Does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove anything?

English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum
English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not religious.  I don’t think morality comes from God, gods, or any religious precept.  But often, when I see debates on whether or not morality can only come from God or religion, an atheist philosopher will mention the Euthyphro dilemma, state or imply that the question was conclusively handled over 2300 years by this Plato narrative, and move on as though the matter was settled.  However, I’ve never particularly felt that this narrative really settled anything.

Just to review, the Euthyphro dilemma asks the following question.  Is what is morally good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?  This is a question Socrates asks of a man named Euthyphro in the book named, conveniently enough, ‘Euthyphro’, written by Plato.  In the story, Socrates and Euthyphro agree that the answer must be that God, or in their case the gods, command it because it is good.

The answer accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro is often thought to be problematic for Abrahamic theology, since it implies that God is not omnipotent, that he would be subservient to a moral law that he does not control.  I fully understand the theological difficulty with this answer.  It does seem like it should be unacceptable to an orthodox Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

What I don’t understand is the problem with the other answer, the idea that something is good because God commands it.  In the articles I’ve read about this, the concern is that this would make morality arbitrary, subject to God’s whim.  If God commanded that rape and murder were good, the argument goes, that wouldn’t make rape and murder good, would it?

My response is to explore how do we know that rape and murder are not good.  Of course, most of us are horrified by these actions, so that seems to be an excellent reason.  But why are we horrified by them?  If God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him.  If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.

Now, personally, I think it’s unlikely that God is there (except perhaps as a synonym for nature).  From what I can see, morality is a cultural framework built on top of common pro-social instincts.  Instincts that our species, as social animals, evolved for cooperation.  Cooperation that enhanced our survival prospects.  But if I thought God was there, and that he was indeed the creator of all, I wouldn’t have a problem with the good-is-good-because-God-says-so answer.  A philosopher once told me that by accepting that answer, I was “biting a bullet”.  Well, it doesn’t seem like much of a bullet to me.

You could argue that God’s commandments don’t always match the feelings he purportedly put in us, and I think that inconsistency is indeed a dilemma for believers who hold to scriptural inerrancy.  But my understanding is that this is not the central argument of the Euthyphro dilemma.

So, my question is, what am I missing?  What does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove?  Does it prove anything?  Or is it just a demonstration that people have been struggling to find the basis of morality for at least 2300 years?

76 thoughts on “Does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove anything?

  1. It’s always been a little unsettling to me that the depictions of god from the bible were never very flattering. So I don’t think things are good because God commands them to be, or even that “god” commands good things most of the time. By that portrayal of a “god” anyway. I think your synonym with “nature” is about the extent of conception of any kind of “higher being”. Good post!


  2. I thought the same thing; assuming God exists and that God created morality means God could also have created the sense of moral compulsion that makes morality seem right on its own, especially if God is more concerned with people behaving morally than worshiping him/her. Trying to separate the moral compulsion from God is like trying to separate a circle from its shape.

    I think this is symptomatic of many philosophical pseudo-problems — they’re language games. Language allows us to express nonsense, and taking language too seriously means taking nonsense as real and getting into a pointless dilemma over it.

    I think this is a symptom of an even greater problem, assuming that our failed concepts are somehow tied to reality. As an example, take paradoxes. Paradoxes don’t exist in nature, they’re a byproduct of bad thinking, like vomiting is a byproduct of bad food. They’re a sign that we screwed up.


    1. Well said. You articulate something I’ve struggled to express before, that many seemingly perplexing problems are really just language knots.

      I suspect this is one of the many reasons science has gravitated toward expressing everything mathematically. It’s why Newton gets the credit for understanding gravitation, because he figured out the mathematics of it, even though he wasn’t the originator of the concept.

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  3. I did a post on Euthyphro a while back and in researching I found it quite the mind bending exercise to try and follow along with debates online about it.

    One thought I have on Euthyphro is that if it does present a problem then it presents a problem for any moral realist (both theist or non-theist). The idea I had here is that morality would be arbitrary whether it’s source comes from some non-thinking “Platonic abstracta” type laws, or if it’s source comes from a thinking being.

    As you said, Euthyphro is a problem for believers who rely on ancient texts which have commandments in them because many of them go against a lot of our modern “moral intuitions”, but maybe this isn’t really the central argument of Euthyphro anyway.

    The “moral intuitions” of different cultures through time have been vastly different, which plays into part of the problem, so which culture do we take as having the correct “morality”? This is part of the reason for the drive for believers to want a guidebook for morality.

    Another problem which some theist philosophers concede to is where would the “you must follow God” command be grounded in? Does God himself declare that he himself must be followed? Some theists have proposed that there is something outside of God that grounds that, and then all other commands derive from God.

    Along with you I think the natural evolution of morality makes the most sense.

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    1. I’m going to have to go look up your post.

      I thought about taking the naturalistic thread when I wrote this one, but reforming the question that way seemed absurd to me: “Is what is morally good, good because it is natural, or is it natural because it is morally good.” This may be one of the reasons religious naturalism has never had much appeal for me.

      I think many thinking believers will say that morality has to be grounded in conscience. The problem is that our consciences don’t always agree. This makes sense if you view conscience as a collection of intuitions molded by culture on top of evolved instincts, since it’s not controversial that cultures vary or that people have different dispositions.


      1. I think the morality is a basic string to your emotions and empathy. Things that would hurt you are morally wrong, and we have emotional ties to being alive so hurting others is wrong. I think this was designed in as this being a world of killing to survive we will always have lost morality to survive. It drives a sense of giving of yourself to offset that. There is a secret built inside of us that giving to others things that are ours does indeed build up a resistance to negative self defeating thoughts. It seems almost too obvious that we have a God that gave us everything and created our world. Gives us life and warmth and is the light. Without these Gods the universe would be dark and cold. Does God have to be only one ever living being? Can our God just be the sun who will eventually die as well? This being true doesn’t take away the fact that he created life, created our world, gives us life and abolishes darkness. And they are now discovering that it may give off that elusive energy they call dark energy.


          1. I agree with you that the comments further in my response are my attempts at making logical connections. I am currently on my journey of discovery as most of us are and some things fit well in my head. I have holes in my understanding of many fields of science that could make these views change in the future. I’m don’t mind being wrong or at least I try hard to keep pride out of this. It’s great to be alive during these discoveries we are making in science. I have a feeling we may unlock some of the deepest secrets during our lifetime.

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    2. Hey Howie, I agree with much of what you say, but I think the Euthyphro dilemma poses a problem for constructivist/irrealist positions and not moral realism. This is clearest with constructivist/ideal observer positions (like Kant, Rawls, Korsgaard, even Railton or Smith), where against their points that moral principles are what we’d agree to in some idealized position of knowledge or rationality, we ask, “well, why would we agree to that? Either it’s just because and therefore rather arbitrary, or because from that position we see that those acts and events really are, on a metaphysical level, of moral value. In this way God is just a different method of phrasing the “ideal observer”, and the same problem arises for all constructivist positions, either morality is arbitrary, or it’s independent of that position in a way that suggests moral realism.

