Monday, July 7, 2014

On Theistic Moral Subjectivism: Part 1

Have you forgotten? The sin given to me is “Pride.”
-  Lucuha, Lucu Lucu (as translated from Japanese)

Given the length of my text document "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God", I've decided to break it up into a series of smaller blogposts on individual topics [thanks to rayndeon for advising me to do this]. This is one of those posts, and will be the first in a series on theistic moral subjectivism. 

[This post in particular is taken largely from section I-B-1b-i of "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God", and relies more on primary sources than do other sections of that paper.] 

Suppose a creationist claimed:
If evolution actually occurred, then there would be no monkeys left. And we’d also expect to find crocoducks, cogs, and dats (mutant piece-meal hybrids of crocodiles/ducks and cats/dogs). Where are the cogs and dats and crocoducks?! Anyway, evolution is just theory and thus just a guess!!!
To address these mistaken creationist claims, one might explain how these claims conflict with what “theory” and “evolution” actually mean in biology. This might include references to peer-reviewed sources on the topic and other credible people writing on the subject.

In much the same way. one can address inaccurate claims about what terms such as “subjective”, “moral objecitivism”, etc. mean in meta-ethics via citing reputable sources. And that would be no more of a fallacious appeal to authority than citing reputable sources would be in response to the above creationist’s claim. So I will do just that by citing reputable sources on the relationship between deities and the definition of terms such “moral subjectivism” and “subjectivie” in the context of meta-ethics. I will also cite some non-academic sources as well to show that the relevant points extend beyond academia, much as people outside of academia know what terms such as “evolution” and “theory” mean in biology. This should help rebut ad hoc attempts on the part of some theists to re-define moral subjectivism so that their own positions do not count as subjectivist.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy categorizes God as one of the subjects included under moral subjectivism:
it may be that what determines the difference in the two contexts is something ‘mind-dependent’—in which case it would be subjectivist relativism—but it need not be. Perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist relativism…Suppose the moral facts depend on the attitudes or opinions of a particular group or individual (e.g., ‘X is good’ means ‘Caesar approves of X,’ or ‘The Supreme Court rules in favor of X’ or ‘God commands X,’ [emphasis added] etc.), and thus moral truth is an entirely mind-dependent affair (Joyce 2007, Supplement 1.1).[1]

The author of the following Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry concurs:
“Those who claim that there are moral facts that are ‘real’ or ‘objective’ in the sense that they exist independently of any beliefs or evidence about them, versus those who think that moral values are not belief-independent ‘facts’ at all, but are instead created by individuals or cultures in sometimes radically different ways. Proponents of the former view are called realists or objectivists; proponents of the latter view are called relativists or subjectivists (section 4a) [...] Most forms of metaethical relativism envision moral values as constructed for different, and sometimes incommensurable human purposes such as social coordination, and so forth. This view is explicitly endorsed by Gilbert Harman (1975), but may also be implicitly associated in different ways with any position that conceives of moral value as constructed by divine commands (Adams 1987; see also Divine Command Theory) [emphasis added], idealized human rationality […] or perspective […], or a social contract between competing interests... For this reason, the view is also sometimes known as moral constructivism [section 4b] [DeLapp].

Jaco Gericke also notes that divine command theory (DCT) is a version of moral subjectivism while discussing a moral realist interpretation of the Hebrew Bible which conflicts with DCT [Gericke treats moral realism as entailing what I call “moral objectivism”]:
“Strong arguments for the presence of DCT in the text include the giving of seemingly unnecessary commands (as to Adam and Eve or the rituals of  Leviticus) and even seemingly immoral commands (e.g. the  commanding of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, of the Israelites  to plunder the Egyptians, the slaughtering of the Canaanites,  Hosea being told to marry a prostitute, etc. […]). In philosophical terms this would mean that the Hebrew Bible took for granted a subjectivist yet universalist form of cognitivism that one might contrast with other forms of ethical subjectivism (e.g. ideal observer theory,  moral relativism, and individualist ethical subjectivism) [emphasis added], moral realism (which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of anyone’s attitudes or opinions), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true in any sense), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all) (306).”[2]

Glenn Braddock adds that:
“…if moral principles are to be objective, as moral realists tend to want them to be, they cannot be based on God’s commands. To accept the divine-command theory is to accept a kind of grand subjectivism, where the subject creating the values is God [emphasis added]. God may be all knowing and powerful, but if there are no principles to appeal to in justifying his commands, then they are arbitrary and nonbinding (96).”[3]
So Braddock agrees that theists cannot avoid moral subjectivism simply by replacing humans with God as the “subject” in “moral subjectivism”, as they do with DCT. The moral error theorist Richard Garner makes much the same point when he writes:
“Mackie says that ‘if the requisite theological doctrine could be defended,’ and he did not think that it could be, we might be able to defend ‘a kind of objective ethical prescriptivity’ (Ethics, p. 48). This is far from obvious. Even God only supplies a most unusual subjective source (or Subjective Source) of value or obligation (2011, footnote 5).”

