A Quest For Second Best

Over the past six months, the arguments I've read and wrote have led me to what I believe to be a logically-valid, undeniable argument for DCT's superiority over any other moral theory. As such, I state confidently today that all contemplation of "the best moral theory" is actually a quest for second best.

I've been testing this argument over at Common Sense Atheism, in this thread. The atheist reaction has varied. Sure, there have been some objections, but to date, all of them are either incoherent or supported by personal disdain for DCT as opposed to any cogent argument. Surprisingly, some atheists have actually conceded one or more of my premises, but nobody has successfully refuted a single one of them. At any rate, I think concession from even one atheist is a big step in the right direction for somebody arguing DCT!

Here's my argument, in syllogism form:

A) Facts are objective;

B) If they exist, moral facts are objective in the same way other facts are objective;

C) Moral facts exist;

D) An omniscient, omnibenevolent God would have perfect access to the set of moral facts;

E) A system of morality dictated by an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is therefore the best system of morality possible.

I don't think anybody will object to A. As an example of an objective fact, let's take the claim, "The continental US is composed of 48 states." Until we encounter a state of affairs in which the continental US is not composed of 48 states, the claim remains true for everybody, regardless of any counterargument.

As for B, I've simply prefixed an adjective to the noun, which shouldn't change anything. A historic fact is just as objective as a scientific fact, which is just as objective as a legal fact, which is just as objective as a moral fact.

Regarding C, before proffering their existence, perhaps I should clarify what I mean by moral fact. My crudest response would be, "a fact that pertains to morality," but since that doesn't help much, let's cut to the chase and offer an example. Let's borrow from desirism and take the claim, "stealing always results in one or more thwarted desire(s)." I will argue that, just as the claim about the continental US having 48 states is objectively true for everybody, the claim that stealing always results in a one or more thwarted desire(s) is also objectively true for everybody. So, I believe that moral facts exist.

Everything else should fall neatly into place after that. An omniscient, omnibenevolent God would know the effect of any act A given agents B-Z. So, if God were to say something like, "Thou shalt not steal," we have a divine command – that is, a moral prescription – founded on objective fact. 

Aside from being airtight given its premises, another upside is that my argument effectively resolves Euthyphro's dilemma, which, in my experience, is the most common objection to variants of Divine Command Theory, often expressed thusly:

Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?

I'm taking the first horn of the challenge, and answering that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God commands the good because it is good. An omniscient, omnipotent God knows what is good because such a God has perfect access to the set of moral facts.

There are some who will say I can't do that. For example, the writer(s) at moralphilosophy.info:

Suppose that the divine command theorist takes the first horn of the dilemma, asserting that God commands the good because it is good. If God commands the good because it is good, then he bases his decision what to command on what is already morally good. Moral goodness, then, must exist before God issues any commands, otherwise he wouldn’t command anything. If moral goodness exists before God issues any commands, though, then moral goodness is independent of God’s commands; God’s commands aren’t the source of morality, but merely a source of information about morality. Morality itself is not based in divine commands.

That's all true, but the objection is primarily semantic, and certainly not problematic. In order to successfully rebut this objection, all I need to do is either justify calling DCT "divine command theory," or replace it with some other name like "Moral Fact" theory. Personally, I think DCT remains an accurate name, because the "theory" still amounts to "divine commands" at the end of the day. That God merely relays moral goodness as opposed to moral goodness being an emergent property of God seems a moot point. The salient point is, what we call the theory is of marginal importance compared to the establishment of the theory's veracity – which I have already established.

Now, I might agree that DCT is a subjective moral theory, if we were discussing a non-omniscient, non-omnibenevolent God or gods, but we're not. I also understand that once you accept my arguments, other questions might remain. For example, one might ask something like, "I agree that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is the best possible source of morality, but why is the God of the Bible such a moral monster?" Or, one might be thinking something like, "Well yeah, an omniscient, omnibenevolent God would certainly be the best source of morality, but where's the evidence that such a God exists?" Another line of objection might be, "Logic establishes the incoherence of omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God." Or, one might argue from the fact of divine hiddenness and say something like, "Well, we don't have access to such a God, and have to rely on what other people say."

Of course, those are responses I'm always willing to discuss, so long as the inquirer is honest and grants that their answers are of no import to the veracity of the argument in this post.

