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. 

Is our world better off without carnivores?

Jeff McMahan has a nice piece in the NYT philosophy blog arguing that we’d have a better world if could eliminate (in some suitably humane fashion, like clever genetic engineering) the carnivores. I’ve heard arguments like this before, from non-philosophers, but this is the first time I’ve heard a philosopher making it. I think the line of thought has some intuitive appeal. If eating meat is morally bad because of the animal suffering that goes along with it, then isn’t that true whether or not it’s humans doing the eating? Isn’t a lion eating a gazelle morally on par with my eating a hamburger, since both involve causing an animal to suffer? If we grant this parity, moral arguments against vegetarianism amount to moral arguments against the existence of carnivores. We should take steps to reduce meat-eating by humans, as well as by non-human animals, because doing so means reducing animal suffering. That, anyway, is the line of argument McMahan is proposing.

I’m not quite sure that the argument goes through. It seems to require as a premise that a world with no carnivores at all contains less animal suffering than a world that has non-human carnivores but no human carnivores. That is, eliminating carnivores from the animal kingdom would result in a world with less animal suffering.

I find this implausible. There isn’t much difference in suffering, and thus, in moral badness, between an herbivore being eaten by a carnivore, and an herbivore being out-competed by another herbivore, or dying a natural death due to disease, injury, etc. In fact, we might think there’s less suffering involved in being eaten than in slowly starving by being out-competed, or in freezing to death in a cold winter. And, if the suffering from predation isn’t greater than the suffering without predation for a given animal, then McMahan has to show that fewer animals suffer in a world without predation. But that seems false, given plausible assumptions about population dynamics.

Let me end on a positive note. McMahan’s piece is rich and challenging, raising a lot of important issues. He questions, for example, whether ‘species’ is a morally relevant category: “The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.” With this, I agree; we talk about animal species as a convenient way of carving up nature and organizing our biological knowledge, but it doesn’t seem terribly important to morality. (This isn’t to deny anything about human exceptionalism; I would think that if anything makes humans special morally, it’s not something that depends essentially on our species membership. That is, you can still think humans have intrinsic dignity even if you don’t think that that dignity depends on our being a member of Homo sapiens.) I heartily recommend reading McMahan's rewarding article.