Reason and the Nature of Obligation

There has been some interesting discussion over at Think Tonk (The Supernaturalistic Fallacy) and Common Sense Philosophy (The Supernaturalististic Fallacy…?) about naturalism and the foundation of obligations. In particular the issue is whether or not naturalism has the resources to accomodate moral realism. I think that its does, and am sympathetic to the supernaturalistic fallacy.

The view that if God did not exist then all things would be permissible is familiar and quite common, and just about as wrongheaded as a view can be. The senisble view is not that God’s commands make something moral, but that he commands us to do what is moral (uh, the Euthyphro question…hello?)…that this is actually what most theists have in mind already can be seen by answering the following question: Could God command us to rape? For, if He did, then raping would be morally acceptable, right? The answer is a resounding ‘no! He would not command us to do that!’ But why not? The reason is that God would not command us to do something immoral. So, what role does God play? Well, He sets up the system of rewards and punishments that are supposed to get us to actually do what is right. But that is very different from His making the things to be right or wrong in the first place! Now how do we know what we ought to do? The answer is simple; via the use of reason.

This kind of position has had a long and venerable history in Western philosophy. Locke very clearly has this kind of view in mind in the Essay. Consider this passage from Book IV

Where there is no property, there is no injustice, is a Proposition as certain as any Demonstration in Euclid: For the Idea of Property, being a right to any thing; and the idea to which the Name Injustice is given, being the Invasion or Violation of that right; it is evident, that because these Ideas being thus established, and these Names annexed to them, I can as certainly know this Proposition to be true, as that a Triangle has three Angles equal to two right ones. Again, No Government allows absolute Liberty: The Idea of Government being the establishment of Society upon certain Rules or Laws, which require Conformity to them; and the Idea of Absolute Liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases; I am capable of being certain of the Truth of this Proposition, as of any in Mathematicks.

We start with the definitions of the concepts and deduce the moral propositions in just the same way that mathematicians start with definitions and deduce theorems. So for instance from the fact that I say ‘I promise to pay you back’ combined with the definition that promising just means that you have placed yourself under an obligation it follows that you ought to keep the promise. This just is Searle’s famous derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ (Searle 1964) which Locke anticipates before anyone even thought there was such a problem!

So for Locke, we have the obligation to keep our promises (even in the state of nature) but that does not give us a reason to keep them. Thus it is important for Locke that God exist and that there be a system of reward and punishment in the afterlife in order to give us the motivation to do what we determine to be right with our reason. This is evident from what Locke says in Book II of the Essay

Of these Moral Rules, or Laws, to which Men generally refer, and by which they judge of the Rectitude or Pravity of their Actions, there seem to me to three sorts, with three different Enforcements, or Rewards and Punishments. For since it would be utterly in vain, to suppose a Rule set to the free actions of Man, without annexing to it some Enforcement of Good and Evil [read: Pleasure and Pain], to determine his Will, we must, where-ever we suppose a law, suppose also some Reward or Punishment annexed to that Law. It would be in vain for one intelligent Being, to set a Rule to the Actions of another, if he had it not in his Power to reward the compliance with, and punish deviation from his Rule, by some Good and Evil, that is not the natural product and consequence of the action it self. For that being a natural Convenience, or Inconvenience would operate of itself without a Law. This, if I mistake not, is the true nature of all Law, properly so called.  (Ch. XXVIII, 6)

These three sorts of moral rules are first divine law, second civil law and third the law of opinion (ibid. section 7). Each of these kinds of laws comes with it its own kind of punishment and rewards and so we have motivation to obey each kind. So we use reason to determine what the moral laws are and what counts as moral and immoral but we still need something that ‘determines the will’ else the law will be ‘utterly in vain’.

Of these three it is the divine law that is the most important as it via the divine law that “Men judge whether their actions are Sins, or Duties”.

