The “Divine command” theory of ethics: is it more common than we think?

Caveat emptor: I am not a philosopher and proffer these posts, as always, as tentative thoughts, designed to hone my ideas, inspire conversation, and learn from my readers.

It has always seemed to me that Plato’s Euthyphro argument pretty much disposed of the claim that morals are grounded in God.  If you need a refresher, that’s simply the argument that if morals are underlain by God’s commands, then anything that God commands is good by definition. (Plato used “piety” rather than “morality,” but the argument is the same.) But by those lights God could say, “Stoning adulterous women is the moral thing to do” and we’d have to go along with it.  (This is, in fact, the “divine command” theory—DCT used by William Lane Craig to justify the genocide of the Canaanites.)

But of course few of us want to adhere to the notion that whatever God says is moral must be moral, since that opens the door for some pretty dire divine commands. (You can see a lot of these in the Old Testament.) The traditional theological response is that “Of course God would never order us to do those kinds of things, because God is good.”  Plato uses that argument (again, for piety) to show that if you make this riposte, you are using an extra-God criterion for goodness—that is, a secular criterion.  If God is good, and therefore could not issue immoral commands, then there must be an external standard of good, independent of God, by which we can claim that God is good.

The theological responses to the Euthyphro dilemma have not convinced me, and so the argument has seemed dispositive: our notions of morality come from either secular reason, evolution, or observation of what behaviors keep a society cohesive.

But then I realized that in fact there are many people who do follow Craig’s “divine command’ theory even though they’d probably deny it, and even though they’re not nearly as wedded to that crazy idea as is Craig.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church. Many of its adherents take their morality directly from Scripture (i.e., from God) because they think that whatever Scripture says, or however it’s interpreted by Church authorities, is moral simply because the Church says so.  Things like the following, for example, would probably never be arrived at by secular reason alone. It takes religion. Catholic dogma sees these things as moral acts or opinions:

•Opposition to birth control (even to prevent AIDS)
•Opposition to abortion (based on the view that life begins at conception, when the soul is instilled)
•Opposition to stem cell research (same reason as above)
•Opposition to divorce
•Opposition to homosexuality (viewed as a “grave disorder” or, if acted on, a “grave sin”)
•Control of people’s sex lives
•Oppression of women
•Instillation of fear and guilt in children
While I suppose you can argue that some secular societies could arrive at a few of these views, I see these as stemming, in the main, from scripture. Really, what secular society would come to the notion that it’s immoral to use condoms or engage in stem-cell research?
All of these claims—some of them are inherent in Islam as well—arise from the idea they are divinely-dictated views of morality.  They cannot be justified by secular reason alone, and therefore cannot be easily seen as moral if you use extra-religious criteria.

116 Comments

  1. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    ….money, power and control of the masses…..thats what its always really been about…

  2. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Divine command theory is nothing but “might makes right”.

    It’s fundamental problem is, besides ignoring the is/ought distinction, the question what right god has to determine morality. The traditional answer, because god created the universe, is flawed, since one can argue that we didn’t consent to be created in the first place.

  3. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I’d have thought that Divine Command Theory is very widespread among the religious. One often encounters the argument that there cannot be morality without a god to command it.

  4. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Your analysis of the Euthyphro is pretty right-on. Plato’s discussion poses a dilemma: God is either the creator or the reporter of morality. If He’s the creator of morality, then indeed, He could have made torture obligatory and kindness impermissible. That seems crazy. (Also, it removes any interesting content from ‘God is good.’) But if He’s merely the reporter of morality, then His existence isn’t required for the existence of moral truths.

    However, one can take one’s moral authority from Scripture or the Church without being a Divine Command Theorist. DCT most commonly says that moral truths arise because of, or dependent upon, God’s commands. So the Catholic (e.g.) can say that these are absolute moral truths (needing no creator), and that God has simply reported all of them to us. You don’t have to think that God created morality to think that our moral obligations are all and only God’s commands.

    • Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      So the Catholic (e.g.) can say that these are absolute moral truths (needing no creator), and that God has simply reported all of them to us.

      Then the Catholic god is not the creator of all that is, and is powerless to change the definition of that which is good. This god is then reduced to a provincial god at best, the lord of this small corner of the cosmos. A galactic-scale regular schmuck with a pet ant colony, if you will.

      Impressive, perhaps, but hardly the fundamental ground round of all being that they would also, simultaneously, contradictorily believe in.

      b&

      • Spinoza
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Catholics, as far as I understand, would have no problem saying that an infinitely good God does what is good. Similarly, an omnipotent creator cannot do what is logically impossible. To be all-powerful is to be able to do whatever it is possible to do. That is one of the reasons theodicies are possible. Ratzinger got into a bit of trouble for pointing out that Catholicism and Islam are irreconcilable in that the church believes God is knowable to some extent by rational analysis whereas Islamic tradition takes Allah to transcend reason.

        Perhaps the most distasteful implication of DCT is Calvinist justification of predestination. We are all fallen, and thus all worthy of damnation, but God in his goodness chooses to save some of us, which is really nice. He can do that because he is ultimately sovereign and is free to choose to do whatever, and the act of electing to save a few – and leaving the rest to burn in hell – is considered miraculously benevolent.

        • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

          To be all-powerful is to be able to do whatever it is possible to do.

          As with all apologetics, this “definition” is absurdist.

          The religious would argue that Jesus remains omnipotent despite the fact that he can’t draw a (representation of a) triangle in Euclidean space with two right angles. Well, fine — but then the fact that I can’t do it either can’t be held against me when I go to claim my membership in the omnipotence club.

          The religious would suggest that, since I can’t run a four-minute mile, I’m clearly not omnipotent. But what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China? It’s not possible for me to run a four-minute mile, so that’s part of the “not possible” set of things that us omnipotent beings get a pass on.

          The religious might then point to other humans who can run a four-minute mile, but again, that’s as irrelevant as the fact that I can draw a triangle with two right angles — just so long as it’s in a spherical space. Indeed, you could do it in the real world in the proximity of a sufficiently strong gravitational field, though the engineering would be a bit of a challenge.

          The fact remains that the particular geometric configuration that is me embedded in our Einsteinian / Quantum geometry is no more logically capable of running a four-minute mile than it is of drawing a two-right-angle triangle on a flat sheet of paper. So if Jesus gets a pass on the triangle, so do I — and I also get a pass on all the rest of the geometric impossibilities…which, oh-by-the-way, also just happen to be so-called “physical” impossibilities.