So, in conclusion, all contemplation of "the best moral theory" is actually a quest for second best.

17 Comments

  1. Kip says:

    It wouldn’t be a “second best theory”, but a “second best” (or even “far distant best”) implementation of the theory. The theory would be exactly the same, just that having an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful agent who could implement the theory would necessarily mean that the implementation is going to be a lot better.
    Like anything else we do with our limited knowledge and power, we have “error bars” that make our implementation not 100% accurate. An omni-quality agent would not have these limitations, so could achieve 100% accuracy. But, that doesn’t mean the theory itself, the ideas, the underlying concepts are necessarily second best. (It could mean the underlying ideas were entirely wrong, but it doesn’t mean they would have to be.)

  2. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Haven’t looked at the arguments going on that you linked, but I would like to ask, has anyone looked at your DCT and said:
    “Yeah, that’d be the best one, but since there is no God, so what?”
    If I was arguing politics with a liberal, who wants to blame everything on greed, and the liberal states that the world would be better off if people weren’t greedy, I would just agree with him and say “Yeah, it would, but that will never be the case, ever, so what’s your point?” And then laugh at him.

  3. MS says:

    “I will argue that, just as the claim about the continental US having 48 states is objectively true for everybody, the claim that stealing always results in a one or more thwarted desire(s) is also objectively true for everybody. So, I believe that moral facts exist.”
    Hey cl,
    Good to see you writing again. Let me see if I’m understanding you. By “exist”, do you intend the moral set of facts to exist as abstract objects? If that’s what C intends, I’d think you’d have more work to do to demonstrate the existence of the set of moral facts.
    Or, are you saying that God omnisciently and omnibenevolently apprehends the relationship and actions of moral beings or situations, much like the 48 contiguous states, and by virtu of his omni’s declares what’s right and wrong? Or something else altogether…

  4. cl says:

    Kip,

    It wouldn’t be a “second best theory”, but a “second best” (or even “far distant best”) implementation of the theory. The theory would be exactly the same, just that having an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful agent who could implement the theory would necessarily mean that the implementation is going to be a lot better.

    Agreed. That’s essentially what I had in mind. I’m actually of the opinion that Fyfe ironically provided a better foundation for DCT than any theologian or theist philosopher I’ve heard.
    Dominic,

    Yeah, that’d be the best one, but since there is no God, so what?

    Of course I anticipated objections of that nature! Come on son! You know I tend to attract the most flippant of atheists (and no, that’s not a backhanded jab at you, I believe your contributions justify your flippancy).
    Seriously though, I’d laugh harder at the person making that objection.
    MS,

    Good to see you writing again.

    Thanks buddy. In all honesty, I’ve been writing all along, I just hadn’t been writing new posts here. If you take a look at the threads in the Common Sense Atheism: Index post, you’ll see what I mean.

    By “exist”, do you intend the moral set of facts to exist as abstract objects?

    I think objects wouldn’t be the best word. To use the word object commits us to matter without justification. Ontologically, I’m treating moral facts as abstract entities, perhaps an equation is a decent analogy. It’s an abstract logical entity whose validity and existence is independent of any opinions. Given this clarification, would you still say that I have more work to do?

    Or, are you saying that God omnisciently and omnibenevolently apprehends the relationship and actions of moral beings or situations, much like the 48 contiguous states, and by virtu of his omni’s declares what’s right and wrong?

    I’m pretty sure I’m not saying that. Rather, I’m saying God’s omniscience allows God to know the effect of any act A given agents B-Z. Referring back to the stealing example, even before the first theft ever occurred, God would know that that the theft would thwart the desires of the victim.
    God’s omnibenevolence constrains God to only that set of prescriptions which maximizes the good. Granted, the task of defining the good remains, and may never be solved.

  5. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Just wondering if anyone surprised you by actually saying it. My own opinion regarding “internet atheists” (as opposed to atheists in general, mind you) has been slowly declining the more I read on various blogs and forums.
    When I read A-E in the original post above, I said to myself “yeah, that’d be the very best, who would disagree with this?”, but the prospect of digging through who knows how many forum posts wasn’t terribly appealing.

  6. Kenny Kose says:

    There is no more arrogant or ignorant claim one can make about him or herself than that they are not at least “a little presumptuous,”– particularly if you’re talking about your own capacity to rise above the limits of the natural human biases that impact our ability to objectively assess things as complicated and controversial as moral theory.

