What the Divine Command Theorist (almost certainly) should not say (or God’s commands meets Frege-Geach)

Over the past several weeks, I’ve blogged about theistic metaethical realism and whether moral truth require God’s existence. In this post, I will briefly describe an additional problem for those theories according to which our moral duties are identical to God’s commands. In addition, I will sketch a possible solution and illustrate one of its pitfalls.

Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the view that whatever we ought to do, we ought to because God commands it. DCT identifies God’s commands with our moral obligations. Famously, DCT is subject to the Euthyphro Dilemma — does God command us to do x because x is moral or is x moral because God commands us to x? The former possibility denies DCT, but the latter is comparatively implausible because it renders our moral duties arbitrary. Theists have provided various solutions — for example, that our moral duties issue forth from God’s essence, which is identified with the Good — and so I put aside the Euthyphro Dilemma in this essay to focus on a different problem.

Consider modus ponens:

1. If P then Q.

2. P.

3. Therefore, Q.

We say modus ponens is valid because the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. In other words, there is no way for 1 and 2 to be true, but 3 false. We can examine the truth table for all three propositions and notice whenever ‘If P then Q’ and ‘P’ are true, ‘Q’ is also true. We refer to valid inferences as truth preserving; i.e. they preserve the truth of the premises.

Meta-ethical theories can be broadly split in two categories: cognitive theories, according to which moral statements can be true or false, and non-cognitive theories, according to which moral statements can be neither true nor false. For example, a non-cognitive theory might indicate ‘murder is wrong’ really means ‘Boo! Murder!’. Booing is neither true nor false, so ‘murder is wrong’ would evaluate to neither true nor false. Notice what happens when we assume a non-cognitive theory and try modus ponens:
1′. If murder is wrong then ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong.

2′. Murder is wrong.
3′. Therefore, ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong.
Intuitively, we want to say that 3′ follows from 1′ and 2′. But how could 3′ follow from 1′ and 2’? The inference is no longer valid because 2′ does not evaluate to either true or false. We might try to develop some new notion resembling validity (shmvalidity?). Let’s attempt to do so. Notice validity relies on preserving something or other about the premises and that, whatever is preserved, determines the conclusion uniquely. For ordinary declarative sentences — where each sentence evaluated to true or false — the truth value was preserved. But because non-cognitive theories posit that moral statements lack truth values, there is no truth value to be preserved. Notice that what allowed the truth value to be preserved in the case of ordinary sentences was that the meaning was preserved; i.e. P means the same thing in 1 as P meant in 2. Thus, we might posit that although ‘murder is wrong’ does not evaluate to true or false, ‘murder is wrong’ does preserve its meaning from 1′ to 2′; if so, meaning preservation would ensure shmvalidity.
Unfortunately, ‘murder is wrong’ does not actually mean the same thing in 1′ and 2′ because, in 1′, ‘murder is wrong’ is mentioned but not asserted, whereas, in 2′, ‘murder is wrong’ is asserted. While it’s not clear what ‘murder is wrong’ means in the first sentence, the statement ‘If Boo! Murder! then ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong’ is clearly not grammatical.

The problem generalizes: on non-cognitive theories, we cannot make sense of our usual rules of deductive inference. Moreover, on non-cognitive theories, we do not know how to understanding meaning of a statement in terms of its parts. Problems of this sort are referred to as the Frege-Geach Problem. Those who endorse non-cognitivism in ethics continue to hunt for a semantic theory to resolve the Frege-Geach Problem, but have been unsuccessful thus far. I am skeptical that they will ever succeed, so I regard non-cognitive theories as fairly implausible.

However, on one interpretation, DCT is a non-cognitive theory. Prescriptivism is the view that moral statements are commands; call Divine Prescriptivism the view that moral statements are God’s commands. On this view, ‘murder is wrong’ is equivalent to God’s statement ‘do not murder!'; moreover, prescriptivism, as a non-cognitive theory, is subject to the Frege-Geach Problem. Divine Prescriptivism, as a version of prescriptivism, inherits the Frege-Geach Problem.

Luckily for the DCT advocate, Divine Prescriptivism is not the only view on the market. While God’s commands might not be truth evaluable, whether or not God issued any particular command is true or false. For example, ‘do not murder!’ is neither true nor false, but ‘God told us not to murder’ can be true and false. DCT advocates claim only that moral duties are identical to God’s commands, not that moral statements are identical to God’s commands. Moreover, we do not ordinarily think our moral duties are propositions, so it’s not that surprising that our moral duties fail to be truth evaluable or that we cannot combine moral duties together to build complicated propositions.