      So, I’m not sure why the Euthyphro dilemma is a problem for moral realists, on your count. If, in the most charitable understanding of Platonic forms, there are independently existing moral values in the sense of being abstract value properties that can be known a priori through reflection on the conceptual entailment of natural properties to value properties, then there is nothing arbitrary about morality, as natural/physical properties ground the value properties as a matter of necessity. Now of course, there has been a wide range of disagreement about morality over the centuries, but that it can be difficult to grasp conceptual connections might explain this partially, while bias in favor of one’s own preferences for control preventing realization of these entailments might explain more.


      1. The mind bending is happening again and I don’t think I fully understood everything you wrote, but I’ll give a shot at describing some of my thoughts. My thought is that If we believe that morals exist as abstract properties, then rape could theoretically be one of those “good” properties. Actually, it seems any moral property is possible. Perhaps my confusion is in the definition of the word arbitrary which relates to bloggingisaresponsibility’s comment.

        Also, theists respond to euthyphro by saying that morals are grounded in God’s “nature”. This seems very similar to saying morals are grounded as abstract properties, which is why I said “if it does present a problem then it presents a problem for any moral realist”


    3. Can’t seem to reply to your response, hopefully this posts in an intelligible order.

      Anyways, if I understand you correctly, your argument is that if moral values are abstract in the sense of not being in the physical world then nothing grounds them in a way that would resolve the worry of their being arbitrary? I see the reason for your concern, but I don’t see why conceptual/abstract properties can’t be non-arbitrary if they aren’t actually in the world’ it seems they wouldn’t be arbitrary if they weren’t in the world yet realized due to other lower-order properties that cause us to experience those abstract properties. Arguably, ‘red’ isn’t in the world, but what ‘red’ is realized by isn’t random in the way of making ‘red’ being arbitrary. The same might be true for other abstract properties, value properties included.


      1. Yes, I see that moral properties could objectively exist, and we could also claim that they are not arbitrary, but then aren’t we just making a claim without evidence that they are non-arbitrary? Perhaps they actually are random. But I do believe I see your distinction between that and moral laws which come from a thinking all powerful being, because then the laws are up to whatever that being decides which by definition is arbitrary.

        Also, I wonder what your thoughts are on the proposed solution by theists – that moral laws are grounded in God’s nature, therefore not being up to his whim and thus not arbitrary.


  4. Socrates wants to reach the conclusion that the Good is an idea independent of what any intelligent being may want from it (which folds into his larger premise that the good is what any intelligent being would/should want, in and of itself).

    But what I noted in writing about the Ten Commandments lately, is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is grounded solidly on what we now call Divine Command Morality, and unfortunately *no* moral principle can be derived from it.

    Thus the centuries of theologians trying to find some way out of their dilemma (which is not Plato’s, he has no dilemma). If it all comes down to god’s will, and god may will as he pleases, then there is no basis for moral reasoning.

    The theological strategy here is to identify god’s will as inherently good. But this involves a lot of apologetics concerning the rancid history of the OT, as well as the presence of apparent evil in the world, etc.

    “But if I thought God was there, and that he was indeed the creator of all, I wouldn’t have a problem with the good-is-good-because-God-says-so answer. ” Alas, that’s the historical problem here; ISIS is filled with believers who have no problem with that answer.

    Theologians have wrestled with this problem partly to deal with the fanatics of their own faith; also to deal with heretics claiming personal guidance from god; also to confront believers in other sects; etc. DCM only functions without controversy in homogenous communities where there is very little dissent; introduce diversity and it swiftly falls apart, needing buttressing with arguments, the theological theory construction, and doctrinal limitations.


    1. Good point about this not being a dilemma for Plato. It seems to only be an issue for someone whose theology includes an omnipotent god.

      “ISIS is filled with believers who have no problem with that answer.”

      But I think there would be a huge difference between concluding that things that are God’s will are good because they are God’s will, and concluding that we know for certain what that will is and killing people based on it. This realization, it seems to me, makes the two answers to the dilemma operationally indistinguishable.


  5. Hi — I think the Euthyphro dilemma does present a problem for anyone who relies on God’s commands, whatever they are, to define what is good. Although, as I understand it, there’s a standard religious response to the dilemma: it’s not really a dilemma because there is a third option.

    The third option goes something like this: God is good by His nature, so it’s not the case that God’s commands are arbitrary or could be evil. Whatever God commands flows from His very being, which is absolutely good, so there is no real distinction between what is good and what God commands. So we don’t have to choose between the two alternatives Plato gives us. In some sense, they are the same thing and (apparently) couldn’t be otherwise because God is Goodness and that’s that.

    Of course, it’s a matter of faith that God exists and is Goodness Personified on top of that. But one might ask: Is God’s nature good because He is God or because His nature is truly good? The theist answer to that question is apparently “Yes, both”. I don’t find that a very convincing answer, but I’m not a theist.

    Another point: I’d question your statement that “if God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him. If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions”.

    Again, as I understand the religious response, it’s not true that God is responsible for everything. God set the universe in motion and arranged things a certain way, but we humans are free to choose between good and evil and have to make that choice for ourselves. We can take God’s advice, of course, and do what God wants us to do, and maybe God intended that we would generally make the right choices (as you imply), but God didn’t determine that we would all have the same deep moral convictions or act on the same convictions in the same way, which amounts to the same thing, practically speaking.

    Coincidentally, the Pope had something to say about this the other day:

    “Francis explained that [the Big Bang and evolution] were not incompatible with the existence of a creator – arguing instead that they “require it”. “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said. He added: “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.”

    I don’t know if the translation is correct, and it may be presumptuous for an atheist/agnostic to correct the Pope of all people, but what I think he should have said is that God gave us the internal laws (or deepest convictions) so that we COULD reach our fulfillment, not that we WOULD.

    Anyway, this is a great topic and thanks for bringing it up.


    1. Thanks Larry. I actually knew about the third option, but my interpretation of it is that it is functionally identical to God’s-will-makes-good answer. If God’s nature is good, then it seems to reduce to God’s nature is God’s will, which seems trivially true. But maybe there’s more there than I’m seeing.

      My statement about God’s whim mainly referred to our conscience, which Pope Francis and many other believers advise us to heed. If God exists, then it seems like he would decide what our conscience tells us. Whether it would be God’s responsibility if we ignored it gets into the whole free will debate, which I think I’ll just step over this evening, although I would note that whether or not we had free will would be an omnipotent creator’s whim.

      Thanks for the link to Francis’s statement! Phil Plait has a pretty good write-up on it also (that I saw minutes before reading your comment).


  6. “However, I’ve never particularly felt that this narrative really settled anything.”

    Certainly not! Plato liked to take his readers down blind alley after blind alley, then leave them somewhere in the midst of it all.

