• Morality: just a theory?


    Just about everyone agrees it is wrong to rape someone.  Even a rapist realises he is breaking some kind of rule.  But what does “wrong” mean?

    Whether we agree or not on specific actions, and whether there are grey areas between black and white, we all seem to have an intuitive sense that some actions are “right” or “good” and others “wrong” or “bad”, and that people “ought” to behave in a certain way.  But what do these words mean?  Is it true that we ought to behave in one way and not another?  If so, why?

    This is the first post in a series on moral philosophy.  My thinking on this topic was initially triggered by considerations of The Moral Argument for God’s existence, especially as defended by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  But there is a lot more to morality than just that argument.  In this post, I’ll explore moral theories, which attempt to answer questions like those above.  In the next post, I’ll discuss the moral argument itself.  And at some later time, I’ll consider the very interesting question, “Where did morality come from?“.

    But before we begin, have a think for a minute, and write down two lists, the first one with 10 actions you’d consider right and the second with 10 actions you’d consider wrong.  I’ll get you started:

    Right:  Help someone move house; Buy a meal for a homeless person; Encourage someone; Spend some quality time with your family

    Wrong:  Punch someone unprovoked; Murder someone; Rape someone; Cheat on your taxes

    What is a moral theory?

    The way I see it, morality (as a discipline) is the study of questions like those above, and the intuitions we all seem to have about right and wrong behaviour.  We begin with observations (that people have certain intuitions about how we should conduct ourselves) and questions arising from them, and then we attempt to construct a theory that explains the observations and answers the questions.  I’ll refer to such a theory as a moral theory.  There are many moral theories out there, and it would be impossible to survey them all, but I’ll have a look at a few in this post.

    Up to this point, I’ve used words like “right” and “wrong” fairly loosely.  There are two reasons for this.  The first reason is that we already have some intuitive idea of what these words mean; even if we don’t agree on the finer details, we all basically know what we’re talking about.  The second reason is that there is no universally accepted, precise definition of these terms.  So in order to properly explain our observations, a moral theory must not only explain why we intuitively feel that certain actions are “right” and others “wrong”; it must also carefully define what is meant by these words, and a few others.  Throughout the post, I will also use the word “good” synonymously with “right”, and “bad” with “wrong”.  It should also be noted that in using the word “right” to describe an action, I am not implying there is only one correct option; often there will be more than one right action.

    As far as I can tell, the most important and all-encompassing questions that must be answered by any moral theory are:

    1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

    2. How well do these definitions correspond to the way people intuitively use them?

    3. Why do different people classify some actions differently?

    4. Is it true that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions? If so, why?

    5. What does “ought” mean in this context?

    6. Why do we intuitively feel that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions?

    7. What grounds all of this?

    The first three questions address the descriptive side of morality, and the next three touch on the prescriptive side.  A moral theory cannot just define the words “good” and “bad”, and put actions into a “good” list and a “bad” list; it must also explain why we (at least feel we) “should” perform actions from the first list and not the second.  The last question asks “What makes it so?”  What is the end of all “Why?” questions?  What is the unexplained or unexplainable element in this moral theory?

    Note that a moral theory does not have to give black-and-white answers to all right-or-wrong questions; some actions will always be difficult to classify (such as abortion or voluntary euthanasia or many other situations where there are non-negligible arguments for a range of views).  However, since one of the ultimate goals is to explain our moral intuitions, a moral theory would not be very good if its definitions of “right” and “wrong” classified bullying people as good but giving money to the poor as bad.

    The remainder of this post examines a number of moral theories.  It would be impossible to give an exhaustive treatment, and I will not even try to cover all the major theories (for example, I won’t even say a word about Moral Relativism).  Instead, I’ll cover two theistic moral theories, as well as one pantheistic and one atheistic theory.  My goal here is not to compare, contrast or critique these theories, but just to put them out there.  Not all theists will agree with one of the two theistic theories, and the same goes for the pantheistic and atheistic theories.  If you have a moral theory that I haven’t covered here, please feel free to add it to the comments.

    Theistic moral theories

    Although there are many of them, the key feature of theistic moral theories is that morality ultimately comes from God in some sense.  Theistic moral theories will differ not just in the answer to the “Which God?” question, but also in the details of what “from God” means.  Here, I’ll just mention two.  These would fit best with a fairly conservative Christian conception of God, though not exclusively.  To someone not familiar with Christianity, there might not appear to be a great deal of difference between the two but, despite some similarities, many Christians would accept one and strongly object to the other.

    First we might consider a kind of “Divine Command Theory” (or DCT), in which the above questions might be answered as follows:

    1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

    An action is “right” if it is commanded by God, and is “wrong” if it is forbidden by God.  In fact, an action is “right” or “wrong” precisely because it is commanded or forbidden by God.

    2. How well do these definitions correspond to the way people intuitively use them?

    These definitions correspond well with our intuitive understanding because, in some sense, God has written his commands on our hearts.

    3. Why do different people classify some actions differently?

    We have differing opinions on which actions are right or wrong because our sinful nature clouds our ability to comprehend God’s commands written on our hearts.  Some people have also been led astray by other religions or by nonreligious teachings.