The moral intuitionist and moral non-naturalist Michael Huemer also categorizes DCT as moral subjectivism:
“Subjectivism holds that they [simple, paradigmatic ethical claims] express propositions that are made true or false by subjects’ attitudes towards the things that are said to be good, bad, right, or wrong (192) […] In chapter three [of my book], I turn to subjectivist theories, which come in individualist and cultural relativist varieties, in addition to the divine command theory and the ideal observer theory. Each variant faces problems of its own, but there are certain recurring problems (193).”
The moral nihilist and moral skeptic Richard Joyce also supports this interpretation:
“One could hardly claim that the subjectivist is the product of recent cultural forces, for versions of subjectivism have been robustly advocated for millennia. (Let us not forget that the divine command theorist is one of  Huemer’s starring subjectivists.) (“The Skeptick’s Tale”, 6).”

And to build on Huemer’s last sentence: if DCT were moral subjectivism then one would expect it to have many of the problems that plague subjectivist positions. And it does.[4] For example: the issue of “aribitrariness” plagues many varieties of moral subjectivism, including DCT, as previously noted by Braddock. The theistic philosopher Wes Morriston illustrates this point as follows:
“Critics of divine-command meta-ethics are not in short supply. Among other things, they deny that divine-command theories have one of the principal advantages claimed for them. Instead of securing the objectivity of morality, they say, such theories avoid one kind of subjectivism merely to fall into another [emphasis added]. If we can place no moral limits on what God might command, then divine commands and preferences may be arbitrary or even cruel (2009, 249).”
A number of other philosophers also note that DCT’s response to the arbitrariness problem and the Euthyphro Dilemma commits it to moral subjectivism in the form of “theological subjectivism” (ex: Mann). For instance:
“There seem to be two main sorts of competing Christian theories concerning what is to count as good.4 Either God's will is taken to create morality, so that whatever God wills is good just because he wills it: consequently, (TS) right actions are right just because God approves of them and wrong actions are wrong just because God disapproves of them. Or morality is taken to be grounded independently of God, so that God frames his will in accordance with those independently existing standards of goodness: consequently, (TO) God approves of right actions just because they are right and disapproves of wrong actions just because they are wrong. The problem with (TS) is that it constitutes a theological subjectivism [emphasis added] in which, apparently, anything at all could turn out to be moral. So although (TS) makes a consideration of God essential to an evaluation of human actions, it does so at the cost of depriving that evaluation of its moral character; because it cannot rule out anything as absolutely immoral, (TS) seems to be a theory of religious morality which has dropped morality as we commonly understand it out of the theory. There have been some interesting attempts to resuscitate one or another version of (TS) in recent years; but despite these promising efforts versions of (TS) are, I think, still more widely known for their faults than for their virtues […]. (Stump, 183-184).”

And even non-academic sources recognize DCT as moral subjectivism. For example, Wikipedia defines “ethical subjectivism” as:
“the meta-ethical view which claims that:
   1.  Ethical sentences express propositions.
   2.  Some such propositions are true.
   3.  Those propositions are about the attitudes of people.
At first glance, the mention of “people” supports the theistic redefinition of moral subjectivism as applying only to accounts of morality based on human subjects and not to theistic accounts based on God… until one notes that the same entry categorizes:
divine command theory (which claims that moral propositions are about what attitudes God holds),
under moral subjectivism.[5] So the “subject” in “moral subjectivism” includes divine minds and not just human minds. Luke Muehlhauser (“Dr. Craig…”) uses a similar definition to show that William Lane Craig advocates moral subjectivism while being a proponent of God-based moral realism and an argument for God’s existence based on the existence of objectivie moral values and objective moral duties.[6]

But one need not rely on just Muehlhauser and Wikipedia. The following two introductory web resources on meta-ethics categorize DCT and divine attitude theories (DAT)[7] as moral subjectivism (the first source builds off of Wikipedia’s definition):

Divine command theory holds that for a thing to be right is for a unique being, God, to approve of it, and that what is right for non-God beings is obedience to the divine will... Like Ideal Observer Theory, Divine Command Theory purports to be universalist despite its subjectivism (Chaney).

