possible worlds. But why should we assume that? Why aren’t there worlds in which being good involves being cruel, ruthless, etc? To simply assume that, in this context, may leave the impression of begging the question.

Roy Perrett suggested to me that that there are possible states of affairs where the contingent and factual structure of the world would be so different that what we take as paradigms of virtue in fact are not. In such a world, torture may be conducive to human flourishing or be, in fact, a virtuous activity.There may be something to this response. The problem with this response is that it still fails to provide reasons for thinking that the above-mentioned conditional is false. In order for this conditional to be false it must be logically possible not just for God to command an action but for that action to be wrong in the given situation. Perrett and Hajdin provide us reasons for thinking that it is possible for a perfectly-good being to command actions such as torture or cruelty. However, the situations envisaged are ones in which torture is not, in fact, wrong. In the situation Perrett envisages, torture is, in fact, virtuous and in Hajdin’s torture is good. In such examples it is the virtuous nature of torture that makes it plausible to assume that a perfectly-good being could command it.

It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing. To the extent that we think a perfectly-good being could command a particular action, we have reasons for thinking the action permissible. On the other hand, to the extent that we think it is impossible for the action to be wrong we find it impossible to envisage how a perfectly-good being could command it.

In Part III, I will look at the emptiness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[ii] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 42.
[iii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[iv] Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 42
[v] Phillip Quinn, “Divine Command Theory,” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. H Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 70.

Cross Posted at MandM

10 replies
  1. James
    James says:

    My ethics teacher used that book by Rachels. All semester I was anticipating the discussion on the Euthyphro Dilemma, but I didn't do as well as I had wished.It was a great class… in how not to view ethics. :)

  2. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

    Ahhh this is all just so circular and parasitic. I am reminded again of why many religious people steer towards 'philosophy' and away from evidence based pursuits: you can argue any nonsense!God commanding genocide in the OT is okay because he is perfect and good, so it must be okay. But is it moral to commit it now? No, because genocide is not good and god wouldn't command it.

  3. C. Combe
    C. Combe says:

    I am reminded again of why many religious people steer towards 'philosophy' and away from evidence based pursuits: you can argue any nonsense!

    I am reminded again of why many atheists steer towards pot-shots and away from genuine conversations: you don't need to think!

  4. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    Simon, actually I did not mention the Genocide issue in this post so really your attribution to me of an argument to this effect is false. I have in fact argued elsewhere that God did not command genocide in the OT.

    But, your objection fails to note that it might be in general wrong for human beings to kill non combatanats but that this prohibition can be overidden in rare circumstances. Many leading ethicists hold views like this. If this is true, then a good person would both issue a general command against such killing and also in specific circumstances command people to engage in such killing. Nothing incoherent here.

    Nor would it be incoherent or circular to accept that in the past such exceptions have been made but in general claims to the effect that God commands such killing are dodgy and should be treated with skepticism.

    Some ethicists have suggested plausible abstract situations where torture or killing the innocent might be justified. It does not follow from this we should credulously believe every government that claims it is justified in bombing civilians or torturing dissidents.

  5. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Matt,You seem to split rightness-and-wrongness from good-and-bad. I don't understand why; I don't see any difference. Could you elaborate?

    …there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good….

    I believe I have read your argument that god didn't commit genocide here a while back. I, of course, don't buy it. I don't buy Lane Craig's either.Your aguments, I think, pivot on the idea of god being perfect and good. That is the the end which the arguments serve; god can't lose.I would like to ask, though: If you were to imagine a case in the OT in which god did command genocide, what would that story look like? How would it be different to any of the actual examples of commands in the OT – the ones which people have accused of as being genocide?

  6. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    SimonYou seem to split rightness-and-wrongness from good-and-bad. I don't understand why; I don't see any difference. Could you elaborate? Right and wrong are tied up with duties and obligations in a way goodness is not. Stephen Evans an example “It does not appear the concept of obligation is identical with the concept of that which it is good to do. Many acts are good in that sense without being obligatory…It might be good even saintly to give a kidney to benefit a stranger, but it not an act I am obliged to do” [Stephen Evans “Kierkegaards Ethic of Love: divine Commands and Moral Obligations”] I think goodness is more about attitudes and motivations one has towards various things.I would like to ask, though: If you were to imagine a case in the OT in which god did command genocide, what would that story look like? How would it be different to any of the actual examples of commands in the OT – the ones which people have accused of as being genocide?The language would probably not be formulaic and stereotyped, the people said to be wiped out would not be said by the same author to be alive again in the next chapters or elsewhere in the narrative. The literary conventions and stylistic features of the text would not parallel other texts from the same cultural milieu which are known to be figurative and hyperbolic. Similarly, you would not find commands to wipe them out alongside and intermingled commands which suggest or presuppose they are alive or have only been driven out and so on, and you would find the numbers of people said to be killed historically realistic and not clearly exaggerated or reflecting ANE practices of rounding up by a sextagamal system.

  7. 2833530
    2833530 says:

    where is the reference to the OT wipe-out-utterly commandments? are those the real Satanic Verses?

  8. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    They are in Deuteronomy 6 and 20, in 6 and in Joshua 10-11 when you view them in context you'll she the passages in Deut 6 assume the Canaanites will not be destroyed and the commands exist alongside other commands which say they will be driven out slowly not Genocided. If you read the Joshua ones in context you'll see the text goes on to make it clear the people were not literally wiped out. You will also find the same language is used hyperbolically and figuratively as a way of simply conveying a victory in Joshua and Deuteronomy elsewhere, and studies of ancient near eastern history writing have shown such language is common rhetoric and hyperbole in such writing, Kings frequently refered to victories rhetorically with language of wiping everyone out simply to express or commend a victory, also such language is used figuratively as a threat of military defeat in ANE imprecatory writings.

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  1. […] version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies upon a strawman. In Part II I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against divine command theory. […]

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