    4. Is it true that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions? If so, why?

    We ought to do right actions and not wrong actions because God commanded us to.  God created the universe, including us, so he has ultimate authority over us and, thus, we should obey him.  Furthermore, we will be punished for eternity if we disobey, but rewarded for eternity if we obey.

    5. What does “ought” mean in this context?

    Here, “ought” is a categorical imperative.  We absolutely must obey God’s commands, simply because he commanded them.

    6. Why do we intuitively feel that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions?

    We feel that we ought to obey God’s commands because, in addition to writing his commands on our hearts, God also speaks to our consciences, so that we know when we ought to do something or not.

    7. What grounds all of this?

    God’s authority, as creator and owner of the universe, is final.  He made the universe and therefore has the ultimate right to decide what will happen in it.

    Another theistic moral theory might answer the questions as follows:

    1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

    An action is “right” or “wrong” if it is consistent or inconsistent with God’s nature.

    2. How well do these definitions correspond to the way people intuitively use them?

    These definitions correspond well with our intuitive understanding because, in some sense, we were created in the image of God, so his nature is somehow a part of us.

    3. Why do different people classify some actions differently?

    We have differing opinions on which actions are right or wrong because we also have a sinful nature that is at odds with God’s nature.  In addition, we are not perfect, so we sometimes make mistakes or get led astray.

    4. Is it true that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions? If so, why?

    We ought to do right actions and not wrong actions, because it is our purpose to please God.  It is also in the best interests of humankind and creation.

    5. What does “ought” mean in this context?

    To say we ought to do good is to say that God has required this of us, because it is both glorifying to him and wholesome for us, his creatures.  There are also consequences based on whether we choose to do good or evil.

    6. Why do we intuitively feel that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions?

    This arises from us being created in the image of God, and having something of his nature imprinted on our conscience.

    7. What grounds all of this?

    At the end of the day, it all boils down to God’s nature.  God is the great I AM; he is who he is.  There can be no further explanation of this, and there does not need to be.

    A pantheistic moral theory

    Pantheism is the belief that the universe is a kind of god, the ultimate reality, and that, as such, we are all part of it.  The universe is a conscious being, and we are its eyes and ears, its hearts and minds, the means through which it comprehends itself.  As we look into a microscope or gaze out into space, and marvel at living cells or distant galaxies, it is as if the universe is admiring itself in a mirror.

    With such views in mind, here is a moral theory that a pantheist might propose.

    1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

    The universe is the ultimate reality, and has desires and needs.  It desires to be treated in a certain way, and desires that the creatures within it (including us) act in a certain way.  The desirable actions are the “right” actions, and the undesirable actions are the “wrong” ones.

    2. How well do these definitions correspond to the way people intuitively use them?

    These definitions correspond well with our intuitive understanding because we are part of the universe and are, in some sense, in tune with what it desires.

    3. Why do different people classify some actions differently?

    Although we are each moving towards a perfect state of being, we are not there yet.  In particular, we are not yet completely in tune with the universe, and so sometimes misunderstand its desires.

    4. Is it true that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions? If so, why?

    People ought to behave in a way that brings pleasure to the universe because the universe is the ultimate reality, and bringing pleasure to the universe is our ultimate purpose.

    5. What does “ought” mean in this context?

    As part of the universe, our well-being is intimately connected with the universe’s well-being.  Since the universe desires its own well-being, we ought to act to enhance the well-being of ourselves and each other.

    6. Why do we intuitively feel that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions?

    We intuitively understand this because we are part of the universe, so its nature is a part of us.

    7. What grounds all of this?

    The universe is the ground of this moral theory.  In the pantheist world view, the universe is all there is.  It is the ultimate reality, maybe even a necessary being, a reality with an explanation neither available nor needed.  Treating each other well is the same thing as the universe treating itself well.

    An atheistic moral theory

    Again, there are many atheistic moral theories, and it is not my intention to do a comparative study.  All I want to do is provide one set of answers to the above questions that does not invoke the existence of a god (whether a traditionally conceived theistic kind of god, or a less orthodox version such as in pantheism or even panentheism).  This is not to say that this theory requires there to be no god.  In fact, this theory could just as well be correct if there was a god as if there was none.  It would just be that the notions of “right” and “wrong” were simply by-products of this god’s creation rather than an intentional element of it; maybe the universe is like God’s cosmic fish bowl, which he watches for amusement, but has no real cares about how we feel or behave.  So to call this an “atheistic” theory is to simply say that the existence of a god is not an integral assumption.

    As usual, I’ll explain this theory by giving the answers to the above seven questions.  Since I have more sympathy towards this theory than the others I have suggested, I’ll go into a little more detail.

    1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

    All actions have the potential to harm or help others.  Call an action “right” if it helps others and/or does not harm them, or at least if it does roughly the least harm out of all actions you could reasonably be expected to do.  Call an action “wrong” if it harms others and/or does not help them, or at least if it provides less help than other actions you could reasonably be expected to do.  In fact, the “right and wrong scale” is really more like a continuous spectrum.  Some actions, though not as good as others, are still good; for example, it is good to give $10 to the poor even though it is even better to give $20.  Similarly, punching someone unprovoked is bad even though it is worse to murder them.