Right actions are right just because God approves of them and wrong actions are wrong just because God disapproves of them (theological subjectivism)… God approves of right actions because they are right and disapproves of wrong actions because they are wrong (theological objectivism) (Vailati).
So both philosophers and informed non-philosophers apply the label “moral subjectivism” to positions that make moral claims true or false simply because of God’s view(s) on the matter. The label of “theistic moral subjectivism” is therefore not some arcane invention of “ivory-tower” philosophers, but instead a cogent label that anyone with a basic familiarity with meta-ethics should recognize. 

At this point, the reader may grow weary of all these examples of people discussing theistic moral subjectivism.[8] However, I spent so much time emphasizing this because many theistic meta-ethicists forget that they advocate moral subjectivism, even as they accuse atheists of accepting moral subjectivism. Many of these proponents go one step further and limit moral subjectivism to human subjects, such that if moral claims are true or false simply because of God’s view(s) on the matter, then this does not qualify as moral subjectivism.[9] I hope the reader now recognizes this as an ad hoc re-definition.

So if one goes with a non-ad hoc account of moral subjectivism that is not specifically constructed to help theists avoid being moral subjectivists, then:
if meta-ethical or ethical theory Y states that moral truth depends on a divine mind’s view(s) on the matter, then Y amounts to a version moral subjectivism.
Restricting the definition of moral subjectivism to “human minds” in meta-ethics is no more plausible than other theistic attempts to re-define terms for theological convenience, such as creationists attempt to re-define “theory” and “evolution” in biology.

[1]  I elaborate on Joyce’s usage of terms in contrast to my own usage in section I-C-2 of "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God".
[2]  Though I agree that moral realists tend to be moral objectivists and some philosophers equate moral realism with moral objectivism (see section I-C-1 of "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God"; Björnsson, 368 [footnote 1]), I do think one can be a moral realist and a moral subjectivist. I explain why in section I-D of "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God".
[3]  Though I agree with Braddock that moral realists tend to be moral objectivists and some philosophers equate moral realism with moral objectivism (see endnote 2 above), I do think one can be a moral realist and a moral subjectivist.
[4]  As I discuss in sections I-B-1b-i and I-B-1b-ii of "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God".
[5]  It does the same for “ideal observer theory (which claims that moral propositions are about what attitudes a hypothetical ideal observer would hold).”
[6]  I do not know if Craig responded to Muelhauser’s query.
[7]  Huemer also categorized DATs as moral subjectivism. My definition of moral subjectivism extends to DATs as well.
[8]  Some fans of William Lane Craig might complain about my numerous citations in this sub-section… until they realize that Craig offers numerous citations as well when discussing moral subjectivism. And unlike Craig, I accurately represent the claims of those I quote (see endnote 8 "Morality: Realism, Nihilism, and God" for an example of Craig misrepresenting opposing positions).
[9]  For example:
      - "Objectivity: The truth of a moral proposition is independent of the beliefs of any particular human being or human community (42) is the simplest of the six features to vindicate. The distinctive claim of theistic metaethical accounts,
            Objectivity is the simplest of the six features to vindicate. The distinctive claim of theistic metaethical accounts, as such, is that moral properties are essentially related to God. As long as the details of this relation are spelled out carefully, moral properties will turn out to be objective in precisely the sense suggested above: the instantiation of any particular moral property will be independent of any particular human being’s (or community of human beings’) beliefs about its instantiation. Divine command theory (DCT), historically the most common theistic metaethical account, is objective in this way: whether or not God has commanded persons to φ is logically independent of whether or not any person believes that God has commanded persons to φ. Similarly for divine attitude theory (DAT): whether or not God is displeased with S for φ-ing is logically independent of any person’s beliefs about whether God is displeased with S for φ-ing. There are other ways in which a theistic metaethical account might be developed, however, that do not vindicate objectivity (M. Jordan 2011, 44).
      -  I begin with the objectivity constraint. God, if He exists, is an objective feature of the universe, and so are His commands and his blueprint for our moral sense. God has provided us with a moral sense which normally (i.e., when functioning as God intended) generates pleasing sentiments of approbation or displeasing sentiments of disapprobation appropriate to the situation. Thus, the supernatural facts on which I claim the moral facts supervene are objective in the required sense.
            The job of satisfying the objectivity constraint is not to be taken lightly. The natural facts, on which moral facts are held to supervene, must be objective in the right sort of way. In previous chapters (Chapter 9 especially) I drew attention to the parallels between goodness and redness. I established that goodness is a property akin to a response dependent property, such as redness, in that it is normally the cause of the moral sentiment appropriate to it. Now, science has identified redness, that property of objects which gives rise to redness sensations in normal human observers in normal circumstances, with the property of having one or other of certain objective surface microstructural properties known as reflectances (Goode, chapter 11, section §1).
      -  “Subjectivism holds that moral statements convey information about the speaker of the moral statement (Moreland, 400).”
      -  “First, ‘objective moral value’ is usually defined as being ‘independent of the opinions or attitudes of a person or persons.’ If moral value merely relates the opinions or attitudes of a person or persons, that is subjective morality. Theistic morality, where morality is defined with reference to the opinions or attitudes of a person named ‘God’, has always been a type of subjective morality. To my knowledge, theistic analytic philosophers only tried to frame theistic morality as ‘objective’ in about the 1980s, when they noticed they could just restrict the definition of ‘objective morality’ such that it meant ‘independent of the opinions or attitudes of a particular species of primate, homo sapiens.’ But that’s, well… kinda shady [emphasis added].
            Secondly, even if we run with Craig’s new definition for ‘objective morality’, it is trivially easy to get ‘objective’ morality of that sort without God. Heck, just define morality in terms of the opinions and attitudes of a member of another species, say Washoe the chimpanzee. Since he’s not human, presto! We have ‘objective’ morality according to Craig’s definition (Muehlhauser 2011).”
      - “I’m confused by your claim that “Without God, objective moral values do not exist.” Why am I confused? Because as I understand it, you defend a variety of divine command theory, which is a subjective moral theory.
            Like individual subjectivism, cultural subjectivism, and ideal observer theory, divine command theory grounds moral value in the attitudes or nature of a particular person or persons. According to Christian divine command theory, moral values are grounded in the attitudes or nature of Yahweh (or whichever name your prefer).
            What separates ideal observer theory and divine command theory from individual and cultural subjectivism is not that the former two are objective theories of morality, but that they are universal theories of morality.
            But let us say you are using the term ‘objective’ in a different sense than most of the moral philosophers I have read.
            And if that is all you mean by ‘objective’, then I don’t think many of us have an intuition that morality is objective in THAT sense. I suspect those of us who believe in objective morality have intuitions about a more robust sense of objective moral realism that does not ground moral value in the attitudes or nature of particular persons. (Such theories of robust objective morality are offered by ethical non-naturalism, Cornell realism, and so on.) [emphasis added]. This even includes many Biblical authors, who seem to assume robust objective moral realism rather than divine command theory […] (Muehlhauser, “Dr. Craig and…”).


