Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Emptiness Objection

This is an article on divine command theory. I am wondering what versions of the divine command theory would be able to surmount this objection: namely, that if we define goodness in terms of God's commands, or even of God's nature, then "God is good" becomes non-informative. What we would mean would be "God obeys his own commands (does he give himself any?), or "God acts in accordance with his nature," which of course would be true if someone whose motivations with respect to all created beings were completely destructive.

Additionally, if any particular action is good only because God commands it, then God serves as the ultimate arbiter of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. An issue then arises as to whether the sentence "God is good" has any meaning in a world where God determines what is good. This criticism can be referred to as the Emptiness Objection. For example, DCT proponents state that "God is good," while the DCT itself claims that "Good is whatever God commands." The Emptiness Objection transposes these statements and claims that saying "God is good" is the same as saying "God is whatever God commands." The argument is then made that this statement is empty, trivial or entirely without meaning. Because adherents of the DCT strongly believe that the concepts "God is good" and "good is whatever God commands" have meaning, then any suggestion that these belief statements are meaningless tautologies undermines a core principle of the DCT.


Brandon said...

I am wondering what versions of the divine command theory would be able to surmount this objection: namely, that if we define goodness in terms of God's commands, or even of God's nature, then "God is good" becomes non-informative.

Versions of divine command theory that don't define goodness in terms of God's commands. Warburton, whose Divine Legation of Moses is a classic of DCT, would have denied that goodness is defined in terms of God's commands: what is defined in terms of God's commands is morality, because morality requires an obligation. But he thinks that things can be good without being obligatory -- and, indeed, while God never actually fulfills a moral obligation in the strict sense because there is no higher obliger to make anything obligatory for Him, nonetheless everything He does is good. Warburton can split the two because he takes the two major philosophical positions on morality of his day, moral rationalism and moral sentimentalism, to describe ways we really do gain acquaintance with goods of various kinds, but to fall short of being able to establish any obligations.

Warburton is unusual in this appropriation of rival moral theories, but it has been fairly common among DCTists to make similar distinctions.

Gregory said...

Let's say that there are 2 senses of "good".

1) "Good", as it relates to objects; being either instrinsically or instrumentally "good".

2) "Good", as it relates to acts of the will.

The second sense of goodness is typically reduced to the first sense; namely, that acts of the will are, in some sense, treated as objects. But it's not the case that acts are objects; and it is certainly not the case that "goodness" is predicated in the same way between acts and objects.

For instance, all objects have an intrinsic "goodness" about them. In other words, there isn't any thing that's inherently evil in the universe. If there is any thing which we call "evil", then it's because an object is in a wrong relationship with something else in the universe. For example, the metal that is used to fashion guns and bullets has no intrinsic badness about it; nor does the very existence of the contrived weapon, itself. The objects that we refer to as guns and ammo are only "evil" when they are put in a violent relationship between a murderous assailant and a harmless victim. But, in and of themselves, guns are not instrinsically bad.

When we say that the acts of the will are "good", on the other hand, we are not predicating "good" in the same sense. Whereas objects are valued by their nature and are, therefore, subject to passive attribution, the acts of the will receive valuation by it's having acted in certain ways. I might be inclined to say that this is attribution of activity.

In the case of Divine goodness, philosophers and theologians are typically treating "goodness" in the object sense (i.e. God's nature), rather than the act sense (i.e. God's acts). However, we don't attribute "goodness" to objects in the same way we do with choice. That probably seems like an obvious point, but it's often overlooked in the debates between essentialism and voluntarism.

Let's take an example from Biblical anthropology. After God created everything He called it, including mankind, "very good" (Gen. 1:31). So man's nature is good. Yet, we also know that man fell from his place of uprightness (Gen. 3). However, we don't attribute the Fall to Adam's nature, but, rather, to his acts. What's more, the story of the Fall presents a prima facie counter-example to compatibilism....namely, that one's will is not necessarily directed according to one's nature.

The idea of "essentialism", in regards to the will of God, is essentially compatibilistic. I have offered my own analysis elsewhere. However, I think that "essentialism" explains far less than what it's adherence propose.

We believe, or claim to believe, that the material world is good. But God's nature is incorporeal. Therefore, in terms of our epistemology of religion, there can be no analogy between the "goodness" of Nature and the nature of God. What we can "know" about God from Nature is the "will of God" manifested through the operations of the universe outside our self, and the operations of the moral universe within our self (to borrow a bit from Kant). The consciousness of miracles and the miracle of conscience has been the cornerstone for belief in God, both past and present.