    What if God=the Good? As in, they are not two separate things? I think that’s what Plato means, but I’m not sure. Without two distinct entities, there’s no dilemma. And if the Good=Reason, and Reason is in everyone, then consulting with one’s conscience qua reason is the proper way to deal with moral issues.

    Sorry to be so abrupt here! I didn’t want to get into quoting things.

    As for your question of whether the Euthyphro dilemma solves anything: I don’t think it was meant to. It’s meant to make you question established religion. Notice that Plato refers to gods—plural—in the dialogue, which would address his audience, of course. Does this questioning of established religion prove to be a devastating blow? Not really, as you’ve pointed out. It just makes things uncomfortable. Plato liked it when people felt uncomfortable. He believed in the educational value of paradox.


    1. Good point, and no need at all to apologize! This is good discussion. And as someone said above, it wasn’t really a dilemma so much for Plato, but for later theology. But I agree completely that Plato’s whole purpose was to force us to realize that the question of what is moral (or well, what is pious in the original, not necessarily the same thing in ancient Greece), was more complicated than it at first appeared. That was my takeaway when I first read it nearly 30 years ago.

      But what motivated me to write this post was a tendency among some to just say “Euthyphro dilemma” as though it was devastatingly final in settling the matter of God and morality. Although I’m almost always in general agreement with the people saying it, their use of Euthyphro this way, without explanation, seems facile, unless of course I’m missing something.

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      1. Sorry, I missed that comment about Plato…there’s that old laziness kicking in. I thought I could just get away with skimming the discussion!

        I agree with you that the Euthyphro dilemma used in this way IS facile. As Ausomeawestin says below, the assumption is the dilemma boils down to—”Choose one: morality is arbitrary OR morality isn’t determined by God.”

        But your way out is, something is good because God commands it:
        “If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.”

        Then we have the problem of how we err. How do we get things wrong?

        Logically, you could reply, “Well, we don’t.” That could be the end of the story. It could be a sort of modern take on Parmenides, moral error as illusion. Not sure this outcome would jive with a lot of Christian doctrine, but it jives with itself. Calvinist, perhaps? I can sense that I’m about to start rambling, so I’ll stop here.

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        1. I’m happy to have your rambling any time 🙂

          Your comment covers a lot of territory: predestination, free will, the problem of evil. My remarks only referred to the issue that whatever feeling or intuition might lead us to conclude a purported divine command was wrong would have been part of that omnipotent creator’s, well, creation. Of course, he might give us a feeling and command something different, but that wouldn’t say much about his benevolence.


  7. An excellently argued and thoughtful essay, Sap.

    One might worry that the Euthyphro dilemma is too often used as an ad hominem argument, and has lost its force in other respects due to this. The idea is “hey, either morality is arbitrary or morality isn’t determined by God, and if you think morality is arbitrary then you’re a sicko, but you aren’t a sicko are you? That’s what I thought, so morality isn’t arbitrary and therefore morality isn’t determined by God.” Obviously that’s not a very good argument, but unfortunately it’s a somewhat common one (though less common on wordpress than arguments for the claim that atheists are sickos, blah).

    Still, I think there is something very insightful to the Euthyphro argument, though I think it’s import is against constructivist/ideal observer positions (^ my comments in response to Howie). Things are trickier when dealing with God as the ideal observer, as you note, due to the vast metaphysical implications — if God exists and decides morality then his awesome powers could explain why morality doesn’t seem arbitrary, even though it is, because he decides it. So the fact that morality doesn’t seem arbitrary isn’t a very convincing reason for why God doesn’t determine morality.

    The way to move forward with the dilemma, to my mind, is to run with the idea that if God determines morality, then he could have determined morality differently. That gives us some testable implications, because it entails that god could have wired morality differently for twin earth while keeping morality the same here (whether or not here is earth classic). This would mean that on earth and twin earth two states of affairs could be exactly the same in their non-moral features/properties, but have different moral features/properties. But this is to deny supervenience for moral properties, which is a fairly non-controversial thesis in metaethics; even irrealists maintain it. This is different from the argument “morality doesn’t seem arbitrary so God doesn’t determine morality” in an important way. With that argument, an explanation for why morality doesn’t seem arbitrary is that god does determine morality, so it’s not a great argument for why the non-arbitrariness of morality suggests that god doesn’t determine morality. In essence, we’re asked to think about whether something we think is morally good could be morally bad. That’s hard to imagine, and a reason why it might be hard to imagine might be because of god, essentially, because he’s designed us to hold those beliefs so closely, or so the theist might say. By contrast, in considering the tension of supervenience and god’s determining of morality, we’re asked to think about whether two events could be completely the same in non-moral respects but different in moral respects. That’s hard to imagine, and the reason seems to be that that would be contradictory: a = p and not p.

    The difference between the supervenience argument and the other on offer is that it invites far less opportunity for the theist to say an adequate explanation for why we can’t imagine the scenario is god. Sure, the theist can say that god designed the laws of logic, so in that sense he determines this aspect of morality. But while many may think we NEED god for an explanation of morality, few would maintain that we NEED god for an explanation for the principle of non-contradiction. As we don’t need god for an explanation as to why the laws of logic are as they are, and the thesis that god determines morality entails the denial of supervenience and thus amounts to a claim that god can get around contradictions, a claim we have no reason to believe as there is no reason to believe that he determines the laws of logic being as he is not necessary to explain them, we have reason to conclude that god cannot determine morality. In brief, the dilemma comes down to the points: if god determines morality then the supervenience thesis is false; but the supervenience thesis is true, and the reason why the supervenience thesis seems true is fully explainable without god; therefore, god doesn’t determine morality (modus tollens). The further implication is that claiming that god determines morality creates excessive explanatory burdens, as the theist would owe us an explanation for why god makes the supervenience thesis seem true when it is actually false and, separately, why the supervenience thesis is false, so that the argument isn’t circular.

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    1. Wow, that’s an excellent comment! Your “you aren’t a sicko are you?” articulates what I suspected but couldn’t quite bring to the surface. I think it’s the main argument against the God-makes-good argument, and I think you’re right that it’s an ad hominem.

      I like your twin-earth thought experiment. How could murder be good on twin-earth if we had the same evolutionary history? But, of course, if God wanted murder to be good, he could have given us a radically different evolutionary history, laws of physics, etc.

      On your point about logic not needing God, that seems to me to be the same dilemma as Euthyphro. If God is omnipotent, then couldn’t he change the laws of logic? I know many theists say no, but then what does omnipotence mean? If God can’t change the laws of logic, then he’s beholden to them, and we’re right back to the same type of concern about God being beholden laws he doesn’t control.

      Of course, as you noted, all of these difficulties disappear in a puff of logic once you simply remove an omnipotent god from the equation. (I fully realize a theist would argue that our inability to understand it doesn’t necessarily negate it.) We’re only left with morality not being dependent on God, and the sicko argument. But even the sicko argument disappears once we observe that morality appears rooted in evolutionary instincts.


