Thursday, April 25, 2013

Meta-ethics: Moral Realism Vs. Divine Command Theory

Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic and psychological presuppositions and commitments of moral theory and practice. It can be nicely described visually in the following chart:

I personally lean heavily towards moral realism and so my ethical theories fall under cognitivism. The divine command theory of ethics, which in some ways is the antithesis of moral realism, also falls under cognitivism, but is actually sub-categorized under subjectivism, despite its claims to be universal. Let me quickly compare and contrast the two.

Cognitivism is the thesis that moral statements are propositions in that they express beliefs that are either true or false. Let's define moral realism and ethical naturalism along with subjectivism and divine command theory.

Moral Realism:
  • Moral realism is the claim that there are objective moral facts.
  • Ethical naturalism states that moral facts are knowable through and reducible to non-moral facts about the universe and can be determined or understood through empirical observation. 
  • Moral subjectivism states that moral facts exist but they are dependent on subjective minds. 
  • Divine command theory states that moral facts are determined by the commandments of god.
Each of these theories has their pros and cons, as do all ethical theories. Let me highlight some of them for each.

Ethical naturalism:
  • Pro: Provides an objective foundation for morality
  • Con: Needs to solve the Is/Ought dilemma and the open question argument
Divine command theory:
  • Pro: Tries to establish moral facts without the problem of moral realism (Is/Ought and the open question argument)
  • Con: Epistemic problem (who can know for sure what god's commands are?), the Euthyphro dilemma, and god's existence is not observable. 

Moral Realism

OK. So now that we've defined each ethical theory and outlined some of their pros and cons we can compare and contrast the two. Under the ethical naturalism branch of moral realism, in order for a moral to truly be objective, it must be based off of facts that are independent of anyone's opinion. So no one's opinion, whether it come from a human mind, the mind of an advanced species of extra-terrestrial alien life, or god's mind, can determine an objective moral fact independently of the motives and consequences of the moral in question. Morality is founded in nature itself, in the real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of our moral actions hold the objective foundation.

When it comes the is Is/Ought dilemma we do have to grant an extra premise to come to the conclusion that an action is moral. For example, consider the following syllogism:

P: Torture is harmful
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The premise states a fact about the action of torture that it is indeed harmful. That is the non-moral fact that the conclusion is founded on. But how can we conclude that something is morally wrong just because it is harmful? To address the Is/Ought dilemma, we must rationally justify the conclusion by positing another premise. In this case, to conclude that torture is wrong because it is harmful, we must grant that harming someone is wrong. This goes without saying, but you can reach the conclusion that harming someone is wrong by knowing whether or not that person consented to being harmed and whether it will negatively affect them. So now consider the following addition:

P1: Torture is harmful
P2: Harming someone is wrong 
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The open question argument says that moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties (i.e. torture is harmful) because any attempt to conclude morality with a set of observable natural properties will always be an open question. So for example consider the syllogism:

P1: If X is good, then the question "Is it true that X is good?" is meaningless.
P2: The question "Is it true that X is good?" is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
C: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.

The objective morality found in ethical naturalism is not necessarily known a priori, it requires meaningful analysis. The open question argument assumes that "X is good" is knowable by definition. So for example, let's replace "X" with "kindness". 

P1: If kindness is good, then the question "Is it true that kindness is good?" is meaningless. 

I disagree. We cannot know if kindness is good without a meaningful analysis of its intentions and effects. Therefore the first premise of the open question argument might be analytically equivalent to good, and asking whether it is good can be meaningful. 

Divine Command Theory

Now let's turn to divine command theory. According to the theory, god, existing outside time and space reveals to us his moral commandments that determine what is morally right and wrong. Although this theory is classified under subjectivism, proponents claim that it provides a clear objective foundation for moral values and duties that bypasses the Is/Ought dilemma and the open argument dilemma. But it does have several of its own problems. Let's examine them.

The first problem is the epistemic problem. How can we know for sure what god's commands are? There are many competing religions each making their own truth claims, and there are many ways to interpret religious scripture. Also, texts were transcribed through many languages and many bare contradictions and signs of editing. People also claim to hear revelations from god all the time and we have no empirical way to validate any of them. 

Divine command theory proponents would all say that their religious scriptures are the only true messages of god and the others are either partly or wholly fabricated. It is possible to assess a probability factor to all religious texts based on their internal consistency, their metaphysical claims compared to current scientific knowledge, and their historicity compared to archaeological records, but all religious texts essentially fail a validity test on this standard.

Then there's the Euthyphro dilemma. A modern iteration of it asks, "Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it is good?" Neither the former or the latter are particularly welcoming to the theist. The former implies that good is arbitrarily determined by god, and the latter implies that good exists external to god, and god is just a mere messenger of the good. 

The most common response to avoid either horn of the dilemma is to say that god is good. The problem with that is that it fails to demonstrate that goodness cannot exist independent of god. For example, an intrinsic property of fire is hotness, but hot can exist independently of fire (i.e. microwaves, friction). Likewise, if goodness is an intrinsic property of god, that doesn't prove that goodness cannot exist independently of god. Also, if god can command something that would otherwise be wrong (i.e. to sacrifice one's first born), then the only factor determining the action's rightness or wrongness is god's commandment at that moment. That would mean that goodness is arbitrarily determined by god's commandments. 

There seems to be no way out of the Euthyphro dilemma, no matter how hard one tries.

Finally, god's existence is not observable and not verifiable. We must take his existence on at least some amount of faith. Unlike moral realism, which is based on observable and analytically verifiable facts, divine command theory might guide us towards values that are not corroborated with facts, and may even run counter to what we know benefits us. And we will be asked that we obey them essentially on faith, which we all know is fraught with problems. 

There seems to be no way to reconcile these problems when judging morals on a case-by-case basis under the divine command theory.

Now is this a totally fair and unbiased analysis of these two ethical theories? No, of course not. I admitted right from the get-go that I'm a moral realist. I've addressed the problems of moral realism and presented some arguments for divine command theory but my conclusion is that given the arguments against each theory, moral realism fairs better overall.

So in conclusion, we must all admit that every ethical theory contains its pros and cons. I certainly believe that moral realism faces challenges, but on analysis, I think its problems are more easily reconcilable than those of the divine command theory.

*I want to give special thanks to Nykytyne2 who made the following video here that helped inspire this blog posting and whose work I based much of this posts information off of, along with the help of Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 


  1. Interesting post. I will need to re-read before posting again, as this is a complex field, and one I am most interested in. Cheers.

  2. Tell me what you think and what area of meta-ethics you fall under and maybe we can go over them because I find meta-ethics fascinating too.

  3. Sry, will get back to this if I can. Very important subject because it applies universally (IMO) - that is, regardless of one's metaphysical stance as to atheism or theism (again, IMO). Thanks for responding.

    Just posted a piece entitled "Bat Day #12" in my 'What is Self' series at Take look if you get a chance, but I will get back here eventually. Great effort you are engaged in.



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