Nonetheless, I find the identification of commands and duties fairly incomprehensible; can anyone — even God — speak duties? If duties are not speech acts, then they cannot be spoken, even by a being who can perform all logically possible tasks. The better option is to say that the commands of worthy authorities somehow enter us into various duties and not that the commands are identical to the duties. Consider promises. If I say, “I promise to feed the cat”, my statement isn’t somehow identical to my duty to feed the cat. Instead, we might say that verbalizing a promise enters me into an obligation to maintain the promise. Likewise, a worthy authority commanding us to x might enter us into an obligation to x, but it is difficult to see the command, itself, as identical to the obligation.

Yet, supposing that commands and duties were not identical, but the former somehow gives rise to instances of the latter, requires an additional moral duty; e.g. one should obey the commands of worthy authorities. The DCT advocate maintains that all of our duties arise from God’s commands, so our duty to obey the commands of worthy authorities must also arise from God’s commands. Yet if our duty to obey the commands of worthy authorities arose from God’s commands, there must be a further duty to obey that command. An infinite regress ensues. Nonetheless, perhaps God, as an omnipotent being, can issue an infinite number of commands; even then we would need a further principle — that we should obey that infinite regress of commands! So, there should be at least one duty that is not created by a divine command, but then DCT is false.

Thus, DCT advocates need not maintain Divine Prescriptivism, but the most plausible alternative is deeply problematic. I suggest to the DCT advocate they explain what, on their view, the metaphysical relationship between commands and duties is supposed to be.


  • Kyle Thompson
    May 29, 2015 - 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article! I will get to some of the later points later (hopefully). But for now, I wanted to comment on this:

    “Theists have provided various solutions — for example, that our moral duties issue forth from God’s essence, which is identified with the Good — and so I put aside the Euthyphro Dilemma in this essay to focus on a different problem.”

    To say that moral duties come from God’s essence is a non-solution because it simply delays the fundamental question asked by the Euthyphro Dilemma: is moral goodness dependent in any way, shape or form on God? If it is, by way of commands or his ‘essence,’ then you run into the classic problems associated with the dilemma. If not, then you have to deal with such and such consequences. So, to propose that it is God’s essence–whatever that means–that determines what is good or moral or morally obligatory, then you have not escaped the modern reconstruction of Socrates’ argument.

    So, how do you avoid this dilemma: Is God’s essence identified with the good because it is good, or is good because it is identified with God’s essence?

    • Dan Linford
      May 29, 2015 - 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Kyle —

      First, this post is one in a series of several posts I’ve produced over the last month or so on theistic morality. I cover the view that God’s essence is identical with God’s essence in those posts.

      So, now to your attempt to re-pose the dilemma: “Is God’s essence identified with the good because it is good, or is good because it is identified with God’s essence?”

      Neither (or both). You’ve misread what the theist is doing with that move. Ordinarily, when we say ‘x is good’, we mean x has the property of goodness. For example, if I say “Meowface is good” (I named my cat ‘Meowface’), what I am doing is predicating goodness of my cat. However, when Thomists (for example) say God’s essence is identical to the Good, they are not saying that God has a good essence. In other words, God is not some object that has the property of goodness. No, instead, the idea is that the property of goodness is the same thing as God; this is why it’s an identity claim. They are saying God = Goodness. However, I find myself hard pressed to make sense of identifying God with a property, since God is a particular agent and properties are abstract universals. As I stress elsewhere, the categorical distinction between the two seems utterly fundamental.

      • Kyle Thompson
        May 29, 2015 - 1:59 pm | Permalink

        Right, so even if God is goodness–rather than possesses goodness–the same Euthyphro dilemma arises because it would be God’s sheer existence that determines the Good, which leaves us right back at the beginning.

        Does God in any way, shape or form determine what is good? In this proposed solution, it is his existence that has determined goodness. And this has all the same pitfalls as before, because what prevents God’s essence from being supportive of genocide? Would this not make genocide necessarily good?

