Saturday, 28 August 2010

Glenn Peoples' "A New Euthyphro": David Hume arrives

The story so far: Glenn Peoples reported on an updated conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro. Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for manslaughter because he claims that it is the right thing to do. Horrified, Socrates seeks to attack Euthyphro’s understanding of what is the “right thing to do” by posing his famous question:

“Does God will us to do things because they are right, or are things right because God wills us to do them?”
(Euthyphro agreed to interpose “right” for “pious” in deference to his audience's 21st century language and Socrates uses the singular “God” to account for monotheism.)

Socrates hoped to show that Euthyphro could not “ground” his ethics in Divine Commands (the second half of the dilemma) because it is always possible to ask why God commands this or that (the first half of the dilemma).

This time, with the benefit of two thousand years of philosophy, Euthyphro avoids the implication that Divine Command provides no ground for ethics by positing the identity of divine commands with morality. If “rightness is the quality of being that which God commands” (p.6) then that is not disturbed one iota by asking why God commands it. The “why” question, although interesting, is not a question about the grounding of ethics: it is a question about the nature of God, quite a different subject. God may have reasons for choosing to forbid torture but those are not reasons for us to obey that injunction. The reason we ought not to torture people is that God forbids it.

David Hume now arrives to join the two protagonists. Declining the invitation to a game of backgammon, Socrates and Euthyphro recount the conversation so far.

Hume: Of course I would wave away Divine Command Theory with the claim that you cannot derive a “ought” statement from an “is” statement. But I know that Euthyphro would never allow that.

Euthyphro: I most certainly would not. Divine Command Theory starts from the idea that the “is” of God’s will creates the “ought” in us.

H: Quite so. But you will allow that the identity of the good allows me to substitute “you ought to do them” for “are right”.

E: I think so. Let me see “does God will one to do things because one ought do them, or ought one do them because God wills us to do them”. You know, I think that is better, it helps stop the confusion about God’s motives. Very well, we will adopt your re-formulation and I will say that one ought do things because God tells you to do them.

H: Wonderful. Now, supposing you and I are in the pub with Sartre. It is your round. Is there something that Sartre is morally obliged to drink? Ought Sartre have a pint of Real Ale?

E: You know that I am a colossal Real Ale snob, David, but not even I would suggest that there was a moral obligation on someone to avoid Lager. Sartre can ask for what he likes.

H: We can even say he ought to ask for what he likes, though that might be stretching the meaning of “ought” too far. It would be entirely correct, though, to say that you ought to get him what he asks for. If Sartre asks for a pint of Lager it would be bad, not very bad, but a little rude, to bring him a pint of Real Ale.

E: Agreed.

H: So you ought to buy a pint of Lager because Sartre asks you to. It makes no sense to ask whether you ought to buy a pint of Lager because Sartre asks you to or does Sartre ask you for a pint of Lager because it is right that he ought to ask for a pint of Lager. “Buying a pint of Lager” is identical to “the right thing to do”. Also, as it happens, Sartre is also a colossal Real Ale snob.

E: Strange for a Frenchman.

H: He is not a Frenchman. He is a clumsy conceit in a 21st Century philosophical dialogue. And part of that conceit is that the likelihood of him asking for a pint of Lager is around the same as God willing torture. So Sartre will ask for a pint of Real Ale and, as what is right is identical to Sartre’s wishes then the purchase of a pint of Real Ale is right.

E: This is beginning to sound like “Sartre Command Ethics”.

H: Precisely. And I am quite happy to accept that your recent arguments have established that Socrates’ question has not shown your Divine Command Ethics to be any worse than my Sartre Command Ethics.

E: That’s not much of a concession; your Sartre Command Ethics are appalling. Moral laws do not derive from Sartre’s wishes.

H: They do, I just gave you an example: it is right to buy Sartre a pint of Real Ale because Sartre wishes a pint of Real Ale. What is right to do is what Sartre wishes.