          Oh, and congratulations. You’re omnipotent, too.

          Also: there are all sorts of things that I can do that Jesus can’t. For example, I can commit suicide; an omnipotent being can’t. If I were king, I could abdicate my throne; Jesus can’t. I can truly feel powerless; Jesus can’t. And so on.

          The short version is that the religious omni-whatever concepts only superficially make sense in the same mindset in which “infinity” is just another really, really, REALLY big number. But once you’re too old to count your age on your fingers, you should have sophisticated enough reasoning skills to understand why that’s meaningless.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            Crap – that was one evil I forgot to mention that the god inflicts on us — can’t even kill ourselves when things are dire or right to the lake of fire! In practical terms this means euthanasia is denied to all humans but given as a kindness to pets of humans.

          • Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

            “And your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.”

            /@

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Hi Ben Goren,

        I agree that the God Who cannot create moral truths is less impressive in some ways than the God Who can. But at least, as mentioned, it makes sense to say ‘God is good’ if God measures up to a moral standard outside Himself. That might be a point in favor of saying God merely reports morality.

        If the theist maintains that moral truths are necessary truths, then she can say that God cannot do the impossible and so cannot change necessary truths. He could still be pretty powerful, of course; controlling all contingent truths

        • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          Tom, the boundary between “contingent” and “necessary” is as incoherent as the one between “logically” and “physically” impossible. See my reply above to Spinoza for details.

          b&

          • Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

            Ben Goren,

            I guess you could deny that there is any such thing as a coherent conception of possibility such that God can do anything metaphysically possible. There’s a huge literature on varieties of modality, so I guess with the space we have here, I can only say that religious believers have written a lot trying to answer your objections.

            • Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

              That the scam artists have been prolific at their attempts to convince suckers of the legitimacy of their scams should hardly be surprising, especially considering the profit margin in such endeavors.

              But it doesn’t matter how many times or in how many ways they try to legitimize the concept of an infinitely finite property, any more than were they trying to legitimize the concepts of wise fools or the wealthy poor or married bachelorhood. Or how many people think they’re going to live in death in simple splendor north of the North Pole. No amount of sophistry can make the incoherent coherent.

              b&

    • Gary W
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      DCT most commonly says that moral truths arise because of, or dependent upon, God’s commands. So the Catholic (e.g.) can say that these are absolute moral truths (needing no creator), and that God has simply reported all of them to us.

      Sounds like double-talk to me. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean to say that moral truths “arise because of” God’s commands, but are not “created” by God’s commands. If they “arise because of” God’s commands then they wouldn’t exist without God’s commands. Which means God’s commands created them. In which case the commands are not simply “reporting” the truths.

      • Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:18 am | Permalink

        I think what’s causing the confusion here is that you are taking the Catholic example as a CASE of DCT, while Tom was saying that the Catholic example is an example of taking scripture as a moral example or guide WITHOUT accepting DCT.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          No, I’m pointing out the contradiction in what Tom said.

          • Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:05 am | Permalink

            Except that contradiction assumes that Tom is describing Catholics as holding to DCT, which doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying. Look at the whole paragraph again:

            However, one can take one’s moral authority from Scripture or the Church without being a Divine Command Theorist. DCT most commonly says that moral truths arise because of, or dependent upon, God’s commands. So the Catholic (e.g.) can say that these are absolute moral truths (needing no creator), and that God has simply reported all of them to us. You don’t have to think that God created morality to think that our moral obligations are all and only God’s commands.

            So, to me, the most reasonable interpretation of this is that the Catholic can take moral authority from scripture without having to take the DCT line and argue that moral truths are dependent on God’s commands, by claiming that He is simply reporting what is and isn’t moral. So when you point out that it is contradictory to think that morality arises from God and that God could be just reporting morality, you’re right … but Tom is agreeing with you, and pointing out that you can still think that scripture has moral authority nonetheless.

            • Gary W
              Posted July 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

              Well if that’s what he meant it, and Catholicism does not assert DCT, then Catholics are sitting on the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma and are faced with the problem of where morality comes from if not God’s commands.

              • Posted July 31, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

                Which is the exact same problem that anyone who thinks that we have any meaningful notion of morality — whether a theist or not — has to deal with, so not a particularly big problem for anyone who’s willing to look at or do the philosophy on the issue.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                No, it’s not a problem for “anyone who thinks that we have any meaningful notion of morality.” It’s a problem for people who claim there is such a thing as moral facts or “objective morality.” Catholics, for example.

  5. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    The reason the Craig line has so much traction in some circles seems to be not born out of slavish adherence to scripture but more one of convenience.

    Ethical problems are difficult (modern ones even more so) and you have have to follow complicated arguments assiduously to get a decent approximation of what is the right thing to do in certain situations. DCT is a very lazy way out of doing that. People are less interested in being on god’s side than they are in being on a definitive side.

    • Pliny the in Between
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I think you are spot on. To your comment about being on the definitive side, I would also add being on a culturally defensible side without having to expend too much effort.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Yes, I think DCT is lazy. I also think it’s much worse – those that don’t see morality as divine command, still don’t see morality as a human thing. They don’t give it much thought but they are dualists and think of morality, the mind as separate from themselves.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Theists of whatever persuasion have never strictly adhered to scripture; they just cherry-pick the passages that best suit their needs at any one time.

      If they did rigorously stick to whatever book they’ve been told is ‘the good one’, then they would, for instance, have to call for those who wear clothing of more than one clothe to be stoned to death, if they wished to condemn homosexuality. Just tell that to a bishop in his wool, cotton, satin, damask, velvet, and gold brocade!

      Then, of course, there are the bible’s numerous outright contradictions.

      One of the TV channels in the UK is running a series of 5-minute shorts, looking at ramadan and the quran. In one that I did catch, a guy described the quran as a “recipe book for life”. What he said, essentially was that, if you want to make a statement or make a claim, then there will be a passage in the quran to support it. If however, you change your mind, then there will be another passage that supports the contrary argument. This, of course, is why islam is the ‘religion of peace’, but also justifies suicide bombing.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Not exactly on topic. I believe we were discussing why people invest in DCT, not specific divine commands…

  6. Myron
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Unsurprisingly, Craig rejects the view that the Euthyphro dilemma defeats the DCT:

    “We don’t need to refute either of the two horns of the Euthyphro dilemma, because the dilemma it presents is a false one: There’s a third alternative, namely, God wills something because He is good. What do I mean by that? I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments to us are expressions of His nature. In short, our moral duties are determined by the commands of a just and loving God.
    So moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so on. His nature is the moral standard defining good and bad. His commands necessarily reflect His moral nature. Therefore, they’re not arbitrary. When the atheist demands, ‘If God were to command child abuse, would we be obliged to abuse our children?’ he’s asking a question like ‘If there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides?’ There is no answer because what it supposes is logically impossible.
    So the Euthyphro dilemma presents us with a false choice, and we shouldn’t be tricked by it. The morally good/bad is determined by God’s nature, and the morally right/wrong is determined by His will. God wills something because He is good, and something is right because God wills it.”

