Sunday, September 22, 2013

In which I compare myself to God

by Kyle Swan

There are still many people, mostly outside the academy, who think that moral and political obligations are tied to divine commands. People should (not) do certain things because God says so. This would mean that God has practical authority over people. He makes it the case that people have obligations by simply issuing a command. Or, what I think would be roughly the same thing, God can create reasons for people to act, reasons they didn’t have before, by simply issuing a command.

For example, the ancient tribes of Israel presumably didn’t have normative reason to avoid eating bbq baby back ribs before God said not to eat them. But, according to this account of divine authority, they acquired such a reason when God declared pork unclean. Moral philosophers often talk about this kind of reason being external because the source of the reason is external to the agent who the claim is directed at, or because the claim is grounded in such a way that the motivational states of mind of that agent are irrelevant. Perhaps many of the ancient Israelites really liked bbq baby back ribs. Too bad.

Here’s another example: if you take a class from me you have to write an assigned paper. Say I assign a paper on Hobbes. You thereby acquire a reason to write a paper on Hobbes. If I instead assign a paper on Rawls, you acquire a reason to write a paper on Rawls. I have practical authority (within this relatively limited domain) over you. Much like God (!) I create a reason for you to act a certain way, a reason you didn’t have before, by simply requiring the assignment. You don’t want to write a paper on Hobbes? Too bad.

Maybe there’s a difference here between God and I. The practical authority I have over my students is contingent on their having signed up for the class. They have voluntarily placed themselves under my (relatively limited) authority. If I assigned a paper on Hobbes to my mail carrier, she wouldn’t thereby acquire any reason at all to write it. But those who review my syllabus, see that there will be paper assignments, and sign up for the class agree to submit to my determinations about the content of those assignments. They presumably do this because taking the class somehow connects up with goals they have or things they care about. So they have internal reason to do it. That seems like an important difference.

I’m not sure these cases really are conceptually different, though. Perhaps God’s authority is similarly contingent, and people’s reasons to comply with his rules similarly grounded in their motivational states. Here’s a section of the narrative where God hands down his law to the ancient Israelites:

Exodus 19:3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” 7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.

This looks a lot like a summary of a contract (or covenant). There’s a brief preamble and then promises are made on both sides. The terms are reviewed and accepted and at least appear to be contingent on that acceptance. So suppose the people of Israel in verse 8 had instead said something like ‘Ummm… Thanks for all that, and we really appreciate your offer, but no thanks”? Plausibly, in that case they wouldn’t have had normative reason to comply with all of God’s rules and God wouldn’t have had the standing to demand compliance or to punish them for not complying. The same plausibly goes for surrounding nations that weren’t party to this covenant. The Edomites could eat all the bbq baby back ribs they wanted. It would have been puzzling for the Israelites to demand of the Edomites that they not eat bbq baby back ribs and to hold them accountable if they did. Just as puzzling, perhaps, as me demanding of my mail carrier that she write a paper about Hobbes and holding her accountable when she doesn’t.

I’m not a theologian (though sometimes I try to fake it) and I don’t have too much more to say about the ancient Israelites. But I think the narrative illustrates important things about the social contract tradition, current debates about the nature of practical reason and, perhaps most of all, just how difficult it can be for someone to come to have practical authority over another person. 

Kyle Swan
Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Thanks for this post, Kyle.

    I wonder if the nature of the agent provides a significant difference here. In a typical contract, one seems to have reason(s) to engage in the contract depending upon the nature of the agent they are engaging in it with. For a professor, you want to complete the course and get credit. This gives you a normative reason for following the instructions and writing a paper on Hobbes.

    The ancient Israelites aren't engaging in a contract with any ol' agent, but with God. If we stipulate that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then it seems that there are independent normative reasons for following this contract. After all, a God with that nature wouldn't just ask us to do any old thing, but would presumably have our best interest(s) in mind. So, even if I'm not an ancient Israelite - given that I believe that this is an authentic order given by a God that exists - I have independent normative reasons for following the instructions provided by the contract. If God is the omni-God described above, it seems to be a reasonable inference that the instructions provided by such a being would be in my best interest.

  2. Thanks, Matt, for your comment. There are, I agree, divine command theories where God's commands might just be reliable directional markers to what you have normative reason to do independently of God's commands. But I was thinking about accounts where God has practical authority in the sense described above. For example, if there is reason to avoid bbq baby back ribs, it seems to be just because eating them happens to be one of the things God prohibited. So I was wondering what could make it true that God has practical authority and suggested that the narrative from Exodus gives a somewhat surprising answer.