The Divine Law, Whereby I mean, that Law which God has set to the actions of Men, whether promulgated to them by the light of Nature, or the voice of Revelation. That God has given a Rule whereby Men should govern themselves, I think there is no body so brutish as to deny. He has a Right to do it, we are his Creatures: He has Goodness and Wisdom to direct our Actions to that which is best: and he has Power to enforce it by Rewards and Punishments, of infinite weight and duration, in another Life: for no body can take us out of his hands. This is the only true touchstone of moral Rectitude; and by comparing them to this Law, it is, that Men judge of the most considerable Moral Good and Evil of their Actions; that is, whether as Duties, or Sins, they are like to procure them happiness, or misery, from the hands of the ALMIGHTY. (ibid section 8) 

In the state of nature we are able to rationally deduce the moral law, but we as yet have no reason to abide by it. God, knowing how we are built and so knowing that we need some motivation to follow the law, was kind enough to set up a system of rewards and punishments to provide the necessary motivation.

This way of reading Locke has him in close agreement with Hobbes. For Hobbes a law is a command from someone who has the right to command us (Ch. 15 paragraph 40) and so what he (Hobbes) has been calling laws of nature are more properly called “theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defense” of ourselves yet, “if we consider the same theorems, as delivered in the word of God, that by right commandeth all things; then they are properly called laws,” and this is exactly the way that Locke unpacks the moral law. God has the right to command us, as we are his creatures and he has the goodness and wisdom of what is best for us and so we can know that the law is for our own good. The law being for our own good gives us some reason to follow it, but, just to make sure, God has set up the powerful motivation system of eternal punishments and rewards. So whereas Hobbes argues that we need a strong Earthly authority to punish those who transgress the law, Locke has a strong authority in the form of God. 

It is in Chapter 14 of Leviathan that Hobbes defines the concepts of obligation, duty, justice and injustice let us look closely at what he says.

Right is said to be laid aside, either by simply renouncing it: or by transferring it to another. By simply RENOUNCING; when he cares not to who the benefit thereof redoundeth. By TRANSFERRING; when he intendedth the benefit thereof to some certain person, or persons. And when a man hath in either manner abandoned, or granted away his right; then he is said to be OBLIGED, or BOUND, not to hinder those, to whom such right is granted, or abandoned, from the benefit of it: and that he ought, and it is his DUTY, not to make void that voluntary act of his own: and that such hindrance is INJUSTICE, and INJURY, as being sine jure; the right being before renounced, or transferred. So that injury, or injustice, in the controversies of the world, is somewhat like to that, which in the disputations of the scholars is called absurdity. For as it is there called an absurdity, to contradict what one maintained in the beginning: so in the world, it is called injustice, and injury, voluntarily to undo that, which from the beginning had been voluntarily done. The way by which a man simply renounceth, or tranferreth his right, is a declaration, or signification, by some voluntary and sufficient sign, or signs, that he doth so renounce, or transfer…and the same are the BONDS, by which men are bound, and obliged: bonds, that have their strength, not from their own nature, (for nothing is more easily broken than a man’s word,) but from fear of some evil consequence upon the rupture. (p227; emphasis added))

This passage is strikingly similar to Locke’s view. First notice that he here agrees with Locke’s definition of injustice as the violation of a right. Once you transfer or renounce a right you no longer have that right and so hindering the person who now has the right is an action without right  (sine jure: without right) and by hindering them you are now violating that person’s right and so acting unjustly.

This suggests a way of reading this passage which puts Hobbes in line with Locke’s account in the Essay. When I make a covenant I thereby acquire an obligation to perform it in virtue of my voluntarily transferring a right. I can see this by the use of my reason, and in fact deduce that not to do it results in a contradiction. But this does not give me any reason to fulfill that obligation. In order to fulfill that obligation I need some other kind of motivation, and Hobbes says that there are “but two imaginable helps to strengthen it. And those are either fear of the consequences of breaking their word; or glory and pride in appearing not to need to break it.” (p229) This second ‘help’ Hobbes doubts can be relied on. It is fear of the consequences of breaking their word that we should count on. As he says,

The passion to be reckoned upon, is fear; whereof there be two very general objects: one, the power of spirits invisible; the other, the power of those men they shall therein offend. Of these two, though the former be of the greater power, yet the fear of the later is commonly the greater fear” (ibid)

So this is our motivation for performing what we have contracted to do in much the same way as in Locke’s account of why we do what we ought, but it is not the source of our obligation. The source of our obligation is the fact that we have made it known by signs that we intend to enter into a covenant; the obligation stems from the “force of our words”but again, this does not give us a reason to fulfill it even though not doing so results in a kind of absurdity. This suggests that we can make binding promises in the state of nature but that we will have no reason to perform them unless we have a very strong fear of what will happen should we not do so which is exactly what Locke argues.