    2. How well do these definitions correspond to the way people intuitively use them?

    We seem to intuitively classify helpful actions as “right” and harmful actions as “wrong”.  Just check the two lists you were asked to create at the start of the post.  How many on the first list involve harming others, and how many on the second involve helping others?

    3. Why do different people classify some actions differently?

    Determining whether an action causes harm or helps people requires the ability to reason about other people’s feelings and desires, and about the likely effects of an action.  Humans reason differently to each other, and value different things, so it is to be expected that different people would classify actions differently.  In addition, there are usually many consequences and/or many people affected by a single action, and there are also short- and long-term effects; these all have to be taken into account when assessing the rightness or wrongness of an action, and can make it very difficult to do so.  Finally, since we teach others our moral values, it is possible for some of our mistakes to be passed on to others.

    4. Is it true that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions? If so, why?

    A society in which people uniformly behave in a way that minimises harm and maximises helpfulness would result in all its members experiencing less harm from others and receiving more help.  Anyone that values these kinds of benefits for themselves would at least wish for everyone else in society to perform right actions and not wrong actions.  So a society like the above is a desirable society to such a person.  But nobody should expect others to behave like that towards them if they do not behave like that themselves.  In fact, if you perform wrong actions, it is likely that others will take action to stop you, which could result in you being harmed and/or locked up.  So anybody that values the benefits that such a society provides ought to perform right actions and not wrong actions.

    5. What does “ought” mean in this context?

    Here we are dealing not with an “unrestricted ought”, but a “restricted ought”.  Rather than there being a categorical imperative to perform right but not wrong actions, a person ought to behave in a certain way if they value a certain kind of society, and they ought to value such a society if they desire to be treated in a certain way.  For a more detailed discussion of restricted and unrestricted “oughts”, and the idea that all “ought statements” at least implicitly involve an “if” clause, please see my recent post, Richard Dawkins, Reason, and the Is-Ought Problem.

    6. Why do we intuitively feel that people ought to do right actions and not wrong actions?

    By nature and through social learning, we intuitively feel compassion and empathy for others.  When we see someone fall over, we know what it feels like, and have a strong desire to help them get back up.  We know how we would like to be treated, and we feel strongly that we should treat others in the same way.  Essentially, the “Golden Rule” is firmly entrenched in our thinking, whether we were born with it or learned it from our parents and society.

    7. What grounds all of this?

    There are two axiomatic elements underpinning this theory: our valuing of reason, and the desire to live in a society that benefits oneself.  If Bob values a society in which he experiences a minimal degree of harm from other people and can rely on the help of others, then reason dictates that the best way to achieve such a society is to work towards a society in which everyone has the same benefits.  If not all members of a society are afforded the same benefits, then those that miss out will be resentful, and may threaten the well-being of those that receive the benefits.  Reason also dictates (as explained above) that the best way to achieve such a society involves acting in a way that gives these benefits to others.  If Bob does not act in such a way, then he will quickly discover that people will be less likely to help him when he needs it, and less reluctant to hurt him; in fact, if they see Bob as a threat to their own well-being, they might even intend to hurt him.  So, if Bob desires to live in such a society, and values reason, then he ought to behave in such a way.

    But why do we value reason?  And why do we desire to live in a society that benefits us?  As I’ve said elsewhere, expecting a sensible discussion with someone who says they don’t value reason is likely to end in frustration.  (There is really more to it than this, and I intend to discuss questions like “Why value reason?” and “How do you know reason works?” in a future post, and hopefully address the theistic Argument from Reason popularised by CS Lewis and Victor Reppert.)   I highly doubt anyone genuinely believes that reason is worthless or that it is preferable to be unhappy rather than happy.  More importantly, there are obvious evolutionary explanations for why we would value reason and happiness, another topic for future consideration.

    Just a theory?

    Each of the moral theories I have examined seeks to answer several important questions about our basic intuitions of how people should behave.  Maybe one of these theories is correct, or maybe not.  Maybe another one is, or maybe it would be impossible to completely answer all the relevant questions.  We might all have different theories about the meaning and significance of morality, but we do seem to generally agree that we should help each other lead peaceful, happy and fulfilling lives.

    Category: Is-Ought problemMoral argumentMoralityPhilosophy


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Andrew

      Great post and I’m very glad you’ve started this series! Just this morning I was hoping to find somebody on this network who has commented on the theories of morality.

      Theists, and especially apologists, are difficult to debate on this issue because they reduce the discussion to a false dichotomy of moral absolutism (or objectivism) and moral relativism. Of course this further regresses to inanities such as “how do we know the Holocaust was wrong?” and they’re unwilling to discuss the matter further.

      I think your observation of a “continuous scale” of good and bad (or right and wrong) is spot on. Sliding scales of “goodness” and “badness” are precisely what we observe and should expect is a world where morality is a concept derived independent of god.

      Looking forward to the next posts!

    • Hey hey


      This is well worth looking at. I think you might do ell to include moral nihilism and error theories since these are well-supported by Darwinian naturalism. People are afraid to accept MN because they think (theists) will think they are ‘bad’ people. It all depends how you define objective, of course.