      1. Thanks, and yes exactly, the twin-earth/supervenience interpretation is essentially the same as the Euthyphro dilemma, it’s a narrowing of it to my mind, it just pushes the point of how much the theist must explain in order to conclude that god determines morality, and why the explanation that would have to be offered seems too fantastic to take seriously.

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    2. Ausomeawestin, I think you are right in connecting the Euthyphro with the moral supervenience thesis. The Euthyphro problem just takes it for granted that the moral landscape is fixed: that if xing in circs S is morally right today, it must be morally right tomorrow keeping all other natural features fixed. The moral supervenience thesis encapsulates the same idea. Two situations or possible worlds that are identical in all of their natural properties, must have the same moral ones as well.

      You claim that the moral supervenience thesis is true. However, I see no reason to think it is. What evidence is there in support of it?

      You point out that most contemporary moral philosophers think it is true. True, but that’s consistent with it being a piece of dead dogma.

      In fact, I’d say there’s a fair bit of positive evidence that the moral supervenience thesis is false.

      Here’s the first bit of evidence I’d offer: at different times different things have been perceived to be right/wrong, good/bad in otherwise naturalistically identical circumstances. On the assumption that we have a moral sense that is fairly reliably hooked up to any moral reality there may be, that’s evidence that morality changes over time. And it is evidence that naturalistically identical circumstances can have different moral properties.

      Here’s another bit of evidence: plausible metaethical theories contradict the moral supervenience thesis. For instance, DCT does. Given what a good job DCT does at accounting for morality’s features, this is a strike against the moral supervenience thesis. Similarly, some think (not me) that non-naturalist metaethical theories are very plausible. Well, they contradict the moral supervenience thesis just as surely as DCTs do.

      Here’s a final bit of evidence, though I am not too sure about it at present as I’m still in the process of thinking it through (so apologies if this is a bit garbled). if the moral supervenience thesis is true, then morality is either a necessary feature of this world, or it is necessarily an impossible feature of this world. This is because if morality exists here and the moral supervenience thesis is true, then by hypothesis there is no naturalistically identical world to this one that isn’t morally identical as well. hence morality turns out to exist here necessarily. However, if morality does not exist here (so it is just an illusion that helped our ancestors make more babies, perhaps), then there cannot be an otherwise identical world in which it does – for that would violate the moral supervenience thesis. Thus if morality does not exist here it does not exist here necessarily.

      The problem with this is that it is too strong. Moral nihilism is false, I think. But it is possibly true. Likewise, moral realism is true, I think. But I don’t think it has to be. So I think this is further evidence that the moral supervenience thesis is just a piece of dogma.


      1. Thanks A.Moonraker, very interesting comments.

        I admire your attempts to show that the idea of an objective morality is compatible with morality changing over time. I lean towards particularist/pluralistic understandings of normativity and so I think different naturalistic properties can combine to yield different normative reasons at different times. But I think in such an instance at least one of the naturalistic descriptions of the state of affairs would be different, in a way that makes the view compatible with supervenience.

        Which gets to my concern with your argument — your interpretation of supervenience is too broad. In order for the premise that morality changes over time to count as a premise in an argument against the supervenience thesis it would have to be the case that the supervenience thesis includes some claims or at least entailments about temporality, otherwise any temporality based objection is besides the point. In fact, the supervenience thesis makes no claims involving or implying the passing of time. The supervenience thesis for morality only entails that if x y & z then p, and if both a & b have x y & z then both a & b have p. Time is irrelevant here. The supervenience thesis is seen to be true because it is a conceptual truth that if two states of affairs have the same natural properties then they must have the same normative properties because normative properties arise from natural properties. As such, the supervenience thesis assumes that we are only talking about one time slice since we are not talking about time, so the premise that a similar state of affairs can have a different normative property at a different time is not an argument against the supervenience thesis because the supervenience thesis does not entail that similar naturalistic groupings of properties have the same normative properties across time — this actually goes against the supervenience thesis as different time occurrences would amount to different temporal descriptions of states of affairs. So, the idea that it seems like morality changes over time poses no problem for the supervenience thesis, and is in fact entirely compatible with it.

        Per your second argument, I don’t think DCT is a plausible metaethical theory, but I’ll get to that in a response to the more fleshed out comment you made in its favor in direct response to SAP’s piece. I think non-naturalism is very plausible, I actually consider myself on most days to be a non-naturalist. But non-naturalism is entirely compatible with supervenience, so I’m don’t think the fact that some consider non-naturalism plausible counts against supervenience. I imagine your thinking is that non-naturalism entails non-reductivism and supervenience entails reductivism so they are incompatible views. Very influential realists of late have been naturalists and yet non-reductivists because of the seemingly inescapable conclusions in favor of non-reductive supervenience, so I see no reason why non-naturalists cannot also subscribe to a non-reductive supervenience thesis.

        Your final argument is of course very challenging, and one which I don’t feel very comfortable in responding to as I am not well-versed enough in modal logic to satisfactorily respond. Still, I’ll take a page from Ralph Wedgwood and note that we should dismiss the assumption that specific supervenience facts must be explained directly by the fundamental truths of the essences of things, and rather that these facts be explained indirectly by fundamental truths, “that is, [they] must be explained by some fundamental essential truths, together with some other wholly non-modal truths” (The Nature of Normativity, page 207).

        The wholly non-modal truths that Wedgwood has in mind are metaphysically contingent rather than metaphysically necessary. These metaphysically contingent truths would be cases where a physical property is regularly co-instantiated with a normative or mental property, such that it is a non-accidental regularity that whenever a creature has physical property B it has the relevant mental property, i.e. pain. Against the objection that regular co-instantiation is a thinly veiled appeal to psycho-physical laws, and psycho-physical laws are only plausible if reduction is possible, such that psycho-physical laws cannot be used to argue for irreducibility, Wedgwood argues that such regularities do not entail that mental property is necessarily equivalent to a physical property, so it does not entail that reductionism is true.

        From the notion that we can offer physical descriptions of properties that regularly instantiate certain mental properties, it seems possible, says Wedgwood, that we could note that in worlds physically similar to our own, those same physical properties will be regularly co-instantiated with those certain mental properties. This specific physicalist description would in turn provide an explanation for the general supervenience fact that a certain mental property, say pain, supervenes on physical properties. As such, contingent metaphysical facts explain modal facts on this account, and offer a theory of supervenience relations that depend on these contingent facts, not metaphysically necessary facts that would entail reductionism.

        So I think a plausible story can be offered for non-reductive supervenience, and as it is a story based in non-modal truths it doesn’t necessarily follow that if supervenience holds true for our world that a strict global supervenience pattern is true for all possible worlds, per your concerns.

        All of this is to say that I think that supervenience of moral properties on non-moral properties is a reasonable thesis, and one that I don’t think is easily dismissible.


    3. I’m new to this and couldn’t find a ‘reply’ tag to your reply to my reply, so I’m replying to your original, though what I say here responds to your reply to my reply (hmm, not sure that made sense).