So God is not the source of morality, He is the enforcer of morality…so if he does not exist the worse case scenerio is that people may not have very strong motivating reasons to do what they ought to do…but so what? As Kant rightly pointed out, someone who acts morally solely to get rewarded (or to avoid punishment) is not really acting morally in the first place….so the existence of God may actually be a hinderance to morality….


12 thoughts on “Reason and the Nature of Obligation

  1. Could God command us to rape? For, if He did, then raping would be morally acceptable, right?

    Any consistent Christian or Jew would have to say “yes.” In the Old Testament, God commands his people to do all manner of things that we’d normally consider immoral.

  2. Hi Stentor,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I agree that there are some who would answer ‘yes’ to the question, but my point was that most people who are theists don’t really have the Divine Command Theory in mind when they talk about this stuff…

    Your point, however, seems to be that they MUST answer ‘yes’ if they are to be consistent given what the Bible actually says…interesting…do you have a particular example from the Old Testement in mind?

    We need to distinguish two possibilities. Let’s say that God commands His people to do something obviously immoral (like to break a promise for no reason, or to torture an innocent for no reason) in which case it is either 1. (now) moral to do those things or 2. God is Himself an immoral Being (I tend to think this is the right answer considering what He allowed Satan to do to Job but that is a different story as it is a matter of whether or not God can act immorally not whether or not His commandments are immoral).

    Both of these are problematic (1) is problematci because God in effect commands us to act irrationally, (2) is perhaps even more problematic for obvious reasons (i.e. God is supposed to be supremely good)…so I don’t think a Christen or Jew can consitently say ‘yes’ to the question…it would be interesting if you turn out to be right and they cannot consitently say ‘no’ to it either, that would be a real honey-dew of a dillema!

  3. do you have a particular example from the Old Testement in mind?

    The conquest of Caanan encompasses a whole lot of terrible stuff.

    I don’t see why your option #1 involves acting irrationally — under divine command theory, God’s command to massacre various tribes makes that massacring morally obligatory, and it’s rational to do what’s obligatory. The fact that it would be wrong to do another act that’s the same in all respects except for being prohibited by God is no problem, because in divine command theory the only feature of an act that matters in terms of its moral value is God’s commands with respect to it, and I see no reason why God isn’t free to attach different commands to acts based on their time and space location.

  4. You raise some interesting questions…

    As to the conquest of Canaan; Yes it does…I suppose you have in mind, in particular, God’s command to ‘leave nothing breathing’ which implies that He instructed Joshua to kill everything, man, woman, and child? People debate about this…I have heard Christians say that His command was to kill all the soilders, not the civilians, but there are other passages where God clearly commands the Isrealites to kill woman and children…of course there is a further issue here, namely the issue of justification. Each time that God so commands His people to kill in this way there is always some justificatory reason that He supplies, so it is not as though He simply says ‘kill them for the fun of it’. It is always to avenge some wrong doing…now of course we could debate about whether this is adaquate justification or not, but the point is that, prima facie, God did not command murder (that is, He did not command unjustified killing)…

    But also notice that this itself seems to undermine the Divine Command Theory. God makes his commandments for some prior reason which is the justification for the command, which implies that it is not simply God’s command that is doing the metaethical work…there is some prior notion of right and wrong, good and bad, that is the basis for God’ commands…in fact this is a common strategy for Divine Command theoriests (like Adams) who stipulate that the commands must come from a loving God…

    As for the irrationality thing, I think that missed the point that I was trying to make…so let me restate it. Following Locke, I take ‘murder is wrong’ to be an analtic truth, that is to say, given that ‘murder’ means ‘unjustified killing’ it is a definitional truth that murder is wrong (that is what ‘unjustified’ amounts to)…so to I take ‘one ought to keep one’s promises’ as analytic…so now consider a case where I make a promise to you and then God commands me to break it. In that case God would be commanding me to act irrationally in the sense that I can, via the use of reason, deduce that I do in fact have an obligation to keep the promise, and as you note, it is rational to do what is obligatory, so God’s command to break the promise is a command to do something that is irrational (barring special circumstanes that we common sensically take to override promise keeping). A similar argument can be given for murdering, lying, and etc.