    (Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010. pp. 135-36)

    If God exists and is essentially good, then God not only doesn’t but also couldn’t command anything morally bad. So, for Craig conditional statements such as “‘If God were to command child abuse, we would be obliged to abuse our children” are so-called counterpossible conditionals (counterpossibles, in short), whose antecedent is impossibly true. And counterpossibles are merely vacuously true according to the standard, Lewisian semantics of such conditionals. Craig is right about that semantic account of counterpossibles, but what he doesn’t mention is that this account is nevertheless contentious, there being many other philosophers who think that it is not the case that all counterpossibles have vacuous truth values. For example, I fail to see how Craig could deny the nonvacuous truth of “If God didn’t exist, then the physical universe wouldn’t exist”. He holds that “God does not exist” is impossibly true, and so, given his view, the statement turns out to be a nonvacuously true counterpossible, because there is a real causal and existential dependence relation between God and the physical universe.

    For this reason I conclude that Craig’s general rejection of counterpossible conditionals as vacuously true in principle is indefensible, so that he must accept the example above as nonvacuously true. And this means that he fails to escape the Euthyphro dilemma: It still follows from the DCT that child abuse would be morally good if God commanded it, no matter whether or not God would be able to command it.

    • Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      WLC: “I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments to us are expressions of His nature.”

      So if God’s nature were to enjoy torturing children then torturing children would be moral. WLC fails to understand, and thus fails to refute, Euthyphro.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Yes. His “solution” is just a rephrasing of one of the horns!

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Or perhaps he understands too well that the dilemma hooks him one way or another, so he weasels about trying to have his cake and eat it too.

        • Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          … so he weasels about trying to have his cake and eat it too.

          Come on, he wouldn’t stoop to that; these theologians have wisdom and insight far beyond ours (we’re told).

    • David
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Craig is blinded by those horns spinning in his eyes like tops. In the book “God or Godless” which Jerry kindly alerted us to as a free download for a day, the atheist debater, John, affirms the statement, “The Biblical God Required Child Sacrifices for His Pleasure” and uses Exodus 22:29-30 which says, “You shall not delay to offer from the fulness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. (RSV)” And the Bible record is that child sacrifices occurred for a thousand years until the reformations of King Josiah and Ezekiel after exiles and returns from the more civilized cultures of Assyria and Babylon.

      And the Christian debater, Randall, concurs, not in his opening statement where he rumbles about saying God is good and would never do evil, but in his rebuttal where he says, “There is good evidence that at some point in their history the Hebrews believed that it was proper to relate to God through human sacrifice.” Well, duh! God commanded it, for Christ’s sake!

      Perhaps Craig reads only from modern Bibles where the language in new translations is whitewashed away to ensure that God is always good both by means of the twistings of theology and the rewriting of the eternal and “inerrant” words of Yahweh.

      “God’s own nature is the standard of goodness” as long as theologians like Craig define what is God’s nature and what is the standard of goodness. What an idiotic pursuit is theology.

      Is there any wonder why Craig didn’t use the Bible to defend the Bible as Christian debater Randall did and failed miserably in the attempt. Craig rather turned to philosophy where one argues the argument not the facts.

  7. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I believe Richard has had an useful evolutionary take on the matter — specifically, in that there is an evolutionary advantage for children who unquestioningly obey their parents. A child is much more likely to survive to adulthood with a parent who can simply say, “Don’t eat that!” when the child will simply obey.

    This translates perfectly into the Divine Command Theory, with the notable problem that you’re supposed to grow out of that sort of thing as you yourself reach adulthood.

    “Because I said so” is a perfectly valid reason for a parent telling a child about to jump off the cliff into the crocodile-infested pool not to do so. It’s also a really stupid way to determine domestic and international policy.

    b&

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      +1. There is so much infantile about faith, and it seems clearly to be a product of the infancy or pre-pubescent development of humanity. In humanity’s adulthood there is no place for it.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Ugh, my mother was right then when she admonished me for questioning her with “one day I’ll need to tell you to do something and you’ll question something and then you’ll get killed”. Jeez, then give me all the right information the first time (I thought quietly to myself) I seemed to survive though. :)

    • Greg Esres
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      ““Because I said so” … stupid way to determine domestic and international policy.”

      I can’t help but believe that people stumble into this position after their more rational arguments are destroyed by their opponents.

  8. Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    “is it more common than we think?”

    I’m here to say that not only is it more common than we think, it’s more common than we could possibly imagine.

    We’re literally surrounded by people that are thoroughly convinced that every thing that happens happens for a reason. And that reason resides in heaven. For them, everything is a “sign” from above.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree. When I had an extensive dialogue with my devoutly Catholic friend, she told me that morality comes from god and that doing good things honours god because god doesn’t need anything else; he only needs that you do good things (I kept my mouth shut about how jealous god is and how he insists that you can’t go out and see other gods:)). From her description of morality, it is clear that she sees it as external and of god.

      The fatalism of “everything happens for a reason” is a bit different but consistent with the dualism and self delusion that humans embed in their religion and you’re right that it is rampant. I suspect it’s a bit more than dualism though and maybe just lazy thinking as people espousing it try to find meaning in things where there is none (why did I get downsized? Must be because everything happens for a reason!). It is actually so common that people assume you subscribe to this (even people who know you are an atheist!) as betrayed in their grammar, “well everything happens for a reason, right, so (without skipping a beat insert whatever happened here)”.

      Furthermore, many people don’t think these things through. They haven’t gotten past the delusion of self and dualism is a powerful delusion and the morality part – either they see it as from god if they are religious or they see it as something out there (dualism) of they aren’t particularly religions.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        A couple of nights ago I invited my 53-year-old cousin to have a couple of drink with me. He is a former Catholic priest who got divorced, entered the priesthood, got ordained and then 4 years later left the priesthood and married one of the parishioners! I call him, “Father Bill”.