  7. cl says:

    Thanks, Kenny Kose. Glad to see we’ve apparently got different senses of humor.
    Did you have anything to say that actually relates to the argument(s)? Or, were you just doing an intellectual drive-by of sorts??

  8. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Drive by, definitely.

  9. MS says:

    “Given this clarification, would you still say that I have more work to do?”
    Nope. Doesn’t sound like you’re claiming existence for them. You’re just probably going to have to answer that same question for every new reader because of the word “exist.” :)
    “Rather, I’m saying God’s omniscience allows God to know the effect of any act A given agents B-Z.”
    Sounds like God’s middle knowledge as explicated under Molinism, especially if he possesses this knowledge prior to creation as a set of all possible worlds. If so, it’s a very powerful and well-tried philosophy undergirding your argument.
    “If you take a look at the threads in the Common Sense Atheism: Index post, you’ll see what I mean.”
    I saw that from your index thread. Quite the conversation, I thought…

  10. TaiChi says:

    Hi cl.
    There’s not much to quibble about in your argument, but that’s because it doesn’t take a stance on what morality is, only who would know it. As such you haven’t actually given a theory of morality. Compare:
    1. Physical facts exist.
    2. An omniscient, omnibenevolent God would have perfect access to the set of physical facts.
    3. A physics dictated by an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is therefore the correct physics.
    All correct, of course, but it doesn’t provide us with any actual physics, and so doesn’t suffice as a physical theory. So what are you doing with your argument? I think by pointing out God’s omniscience you are instead hinting at a certain epistemological thesis, that we should look to God to find out what is morally correct, providing he exists. Whether or not that’s right depends upon whether we can reliably tell what God wants, and you might want to extend your argument in this direction, if you accept this reorientation.

  11. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Good point.

  12. Zeb says:

    What TaiChi said. It sounds like you might be buying into the desirist theory of what is moral, but a dct theory of how to know what is moral. If so, I’m right there with you. Of course, if you can establish that God actually is a reliably available source of moral commands, you could just say that he knows the correct theory and analysis of what is moral so wd don’t have to, but that’s no fun.

  13. cl says:

    MS,

    Doesn’t sound like you’re claiming existence for them. You’re just probably going to have to answer that same question for every new reader because of the word “exist.” :)

    Actually, I’m claiming abstract existence for them. Do you think using the word “exist” is potentially misleading because people generally will assume I refer to material existence?
    TaiChi,

    [your argument] doesn’t take a stance on what morality is, only who would know it. As such you haven’t actually given a theory of morality.

    I agree. I can grant something like what Kip already said: that we’ve actually demonstrated the best implementation of a moral theory. A theory is technically a model that attempts to explain some phenomena, right? I’ve outlined why a certain type of theory is pragmatically superior to all competitors. When it comes to delineating the theory itself, well… at least for now, the argument presumes that morality is something like desirism.
    Zeb,

    It sounds like you might be buying into the desirist theory of what is moral, but a dct theory of how to know what is moral.

    That’s pretty accurate, although, by no means do I swallow the desirist theory whole.

    ..if you can establish that God actually is a reliably available source of moral commands, you could just say that he knows the correct theory and analysis of what is moral so we don’t have to, but that’s no fun.

    How might a less-than omniscient being reliably establish anything about an omniscient one? If we concede that such is impossible, does faith assume rational merit?

  14. MS says:

    “Do you think using the word “exist” is potentially misleading because people generally will assume I refer to material existence?”
    Yes, compounded with those, like me, who wondered whether it existed as an abstract object, say, like the number three (if the #3 does in fact exist). When you say abstract existence, I hear you saying Platonism, initially.

  15. cl,

    As always, I’m honestly curious: how do you propose we get moral knowledge from God? How do you use God to determine what is right or wrong on, for example, homosexuality?

  16. […] he’s so confident that this is the case that he regards atheistic moral contemplation as a “quest for second best.” First, a paraphrase of his […]

  17. Cl,

    We’ve been discussing your argument here on my essay “A Debate: Me vs. Cl on the Evidential Problem of Evil”. Just in case this didn’t come to your attention, I wanted to give you the opportunity to defend yourself.

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