  5. God did not command murder (that is, He did not command unjustified killing)
    Under Divine Command Theory I think God cannot possibly command unjustified killing, because God’s command would automatically justify the killing.

    God makes his commandments for some prior reason which is the justification for the command, which implies that it is not simply God’s command that is doing the metaethical work
    True, although I think there are plenty of times in the Bible when God gives a command with no moral justification attached. And one could also say that the prior reason God is giving is itself being commanded by him — so “I command you to kill those people because they wronged you in the past” is really “I command you to take revenge for any wrong, and since those people wronged you, I therefore command you in this situation to kill them.”

    Following Locke, I take ‘murder is wrong’ to be an analtic truth, that is to say, given that ‘murder’ means ‘unjustified killing’ it is a definitional truth that murder is wrong (that is what ‘unjustified’ amounts to).
    If Locke’s argument is right (I disagree that it is, but that’s an argument for another time), then you’ve already rebutted Divine Command Theory right there, because you’ve established that at least some moral obligations are independent of God. The further irrationality of being commanded by God to violate a Locke-type obligation doesn’t seem as strong, since it strikes me as just a conflict between two obligations of the type that’s possible in most moral theories.

    (Incidentally, I’m not sure if it was clear from my posts — I’m actually a utilitarian, not a Divine Command theorist, though I do find DCT interesting.)

  6. Like I said, I think you make some good points (especially for someone who doesn’t hold the theory :)) but let me change tactics slightly…

    Why is it that it is obligatory to do as God commands? It cannot be because He commands us to obey his commands, for then we could ask ‘yeah, but why should I obey that command?’ besides which we would have to face the question ‘what if He commanded us not to obey his commands?’

    So there must be some prior account of why it is that it is obligatory to obey God and so again it is not solely the command of God that is doing the metaethical work.

  7. Why is it that it is obligatory to do as God commands?

    That’s the basic problem for me with Divine Command Theory (well, that and being an agnostic …). But I think there’s an argument to be made that if God can create physical facts, he can also create moral facts. So it’s not so much that he’s commanding it in the same sense that a human authority figure might command something, but that he’s directly creating the obligation to do something (and hopefully telling us what obligations he’s created).

  8. OK, but if God creates moral facts which are the basis of our obligation to obey him, then his commands do not create morality, they reveal it to us…and again I do not think that this is something that a divine command theorist could accept…

  9. As a philosopher myself, I believe you mis-categorize the scenario in the first paragraph. Euthyphro’s dilemma has already been addressed by the idea that God is goodness, not that God administers the reward/punishment of a Morality that preexists God. If God has no control over what is Moral, then he is not God, Morality is.

    You also strategically reference certain philosophers to prove a point. These philosophers are not the bearers of what the Church has held as doctrine. Unfortunately we don’t have space to clear up this problem.

    Additionally, you push God out of the myth but keep this ‘moral system’.
    May I just point out, from a discernment perspective, in the myth that God establishes a reward/punishment system around Moral Rules, you strategically assume that God is not part of that myth, but state that Morals are in fact real.

    You take a myth, cut out the piece you like, say that it can exist on its own, and then cut out the non-necessary pieces. It’s not necessarily a ‘mis-step’. It’s just your opinion.

    Can Morality just randomly exist all on its own? I guess it possibly could. Is there a high probability? Not on your life. Obligation is an immaterial quality with intent. Intention comes from conscious beings, not out of thin air. If you insert obligation, you are most ‘probably’ going to have to also insert a concious being.

    And this is where the Christian explanation gains in explanatory power beyond mere conjecture.

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