        Father Bill is in town to visit his parents for about a week (his father is in a nursing home, atrophied from the waist down w/ a colostomy bag hanging out of his torso, waiting to expire and his mother (my aunt) is in terrible physical shape, unable to walk more than a few steps w/o hanging on to something, w/ spine abnormalities and a serious case of arthritis).

        The main purpose of my visit w/ him was to learn more of Bill’s journey from Lt. Colonel in the US Air Force to divorcing his first wife of nine years to becoming an ordained Catlick voodooist to hooking up w/ one of the parish’s women, marrying her and then leaving the priesthood (after only 4 years) to “settling down” in a DC suburb w/ his new wife to finding employment w/ a military outfit and restarting a “new life.”

        Quite a journey, huh.

        I was most interested to learn how Bill viewed the last 10 years of his life and I asked him pointedly to talk w/ me about it. I spoke very little during the three hours that we spent at the bar (other than to ask questions to clarify what he was revealing). I listened intently as Bill described the events of his life during the past decade.

        Here’s what I learned about Father Bill: he’s a person wondering through life looking for “signs” from god to give him “direction” in life. It’s really that simple.

        Is Bill, now 53, any more enlightened or self-aware than he was 10 years ago? Absolutely not. In fact, Father Bill readily admits to “living a very sheltered life” and not having any more knowledge or insight (about the reality of his own life or anyone else’s) today than he did ten years ago. He is firmly convinced that god is leading him this way and then that, opening “doors” that he “steps through” only to find that, so far, it was another “false door.” He is still quite receptive to any “signs that he receives.” For Bill, everything he experiences in life is a “sign from above” and is happening for a reason.

        My assessment: Bill is the classic example of the willfully ignorant person. He doesn’t read, doesn’t pursue enlightenment or intellectual refinement of any sort and readily admits that he doesn’t in the least bit care about the fact that he basically has the thinking and reasoning abilities of a 10-year-old. He firmly believes that his future is in gawd’s hands and he’s “listening,” as well as he can, for god’s next “door opening.”

        Pathetic. Just freakin’ pathetic. I’m still shakin’ my head. I am simply unable to comprehend this level of ignorance and self-delusion. But I realize – it’s everywhere.

        We’re bobbing is a sea of muck.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          So basically, Jesus is Father Bill’s second ex-wife.

          • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            Never thought of it that way, but yes, I guess you’re right! Holyfreakinmoley.

            Oh, it’s all so freakin’ sad.

            Morans, we’re surrounded by Morans.

            • Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              I hope Larry’s not reading this…

              /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha, I was going to say the same thing! I was also going to ask if Larry was the uncle.

        • David
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          Since the Bible itself defines faith as “believing your hopes to be true without evidence” (Heb 11.1), then of course reading for intellectual refinement and personal development are pointless exercises as they not only demonstrate a lack of faith, but force the mind to turn away from being receptive to “signs” from God. Farther Bill is just a common garden variety fatheist, interpreting life through the foggiest of lenses.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        This view is tempting and easy for people to adopt, and the only way out is careful thought.

        The really wickedly insidious part about Christian doctrine is that they are trained to think that reason is a trick from the devil, that you should surrender your heart to god, and close your mind to Satan.

        • Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          “…. they are trained to think that reason is a trick from the devil…”

          This is particularly true of fundie cults like the Jehovah Witnesses, much less so of “mainstream” Catholics.

          Personally, I think they all suffer from the same fundamental cognitive disorder: the propensity to feel both satisfied and clueless.

          It’s an insidious, debilitating disorder.

  9. jesperbothpedersen1
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The traditional theological response is that “Of course God would never order us to do those kinds of things, because God is good.”

    I’ve never understood that argument. By which standards are god supposed to be good? His own?

    Or are their some golden rules that are supposed to be eternal and universal?

    That’s why I almost always end up where I started when contemplating morals in a religious framework. It simply doesn’t make sense unless you willingly submit yourself to a notion of good and evil as something static and
    unchangeable defined by an omnipotent all-knowing entity.

    In short: Discussing morals is like discussing the colour of sleep. Tiresome and more often than not, pointless.

  10. Greg Esres
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “me that Plato’s Euthyphro argument pretty much disposed of the claim that morals are grounded in God.”

    I don’t think so. All the argument does is expose the logical consequences of that belief and relies on the repulsiveness of those consequences for its persuasiveness. The argument only works on people that have some confidence in their own moral intuition.

    • Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Yes, this is an important point. If one accepts Divine Command Theory, the question becomes, “Why do so many of the things my deity wants seem to be evil?” The adherents of DCT might say that true believers can feel that those things are right simply because they are god’s will.

      On the other hand, Mr. Zuss (I mean, YHWH) himself gives a different answer to Job. When Job asks why he has to suffer, in spite of his virtue (and actually, although Job doesn’t know it, it’s even because he has been virtuous that he suffers), God’s answer is essentially: “What the hell do you know? I’ve got my reasons.”

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      But our revulsion is persuasive precisely because it indicates that we have moral intuitions that don’t come from God. If DCT were true and God were the sole source of morality, then we’d have no conflicting intuitions, because there’d be no other source from which they could originate.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        A religious person would probably tell you that’s Jesus helping you along. ;) You can’t win!

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Then he’s doing a poor job of it, if the moral intuitions he instilled in us disagree with his own divine commands.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

            Don’t forget also Satan is in there too. I have a friend (why am I surrounded by so many religious people?) who, (after she told me that she doesn’t read the bible because she’d prefer to read interpretations of it anyway, told me that negative thoughts were Satan. Eye roll. Kudos to her though, I could tell it bothered her when I told her I was an atheist and she’s still friends with me.

      • Gary W
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        But our revulsion is persuasive precisely because it indicates that we have moral intuitions that don’t come from God.

        Perhaps Satan is messing with your moral intuitions, in which case you shouldn’t trust your revulsion.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          But I’m supposed to blindly trust God’s commands? Doesn’t that just put us right back on the “arbitrary” horn of the dilemma?

      • Greg Esres
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        ” If DCT were true and God were the sole source of morality, then we’d have no conflicting intuitions”

        Not true. We could well have incorrect moral intuitions.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

          Where would such intuitions come from? If they come from God, then they ought to be correct. If they come from somewhere else, then God’s not the sole source; there are other sources that disagree with him.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

            DCT says that God is the sole source of moral authority, not a source of moral intuition, much less the sole source of moral intuition.

            • Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

              But, if the gods have any of the powers they are claimed to, the two are inextricable.

              What better way to ensure that humans are moral if not instilling them with a righteous moral intuition?

              But if the gods created us in their own images, then why do we lack their own presumably impeccable moral intuitions?

              And if they are merely poor artisans who created flawed creatures, why have they done nothing to fix their flaws? We are to believe that one of them made a (perfectly unevidenced — but we’ll ignore that for the nonce) personal visit to a backwater corner of the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus in an attempt to personally offer instruction in moral behavior. But why only a single appearance in such an obscure place and time? What’s stopping Jesus from personally and materially presiding over every weekly church service? He *is* all-powerful, right? So is he just lazy, or does he not give a fuck?

              Cheers,

              b&

      • Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:26 am | Permalink

        Um, this would be assuming that our moral intuitions are, in fact, even reasonably reflective or what morality is. Since human intuitions about things are often wrong and confused and bring in far more than our straight intuitions about the topic, it’s certainly not a good argument to say that because WE think that something God says is moral really isn’t that therefore what is moral can’t be just what God thinks it is.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 29, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          “What morality is” is precisely the question we’re trying to address. The fact that our moral intuitions differ from God’s is evidence that there’s more than one standard of morality in play. So we’re going to need a better reason than “God says so” for preferring his intuitions over our own.

          • Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:08 am | Permalink

            But DCT — and all at least Christian theologies — give more reason than that. You may not agree with the reasons or disagree that God exists, but God as defined as omniscient and all-good would indeed be a being whose moral intuitions we should trust over our own, as we clearly don’t have those traits.

            Now, you might object that this means that we couldn’t look at, say, the genocides and question whether such a God exists or whether God has those traits. Fair enough, but we do have a way to question that: by bringing knowledge to the table, not just intuitions. We don’t have the knowledge yet, though, but if we knew what was moral and what wasn’t instead of merely relying on our intuitions we could definitively make that call.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 30, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              Defining God as all-good implies the existence of some standard of goodness independent of God and is therefore incompatible with DCT, which defines goodness as emanating solely from God. So I’m not seeing how DCT brings anything more to the table than “God says so”.

              You also seem to think that there’s some objective answer to “what is moral” against which our intuitions can be measured. I don’t think there is. Morality is not thing out there in the universe waiting to be discovered; it’s a human social construct, derived ultimately from our evolved moral instincts and intuitions. The only way to find out “what is moral” is to observe how people respond to various moral dilemmas. Those responses might include some amount of moral reasoning and/or utilitarian calculus, but the results of such calculation must ultimately satisfy our intuitions or they’ll be rejected.

              • Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

                Those responses might include some amount of moral reasoning and/or utilitarian calculus, but the results of such calculation must ultimately satisfy our intuitions or theyll be rejected.

                I would challenge you on this.

                All of physics from Newton on disagrees with our intuitions, and yet it’s (mostly) accepted.

                And there’s good reason to suspect that retributive tribalism is closely aligned with our native intuitions, yet most of us have grown past that to something more sophisticated and less intuitive. Why, for example, should it be moral to pay taxes to support R&D for cures for diseases that only affect people on the other side of the planet with whom we don’t even have any significant trade? That’s a highly moral thing to do, but it’s not at all intuitive.

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t say that the results of moral calculation must closely align with our primitive intuitions; if they did, the calculation would be superfluous.

                My point is that however far afield such calculation takes us from raw intuition, we must at every step of the way be satisfied that we’re heading in the right direction, as measured by our internal moral compass. It’s not just a matter of doing the math and accepting whatever result pops out; the result has to feel right to be morally compelling.

                Physics is a completely different case, because there the measure of progress is external and objective, not internal and subjective.

                That’s how I see it anyway. Since we’ve hit the indentation limit I’m not going to spend much more effort defending this view, which has been ably articulated elsewhere by Coel.

              • Posted July 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                I would make two observations.

                First, it is only natural that, as evolved social animals, we should have instincts that permit us to perform moral calculus as deftly as we perform physical calculus. That is, you don’t need much conscious thought to determine how much force to apply when throwing things or where to be to catch them or the like; similarly, it’s pretty obvious what to do when somebody in your immediate family is in immediate danger.

                But, at the same time, unless you wish to argue that our intuitive moral calculus is perfect or is the standard by which all other moral matters must be decided, it should be equally obvious that there will be moral matters in which our intuitions fail us, in which the right answer “feels” worng.

                Considering that our slow-paced, deliberative intellects, especially coupled with all sorts of tools (including math and empirical observations and computers and more), are both more sophisticated and have otherwise been demonstrated to be more reliable than our intuitions in all other matters, it would seem wise to acknowledge right up front that there will be areas in which our rational analyses must trump our gut instincts.

                If your rational analysis tells you one thing and your internal moral compass another, then, yes, you should take that as an opportunity to triple-check your work. But, if your analysis still remains solid, and especially if your error bars are properly defined, you would be wise to trust your analysis over your compass.

                (And, of course, be on the lookout for signs that you’ve overlooked something or otherwise made an error — with a failed prediction being at the top of the list. And perform re-evaluations whenever indicated, and change your position to keep it consistent with your latest rational analysis.)

                b&

              • Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                For DCT, the answer would be that God, as the creator of the universe, creates everything of relevance … including morality, whatever that is. It’s the other side where we actually care about intuitions at all, and there where all-good is indeed relevant.

                You also seem to think that there’s some objective answer to “what is moral” against which our intuitions can be measured. I don’t think there is.

                Then you can’t make any claim about the Euthyphro dilemma, since you don’t think that an action is objectively moral or immoral, and the dilemma relies on that … and on being able to say that we can argue that God, claimed to be all-good, is doing something wrong.

                Morality is not thing out there in the universe waiting to be discovered; it’s a human social construct, derived ultimately from our evolved moral instincts and intuitions.

                And if you don’t have some kind of objective standard for morality, how do you know what instincts and intuitions count as moral? Just because you think it does? What if others disagree? What about clashing intuitions among humans and human groups? Without an objective morality, how do you resolve that? Or do you even try? And does this mean that, say, other advanced species can’t be moral at all, should we encounter any? How could you tell one way or another?

                The only way to find out “what is moral” is to observe how people respond to various moral dilemmas. Those responses might include some amount of moral reasoning and/or utilitarian calculus, but the results of such calculation must ultimately satisfy our intuitions or they’ll be rejected.