      This is a reply to the first bit in which you took me to task for being a bit fast and loose with the moral supervenience thesis. Yes, that’s fair enough – I was being! We can, of course, draw lots of distinctions between different supervenience theses. The one that is pertinent to a debate about the Euthyphro is one that says that if two possible worlds have the same natural properties (where natural properties excludes supernatural ones such as ‘being commanded by a god), then it must have the same moral properties as well. We can call this the ‘natural’ moral supervenience thesis (NS for short).

      You’re absolutely correct that this version of the moral supervenience thesis is compatible with morality changing over time, for an act’s temporal location is among its natural features.

      But that’s a big problem. For that means that – consistent with NS – at time t1 the token act of Xing in circumstances S can be morally right, and at later time t2 an otherwise identical token act of Xing in circumtances S can be morally wrong. Yet if you’re happy with that then why think that two possible worlds that are identical in all of their natural properties must be morally identical as well? Any motivation for thinking NS is true is totally undercut.

      To put it another way, anyone who thinks NS is true surely must also think that morality is fixed over time (that two acts that are identical in every natural way apart from temporally must be morally identical as well)? Someone who thought NS is true but was breezy about morality varying over time (holding all else equal) surely cannot defend NS. All the reasons typically given for thinking NS a conceptual truth apply just as strongly to the thought that morality cannot alter over time. Needless to say, I don’t think they’re very good reasons and that we should acknowledge that morality can alter over time and that there’s no good reason to think NS is true. (NS is, in my view, a hangover from the Ancient Greek world where the ultimately real was assumed to have to be unchanging).

      Re your point about non-naturalism being compatible with NS. Hmm, well, I don’t see that. Or at least, it seems ‘as’ compatible with it as a DCT. For to be a proper non-naturalist you’d have to hold that moral properties are not among an act’s natural properties. Yet if that’s the case then what prevents there being a possible world that is naturalistically identical to this one yet that differs in its arrangement of moral properties? I don’t see any principled way of ruling this out. Or, more cautiously, I don’t see any principled way of ruling this out that wouldn’t be available to a DCT as well. But of course, I am acutely aware that I may be missing something here!

      I need to think further regarding the rest of what you said….


      1. Ah I see, I should have been more clear that I’m not saying that the supervenience thesis entails that two sets of natural properties can be exactly the same, save for their occurrence in time, and have different superveneing normative properties. The sole difference cannot be that they occur in different time slices. That they occur in different time slices creates the possibility of a different natural property obtaining that is relevant to there being different normative properties in the time slices. If it was possible that the sole naturalistic difference between two otherwise identical natural property clusters could yield different normative properties, then supervenience would indeed seem a strange thesis. But because supervenience is only a claim about necessity in one slice of time it has no such implications.

        Per the discussion on non-naturalism, I’m not sure how extreme you think the idea of non-natural properties are, but they are not that strange. Moore posited that normative properties are consequential of natural properties, and this seems to be close enough to the idea that lower-order natural properties realize higher-order non-natural properties for us to assume he had the early inklings of supervenience in mind. Perhaps your concern is with early non-naturalists’ claim that “good” is a simple property, and so metaphysically basic in a way that suggests it is not dependent on other properties. Granting that the idea of simple normative properties is troubling, there is no reason why “good” cannot be irreducible as the early non-naturalists thought but also a complex property, in the sense that “good” is the property of having properties that give us reason to respond in positive ways. This reasons-based approach would entail that normative properties are higher-order psychological properties that are realized as dispositions towards lower-order non-pyschological properties in objects and states of affairs. Our dispositions to react to the natural world don’t seem arbitrary, we seem to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so such dispositions might be linked with enough frequency to justify beliefs in necessary connections (supervenience) between certain natural properties and certain psychologically reactive properties/mental states. All of this is to say that non-naturalism seems compatible with supervenience.


  8. You have posed a very pertinent question.
    The statement

    My response is to explore how do we know that rape and murder are not good. Of course, most of us are horrified by these actions, so that seems to be an excellent reason. But why are we horrified by them? If God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him. If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.

    in my view would make all talk of morality irrelevant. I think if god exists and all depends on him, everything would be permissible. If on the other hand, what is good is not because of the gods, then one can not argue for a divine command theory. The Euthyphro is mentioned usually in response to those who argue for DCT.


    1. Thanks. I think you’re right that that is how Euthyphro is typically used. I guess that I just don’t see how it makes that case.

      I can’t see how a believer in an omnipotent creator can escape divine command theory. That said, I suspect most thinking believers would admit that knowing what the divine commands actually are is far from certain. It seems to me that this puts that thinking divine command theorist and everyone else on the same footing when it comes to figuring out morality. (It’s the divine command theorists who insist on strict scriptural authority that probably cause many to reject DCT.)


  9. I am a divine command theorist (a non-Christian, non-religious one) and I have never been very impressed at the Euthyphro problem.

    If our moral intuitions are reliably tracking morality itself – which, by hypothesis is now composed of a god’s commands – then if the god’s tastes changed our moral intuitions would change as well. For an analogy: it appears to me that there is a computer monitor in front of me. Assuming my sight is reliably tracking the objects there actually are, if the computer monitor ceased to be in front of me (it fell off the table, say) then it would cease to appear to be in front of me.

    it might be objected that the real problem is that divine command theories of ethics allow that morality could alter: acts wrong at one time could be right if performed at another. But why is that a problem? Why assume that morality can’t alter over time? It is no part of teh objectivity of morality to assume that it is fixed across time. The physical landscape alters over time, yet it is objective (hills are not composed of our beliefs or feelings). Morality is not composed of our beliefs or feelings either (it is something we have feelings and beliefs about, but it is not composed of such things). Morality is external to ourselves, yet that does not entail that it is fixed over time. If anything, there appears to be positive evidence that it varies. At different times people seem sincerely to have perceived different things to be right and wrong. Taken at face value that’s evidence that the moral landscape has altered. So why should divine command theories be faulted for being consistent with this?

    Plus consider what you have to say about those differential moral judgments over time if you insist that the moral landscape is fixed. You have to say that some of those judgments must be mistaken. But who is making the mistake? it is parochial to just assume it was those in the past whose faculty of moral intuition was malfunctioning. So, if you’re reasonable you’d have to conclude that as the moral landscape is fixed yet our moral intuitions vary over time, our faculty of moral intuition is rubbish and that for all we can tell pretty much anything might actually be right or wrong.

    Compare this to what we can say if we give up the outdated and silly idea that the moral landscape is fixed. Now we can say that chances are, nobody is making a mistake and our moral intuitions are fairly reliably tracking the moral landscape (it is just that it changes).

    It seems to me, then, that the Euthyphro is really a very poor criticism of divine command theories. I think it is something of a travesty that divine command theories continue to be routinely dismissed on such a poor basis, especially given that the Euthyphro can also be raised against anyone apart from the most hardline moral nihilist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not a believer, but I like your reasoning. It gives some flexibility for the simple historical fact that morals change over time. A 17th century slave trader could be a God fearing upstanding citizen for his time with only a tiny minority of the population objecting to his profession. Today we’d regard such an individual as despicable, but when judging him across time and space, we should consider that a 24th century person might look back at a modern farmer who raises cattle for food as despicable.