I could say more but I think this is enough to chew on for the moment.

T'sinadree said...

"...if we define goodness in terms of God's commands, or even of God's nature, then "God is good" becomes non-informative."

Although this seems like a compelling objection to DCT, I personally don't see it as a major obstacle. Those who reject DCT while espousing some form of objective morality face the same problem. I would ask them why is their "good" good. They would have to submit that, ultimately, it just is. Why would this response be less arbitrary than the claim about God's essential nature?

Peter Pike said...

Why are you asking questions that I've already answered for you?

No matter what you have as the standard of good (call it X), that standard simply is the definition of good. Thus, you have the parallel:

"If we define goodness in terms of X then 'X is good' becomes non-informative."

This would be true no matter what. If you want to know what a diamond is and I show you a diamond, you could respond "If we define a diamond in terms of what you hold in your hand there, the term 'diamond' becomes non-informative." Yadda yadda yadda.

At some point you're simply left with the actual object that defines the term. It's only if you lack that object that the term is non-informative. And being as how you and I both supposedly believe that God exists...

Gordon Knight said...

is mathematics arbitrary? Assuming there is some objective moral truth, it should be granted the same status as any necessary truth. yes you cannot answer why by appealing to something other than the proposition in question. But that does not make it arbitrary. Consider the proposition: "Torturing babies for the fun of it is wrong"

I would claim that this propositoin is just as rational as "nothing can be red and blue all over at the same time"

If morals are objective, then its part of the "furniture of the world" its just the way things are. If it depends on my subjective desires, or God's will. then we are all screwed because there is no basis for it. DCT theory is just subjectivism writ large, with only one subject that matters.

I do wish people would read Moore, Prichard, and Ross.

(not that you, dear reader, don't, but I get the impression that some don't, and act as if there are no good reasons for objective intuitionism in ethics. and if you don't like dead people, read Audi.

Peter Pike said...


One immediate response would be that you're mixing categories there. There is a difference between what something is and what something does, or more appropriately what one ought to do. It's pretty simple to show: answer why?

That is, you said "nothing can be red and blue all over at the same time." Ask yourself "why?" and you will respond in a certain way (it violates the law of non-contradiction). But when you ask "why?" of your statement "Torturing babies for the fun of it is wrong" the answer is not "Because it violates LNC." Therefore, these two statements are not true for the same reason.

While I applaud your desire to have objective morality, your position seems to me to be totally subjective. These things are wrong because you believe they are wrong--but you are the subject determining morality and your views are not shared by sadists. Why are you right and they wrong? There must be an answer to that that transcends you, right?

Gregory said...

God's decision to bring about salvation, through His Son, was not a decision made out of any necessity of His nature. In fact, God would have acted justly if He had simply let Adam, and the rest of mankind, remain in a state of perdition. But that is not what God chose to do.

In fact, God did not even allow "death to reign" (Rom. 5:14) as a matter of punishing the sins of men. Instead, God permitted the conditions of death on mankind so that He might die for us....and that we might live in Him. Yet, the process of salvation was not determined by any "law of logic", nor by any obligation to moral duty. God, and God alone, has acted in a truly supererogatory fashion. He has gone, as the popular saying goes, "above and beyond the call of duty", in providing mankind with salvation.

Just as Creation was wrought by no necessity within God's nature, even so with the Incarnation.

As such, the Christian Church praises and thanks God for the mystery of His mercy, while the world is confounded by the "unreasonableness" of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

And, as long as a person must think of everything as a product of "laws", whether they're moral, logical or natural, the Christian faith will appear to be "unreasonable". But I ask:

What "law" has ever given you Life? What "law" has descended from abstraction and dwelt among you, and redeemed you from your sins? Was salvation ever accomplished by the pens of Aristotle or Plato? Or, of Hume or Kant? Or, of Darwin or Einstein? Or, of Freud or Maslow?

As Christians, our obligation is not to "laws", as though "laws" were our life. Nor is our obligation to the school of philosophers, whose schismatic schools and ideas are forever at war with each other; from Plato to the present.

Instead, our obligation is to our merciful God, whose mercy and will to act transcend all our notions of law. Because Love is neither "rational", "legal" nor "natural".

Victor Reppert said...

It seems to me that if you have divine command morality, that means that you can figure out what is good if and only if God has issued commands to that person.

Unless you are more of a virtue ethicist, like me, and you think what God has commanded is that we possess certain states of moral character. If that's the case, then we can use the virtues that are commanded of us as a benchmark for assessing God's goodness. There are differences between the characteristics of God and of us, but there can be a discernable similarity between the character God wants from us and his own character, in which case one can say "God is good" without vacuity.