                Considering all of the horrible things that people at one point considered moral, this is a very brave but ultimately futile stance.

  11. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Your summary and analysis of the Socratic dialogue _Euthyphro_ is accurate and beneficial.

    Good work. You have philosophical talent!

    Regards,

    John J. Fitzgerald

  12. gluonspring
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Looking for a theory that informs religious sentiments is a waste of time as there isn’t one. People believe what they want to believe, consistency, logic, observation be damned.

    “I realized that in fact there are many people who do follow Craig’s ‘divine command’ theory even though they’d probably deny it”

    I think more people would claim it than deny it. Every religious person I have known in my life takes completely as granted that God completely defines morality. Among things perceived as heresies by believers, presuming that we humans can judge morality, that we can judge God, is perhaps the top of the list. Rebellion against God’s absolute authority to define the rules is considered by most to be the original and root sin of mankind. So I don’t think you will find many religious people outside Sophisticated Theologians who will deny divine command theory.

    Of course, they want to have their cake and eat it too. They don’t want to think that their God would command them to do anything they personally feel is bad, so they like to imagine that God’s view of the good is not so different from theirs. This is not the logical application of a principle of universal “good” that constrains God’s behavior, nor a sober reading of what God has commanded in the Bible, but mere wish fulfillment. They wish that God were like them, so they imagine that he is. This is one of the chief exercises of Bible classes everywhere, to find excuses to justify that morality is what you already think it is. It can be quite comic, actually, since enlightenment values have saturated our culture in many ways. People come to church as members of a society that already has norms. Genocide is wrong, for example. Or less obviously, polygamy is wrong. Most of my Christian friends are very fervently set against polygamy. On what grounds? Mostly because that is what the prevailing culture says. In the Bible, though, both genocide and polygamy are embraced, or at least never repudiated. So there is a very comic tying themselves into knots as they try to explain why those things used to be OK but aren’t now, or how when God orders genocide it is for a reason that totally justifies chopping children with swords, but no reason we mere humans have could, or why polygamy or slave owning was totally cool for David but not for them.

    Cognitive dissonance is the permanent operative state for most religious people.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I find it deliciously ironic that while religionists think the rest of the world has an “is something from nothing” problem, they don’t see their own “is morals from magic” problem.

  14. Tony Halfpenny
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    A theory put forward by Julian Jaynes ascribes the origin of the
    “Gods” and their dictates to the development of the bicameral mind.
    I read his book a long while ago and reading WEIT decided to Google
    his name and found that his ideas can be read as a PDF file here:-
    http://www.julianjaynes.org/pdf/jaynes_consciousness-voices-mind.pdf
    ……………Extract from page 9…………………..
    To me this is the origin of gods. I regard them as auditory hallucinations similar to,
    although not precisely the same as, the voices heard by Joan of Arc or William Blake.
    Or similar to the voices that modern schizophrenics hear.
    Similar perhaps to the voices that some of you may have heard. While it is regarded
    as a very significant symptom in the diagnosis of schizophrenia, auditory hallucinations
    also occur in some form at some time in about half the general population
    (Posey & Losch, 1983). I have also corresponded with or interviewed people who are
    completely normal in function but who suddenly have a period of hearing extensive
    verbal hallucinations, usually of a religious sort. Verbal hallucinations are common
    today, but in early civilization I suggest that they were universal.
    …………Extract from page 10………………………
    In his everyday life he was a creature of habit, but when some problem arose that needed
    a new decision or a more complicated solution than habit could provide, that decision stress
    was sufficient to instigate an auditory hallucination. Because such individuals had no mind-space
    in which to question or rebel, such voices had to be obeyed.
    ………………………………………………………………
    In the long run let’s hope the trend is for less and less attention to be paid by everybody to diktats
    from either external or internal sources.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I haven’t kept up with this area of research, but as I understand it feelings of an outsider observer can almost always be caused by a) magnetic stimulation, b) experiments where you manipulate a person’s ability to place body parts and in the extreme case the whole body in simulacrums. Presumably they derive from the same brain-body plasticity.

      That plasticity has presumably nothing to do with the symmetries and broken symmetries of the brain. Whether these phenomena supplant or strengthen auditory hallucinations I don’t know. But any of those, as well as our abilities for pattern recognition and eager agent detection, would be fertile ground for those who want to derive the existence of religion from the (non-perfect) workings of the brain.

  15. Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I re-listed to the debate between Harris and Craig recently, Craig’s main point was that the divine command theory provided a solid foundation for morality that would otherwise be lacking. However I just can’t follow the alchemy that turns the caprice of an all powerful being into a “solid foundation”.

  16. Matt G
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Every reference to the bible is an Appeal to Authority. No respectable theologian will tell you that god wrote the bible, which means that people (who are fallible) wrote it. Then it had to be translated and interpreted. So who is to say what god really thinks/wants? At the end of the day we rely on people, not god, to “know” this, and I don’t trust those bastards!

  17. Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Surely, caveat lector?

    /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Clarice thought so. Oh you said “lector”, I thought you said “lecter”…. yes very clever!

  18. Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Birth control, homosexuality and abortion are contra-survival in an environment where it is essential to have as many offspring as possible in order to ensure survival of the tribe. Hence their denunciation as being evil and un-Godly.

    However, once your tribe hits the 7-billion-and-counting mark, the opposite environmental pressure operates, which unfortunately makes the commandments as referred to in the first of my paragraphs no longer pro-survival. In fact, birth control, homosexuality and abortion are *the only* sensible moral choices for the ongoing survival of humanity.

    I would go further and to state that to have more than “n” offspring (where “n” is a tiny number and I would suggest it should be no greater than 2) is a modern-day sin against the world and should be discouraged with as strongly scary a message as can be mustered.

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I would go further and to state that to have more than “n” offspring (where “n” is a tiny number and I would suggest it should be no greater than 2) is a modern-day sin against the world and should be discouraged with as strongly scary a message as can be mustered.

      Careful there. It sounds like commie-talk and NSA is listening.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        Don’t worry, if you need to flee to Soviet Canukistan, I’ll help you out! :D

        • jesperbothpedersen1
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          What kind of godforsaken devil-worshipping socialist naziliberal do you take me for.

          MURICA!

          (that oughtta cover my ass for at least a week or so)

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        Fortunately for me, I live in part of the world which is (technically) not part of the fascist dictatorshit over which the NSA holds sway. Yes, I know that doesn’t actually help (they can come and get who the hell they want wherever they live in the world, if that person is causing enough embarrassment to the goons), but it does give me a warm sense of possible false security.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      I would go further and to state that to have more than “n” offspring (where “n” is a tiny number and I would suggest it should be no greater than 2) is a modern-day sin against the world and should be discouraged with as strongly scary a message as can be mustered.