    2. I disagree with you when you write

      Morality is not composed of our beliefs or feelings either (it is something we have feelings and beliefs about, but it is not composed of such things). Morality is external to ourselves, yet that does not entail that it is fixed over time.

      Is it possible to talk of morality without reference to moral agents? Outside of our feelings and our beliefs, what is left of morals? What is this you would be talking about if it doesn’t involve sentient beings with obligations to one another?

      And I think no one argues that the moral landscape is fixed. Our views of what is right or not have changed over time.

      The Euthyphro, is not as you say a very poor criticism of DCTs, depending on where a person is looking at it from, it seeks to determine whether what is pious must depend on a god or not.

      And allow me to ask, as a non believer, what does represent the divine in the DCT for you?


      1. Hi Makagutu,

        you have said that you disagree with me about the objectivity of morality. However, you haven’t explained the basis of your disagreement.

        morality is manifestly not composed of our feelings or beliefs. We have moral feelings and we have moral beliefs. But they are feelings and beliefs ‘about’ morality. They do not compose it.

        For instance, children have beliefs about Father Christmas. But Father Christmas is not made of beliefs. He’s a fat man who delivers presents to all the world’s children on Christmas eve. He also doesn’t exist. Thus all of those children have false beliefs.

        Similarly, moral beliefs are ‘about’ morality. If there is no god then there are no moral norms in reality, there merely appear to be. And thus, if there is no god then all moral appearances constitute hallucinations and all substantial moral beliefs are false.

        Another analogy: religious feelings and beliefs. Many people sense that there is a god, and many people believe that there is a god. But ‘a god’ is not composed of feelings and beliefs. You can’t prove a god exists just by demonstrating that you believe one to, or have a sense that one exists. ‘A god’ is a powerful supernatural agency. If none exists then divine sensations and beliefs still exist, it is just that the sensations constitute hallucination and the beliefs are all false.

        Anyway, if you think morality is subjective then you’re committed to one of the following. You must either hold that there is no contradiction involved in one and the same act being fully right and fully wrong at the same time, or else you must hold that the sole determinant of whether someone has done something right or wrong is whether he/she (the agent) approved of what he/she did. Yet the idea that one and the same act can be fully right and fully wrong at the same time is incoherent, and the idea that the sole determinant of whether someone has done right or wrong is whether the person performing it approved of doing it is absurd.

        Additionally you’d be committed to thinking that you’re virtually infallible about what is right and wrong. For after all, if morality is subjective then it is composed of your feelings. Well, you’re an authority on what you’re feeling or believing. So you can establish – with near certainty- whether an act is right or wrong by just consulting your own feelings, for they compose the rightness/wrongness.


        1. In my response to which you respond, I did pose questions that were to meant to explain my objection. Everyone who talks about morals being objective throws that word and never does give examples or justification for why morals have to be objective and which these are.

          I like your father Christmas analogy. It represents my view of morals.

          The statement that without god, there are no moral norms gives too much to the gods. If this were the case, the fear of gods would have made the world a much more peaceful place given that the god believers outnumber the non believers by several billions.

          Your conditions make you commit a fallacy of logic by claiming there are only two options if I subscribe to morals being subjective. There is the option that actions just are, neither good nor bad but just actions. It is in our nature to inject good or bad into them. Depending on the observer, an act can be fully right and fully wrong at the same time and there is no inconsistency. I will give you an example. For Hitler, his acts were fully right, to the Jews, they were fully wrong. It would be inconsistent if the thing was held to be both good and bad by the same person.


          1. Something is ‘subjective’ when it is composed of the feelings or beliefs of subjects. So, whether someone is sexy or not is a subjective matter. If the sight of them causes in you feelings of arousal, then you find them sexy. If not, not. Note, it is not just that they appear sexy to you. They actually are sexy to you. For sexiness is composed of those feelings they’re causing in you.

            So, if you say that morality is subjective then you’re committed to the view that if the act of Xing in circumstances S causes in you certain moral feelings (positive ones) then Xing in circumstances S is morally right. For the rightness – on your view – just ‘is’ the positive feeling. NOte: it isn’t just that it appears right to you. It actually ‘is’ right.

            What’s the problem with that? Well, it means that most horrific crimes involve no wrongdoing. A rapist who approves of what he’s doing is not doing anything wrong. Note, it is not just that it doesn’t ‘appear’ to be wrong to him – if you say that then you’re actually assuming that morality is objective, not subjective – it actually ‘is’ right for him to rape people. Now, clearly nobody thinks that’s true. Nobody thinks that once you’ve established whether someone approves of what he/she did (or felt a certain way about it) this settles the matter of whether what he did was right or wrong.

            So the subjective analysis is just false. There are lots and lots of devastating faults with it. Above I have mentioned just one.

            I suggest that what you’re doing – and what, I think, everyone who insists that morality is subjective is doing – is confusing moral phenomena with morality itself. Beliefs about chairs are not chairs. Beliefs about morality are not moralities. Our five senses give us insight into the nature of the physical world, but their reports do not compose the physical world. OUr moral sense gives us insight into the moral landscape, but its reports do not compose morality.

            Perhaps morality does not really exist (though I have provided a proof that it does and you’ve challenged none of its premises). But in that case what follows is that all of our substantial moral beliefs are false and our moral sensations constitute hallucinations. Similarly, perhaps the physical universe does not exist. In that case all of our beliefs about the physical universe (such as my current belief that there is a computer monitor in front of me) are false, and our sense reports constitute halllucinations.


  10. Thanks for your reply. The Euthyphro is considered by most to be the major stumbling block for a divine analysis. Yet if the Euthyphro isn’t a problem doesn’t that mean DCT wins?

    Here’s why I’m a DCT:

    1. Morality issues commands
    2. Only agents can issue commands.
    3. So, Morality is an agent or agencies.
    4. Moral commands are not commands we are issuing to ourselves or others.
    5. Moral commands have a singe source across all moral agents
    6. Most of us have a moral sense and are heavily influenced by what we believe morality to be bidding us to or be.
    7. Morality is a single agent who has considerable power over us (most of us anyway).

    The agency in 7 seems to be a god, at least of sorts. Hence morality appears to be a god and moral commands the commands of a god. I’m not particularly happy about that conclusion, but I can’t see a credible way of avoiding it.


      1. Ah,well I’d say that it is a conceptual truth about morality that it commands, directs, favours. I take that to be another way of expressing the idea that morality is essentially normative. So I’d say that premise 1 is a conceptual truth (or at least, it is if we broaden ‘commands’ to ‘commands/favours/directs”.


        1. Ah, ok. Well, if you’re not particularly happy with the god conclusion, you might want to explore this premise deeper. It seems like your chain of reasoning rests on it.