    • Cheers JP. Looks like a good read (and Dennett’s book is waiting on my shelf too). And absolutely – just like I’ll happily allow someone to call me an agnostic if they don’t think I’m an atheist, so too do I usually try and figure out what someone else means by “morality” before I tell them if I believe in objective morality or not.

      Thanks for your comment too, Andrew. I’ll try and get the next morality post done shortly.

    • DRC

      I like your 7 questions. They seem to be a good starting point for classifying the moral theories.

      I was wondering about the atheistic moral theory…
      The definition of right and wrong are tied up with harming and helping. Perhaps this could be broadened a little. Would it include situations where someone’s conscious tells them something’s wrong? For example, we’re not allowed to take a small pebble out of a national park. If you did it, the action certainly wouldn’t hurt any person, animal or plant, but still, the person’s moral compass may tell them it’s wrong. Would you consider this a non-moral issue even though one’s conscience reacts strongly, or would you say that every example of right and wrong can be reduced to harming or helping someone (or some life form)?

      • im-skeptical

        If you take something from a park, it diminishes the park, and it diminishes the experience of people who visit. It’s like taking something from all of us. That’s why it bothers your conscience.

      • JT

        I think if we define morality as increasing the well-being of conscious creatures then we can use our reason (rather than our conscience) to reach the conclusion that tampering with the ecosystem in a protected area is morally objectionable. We can reason that the well-being of the conscious creatures who live in a given ecosystem will be adversely affected if people start removing pieces of that ecosystem. Now, we may say to ourselves that a little pebble here and there certainly won’t hurt the ecosystem in any meaningful way, but, on the other hand, our reason could perform a very simple calculation and conclude that if every visitor to the park over a decade decided to remove something from the ecosystem, then the cumulative effect would be very harmful. There’s no need to appeal to some vague concept of conscience when we can appeal to reason instead.

        • Thanks JT. I think your answer is spot on. However, my feeling is that the “conscience” is important too.

          When someone throws a ball at your face, you instinctively put your hand in the right place to deflect it. Now, you could have used Newtonian mechanics to calculate the trajectory of the ball, and figure out what action you should take (and maybe come up with a better solution than the action you instinctively took), but in practical situations, we sometimes need to make quick decisions, and close enough is often good enough. And so too, I think our “conscience” is probably our instinctual and quick calculation of moral outcomes – it’s not always right (and we don’t all have the same instinctual reactions), but it’s there for the purpose of making quick decisions when we don’t have the luxury of figuring out every possible outcome of the actions we have available to us.

      • Thanks, DRC. Very interesting question.

        I think the short answer is that a rule like that probably exists because if *everyone* takes a pebble, there could be serious problems. The rule probably would not be there if they suspected that only every millionth visitor would be interested in taking a stone. A visitor might think “ok, well hardly anyone is taking stones, so it wouldn’t really hurt for me to break the rule and take one”, but this is to say “I want everyone else to obey the rules so I can live in that kind of society, but I don’t have to obey them myself”. But such a person would be inviting the disdain of others. (This is similar to people that think it’s OK for them to throw their rubbish on the ground, but wouldn’t want to live in a world where *everyone* did the same.)

        But as for the action itself, as im-skeptical pointed out, there would presumably be a certain (very small) amount of harm done. Different people would differ on whether such an action was really wrong or not (as we make our own calculations differently). If it really was a one-off, I can’t see it being a clear-cut wrong action, as the difference between taking it and not taking it is so tiny, and this is why I uncluded the clause “or at least if it does roughly the least harm out of all actions you could reasonably be expected to do” when defining “right” actions. Perhaps with perfect reasoning, we could determine that taking away the pebble, with whatever microbes attached, could dramatically effect the future of a certain species of animal (for the better or worse). But it’s probably fair to say it is likely to have a negligible effect.

        In the end, I think this is a case of “different people classify some actions differently”. But feel free to let me know if I have missed the point.

    • John Grove

      There are two schools of ethics. (Foundational and Normative)

      Normative Ethics does not need a foundation


      • Thanks John, I’ve printed the article and will read it when I get a chance.

    • DRC

      Here’s an excellent TED talk on morality which demonstrates significant differences between the morality of conservatives and liberals.

      (The speaker is keenly aware that TED audiences are strongly left leaning)


      • Thanks, that was a great talk. I think this partly answers your earlier question too. Part of us differing in our classification of right/wrong actions will be differing in the kinds of societies we value. Perhaps some people couldn’t stand a society in which even seemingly trivial/illogical rules are sometimes broken, and so would feel very strongly about taking a pebble out of a park, even if they were certain no harm would be done.

    • As Dirk Pereboom explains in Livig Without Free Will:

      One might distinguish three general classes of moral irrealist. Non-cognitivists claim that moral judgments have no truth value, and they typically argue that these judgmets are used to express attitudes of approval and disapproval rather than to (attempt to) state facts. Subjectivists claim that there are no moral facts per se, but that moral judgments nevertheless make factual claims about psychological states. A subjectivist might argue that for someone to judge that killing is wrong is for him to claim that he himself disapproves of killing. Error theorists affirm that when an agent makes a moral judgment, he is attempting to make a factual claim about morality, but that since there are no moral facts, all such claims are false.