E: What is right to do is what Sartre wishes in this case. If Sartre wished me to torture someone then it would be the wrong thing to do.

H: Not in Sartre Command Ethics. I have identified the moral with the wishes of Sartre, just as you have identified the moral with the wishes of God. We both have a perfectly robust grounding for our ethics, mine in Sartre and yours in God, neither fall to the challenge in Socrates’ dilemma.

E: That is ridiculous. I have alternative arguments for why my view is correct. I did not bring them into the discussion with Socrates as his dilemma has no bearing on them. I am sure that you know that I do have these arguments, that they are quite good and that they are certainly better than any you have for Sartre ethics. Face the facts, David, you just made up Sartre Command Ethics, you have no reasons at all to adopt it other than that it is useful in an argument with me. That is not a good basis for morality.

H: Oh. You want a good basis of morality, not just a basis of morality?

E: Of course. There can be many prospective bases of morality, if we just allowed any prospective basis of morality to be a basis we would end up with relativism.

H: So, presumably, I should adopt a good basis.

E: Yes.

H: But the statement “I should adopt a good basis for morality” is a statement about morality, a meta-statement. You can identify morals with God’s wishes and force me to accept that identification only if you can separately establish this meta-moral statement. If you cannot establish it apart from the basis that it seeks to establish, I can do exactly the same in any ethical system I care to mention.

E: And I can establish it. Firstly…

H: Never mind the specifics, for the moment we will take them as read and agreed. All moral statements are derived from God’s wishes; they are true depending upon whether or not wills them so. There is another, meta-moral statement, which is dependent on arguments outside of God’s will. This is “you should adopt Divine Command Ethics”. If you like we can imagine that God wills “Divine Command Ethics” and preserve the universality of “one ought to do what God tells one to do”. God tells you to adopt Divine Command Ethics, you ought to adopt Divine Command Ethics and so you ought to do what God tells you. However this meta-moral statement could be wrong. It could be the case that you ought not to adopt Divine Command Ethics.

E: Ridiculous. God can never be wrong!

H: This is not about God being wrong; it is about you being wrong. You can be wrong Euthyphro, you could be wrong about Divine Command Ethics. If you are that concerned about God being right we can imagine that, if you are wrong about Divine Command Ethics then God does not will Divine Command Ethics.

E: And if I am right then God does command it.

H: Yes. So if Divine Command Theory is correct then God wills it. If Divine Command Theory is incorrect then God does not will it.

E: I do not like the sound of this. We are getting back to the dilemma.

H: Yes we are. But do not think to drop this stipulation. If you are wrong about Divine Command Ethics then you ought not to follow Divine Command Ethics. If God wills Divine Command Ethics then it is not the case that one ought to do what God wills.

E: I will, then, accept the stipulation.

H: So now answer me the question: is Divine Command Theory correct because God wills it or does God will it because it is correct?


Glenn said...

The statement “you should come up with a good basis for morality” is treated here like a moral claim, but it is far from obvious that it really is one. Maybe it’s just a rational “should” being appealed to here, something along the lines of “if you want a theory that produces true/plausible moral claims, then you should come up with a good basis for ethics.” This strikes me as the way Euthyphro would most likely have meant to be understood in this discussion.

When you apply this to divine command ethics, similarly, your construction is rather strange. “You should accept divine command ethics” here is also a rational “should,” along the lines of “if you want your moral theory to be the correct one, you should adopt divine command ethics, since that is the correct one.” Now, there may be a later moral claim along the lines of “you should accept divine command ethics, because God wills that you seek after the truth and this theory is true,” but I hardly see how that runs into any difficulties.

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Glenn

Thanks for the comment. I suppose I am looking for an "ought" reason to adopt Divine Command Ethics and that does, rather, make it "turtles all the way down".

The difficulty I would have with the "rational" ought is, not that I can't see that there could be a rational ought but that I'm then pushed onto another bit of Hume : the fork. There really can't be a fork if it's simply definative and I'm lost finding a factual ought!

I shall ponder further.