          My take on it is that using words like “command” is anthropomorphizing the source of moral intuitions, instincts, and desires, which I perceive to be culture and evolution.

          But maybe I’m missing some necessity for the command aspect?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. haha, yes although I wouldn’t want to reject a conclusion just because I dislike it. So at the moment I just draw it and put up with the discomfort!
            You say that to use terms like ‘command’ is to anthropomorphize morality. Hmm, yes but isn’t it question-begging to assume at the outset that it is a mistake to anthropomorphize morality?

            Morality does command and direct. For everyone who writes about morality talks about moral directives or commands or enjoinings or favourings. Such talk seems indispensable. It captures what is meant by saying that morality is normative. It does not describe or predict, it prescribes. Yet prescriptions are directives and directives require a director (which is premise 2). Someone who denies that morality is prescriptive would seem to be guilty of just changing the subject.

            So, the commanding, directing nature of morality is essential to it. Premise 2 then tells us something about the nature of commands: that they are essentially mental. Note, to deny premise 2 would be to hold that commands can just exist, all by themselves. But that’s impossible, surely? We all accept this implicitly in everyday life. If the outgoing tide has moved pebbles on the beach such that they spell out ‘get off the beach!’ are we being instructed to get off the beach? Well, it appears so, but appearances can be deceptive and upon discovering that it was the outgoing tide that resulted in these pebbles being so arranged we surely wouldn’t hesitate to conclude that there was no real instructing going on? Why? Because the sea isn’t an agent. It has no beliefs and desires.

            Regarding evolution as an alternative. Hmm, well I think any evolutionary account one might offer is just going to be an explanation (perhaps very plausible, of course) of moral phenomena: of moral beliefs and intuitions. But it won’t vindicate those beliefs and intuitions. Morality isn’t composed of moral beliefs and intuitions. Morality is what moral beliefs are about and what moral intuitions provide insight into. Perhaps morality does not exist and we just get the impression it does because getting such impressions conferred an evolutionary advantage on our ancestors. Ok, but that’s not an evolutionary account of morality. That’s an evolutionary account of moral phenomena.

            For an analogy: no doubt belief in god or gods conferred some evolutionary advantage (made people happier and thus more successful breeders). But by giving an evolutionary account of religious beliefs one does not demonstrate those beliefs to be true. That’s because a god is not a belief. People have beliefs about gods, but gods are not beliefs but the objects of those beliefs (the accuracy conditions of those beliefs). Similarly, morality is not a set of beliefs. It is the thing believed. You can’t make an act morally right just by believing it to be. So the rightness is independent of the belief. Thus an account of why we have moral beliefs is not an account of morality. It isn’t actually a metaethical theory at all, though it may give us some insight into which metaethical theory is correct.


    1. I think Sap is quite right when he notes that the whole argument follows from premise 1, and that we should be suspicious of that premise. Far from it being a conceptual truth it strikes me as non-sensical, and only makes sense if ‘morality’ is synonymous with ‘agent’, which it is not.

      I think it’s important to see that this premise is not correct because it cannot be a full picture of morality. If all morality is is a set of commands then that would be enough to tell us why we should be moral — because it’s commanded of us — but that’s not enough to tell us what morality is, because we could still rightly wonder why x is commanded of us. There must be normative reasons for something to be done as determined by the naturalistic structure of a state of affairs, perhaps only known by a omniscient being with full knowledge and so commanded for those reasons, but then morality is more than just commands, it is a system of reasons for one thing to be done over another. Morality can be about action-guidance without it being the case that morality must originate in the prescriptions of an agent. To assume this is to understand a semantic thesis, non-factualism, as having unjustifiably broad metaphysical implications (per your comments on prescriptions).


      1. Thanks for your reply ausomeawestin,

        I think all the premises need to be true for the conclusion to follow, so one could block the conclusion by denying any one of them. However, of those premises I’d say 1 is the strongest with 2 a close second.

        You say 1 is nonsensical. Hmn, that’s surely too strong. There’s nothing non-sensical about a command or directive or favouring, for we are very familiar with such things from our own case. I can command, direct, favour and do so regularly. So such terms are not mysterious.

        Pick up any book on ethics and you’ll find talk of moral norms, moral directives, moral enjoinings, moral favourings, moral commands, moral prescriptions. I happen to have Korsgaard’s ‘The sources of normativity’ handy, for instance. On the back it reads “Ethical concepts are, or purport to be, normative. THey make claims on us: they command, oblige, recommend, or guide” . That’s not peculiar to Korsgaard. Everyone uses such terms. They’re inescapable. They’re doing real work: they’re describing something morality does. It prescribes (whatever else it does).

        So premise 1 seems absolutely rock solid and not non-sensical at all.

        You say that morality can be ‘action-guiding’ without having to be composed of the prescriptions of some agent. How?

        Say a branch on a tree has grown in such a way that it looks like a finger that is pointing down a path. I see this and I think “hmm, looks like the tree is directing me to go down this path”. Am I though? Am I actually being directed down that path? no, it just appears that way. What it would take for the appearance to be accurate is for the tree to be an agent with beliefs and desires (and it would need to have a desire that I walk down that path that it was expressing by using one of its branches to point down the path). Trees don’t have minds and so what appears to be a directive is not really one at all, but mere appearance.

        This is just to underscore the truth of 2. Real directives require minds, surely? If you don’t think so, don’t you have to be open minded about whether the tree is directing you down the path?


      2. Just to add something regarding reasons (and I’m offering this in the spirit of exploration, of course). One might try to pass the normative buck to reasons, and that appears to be what you’re suggesting. The normativity of morality becomes nothing more or less than the normativity of practical reason.
        I think that’s absolutely right. Morality is just part of a larger normative landscape, a landscape composed of normative reasons: reasons to do and believe things.
        The problem, however, is that the same goes for those! I’m a DCT about the whole normative show!

        Here’s that argument:

        1. Normative reasons are favourings/directives/commands
        2. Favourings/directives/commands are essentially mental
        3. The favourings constitutive of normative reasons have a source external to ourselves
        4. The favourings constitutive of normative reasons have a single source across all agents
        5. So, normative reasons are the favourings of some single, external mind.

        normative reasons exist beyond a reasonable doubt, so this also seems to prove (in the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ sense of that term) that a god (at least of sorts) exists.

        6. Normative reasons exist
        7. So, a single external mind who is favouring us doing and believing things exists.

        Hmm, not sure that works…..but at the moment I think it does.


    2. Alas, the order is getting weird on this comment chain too.

      Perhaps you’re right that “non-sensical” is too strong. Still, there seems to be a profound difference between morality being composed of (rational) commands, and morality itself issuing commands. Insofar as we are interested in folk impressions of morality, such that we might turn to platitudes about morality feeling commanded in its categoricalness, I think our folk intuitions tell us that morality is composed of commands, and not that morality literally issues commands. That morality issues commands anthropomorphizes the source of normativity in a way that is questionable (per SAPs excellent points), and not a conceptual truth. In other words, while it may be a conceptual truth that, to nail things down, a discourse of moral judgments will involve statements about what one has reason to do with at times the motivational force of being commanded, it is not a conceptual truth that morality is an independent and external force that issues commands. This doesn’t get things right, to my mind, because if “morality issues commands”, then the motivational pull of morality doesn’t seem to be internal to moral reasoning, but rather, seems to be generated by its being commanded by an external source.