    • Roy

      It’s good to see these spelled out. I’ve got to run – but I can see why you think theists play word games 🙂

      From my perspective the answer to Q1 is really the answer to Q7 (on the theistic perspective) and the answer to Q1 is more like the one you provided for atheism.

      • Thanks for taking the time to read, Roy. I’d be interested to hear your answers to the questions if you get the time (and suggestions for extra questions if you have any).

        I haven’t really started to talk about the theistic word games! It’s in the actual Moral Argument that they really come out – next post, hopefully. But I suppose can sometimes be a bit like that when theists argue among themselves about whose (theistic) moral theory is correct, and back up their own position with the Bible.

    • Roy

      I *think* you’ve made a category error here … but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’ll have a chat with Glenn Peoples who’ll be able to work it out in an instant 🙂

      … I’m just thinking that there are multiple ways to define things, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. The classic is the morning star is the evening star which both refer to Venus, but there’s a different experience around each (ie, one’s in the morning and one’s in the evening).

      I just read a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro written by Glenn Peoples and think he would disagree with me and agree with you on the theist’s definition of right/wrong … http://www.beretta-online.com/articles/philosophy/new_euthyphro.pdf

      I was going to mention in our personal conversation that I’m an absolute novice with moral arguments.

      • Hi Roy,

        Did you mean that Glenn will “be able to work it out in an instant” *if I made a category error*? 😉

        But seriously, I’d be very happy for him to have a read, and comment here if he has some thoughts (and, if he likes, give a detailed description of his views, conforming with the seven questions I asked, or suggest different questions). I’d also be happy for him to point out any errors he thinks I’ve made. If I’ve made some, I’d prefer to know about them so I can either improve the idea or abandon it.

        And thanks for the link. I’ve printed it and read half of it. If I have any detailed thoughts when I’m finished, I’ll probably write a post about it at some point. It’s a fascinating topic.

        As for the Venus thing, I think a better analogy to my post here would be the following…… It is observed that there is a morning star and an evening star. One person theorises that they are two different stars, but another person thinks that they are one and the same star. There are thus two theories that try and make (some kind of) sense of the observations. If no more is known than that “there is a morning star and an evening star”, it might be impossible to adjudicate between the competing theories. But perhaps if more information was discovered (like that someone watched the evening star all night, and saw that it was the morning star by the next morning), one of the theories could be confirmed.

        • Roy

          Not quite sure how the analogy maps to your post … would you mind spelling out the links?

          What I was saying was rather around the way we define things. For example, A, J, E, & Ns Father is Roy (this is a statement of identity ie there’s a one-to-one relationship here). Is transversal the math word for it? Similarly, J’s hubby is Roy (this also a statement of identity).

          So there are multiple ways something can be defined and I guess I’m wondering if that’s what’s happening here where that which is commanded by God is the same as that which prevents harm/causes help – but they have very different qualities although they identify the same thing.

          Anyhoo – my mind is a little muddled over this. Hopefully Glenn will bring some clarity in.

          • Yes, I agree there are several ways to define things, though the definitions of “Roy” you have given above would only work for people who knew what E, J, etc meant already. (This is really just a more obvious version of the fact that no word can be defined without other words already being assumed.)

            I made the analogy that way because the post (ie this blog post) rests on the ideas that:

            (1) we observe that people feel a certain way about actions – we describe some actions as “right” and some “wrong”, and we feel that people “ought” to do the right ones and not the wrong ones; and

            (2) there are different theories that try to account for these feelings.

            Theistic theories tend to say “we think we ought to do the right ones because, actually, we *really ought* to do them”. Some atheistic theories try and explain why we think we ought to do them even though there really isn’t a categorical imperative. (Other atheistic theories argue that there *is* some kind of categorical imperative.)

            Does that explain the star analogy to your satisfaction?

    • Roy


      I think this goes part way into what I was talking about re: identity and semantics. I’ll keep thinking on it in the meanwhile. http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/divine-command-ethics-when-will-sceptics-update-their-arguments/

      Thanks too for your elaboration

      • Thanks for the link, Roy, though I still don’t understand which (if any) part of my post you are disagreeing with, and what exactly the disagreement is. Can you clarify, please?

        I don’t disagree much with what GP has said there, actually. There are silly ways to set up a Divine Command Theory, and more reasonable ones. Essentially Glenn and I are starting in the same place. We observe that:

        (1) people naturally identify two kinds of behaviours, call them A and B, and

        (2) naturally feel that we ought to do those from A, and not those from B (even if we don’t always agree whether a given action is in A or B).

        We also use words like “right”, “good”, “moral” to describe A-actions, and words like “wrong”, “bad”, “immoral” to describe B-actions, but the names we use are actually besides the point (and possibly confusing, since words like “right” can also be used to describe the correct answer to a mathematical problem). So I completely agree with Glenn that a more reasonable DCT is going to start with this kind of observation, rather than an a priori understanding of what words like right/wrong actually mean – and that this would render questions like “oh yeah, but did God command X because it was wrong?” meaningless.

