Many theists believe in the divine-command theory of morality, the collection of meta-ethics which depend in some critical way on the nature and dictations of God. Others think that moral facts are too robust to depend on the (presumably contingent) attitudes of God, and that their authority to dictate our moral obligations depends on God’s essential nature, or on some basic moral fact like, “we ought to conform to the ideals inherent in God”, or on a collection of independent non-naturalistic moral facts. We might label this latter group of people “theistic Platonists.” Theists are often adamant that their moral theories are superior to atheistic offerings, so we might wonder, “does this hierarchy hold for theistic and atheistic versions of Platonism?”
Popular blogger cl of the warfare is mental thinks that it does. In fact, he’s so confident that this is the case that he regards atheistic moral contemplation to be a “quest for second best.” First, a paraphrase of his argument:
- There are objective moral facts.
- God would have perfect epistemic access to all objective moral facts.
- Therefore, a set of commands dictated by God would be the best possible system of morality.
I think the idea is that an agent with infallible access to moral facts would be the best source of moral knowledge possible, such that atheists working from their own fallible intuitions and so on are bound to be competing with the best of all possible competitors. While cl appears to hold to non-naturalistic moral realism, note that the first premise of his argument is compatible with moral facts all being rooted in God’s essential nature (like Robert M. Adams’ second DCT). Later in his post, he cautions against responding with arguments against God’s existence, since they are not relevant to the conclusion of his moral argument. However, I think that the current dialectic surrounding the argument from divine hiddenness furnishes theists with reason to be uncomfortable with cl’s argument.
The Argument from Divine Hiddenness
If God is good and loving, we’d expect him to actively seek out a personal relationship with humans (or so the argument runs). This is because it is in the nature of a loving being to want an explicit relationship with the object of its love, just as parents naturally desire face-to-face interaction with their children. It would also be a very good thing for humans to interact with God, just as it’s instrumental to children’s psychological health that they be conscious of parents who love and protect them. This analogy is borne out in the paternalistic language of monotheistic religious texts and their insistence that God desires (antecedently, at least) personal communion with all humans at some point (correct me if I’m wrong here; I know it’s true of at least Christianity).
Of course, God will not force humans into an immediate relationship if they are not consenting, so he remains at such an epistemic distance that humans can freely choose to interact with him should they be so inclined. It is at this point that philosopher J.L. Schellenberg argue that this epistemic distance need not be total; in fact, presenting a person with a meaningful opportunity to engage with God requires that the person in question at least knows that God exists. But there are persons who are ready to engage in a relationship with God, and yet through no fault of their own lack knowledge that God exists (let’s refer to them as “inculpable believers”). So the argument concludes with the non-existence of God.
But isn’t divine hiddenness a good thing?
In response to Schellenberg’s argument, a number of theists have counter-argued that divine hiddenness is in fact a very good thing, or at least there are good reasons for God to preserve it, such that we shouldn’t be surprised by the existence of inculpable non-believers given a loving God. For example, Michael J. Murray argues in his 2002 paper, “Deus Absconditus,” that the immediacy of God’s existence would unduly coerce humans to engage with God, interfering with the intrinsically good process that is soul-building. That soul-building requires considerable autonomy is affirmed by John Hick in the now-classic Evil and the God of Love (2010 reissue):
God must set man at a distance from Himself, from which he can then voluntarily come to God. But how can anything be set at a distance from One who is infinite and omnipresent? Clearly spatial distance means nothing in this case. The kind of distance between God and man that would make room for a degree of human autonomy is epistemic distance. In other words, the reality and presence of God must not be borne in upon men in the coercive way in which their natural environment forces itself upon their attention. The world must be to man, to some extent at least, etsi deus non daretur,’ as if there were no God’. God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation. He must be knowable, but only by a mode of knowledge that involves a free personal response on man’s part, this response consisting in an uncompelled interpretative activity whereby we experience the world as mediating the divine presence. (p.281)
cl’s argument again
Recall the third premise:
A system of morality dictated by an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is therefore the best system of morality possible.
This is somewhat ambiguous, but I believe that cl intends to be read as arguing that, having received moral commandments from God, we would possess moral knowledge as certain as we could ever hope for. And, since the argument is about the best possible system of morality, not the one which is most plausible given our actual epistemic situation, considerations about epistemic plausibility (like the argument from evil etc.) simply aren’t relevant. But notice that the strength of our confidence in God’s delivered commands correlates positively with our assurance that they were actually delivered by God. And any assurance of this kind would also implicitly assure us of God’s existence.
It should be more clear now that cl’s argument critically relies on an inference that all theodicies for divine hiddenness contradict. For they all argue that epistemic distance, even to the point of lacking theistic belief altogether, is a good thing and to be expected were God to exist. By contrast, cl’s argument expects that God would obviate this epistemic distance to deliver his moral commands, thus obviating all the goods that the aforementioned theodicies worked so hard to articulate.
Suppose that God just delivered his moral maxims to humans as in the form of intuitions which had no obvious connection to himself? But then moral beliefs would be no more secure then they are now, as all would be relying on moral intuitions which lack the warrant of God’s obvious approval.
So the theist must make the choice between cl’s argument and all theodicies for divine hiddenness. Since cl’s argument at best can only show that the best possible moral theory involves God, and the argument from divine hiddenness is about the actual world, I think it’s obvious that the theist has more to lose than gain by accepting it.
Is sceptical theism the answer?
Another interesting facet of this argument involves cl’s stated commitments elsewhere on his blog. I take it that the following quotations to represent his current views on the matter (please correct me if I’m wrong):
While I’ll still gladly engage anybody on the issue, these days, I’m leaning towards the conclusion that the atheist’s problem of evil arguments are fatally flawed. In the end, all variants I’ve encountered reduce to incredulity: reasoning from premises derived at via conceptual analysis and intuition, the atheist disbelieves that a morally sufficient reason can exist: “There’s no way a good God would allow this much evil in the world.” That’s it. I’ve not seen a single POE argument that doesn’t reduce thus, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether disbelief is sufficient to warrant skepticism in this regard. I say no. (source)
I recently said that all the POE arguments I’ve heard reduce to arguments from incredulity, and this argument is no different. Inability to conceive of a higher good is the only thing grounding the claim that any given instance of suffering is needless. 6 is a naked assertion sustained only by incredulity. That alone invalidates the argument in my opinion, but I can make a stronger case. (source)
This is the standard sceptical-theistic objection to the inference from, “there are evils for which we have no known moral justification” to “there are evils which actually have no moral justification.” If his objection is sound, it follows as a general principle that we cannot infer anything about what God would prevent or allow from what appears to be good or evil to our limited minds. And so the move from, “God knows all moral truths” to “God would reveal and guarantee these truths for humans” is unjustified. Perhaps God cannot deliver these commands to humans, because there is some opposing outweighing good which we aren’t aware of. Perhaps he can deliver these commands to humans, but only in such an attenuated manner that they persuade no-one. Perhaps he can deliver his commandments in such a spectacular fashion that everyone can’t help but be persuaded, but he is forced by some unknown outweighing good to deliver only false commands, commands which do not correlate with the actual moral facts.
It appears that accepting a moral argument of this kind requires one to abandon all theodicies for divine hiddenness, and sceptical theism besides. This is a high cost; the theist would have to concede that the problem of gratuitous evil and divine hiddenness are sound and extant. If one has the pragmatic desire to rationally preserve one’s theistic beliefs, then, it is this moral argument which ought to be abandoned.