        • Dan Linford
          May 29, 2015 - 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Well, whether God determines what is good depends on what you mean by ‘determines’. For God to decide what God’s essence is would be logically impossible; God necessarily has the essence that God has and God cannot, by force of will, change Her essence. But God’s essence, as identical to the property of goodness, is explanatorilly prior to the notion that any particular thing is good. To repeat my example from before, Meowface is good because Meowface participates in God’s essence. At least: that’s the solution Thomists would provide.

          William Lane Craig, and his cohort, provide a slightly different view. On their view, God’s nature is the perfect standard of goodness, in some way analogous to how the length of the meter is determined by the standard meter bar in Paris. I’m not sure what to make of that analogy, and I have doubts about its coherency (wouldn’t meter-long lengths exist even if the standard meter bar did not?), but I don’t think that view is susceptible to the kind of worry you are proposing.

          “And this has all the same pitfalls as before, because what prevents God’s essence from being supportive of genocide? Would this not make genocide necessarily good?”

          On the Thomist’s view, God cannot support genocide because God necessarily has the essence that God has. In other words, it is necessarily the case that genocide is wrong; but, since God is necessarily and essentially identical to the Good, God is necessarily opposed to genocide and cannot be otherwise.

          On Craig’s view, God fails to support genocide in all metaphysically possible worlds because God necessarily has the nature God has and that necessary nature, which serves as the perfect standard of Goodness, is necessarily opposed to genocide. However, God has no moral obligation not to commit genocide (or to do anything else). This is because, on Craig’s view, only moral properties are grounded in God’s nature. Moral duties are grounded in God’s commands (somehow) but God does not command God-self to do anything. So God has no moral duties whatsoever. (I think there are other problems here — for example, that if God has no moral duties, then how could God be the perfect standard of moral goodness? — but those problems are not Euthyphro-style problems.)

          • Kyle Thompson
            May 29, 2015 - 2:36 pm | Permalink

            Maybe I’m missing something here, but this still doesn’t address the central question of the Euthyphro dilemma.

            Let me try with this one series of questions, and see where we go from there: Why does God have the essence he has? That is, why is God’s essence unsupportive of genocide? If the answer refers to an independent standard of goodness, then we are back to the first horn of the dilemma. And if we left to say “Because he does,” then we are challenged by the problems that meet the second horn.

  • Dan Linford
    May 29, 2015 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Kyle — The claim made is that God’s essence is metaphysically necessary and brute. There is no further explanation. But God’s essence is not arbitrary because God’s essence is not contingent.

    Look at it this way: ‘1+1=2′ is a necessarily true statement and that ‘1+1=2′ is true follows from the meaning of ‘1’, ‘+’, ‘=’, and ‘2’. There is no further explanation that can be given. (You could provide an explanation for Peano’s Axioms, but then there would be no further explanation for those axioms.)

    The buck needs to stop somewhere and, prototypically, philosophers are comfortable stopping the buck at Goodness, itself. I mean, does asking ‘why is the good good?’ really make sense?

  • Kyle Thompson
    May 29, 2015 - 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m not asking why is the good good, I’m specifically asking why God’s essence is unsupportive of genocide. Why is not supportive of genocide?

    And, as for the math analogy, I don’t think that helps because we define ‘1,’ ‘+,’ etc. such that 1 + 1 = 2. So, we are generally comfortable admitting that mathematics is the way it is because we defined it as such, which makes it contingent.

    This analogy is akin to saying:

    ‘Bachelor’s are unmarried males’ is a necessarily true statement and that ‘Joe is a bachelor and therefore Joe is an unmarried male′ is true follows from the meaning of ‘bachelor’, ‘unmarried’, ‘male’, and ‘is’. There is no further explanation that can be given.

    But the problem is that we CAN provide an explanation for this and mathematical truths: we have defined them as such. They are contingent upon our human definitions. And, therefore, to compare this to God’s non-contingent essence is problematic.

    • Dan Linford
      May 29, 2015 - 3:53 pm | Permalink

      No, that’s not right. What we define as a human convention is the fact that we use particular words or symbols to represent various concepts. But we did not invent the fact that those concepts bear the conceptual relations between each other that they bear. For example, ‘1+1=2′ is true, not just because we defined those symbols in a particular way but because the concepts that lie behind those symbols — the things those symbols *represent* — bear certain necessary relations between each other. This is why mathematical truths are discovered and not invented. Otherwise, we could have simply invented an alternative mathematical system in which 1+1=3. We can’t do that; we could invent a new language in which the symbol ‘3’ represented what we represent when we write ‘2’, but that’s just playing with language.