        The way I understand it, Glenn would say that A-actions are those commanded by God, and B-actions are those forbidden by God. Someone else might say that A- and B- actions are those favoured or abhorred by the universe itself. These two people might even come up with exactly the same classification of A- and B-actions. They might both be wrong about the “origin” (whatever that might mean) of these actions. But they have each come up with a theory that attempts to describe (1) and (2). I have a different theory, but that’s fine. Here, I’m not attempting to critique or defend any particular theory.

        Also, I don’t know if Glenn would accept the precise form of DCT I outlined in the original post. And that’s OK, as I’m not trying to cover his particular take, but merely outline one particular DCT someone might make. (And I’m not trying to set up something specific to attack, as if it represents *all* DCT’s.)

        With that said though, I think his theory is problematic when it is applied to the biblical God. In responding to the idea that a pantheon of gods could give rise to confusion over which actions are good (as several contradictory commands could be given by various gods), he says:

        For monotheism however, in which there is one sovereign God, the problem does not arise. If there is one God who has intentions about what we should do, and if those intentions give rise to the fact of the matter about what we should do, then morality certainly can have an objective basis in the will of God.”

        There is of course an underlying assumption that this god would not himself give contradictory commands. And, if the bible is taken fairly literally (at least the commandments in it taken to be God’s commands), then this does not seem to be the case. I could come at it if the bible only contained case specific commands, but blanket commands such as “Thou shalt not kill” jar with cases in which God tells people to kill.

        In addition, many of the biblical commands go against our moral intuitions, yet in his dialogue, Glenn says (through Euthyphro):

        Since God made this world, a world in which he does not will that we torture people, the way he made this world reflects his will, including the way he created us. This includes our intuitive sense of moral outrage at those acts, and it also includes the natural consequences of those acts, the things that torture causes.”

        Surely we shouldn’t depend too heavily on our moral intuitions if we then have to suspend (even completely reverse) them in order to “make sense” of the Old Testament atrocities. This is a point I’ll come back to when I tackle the Moral Argument itself. There, the key premise “objective moral values and duties do exist” is supported essentially by our own intuitions that things like torture and rape are wrong.

        • Roy

          I’m on my phone at the moment, so it’s a bit hard to follow your argument through so I’ll look at it more carefully in the next few days.

          The point I’m making …. Thanks for asking the question – it’s helped to focus my thoughts. I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy between DCT and atheism in your definition of right/wrong.

          So under a theistic framework right could be does not cause harm and/or helps (identity) and that which is commanded by God (identity). But they’re semantically different.

          In the DCT definition of right/wrong you’ve used (and italicised) the word ‘because’. However this is a causative relationship rather than an identity relation.

          So to make it consistent you can a) include the definition of harm/help in the theistic definition of right/wrong; b) remove the because statement in DCT; c) add in a because statement in the atheistic model.

        • Roy
          • I’m not sure what you mean by your last comment, Roy. In my last response, I said I agreed with most of the article, quoted a paragraph of it, and gave a small critique of one point I disagreed with!

            Also, re false dichotomy, I have done nothing of the sort. In fact, I have specifically mentioned several alternatives (including another theistic one, and a pantheistic one). Also, I haven’t tried to argue that all DCT’s are like the one I described. I’m also not saying that Glenn’s version is exactly like the one I described (I didn’t have him in mind when I wrote the original post). As I said before, I’d welcome Glenn (or you) to comment here and outline his version of the DCT, and in particular, give his answers to the 7 questions I outlined in the original post, or suggest different ones.

            The purpose of this post is definitely not to criticise any particular moral theory, just to highlight a few attempts to describe the data (our observations about our intuitive understandings of this thing we call “morality”).

            My aim is not to try and argue Glenn (or anyone else) out of his beliefs. He stated fairly clearly in the E/S dialogue that this DCT is his *belief*, ie that it is simply his view of how this thing we call “morality” can be explained. He is welcome to this belief, as are others. Trying to argue him out of such a belief would be like trying to argue a pantheist out of their belief that the universe is conscious and has thoughts and desires about how we should act – for example, how would you attempt to convince such a person that the universe was not conscious? To argue Glenn out of his belief would presumably require one to show that there was no God (because even if Yahweh turned out to be imaginary, maybe another God is responsible for morality).

            My point is absolutely not to show that there is no God (a task that I believe is impossible). It is simply to (eventually) show that morality is not a valid avenue for demonstrating the existence of God. William Lane Craig attempts to do this (the Moral Argument), but I haven’t read enough of Glenn’s work to know if he advocates that argument as a means to establishing the existence of (some) God.

            Finally, I appreciate that you’re trying to give me some hints as to how to “improve” the DCT formulation, but please remember I am not trying to advocate a DCT! Or even come up with the most plausible version. You might not like the word “because” in there, but that’s fine – other DCT advocates do (Glenn referred to John Hare, whose work I am unfamiliar with, as an example). But, as I said, you’d be welcome to give your own detailed take on the matter. (However, I’m not interested in trying to piece it together from vague hints you’ve scattered throughout your messages though 😛 )

    • Roy

      My bad re not seeing article. (Most of the response seemed to ignore some of GPs article).