We may do this, however, only if, in the face of every possible difficulty, the Divine Command Theorist is not going to invoke the creature-creator distinction and exempt God from all possible criticism. There has to be a stopping point for that somewhere. Otherwise you do end up with an empty conception of goodness.

In particular, the whole process of reprobation looks to many of us to be analogous to actions that all of us would consider to be wrong. What Calvinists like to call "intuitions" about the wrongness or reprobation are based on analogies of this type. Now, the creature-creator distinction brings some disanalogy into the picture, but if every possible problem with God's goodness is considered solvable by the creator-creature distinction, then you really do empty the meaning of "God is good." Knowing that God is good tells us nothing about what God is going to do. Is he going to lie to me? Send me a strong delusion? Has he reprobated me? Will he even carry out what he says he will do? We have no reliable information. Even the authority of Scripture is based on a prior assurance that God will not lie to us. Whence cometh even that?

R. M. Adams, of course, solves these problems by saying that good is what a loving god commands.

Gregory said...

What I was alluding to was the fact that the datum of our observations of the external world (i.e. extrospection), as well as the internal world within us (i.e. introspection), are products of God's will, not God's nature. Though the universe is the revealed "energy" of God---as St. Paul puts it, the revealed δύναμις "dynamis" and θειότης "divinity" of God (Rom. 1:20)---it is not a slice cut out of God's nature. Hence, we say "creatio ex nihilo", creation from nothing. Not that "nothing" produced "something"...but that "something" was not formed out of pre-existent material. Rather, the universe came to be, ultimately, by the will of God. So our attribution of "power" to God does not occur from a "knowlege by acquaintance" of the nature of God, but rather through the mediation of God's "δύναμις" via His creation. What we can ascribe to God by observing the internal and external elements of His "creation" is ascribed to the operations His will, not of His nature. And this is because the material universe was not formed out of God's nature, nor was God moved by any kind of necessity, but, instead, proceeded by the operation of His will. So our reflections of "goodness", as a part of the "furniture of the universe", are reflections on the will of God. So when we say that God is "good", we are merely capitulating the manifestation of the God's will. To reach beyond that, to have penetrated insights into God beyond the scope of what He has manifested to us, is to fall back into the esoteric doctrines of Gnosticism.

And this illustrates a fundamental difference between Latin and Byzantine theology. Latin theology minimizes the "mystery" of God found in ordinary, lived experience. Instead, Western theologians focus more on a prior and rational conceptualizations of God qua the datum of theology proper...whether that comes from Scripture alone, or Scripture and elements of discursive reasoning. And, of course, there is a general tendency to distrust anything approaching "mysticism" or "religious experience". There are notable exceptions to that, like: George MacDonald, James Stewart, C.S. Lewis, Henry Blackaby, John Foster, J.P. Moreland, W.L. Craig and Dallas Willard.

And it is through the life we live in this world, as God's energy, that we participate in the life of God. We don't have to speculate on God's goodness via precising definitions of God's incorporeal Being, when we can experience the goodness of God by virtue of the fact that:

"...He makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust" (Matt. 5:45)

And C.S. Lewis is alluding to this when he speaks of "joy". The "surprise" that Lewis found in "joy" was that, contrary to his bitter resentment towards the idea of God, his longing after that experience of joy during his atheist years was really a longing after God Himself!!

Matt said...

I am wondering what versions of the divine command theory would be able to surmount this objection: namely, that if we define goodness in terms of God's commands, or even of God's nature, then "God is good" becomes non-informative. What we would mean would be "God obeys his own commands (does he give himself any?), or "God acts in accordance with his nature," which of course would be true if someone whose motivations with respect to all created beings were completely destructive.

there are several things here: first the objection assumes that a divine command theorist is offering a definition so that when we say X is good we mean X is commanded by God. Second the objection assumes a divine command theorist is offering an account of broad axiological properties such as goodness. The problem is neither assumption is true. Almost all divine command theorists Quinn, Craig, Plantinga, Alston, Wainwright, Wierenga Adams Evans etc do not offer a DCT as an account of goodness, they explicitly limit their theory to an account of deontological properties such as right and wrong. Moreover they also all (with the exemption of Adams earlier position which he latter retracted) do not claim to be offering a definition. They claim rather to be making a metaphysical claim that the property of wrongness is either dependent upon with or constituted by the property of being contrary to Gods commands.

