Sep 20, 2010

Sinnot-Armstrong on Divine Command Theory

Walter Sinnot-Armstrong argues that if divine command theory is true, we can't know something is wrong unless we know that it has been forbidden by God. Matt Flanagan objects to this. On the divine command theory of, say, Robert Adams, wrongness is constituted by being forbidden by God, just as water is constituted by H2O. So, just as we can know that something is water without knowing that it is H20, we can know that something is wrong without knowing that it is forbidden by God. I think this is on the right track, but there are some issues I'm not yet clear about. 

I wonder if the Sinnot-Armstrong worry reappears if we flesh out the divine command theory a bit. Suppose wrongness is constituted by being forbidden by God. It might be that not every token wrong action is such that its wrongness is directly forbidden by God; rather, we can imagine a DCT for which the wrongness of some basic action types is forbidden by God, and the wrongness of token actions of each type follows from, but is not constituted by, the wrongness of the basic action types. On this kind of view, it looks like Sinnot-Armstrong’s objection goes through, since the wrongness of (say) stealing will not be constituted by being forbidden by God; rather, it will be more indirectly forbidden. I’m not sure yet whether this kind of view is plausible, but maybe it’s something like what Sinnot-Armstrong had in mind when making his argument.

I also wonder if the worry arises at the level of second-order knowledge, i.e. knowing that we know a moral truth. Water is constituted by H20, but we can know all kinds of things about water without knowing that it’s H20. Similarly, wrongness is constituted by being forbidden by God, but we can know all kinds of things about what is wrong without knowing about God’s commandments. Now, here’s the worry I have in mind. Can we know that we know that stealing is wrong? You might think this requires more than just knowing that stealing is wrong. It might even require knowing that wrongness is constituted by being commanded by God. If it does, then Sinnot-Armstrong’s worry reappears. This might commit you to thinking that we can’t know that we know anything about water unless we know that it’s H2O; I’m not sure yet that that’s a bad result.

Finally, and perhaps most forcefully: even if our knowledge that this or that action were safe from Sinnot-Armstrong’s objection, it still seems that we couldn’t have knowledge why an action is wrong at the most basic level unless we knew that it was forbidden by God. Is that bad? Well, it certainly is if knowing that the action is forbidden by God is an important part of the reason for not doing it. Divine command theorists need our reasons for acting to be secure in the face of uncertainty about divine commands, as well as our knowledge of which actions are right and wrong. 

3 comments:

  1. I'm confused by the argument about "know[ing] that we know" something. Specifically: "Can we know that we know that stealing is wrong? You might think this requires more than just knowing that stealing is wrong...This might commit you to thinking that we can’t know that we know anything about water unless we know that it’s H2O..." I don't understand how these statements follow from the premise.

    Regarding the last paragraph, I don't think we need to understand something at "the most basic level" in order to have good reasons for acting in a certain way. Do engineers need to understand quantum mechanics to be confident in their bridge-building skills?

    -redonkulus476

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Redonkulus. The thought about motivation and reasons is basically this: suppose we had no way of knowing, for any right action, that it is right because commanded by God. That is, suppose we had no idea that God had any intrinsic connection with the rightness of actions. It seems to me that an agent in this scenario might have less motivational pull to do right actions than an agent would who had at least some knowledge of God's constitutive relation to morality (according to a divine command theory like Adams'). This is a tricky question, so I'm being very careful here.

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  3. This seems to accord with experience. Doesn't knowledge of God tend to produce better behavior? Forget whether you've read any social science literature about this. This seems to be fit quite well with my experience, maybe yours as well.

    It seems intuitive that any system of morality without God will have a certain weakness to it. I think that maybe the best you can do without God is some sort of atheistic Aristotelianism: be virtuous because to be virtuous is to be happy.

    -redonkulus476

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