      Perhaps you reject all of that and instead take the position that mathematics is socially constructed. Well, that’s really a side issue — because then the issue becomes whether conceptual truths (about mathematics, morality, or anything else) actually exist or if we’re somehow all under a collective illusion.

      • Kyle Thompson
        May 29, 2015 - 4:39 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to think about the math analogy more before I get back to you on that point.

        In the meantime, why is God’s essence opposed to genocide?

        • Dan Linford
          May 29, 2015 - 5:45 pm | Permalink

          God’s essence — which is the Good — is in opposition to genocide because genocide is, by its nature, bad and the Good is always in opposition to the bad. We’re getting down to the level of brute, necessary truths for which there is no further explanation. Moral platonists need to make the same move; for the platonist, the Good exists an abstract object and not as God’s essence, but the particular facts about what is good and what is bad are necessary conceptual truths.

  • Kyle Thompson
    May 29, 2015 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Or, why isn’t God’s essence supportive of genocide?

  • Kyle Thompson
    May 30, 2015 - 2:10 am | Permalink

    1. If this is the case, then why bother with the whole God = essence dealy. Why not just say “God’s commands aren’t arbitrary because they are necessarily good and not contingent.”

    2. What entitles one to claim that goodness/God necessarily opposes genocide? What backs this claim? With the same reasoning, I could simply say “God’s essence necessarily supports genocide” or “God’s essence is necessarily contingent.”

    • Dan Linford
      May 30, 2015 - 12:23 pm | Permalink

      1. Well, the theist wants to say that God has free-will to issue whatever commands God issues. However, I agree that God having an essence identical to the Good and God issuing commands that create moral duties appears redundant. I think a better option for the theist would just be to claim that God’s essence is identical to the Good and the fact that moral properties exist is enough to ground moral duties.

      2. Moral realists will typically respond that genocide is self-evidently wrong, in the same way that ‘1+1=2′ is self-evidently true. God is often thought to be necessarily existent because God is defined as a perfectly good being. Or it’s just taken as definitional that God necessarily exists, so that anything which is contingent couldn’t be God (though there are some theists who reject the idea that God necessarily exists).

      At any rate, both of these issues are distinct from the Euthyphro dilemma. Again, I direct you to the posts I’ve written over the past several weeks as for my responses to theistic metaethics.

  • Kyle Thompson
    May 30, 2015 - 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff. I appreciate your writing me back on this. Although, I think these are intimately connected to the Euthyphro dilemma because these claims are made in hopes of avoiding the negative consequences of the second horn.

    DCT: “God’s essence is identical to goodness, therefore neither horn applies”

    Me: “But this still claims that goodness is dependent on God, because you are not saying that God’s essence participates in goodness, thus, without God, goodness would not exist. Or, to put it another way, God’s existence determines the good. And therefore, goodness is still arbitrary because it is contingent upon what God is.”

    DCT: “But the Good, and God, is a necessary, brute, non-contingent reality. So it is not arbitrary.”

    To me, this line of reasoning is a direct attempt to avoid the pitfalls laid out by the EuD.

    In addition, identifying God’s essence with goodness falls into the other EuD trap of empty claims about goodness. For example, under this view, genocide is not bad, it is simply unsupported by God’s essence. We thus have no reason for thinking it is bad, other than it clashes with God’s essence. It isn’t bad because it causes suffering or ends people’s futures and cultures, it is bad for no good reason. Thus, when someone asks why they should abstain from genocide, the best we can say is: ‘God happened to be unsupportive of it.’

    Something about this whole essence defense strikes me as incorrect for philosophical reasons–perhaps a smarter man than I could pin point what I’m getting at.

  • Nan Collins
    June 23, 2015 - 2:05 am | Permalink

    “Famously, DCT is subject to the Euthyphro Dilemma — does God command us to do x because x is moral or is x moral because God commands us to x? ”
    >>> How about the possibility that God commands because it will give us the best life possible in the system He Engineered, grounded on the principle of Justice, The Source be with you, Miss Nan The Elder, Circa 1933

    • Dan Linford
      June 23, 2015 - 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Nan — You suggest that God issues commands to us in order to provide us “the best life possible in the system He [sic] Engineered grounded on the principle of Justice”. Perhaps he did, but that’s not a third option for the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead, that would be a case where God commands us to x because God recognizes that x is moral (i.e. “God command us to do x because x is moral”).

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