  3. Kyle, don't parents have the same kind of practical authority over their young children absent any such covenant?

  4. I think so. Parents may even have *natural* practical authority over their young children. I think that there's a presumption against someone being subject to another's practical authority, but that it holds in the case of rational agents with reasonably mature deliberative capacities.

  5. That presumption sounds right in the realm of people, but surely our rationality isn't even infantile compared to God's, so you'd think he'd have as much natural practical authority over us as a being can have.

  6. But it's not really the size of gap between the rational deliberative capacities of parents and children that grounds the relationship of authority; it's the fact that the capacities of their young children haven't developed enough to count as reasonably mature rational agents. Normal adults have, though, despite the fact that their capacities are much, much less developed as compared to God.

  7. I don't know on what basis you make that final assertion, though. Our notion of a reasonably mature rational agent is one that works for helping to decide legitimate authoritative relations between humans, not between humans and God. (I'm pretty sure God's got my back on this one.)

  8. The thought is that reasonably mature rational, deliberative agency implies self-determination, which grounds the presumption. Or, being a reasonably mature rational, deliberative agent confers a moral status that grounds the presumption. In either case, so long as the relevant threshold for deliberative agency is met, the distance in capacities between agents is irrelevant to establishing that one has practical authority over the other. I take God *offering* the law, rather than *imposing* it, to be at least some evidence for this.

  9. The relevant threshold for rational deliberative agency is not set, however. It changes as standards change, which they certainly have over time. Behavior that would be regarded as psychotically violent today would have been seen as reasonable response to insult or injury even a century ago, for example. In my hopeful version of a hundred years hence, the vast majority of 8th graders will have a grasp of statistics and probability that only professional statisticians have today. When that happens, the adults of today will be regarded as having the deliberative capacities of children. It is the distance that has been created since then that justifies the rise in standards. What was good enough before is simply not now.

  10. Thank you for the interesting post and discussion.

    Here’s my two cents worth: In order for a contract to be valid it must be entered into with autonomous choice. If God says “Randy do what I say or you will burn in a lake of fire” that threat would be enough to throw into doubt whether or not I was agreeing to this contract autonomously. My choice to enter into this contract would be shaped by an external constraint and being sufficiently free of both internal and external constraints is a generally agree upon requisite of an autonomous action.

    To look at it from a virtues perspective; Kant argued true virtue demands that we act out of respect for a rule not simply in accordance with it. If God demands I follow her rule and I do so because she is all powerful and I am afraid of punishment then my behavior is both servile and self-interested.

  11. Kyle, this is one of the most thoughtful deliberations about moral authority as presented in divine command theory I've seen lately. But like the others I have seen and considered, I can't help but wonder whether it confuses where the authority lies. If moral authority resides within a being such that when that being expresses a directive there is immediate and implicit moral reason to do what is directed, then we have a problem with the concept of morality at play. If the divine commands and I obey, then we'd have to ask whether that obedience is motivated by my recognition of that being as a moral authority -- such that their commands are thus morally authoritative and actually do create normative reasons for action -- or whether that obedience is motivated by some contingent other fact about that being -- such as their ability to award salvation or to damn eternally. If I'm motivated to obey, because of my dread of smiting or my desire for eternal salvation, then the authority of the command lies in its relation to my desires and fears. But, if I my obedience is motivated by my recognition of the moral authority of God -- that is, that God is an authority on morality such that she issues commands that are morally worthy of obedience -- then authority of the command lies in the relation of God to moral worth or goodness. Either way, the moral authority of the command is largely independent of the issuer of it. That's what makes Plato's Euthyphro such a compelling treatment of the subject some 2500 years on. This way of thinking about moral authority allows you to address Randy's concern about parents. The authority of the parent's command to the child is either independent of the parent because the reason it provides for action is due to its relation to moral worth or goodness (thus giving it moral authority), or due to its relation to the child's fears or desires (thus giving it prudential authority, not moral authority). The fact that the command is issued by the child's parent is not what gives it moral authority.

  12. Randy, I think this isn’t a good account of agency. For starters, I think it confuses having the capacity to deliberate and settle on a plan of action and utilize principles of action in decision making with utilizing this capacity in ways we think would be better or best.