If we put these misrepresentations to one side: the objection would need to go something like this: If [1] the property of wrongness is (is identical) with the property of being contrary to Gods commands, and [2] if goodness is understood in terms of doing no wrong, then [3] Gods goodness consists of him simply obeying his own commands, But as [4] but there is no value in obeying ones own commands. Hence Gods goodness is destroyed.

The problem is, and most DC theorists would note this, there appears no reason why the DC theorist should adopt [2] nothing in DCT states that goodness should be understood in deontological terms. Take for example the Westminster confessions elucidation of Gods goodness

[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the retarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Here God’s goodness is understood in terms of certain character traits, God is said to be loving, abundant in truth, etc, now as far as I can tell God having these traits is perfectly compatible with a DCT, of course there might be problems if one holds that God was morally required to posses them, but saying God is not morally required to have a trait does not mean he can’t have the trait. Hence a DC theorist could deny [2] and still substantively attribute certain traits to God. Moreover good could conceivable have these traits essentially.

For example, DCT proponents state that "God is good," while the DCT itself claims that "Good is whatever God commands." The Emptiness Objection transposes these statements and claims that saying "God is good" is the same as saying "God is whatever God commands." The argument is then made that this statement is empty, trivial or entirely without meaning.

This assumes DCT theories are propose definitions of the meanings of the word good. I noted above that this is false. Once this is noted the objection does not hold. Consider a well worn example the claim Water is H20 is not a trivial tautology despite the fact that we know that water and H20 are identical. Similarly if its true that the property of being wrong is identical with the property of being contrary to Gods commands it does not follow that the claim “God forbids what’s wrong” is a tautology.

Gordon Knight said...


So is this a divine command theory: the right (or wrong) thing to do is determined by the commands of a being that is infinitely good. Goodness exists, its all over the place (as is evil)but obligations don't exist except when there is a command or act of will by the extremely good deity.

Suppose God were to decide not to make any commands, not to will any actions right or wrong. Would we then have no moral obligations?

Mike Darus said...

Morality from God only makes sense when it is an expression of God's nature. It does not make sense when it is based on capricious commands. It also does not make sense when there is an external standard of goodness imposed on God.

In the OP, Victor dismisses the difference between divine command and morality based on God's nature but there is a huge difference. If based on divine command, our sense of morality only has a basis in revealed commands. There is no chance for a sense of morality to come from natural revelation. However, when morality is based on God's nature and a piece of that is communicated in the human participation of the image of God, our intuition (one source of natural revelation) has an opportunity to reflect God's nature. This accounts for our inclination to judge morality based on our internal standards. See Romans 2:12-15.

The next question will be to what degree we can trust our conscience since indications are that it can be degraded significantly.

The other benefit of morality based on God's nature is the import it provides where God is said to command an action that is contrary to our sense of morality and even apparently contrary to God's nature. Divine Nature morality makes this a true dilemma but also a real possibility in an extreme circumstance. One reason this can happen is that God's nature is not a single attribute. It is a combination of attributes that singly could be at cross purposes but together exhibit God's wisdom and will.

Victor Reppert said...

I didn't dismiss the difference between a divine command theory based on God's nature and one based on something else. It is just that if God's nature is the basis of the commands, can we read back from commanded morality and draw any conclusion about God's nature and how we can understand how God is good. If we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves and not to put political limits on who is my neighbor, is that supposed to tell us something about how God loves persons? Or is it completely beside the point? If it's beside the point, where to we get our ideas about what we could possibly mean if we say that God is good?

Mike Darus said...

I think you can read back from commanded morality to God's nature but with limitations.
1) God is not commanding Himself. God regulates His creation. As created, we cannot in turn regulate the creator.
2) We cannot require God to do for us what He asks us to do for each other. We can only do good to one another if God leaves that task for us. If God is required to rid the world of evil, there would be no evil left for us to conquer.
3) What is good for God is not always good for me. It may be good for God if I am tortured and killed. Our definition of "good" must be larger that "what is good for me." There must be some sense that when God creates and says that it is good, it supports life. But it does not need to be the best possible world in terms of the comfort and welfare of the created.
4) God's nature is likely much larger than what is revealed in His commands for us. As God reveals His will for us, we cannot think from that we will understand God's motives, purpose or goals. We are likely only a very small piece of God's daily agenda.
5) There are commands that God imposes on His creation that are primarily to remind us that we are creation, not the Creator. These commands will conversely reflect the nature of God. When God prohibits us from being jealous, it is because only He can be righteously jealous. God is permitted to create man in His image when man is prohibited from creating an image of God. God has the right to kill; man does not.