      I’ll let this go because I don’t want to just annoy you … I’ll see your next few posts which will presumably build from here. In the meanwhile I’ll do some more study so that I can be more clearer in my responses.

      • Roy

        Fantastic start there Roy “more clearer”

    • Hi RF (I’d like to address you by name, but alas, I know it not!). Roy was asking me if I had any thoughts on this article, so I thought I would briefly chip in (alas, I won’t be offering the detailed comments you suggested).

      I do have a few thoughts – but the first one is just that I really like what I see here (even though, as you would gather, I don’t share you take on things). It’s gracious and reasonable. Kudos!

      There are just a few things I would note:

      1. In the context of behaviour, what do the words “right” and “wrong” mean?

      An action is “right” if it is commanded by God, and is “wrong” if it is forbidden by God. In fact, an action is “right” or “wrong” precisely because it is commanded or forbidden by God.

      It’s important to see that there are several forms of divine command ethics, but none of them (as far as I know) actually offer this as an answer to the question you posed, namely, what to the words “right” or “wrong” mean. It’s not an analysis of the meaning of those words, instead it is (as your answer suggests) an account of what makes something right or wrong (or in other versions, like Robert Adams’ version, and account of what the properties of rightness and wrongness are identical with).

      Also, while a divine command theory is certainly supportive of your proposed answer (on the theistic view) to question 6 – we intuitively feel that we should do what’s moral at least in part because God created us in such a way that this is how our conscience works, there is more to it than that. It’s also because God’s nature is such that there are also non-moral reasons to obey his commands, and while this doesn’t make them morally required, it certainly tends to motivate us to carry them out. Adams spells this out in more detail in his work on the social requirement theory of obligation.

      The other thing I thought I would note is the way that one of your readers has taken your analysis to show that we need not choose between objective morality and relativism because really there’s a spectrum of views in between, and this doesn’t seem correct to me – and it doesn’t seem to be something you’ve shown (and you may actually agree with me on this, I don’t know).

      There are multiple ways of using the word ought, but maybe the two most important are the “moral ought” and the “rational ought.” The moral ought is a moral requirement. We are engaging in wrongdoing if we violate it. The rational ought isn’t lie this. It’s a means-to-an-end ought. For example, if I want you dead, then I ought to kill you (or have you killed). Clearly not a matter of morality!

      I think your analysis of the atheistic view of morality may blur this distinction, and I think that this is something some other atheists do as well (Sam Harris is terrible in this regard). It involves a further blurring (and I know you don’t use these terms in this way, just explaining) of different senses of the word “good.” Some things are “good for X,” where X is some end or thing. For example, drinking milk is good for growing strong bones, bombs are good for killing people, a balanced diet is good for us if we want a longer and more enjoyable life. But none of these are a matter of moral goodness – they don’t concern what we morally ought or ought not do. All of these concepts need to be kept distinct to avoid confusion.

      You do draw this distinction when you point out that the harm principle reflects the way that people ought to behave if they want a certain type of society, so it’s a restricted ought. But now we’re not strictly talking about a theory of morality. Now we’re talking about means to ends. We’re talking about the way that we should act just if we want a certain type of society. Using the theory you describe, if a person wants to dominate everybody else so that they have a much better lot in life than everyone else and some others suffer for it, then it’s not true that they ought to abide by the harm principle you offer. In other words, there’s no moral reason, in your atheistic theory, for people to desire the good of others per se.

      So in spite of what your earlier commenter says, this is not an avoidance of relativism. It is a form of relativism, namely “conventionalism.” If we all just agree on a certain end that we want, then this is a way we can agree together to live to support that end – but if people don’t want that end…. then our theory really says nothing about why they should change their mind, and we have no right to call them “wrong,” other than in the sense of saying “practically, that’s not the best way to get what WE want.” But they probably already know that.

      My two cents.

    • Hi Glenn,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I appreciate hearing your thoughts, and I’m glad you like the way I am doing things; my aim is to engage in respectful dialogues with people of any belief.

      Regarding “my” DCT answer to Q1, it is not my aim to misrepresent anybody (or even critique at this stage). I will most likely update the answers in order to best represent your views – here, all I want is a variety of explanations for this thing we call “morality”.

      In fact, since writing the post, I have thought a bit more, and would probably ask the questions in a slightly different way. Basically there seems to be an intuition in all of us that certain actions “should” be done and certain ones “should” not be done. (That we call the former ones “good” and the latter “bad” is really besides the point. So a question like “why is murder wrong?” really means “why ought we not murder?”, and could only be adequately answered if a proper understanding of the word “ought” is given.) A moral theory attempts to explain these intuitions. The way I see it, there are two kinds of answers (which could be categorised further):

      (1) We feel that we “should” do certain actions because *we really should do them, fullstop* – there is a categorical imperative, or

      (2) Even though we feel that we “should” do certain actions, there is not really a categorical imperative, but there are still good reasons to do do them.