Björnsson, Gunnar. "Do‘Objectivist’ Features of Moral Discourse and Thinking Support Moral Objectivism?" Journal of Ethics 16 (2012): 367-93. Springer. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Braddock, Glenn. "Sartre on Atheism, Freedom, and Morality in The Humanism of Existentialism." Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics. Ed. Christine Daigle. N.p.: McGill-Queen's UP, 2006. 91-106. Google Books. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.

Chaney, Allison J. B. "Meta-ethics." Princeton University, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. 

DeLapp, Kevin M. "Metaethics." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Jame Fieser and Bradley Dowden. N.p.: n.p., 13 Nov. 2011. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Garner, Richard T. "The Moral Error Theory Defended." Beyond Morality. Paddock Web Development, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2012.

Gericke, Jaco W. "Beyond Divine Command Theory: Moral Realism in theHebrew Bible." HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 65.1 (2009): 1-5. Aosis Open Journals. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Goode, Richard. "Nothing Is Permitted." Diss. University of Otago. Richard Goode. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. 

Huemer, Michael. "Précis of Ethical Intuitionism." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXXVIII.1 (2009): 192-96. Wiley Online Library. Web. 

Jordan, Matthew Carey. "Some Metaethical Desiderata and the Conceptual Resources of Theism." Sophia 50 (2011): 39-55. Springer. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.

Joyce, Richard. "Moral Anti-Realism.Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyMetaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University, 30 July 2007. Web.

Joyce, Richard. "The Skeptick'sTale." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78.1 (2009): 213-21. Wiley Online Library. Web.

Mann, William E. "Modality,Morality, and God." Noûs 23.1 (1989): 83-99. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.

Moreland, J. P., and William L. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.  Google Books. Web. 7 May. 2013. 

Morriston, Wes. "What If God Commanded Something Terrible? A Worry for Divine-Command Meta-Ethics." Religious Studies 45.3 (2009): 249-67. Cambridge Journals. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.

Muehlhauser, Luke. "Dr. Craig and Objective Morality.Common Sense Atheism. N.p., 09 June 2009. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.

Muehlhauser, Luke. "Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig debatereview (part 1)." Common Sense Atheism. N.p., 11 April 2011. Web. 03 May 2013.

Stump, Eleonore. "Dante's Hell,Aquinas's Moral Theory, and the Love of God." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16.2 (1986): 181-98. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.

Vailati, Ezio. "Divine Command Theory." Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.