      I doubt that trying to “scare” people into not having more than two children is likely to be very effective, and it’s pretty dubious ethically too. In the developed world, I don’t think we really need to lower the fertility rate. It’s already at or below replacement level in most developed countries. And in the developing world, fertility rates have been reduced mainly through empowerment (making contraception and family planning services more widely available, especially to women) rather than through inciting fear.

    • eric
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Discouragement probably isn’t necessary. If there’s a lesson to be had in trends in 1st world population growth, its that educating women, giving them access/power over their own birth control, and giving them equal opportunities in work outside the home gets you to that magic N = 2 with absoultely no need for any coercion or other social engineering at all.

      • Posted July 29, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        I was just having a chat with a plumber who made a service call at my house the other day about this subject. Diego, first generation Mexican immigrant with a thick accent, sends lots of money to his family in Mexico and visits them often.

        There, the culture is that you’re being lazy unless you have a dozen children. But Diego and others of his generation don’t want anywhere near so many children, because he couldn’t afford to send them all to school and then they’d be trapped in poverty, too.

        It’s really powerfully clear that “all” we need is universal free public education and equally-universal free no-questions-asked free access to birth control if we want to solve our population problems.

        And, make no mistrake, we’ve got a huge population problem….

        b&

      • Posted July 29, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        You say that, but I’m not convinced. Just about every single TV program featuring families (in this generally well-educated and liberal nation) seems to have far more than the magical 2. If, as is complacently suggested, the birthrate is below deathrate, then how come the population is still ballooning. Be damned to your libertarian I’m-going-to-do-what-I-want philosophy, it’s time it was ended.

        • Posted July 29, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Actually, in the United States, Europe, and the developed world, birth rates are already below replacement levels; were it not for immigration, the populations of the developed countries would be declining.

          But in the developing world — such as the example of Mexico I just gave — where education is poor and there’s no ready access to birth control…well, that’s where you’ve got dozens of children per couple; that’s where the population boom is taking place.

          The developed world is disproportionately consuming the world’s non-renewable resources. But the developing world is disproportionately driving up populations and putting a similar strain on the world’s renewable resources.

          The solution to the first problem is also likely to be a key secondary element in the solution to the second. As I’ve now repeatedly mentioned, the solution to overpopulation is education and birth control, which will simultaneously turn the developing world into the developed world. But everybody needs plentiful access to clean energy, and that’s where solar comes in…which is a topic for another discussion….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Gary W
            Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            But in the developing world — such as the example of Mexico I just gave — where education is poor and there’s no ready access to birth control…well, that’s where you’ve got dozens of children per couple; that’s where the population boom is taking place.

            Rubbish. No country is producing anything remotely like “dozens” of children per couple. The country with the highest fertility rate is Niger, and even there it’s only about 7. The global fertility rate is about 2.4, which is only slightly higher than the global replacement fertility rate (about 2.3).

            • Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

              What the fuck, Gary? Where did I write anything remotely resembling the straw man you mentioned?

              I’m not going to bother hunting down the rest of the article, but the top hit for a Google search for “Mexico rural fertility rate” comes up with a PubMed hit and the summary, “Data from 6 fertility surveys conducted in Mexico between 1969-87 were … The marital total fertility rate in rural areas declined from 10.6 in 1970 to 7.4 in …”

              Are you really going to suggest that it’s uncommon for poor Mexican families to have a dozen children?

              And you do realize that, for the average in Mexico to be in the range it is, with the large urban centers like Mexico City almost certainly having Western-style birth rates, the rural poor have to be having disproportionately large families?

              Do you ever even pretend to do anything other than troll with strawmen any more?

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Walk away man, don’t get sucked in.

              • Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                Yeah…grumble…mumble….

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                What the fuck, Gary? Where did I write anything remotely resembling the straw man you mentioned?

                I just QUOTED where you wrote it.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          You say that, but I’m not convinced. Just about every single TV program featuring families (in this generally well-educated and liberal nation) seems to have far more than the magical 2.

          I doubt that’s true, and even if it is true, it’s irrelevant. American women, and women in developed countries in general, are not having lots of children. The U.S. total fertility rate is under 2. Fertility rates in other developed countries are generally even lower.

          If, as is complacently suggested, the birthrate is below deathrate, then how come the population is still ballooning.

          Assuming you’re referring to the global population, the global fertility rate is still (modestly) higher than the global replacement fertility rate, but it’s been steadily declining for more than 50 years and is projected to decline further in the future.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        I agree that an essential step in stabilizing global population is social justice for the developing world, allowing women to take control of their own fertility and life choices. This is a desirable goal in its own right, quite apart from its effect on population stability.

        But it’s not clear that this is a permanent solution. Even if the average worldwide fertility rate drops below replacement, there will still be some couples that choose to have large families, while others prefer few or no children.

        And elementary biology tells us that if there is a genetic component to such preferences, then natural selection will favor genes for preferring large families over genes for preferring small families. So it seems that empowering everyone to control their own fertility (rather than being controlled by it) is still not a long-term guarantee of population stability, because it sets up a selection pressure in favor of wanting lots of children.

        But maybe that’s getting too far off topic.

        • Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          You’d have a point…if this was all happening over evolutionary timescales and if there was already a clear evolutionary component to differential reproductive rates.

          But neither is the case, or even remotely close to being the case. We’re seeing family sizes decrease dramatically in many cases over just one or two generations. The only constant across large family sizes in the States is membership in the Cathaholic or Moron churches (or various similar fringe groups), and there’s clearly no genetic component to membership in either or in common between the two; it’s all sociopolitical.

          Idiocracy was much more about the culture of meritocracy and the “everybody gets a medal” school of education — not to mention the ever-favorite theme of panem et circenses — than it was about the actual biology used as a plot device.

          b&

        • Gary W
          Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          But it’s not clear that this is a permanent solution. Even if the average worldwide fertility rate drops below replacement, there will still be some couples that choose to have large families, while others prefer few or no children.

          It’s irrelevant that some people have large families. What matters for stabilizing population is the average rate, not the highest.

          And elementary biology tells us that if there is a genetic component to such preferences, then natural selection will favor genes for preferring large families over genes for preferring small families.