      I think the first is what you are calling a “moral ought”, and the second a “rational ought”. The way I see it, both are plausible answers to the question, unless there is good evidence to support the alternative view. Note that you don’t have to be a theist to affirm (1), and you can still be a theist and affirm (2). Note also that a person that affirms (2) would (or at least should) not be arguing for the same kind of “objective morality” that somebody that affirms (1) would.

      But getting back to “my” DCT answer to Q1, I think it would now look more like:

      We ought to do an action if it is commanded by God, and we ought not do an action if it is forbidden by God.

      In other words, “right” simply *means* “commanded by God”, even though we also intuitively use the word “right” to describe actions with positive outcomes, etc. (In fact, these two notions of “right” *should* match up if we are to give any credibility to our moral intuitions – I think this is what you are getting at when you mention Adams. I also think this is where problems come in when trying to reconcile this kind of DCT with the Biblical God, but that is another story.)

      About a spectrum, I think I would more agree that there is a spectrum of definitions of the word “objective”. Some argue that there are objective “moral oughts” as you seem to. Someone like Harris would argue that there is objective morality because, according to him, “moral” means “contributes to the flourishing of conscious creatures”, and actions can therefore objectively be categorised as “helps flourishing” or “hinders flourishing” (or neither). (I have some mathematically inspired objections to some of Harris’ views, but I think they can mostly be ironed out.) Some would argue that there is no objective morality. Some would argue that there is no objective anything at all. So, while there may not be a continuum of views in between the extremes, I think there would probably be a few (regardless of whether you or I think they are plausible candidates for the truth). But I agree with what I think you’re saying – that all of these views will either be a form of relativism or absolutism – though I suspect that when Andrew (the first poster) said “relativism” he was probably thinking of the “whatever goes” type.

      About moral vs rational oughts, I tend to agree. As I said above, we all seem to have an intuitive feeling about the “oughtness” of certain actions (even if we might disagree on things like gay marriage). And it is an interesting question to examine the kind of “ought” we have (or don’t have) here. I am not attempting to blur this distinction here (perhaps I should have deliberately included a moral theory that does!). In fact, I think I argued quite strongly that this is a “rational ought”, and that *if one values reason and has a desire to live in a society that benefits oneself*, then one ought to behave in a certain way (even if we disagree on those actions that would lead to the desired outcomes). I’m not saying that someone *ought* to desire to live in such a society, and I imagine that this is probably about as axiomatic as you could get – we seem evolutionarily predisposed to prefer being alive to being dead! I don’t think either of us would be able to have a meaningful conversation about morality with some one that does not have such a desire (or does not value reason).

      But when you say this:

      But now we’re not strictly talking about a theory of morality

      I think you might forget that we are talking about this particular atheist’s conception of “morality”. Remember, I speak of a “theory of morality” as a description of why people have intuitions about how they “should” behave. This particular atheist thinks that the “ought” people feel is a “rational ought” rather than a “moral ought” (which seems to have a slightly misleading name when making this distinction). Or maybe you’re saying that *the desire to live in such a society* or *the valuing of reason* cannot be classified as “moral”? In this case, I would agree; but, as I said above, I think of these things as axiomatic, rather than something that *should* be the case. This is perhaps related to what you said here:

      In other words, there’s no moral reason, in your atheistic theory, for people to desire the good of others per se.”

      Yes, this is correct, though I have argued that there are rational reasons. Bullies tend to be disliked, even if they may end up amassing wealth. Someone that likes to kill people for fun will probably meet a quick end himself, as everyone else realises he must be stopped. It’s really just a rational thing – everyone aiming for a society in which *everyone* is happy is the surest way to achieve a society in which *you* are happy (since this way, not only will you be happy, you also won’t have to be anxious that all those people you hurt to get where you are might try and get you back – I can’t imagine being a big mafia boss).

      If we all just agree on a certain end that we want, then this is a way we can agree together to live to support that end – but if people don’t want that end…. then our theory really says nothing about why they should change their mind, and we have no right to call them “wrong,” other than in the sense of saying “practically, that’s not the best way to get what WE want.” But they probably already know that.”

      Yes, I agree. But I argued that the atheistic theory boils down to two simple things: valuing reason, and desiring to live in a beneficial society. I think it is safe to say that most people fall into this category. From there, we should be able to reason towards good outcomes. People that don’t value reason are very difficult to deal with (and I’m sure you’ve had just as many frustrating conversations with such people as I have), and people that don’t want to live in a society that benefits themself often end up in jail. These are not the kinds of people we entrust to make rules.

      I also wonder if the second last sentence betrays a desire for a theory to have coercive power. While my theory might not have the power to demonstrate to everybody that they *ought* to value their own well-being, I don’t really see this as possible in any theory. If someone honestly doesn’t care about going to hell, and has settled upon this position based on careful consideration, how are you going to convince them that they should care?! Remember, my theory takes it as axiomatic that people would value *their own* well-being, not that they would value the well-being of others.

      Thanks again for responding, Glenn. I’d be happy to hear back if you have further thoughts or comments (or require clarification), and I hope we can continue to have more conversations. (We “met” a while back at your blog, when discussing that interesting multiple choice question.)


    • Ruth Mawbey

      Scary how similar all these theories are. Most differences seem to stem from people’s motivation rather than anything else.