    But I don’t think this matters very much since the issue is practical authority, rather than theoretical authority (like the authority of an expert). Fallible beings like us have reason place ourselves under God’s authority, or, for that matter, maybe even that of the hyper-rational 8th graders of the future. There are good reasons to listen to experts and God’s attributes are such that the Israelites in the story above made a good choice to submit to him. But that doesn’t obviously establish the relevant sense of authority.

  13. Chris, I agree with you (and Randy L) that the motive of fearful obedience provides the wrong kind of reason for the sort of thing we’re interested in. Set that aside. The other option you suggest (the authority of independent moral goodness) doesn’t seem to be the only other way to go. It’s a good thing, too. “Line up your actions with moral goodness” isn’t really an operable principle. It’s just way too indeterminate. So the only thing that recommends steering clear of pork (rather than, say, poultry) for observant Jews is God’s determination. The only thing that makes ‘dinner before dessert’ the thing for my kids to do (rather than ‘dessert before dinner’) is the say-so of my wife and I. Right-side driving doesn’t line up with moral goodness any more or less than left-side driving, but the law here makes the former the thing to do. In each case (and many, many others) there could be reasons for making something else the thing to do and only an arbitrary determination by a practical authority makes the difference.

  14. Kyle, thanks for your response to my comment. It's had me thinking. But, I think you missed an important element of my comments. I'm not suggesting that, as a practical matter, we ought to line up our actions with moral goodness. I agree that's unhelpfully vague and indeterminate. However, your alternative seems to be that we need someone to make a determination, parents in the case of the order of food consumption (meal before desert, not vice versa) and law in the case of driving on the right (not the left or wherever there is space). For the law and parents to be considered sources with moral authority such that their commands warrant obedience as moral commands, there must be some relation between them or at the least their commands and some conception of the good, even if it is not goodness in its Platonic form. Otherwise, moral authority is indistinguishable from practical authority or efficient/effective authority. Meal before desert might be just how you have always understood the proper order of food consumption, something customary or traditional. Maybe a physiological story could be told about the digestive tract, nutrient absorption, metabolic efficiency, etc, to justify meals before desert, but that would be to provide medical authority to the parents. For the parents to have moral authority, all of that has to align somehow with some set of values worth pursuing -- moral worth has to enter the picture somehow for the command to have normative sway. Something like, proper nutrition is necessary for the development of physical and mental health, which are conducive to living a happy life, to fulfilling your obligations as a member of society, etc. Parents know this, their command to finish dinner before desert has moral authority, not because at some point someone has to decide things. But then this would make the command right for any kids not just yours. Your command would have moral authority beyond your kids, as well, not because they are your kids but because the command corresponds to some understanding of what is good. Similarly for law, it doesn't matter whether we drive on the left or the right, but it does matter that directional driving is sorted somehow, otherwise the risk to life and limb of being on the road (or near it) would be unacceptably high. That the law settles it, not me, not my parents, is an acknowledgment of the law as an authority. But that authority derives from law's close relation to, at the least, a community's conception(s) of the good or the commonweal, or to shared interests the meeting of which entails shared obligations of restraint and order. Also, that parents or law or god can be questioned as to the moral authority of their commands implies that there is some parent or law or god independent means for assessing the normative authority of the commands. What do you think?

  15. I more or less think that the entire set of practical principles we have reason to endorse for the pursuit of choiceworthy goals are mostly indeterminate (e.g., “Don’t steal.” But what counts as stealing? What property rules will we use to settle disputes about rights to use and exclude? What about intellectual property? What about confiscatory taxation?). As long as our having some principle governing it is better for us than not having any guiding principle at all, then we are likely to need some determination for how we are to act in accord with the principle. I’m interpreting a divine command theory along these lines. Theists should think we have reason to submit to God’s authority with respect to His determination of all practical principles – endorse His willing for our lives – in order to solve a kind of coordination problem that we have reason (each of us, from our own points of view) to solve.

    When and if people do so God commanding something would constitute a reason to do it, but, until and unless they do, God doesn’t have the relevant normative authority over them. The point is, then, that a divine command normative ethical theory needn’t follow what I referred to above as an externalist approach, according to which the deliverances of the moral theory, merely as deliverances of that theory, magically bind us. The principles associated with the theory, and the norms derived from them, must have some kind of ‘uptake’ with people if they are going to be genuinely (and authoritatively) normative. We identify with His will, sign on to His team, internalize His directives, etc. I was thinking that this accommodates your worry about needing some conception of the good to ground moral authority.