          As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence of such a genetic effect. Even if it exists, it must be swamped by environmental factors, most obviously improvements in education and the availability of contraception and family planning services, because fertility rates have been dropping steadily for decades in almost every country in response to those improvements.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but the point is that those environmental factors are converging as the developing world catches up with the developed world and global culture becomes more homogeneous. That leaves more scope for genetic factors (if any) to play a role.

            • Gary W
              Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

              Huh? Yes, contraception and family planning in the developing world are getting closer to developed world levels. And this is a proven method of reducing fertility rates. So what basis is there for thinking that your hypothesized genetic effect, assuming it exists at all, will reverse this trend?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                Because that trend has an asymptote, at the point at which contraception and family planning are universal and everyone has exactly as many children as they want. Once that state is achieved, the only variable left is how many children people want, which (if there is a genetic component to it) is subject to natural selection.

                Note that I’m not predicting that the trend will reverse. I’m just saying that there may be selective pressure to reverse it in the absence of countervailing social pressures.

                Basically I’m taking issue with eric’s claim that there’s “no need for any coercion or other social engineering at all”. In the long run there may in fact be such a need.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                Your argument doesn’t make sense. If people wanted more children as a result of your hypothesized genetic effect, they’d forgo contraception and family planning and have the extra children. Your genetic effect would already have asserted itself in the population trend. The fact that fertility rates have declined in response to making contraception more widely available demonstrates that people already had the desire for smaller families, but lacked the means.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                But because they lacked the means, their desire for smaller families was shielded from natural selection, which instead acted on their desire to have sex.

                Now that they have the means, sex drive and fertility have become decoupled, and desires about family size are now exposed to selection. So any genetic variability in those desires will be selectively amplified, and the recently revealed preference for smaller families will be at a selective disadvantage.

                The point is that this is a new selective pressure that’s only just beginning to take effect, and casts doubt on historical fertility trends as a predictor of future trends.

                I don’t think I can explain it any better than that, so I think I’ll leave it there.

              • Posted July 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

                Gary’s off as usual on cloud nine, but your writing has made sense to me.

                I just, as I already noted, see this happening on much too short of a timescale for evolutionary pressures to even begin to play a role, and I don’t see any hints of any relevant extant genetic factors in family size.

                What I see happening, barring cataclysmic resource exhaustion or other calamity that renders all this moot, is instead a very rapid (on the order of a century) change to universal access to birth control…and there’re overwhelming socioeconomic pressures to take advantage of birth control when available.

                Children are *expensive* in so many ways: money, time, patience, food, living space, and all the rest. Only the very wealthy can truly afford large families, and they’re generally more interested in other things than changing diapers.

                Will there still be small clusters of people who have large families? Of course, but their children will get dispersed within a generation into the general small-family population, never giving a chance for any genetic effects to take hold.

                TL/DR: you’ve got the right basic idea, but the particulars, especially the scales involved, make your concerns moot.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted July 29, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                But because they lacked the means, their desire for smaller families was shielded from natural selection, which instead acted on their desire to have sex. Now that they have the means, sex drive and fertility have become decoupled, and desires about family size are now exposed to selection.

                Desires about family size have always been exposed to selection. People have some control over their fertility even without modern contraception. Any increase in the availability of contraception would amplify the selective advantage of your hypothesized gene, but as far as I’m aware there’s no sign of it after millenia of traditional methods of limiting family size and 70+ years of modern ones. Either it doesn’t exist or its effect is too weak to matter.

  19. HotJam
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.
    ― Hitchens

    Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
    ― Hitchens

  20. Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya.

  21. MNb
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Craig himself nicely illustrates the Euthyphro dilemma. He won’t admit it, but with the DCT (the genocide on the Canaanites is good because his god ordered it) he sits on one horn while with the moral argument (objective morals exist hence god exists) he sits on the other.

  22. kelskye
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    The problem of how to have an objective morality is a tricky one. The mind abhors an explanatory vacuum, so it should be no surprise that people gravitate to a superficial solution rather than accept there may be no objective morality.

    I don’t think DCT is common among ethicists, or that it offers much for metaethics to go from. It’s a justification for those who already believe, or a starting point for those who treat morality as the judgementrather than what the judgement is about.

    The complication, I think, is that too avoid an infinite regress we need an arbitrary starting point. For someone wanting to use the bible, there’s no metaethical grounds for choosing human nature over divine nature, and effectively the only real response humanists have is to appeal to our ethical intuitions as to how divine nature has conflicts with humanity. Of course it does! What really happens in discussions of morality is that the DCT-proponent and the humanist talk about two different things obscured by using the same language.

    The main problem with DCT is that it’s a superficial explanation for an area of human nature, leading people to think they have the true copy of human morality, as opposed to just one version of it. This is evident in WLC’s moral argument where he uses JL Msckie and Michael Ruse as puppets for his version of objective morality, divorced from the wider context each philosopher is arguing in. That’s the real dishonesty, while DCT is merely trivial.

  23. SusanR
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Religion alone has not oppressed women. A man was not able to pass on his title and possessions to his son unless he was sure that the boy was HIS son. The control and subjugation of the child’s mother was a common solution to this biological problem. Patriarchy is partly a result of the need to verify paternity. Religions helped codify this arrangement.

    • Posted July 29, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      “Celtic” peoples avoided the need for this subjugation by having a man pass title and possessions to his sister’s son, iirc.

      /@

  24. Charles Sullivan
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Aquinas seemed to be in favor of Natural Law theory (which he borrowed from Aristotle and then modified), but not Divine Command theory.

    Or so I thought.

  25. Posted July 29, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    For anyone interested, after writing dozens of comments in the thread for Jerry’s recent Why there is no objective morality, I summarised it all in Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Mind if I comment on your blog site (if I can get the time)?
      :-)

      Cheers,

      Vaal.

  26. friendlypig
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I’ve just been banned (again) from the Protect the Pope website. http://www.protectthepope.com
    When I took them on regarding abortion. I know, I should be old enough to know better. It got so bad one of them using the name WakeupEngland actually called me a ‘liberal’.
    That really is being the pale, or was it, pail?

  27. Posted July 31, 2013 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    You know what it’s like. Out for food and drink with a few friends; had a few too many. The bill arrives, and you start to check it once,twice, but there’s too much going on, can’t concentrate. A quick ball park sum sounds about right. You give up checking and throw down the cash.

    This is how many religious people seem to operate. The scripture sounds about right, but it requires way too much concentration to check. Heck, just accept it.


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