      The sort of platitudes that you refer to on the back of Korsgaard’s book are ways of getting at the tricky subject that is normativity. I think it’s a mistake to take this literally and conclude that because the pull we feel of morality seems external to us, and one way of characterizing external force is a command, that morality is just commands. This is the main thing I was trying to emphasis before; even if there is something command-like about morality, this does not exhaust the phenomenological experience of morality. One can think of moral reasons as not being so externally coerced. I have a disposition to believe there is a glass of water in front of me because I have reason to believe, given internally accessible mental states, that there is a glass of water before me. I have a disposition to believe the right thing to do is the return the accidentally stolen merchandise because I have reason to believe, given internally accessible mental states involving reflection on the facts of the matter, that the right thing to do is to return the merchandise. There is no feeling of commandingness, just an awareness that given certain facts about the present state of affairs, I have a reason to perform one action over all others.

      Furthermore, such dispositions at the heart of intentionality cannot be fully accounted for without some sense of defeasible reasons for belief, and thus, normativity. As such, there must be a basic account of normativity about belief in regards to internally accessible mental states. So contra your arguments, an exhaustive account of normativity cannot be found in the favorings of an external being.


      1. Hi Ausomeawestin,

        hmm, it seems to me to be a mere semantic issue whether we mean by ‘morality’ the source of moral commands, or just the set of all moral commands. For the same argument can be run either way: commands remains things that only an agent can issue, and thus for the set of all moral commands to be a reality there would need to be an agent issuing them (or alternatively, if we use the term ‘morality’ to refer to the source of the commands, ‘morality’ needs to be a person).

        I agree that moral norms are norms of reason. If Xing is wrong then Xing is something we have reason (categorical reason) not to do. So I accept that the normativity of moral norms is the normativity of practical reason. However, that doesn’t really help as the same argument applies to practical reason. Practical reasons are favourings of doing things (just as morality is referred to as ‘commanding’ ‘favouring’ ‘directing’ exactly the same is said about normative reasons) and so ‘Reason’ must be a person. Moral commands then become a subset of her (Reason’s) commands/favourings/directives. At least, this seems to me to be the only way to make sense of what’s going on (of course, this is all compatible with no god existing – the point is that such a god would need to exist if appearances are to be accurate).

        Re folk talk and the talk of moral philosophers and not taking it literally. Hmm, I don’t see any justification for not taking it literally. If everyone who talks about morality finds themselves having to talk about moral commands, requirements, directives and so on, then they are just all talking about something that does such things. It just is what they are talking about. True, most contemporary moral philosophers are not divine command theorists, but there is a widespread recognition that a) accommodating the normativity of morality/reason is incredibly difficult and to date no one has done it satisfactorily and b) every metaethical theory currently on the market is deeply flawed. (Note, DCT is not ‘on the market’ as it is just ignored and any defences it receives are offered by Christians who are hardly disinterested searchers after truth and end up defending hobbled and ghastly versions of DCT because their dogmas tell them to). Yet DCT solves the problem of normativity with ease. Rather than jumping through hoops trying to re-interpret moral language, it can be taken at face value (and that’s always better). Plus re-interpretations never work, because nothing is ‘like’ a directive apart from a directive. So any attempt to argue that terms like ‘favour’ ‘direct’ ‘command’ should not be taken literally is going to fail: for there is actually no other way to take them. Imagine I said that Beethoven’s fifth is like the colour purple. That doesn’t make sense: sounds can’t be like colours. Similarly, favourings can’t be like anything other than a favouring. So at the mo I don’t see a credible escape route. Ignoring the folk and philosopher talk would be like ignoring blood spatter at a crime scene. Re-interpreting it is unmotivated and seems doomed to fail (after all, why re-interpret it? Disliking where taking it literally would lead is not a good reason to re-interpret it – not if one is interested in what is true, anyway – for the truth may not be what one likes).

        Re reasons for belief. Yes, but reasons to believe things are normative reasons as well. Normative reasons are reasons to do things, and reasons to believe things. A reason to believe something is a favouring of believing something. An external favouring that has a unified source across all of us. So, reasons to believe things can only be one thing: the favourings a god is having of us believing things. Moral norms turn out to be just a subset of the favourings/directives/commands of Reason, and Reason turns out to be a person because only a person – a mind – because only something minded is in the favouring/directing/commanding business. So at the moment I don’t see how appealing to reasons – whether practical or epistemic – is going to help, for a DCT analysis has to be given of those as well.

        When it comes to the issue of motivation I’m not quite clear what the issue is exactly, so I need to think more about that.


    3. I need your help again in understanding something. Lets start with premise 1, can you give an example of what you mean?
      Let me ask for example, if we accepted premise 5, why wouldn’t this source be our nature?
      Lastly, I don’t think your argument is sound and valid. We have no reason to accept any of the premises as true and the conclusion does not tell us anything about either the nature of god or of morality


      1. Hi again Makagutu,

        You ask about the brief proof of a god that I offered above (and that I have pasted below).

        1. Normative reasons are favourings/directives/commands
          1. Favourings/directives/commands are essentially mental
          2. The favourings constitutive of normative reasons have a source external to ourselves
          3. The favourings constitutive of normative reasons have a single source across all agents
          4. So, normative reasons are the favourings of some single, external mind.

        You state that the argument is not valid. Yes it is.

        1 and 2 logically entail that normative reasons are the favourings some mind or minds is/are engaging in.
        Add 3 and this entails that the mind (or minds) is not one of ours.
        Add 4 and this entails that it is one mind.
        Thus we get to 5: normative reasons are the favourings of some single, external mind. Such a person seems to qualify as a god of sorts (though not God).

        You say that there is no reason to accept any of the premises. Yet you also said that you didn’t understand premise 1. How can you know that there’s no reason to accept any of the premises when you don’t understand at least one of them?

        Premise 1 states a conceptual truth. Normative reasons are reasons to do and believe things. What ‘is’ a normative reason? Well, whatever else it is it is this: a favouring of doing or believing something.

        Premise 2 states another conceptual truth. Favourings are desires and desires are essentially mental. You think you have no reason to accept this. Really? So you think that mindless things can desire that you do something? Can a cup wish you to take a sip from it? You are a mind. You desire things. So you know from your own case that minds are in the ‘desiring things’ business. You have cast iron evidence for this. You have no evidence whatsoever that mindless things can desire you to do things, and the very idea strikes most sane people as nonsensical. So the idea that there is no reason to accept premise 2 is simply laughable.

        I am not going to defend 4 and 5 as there’s little point if you genuinely think 1 or 2 have nothing to be said for them.


        1. Coming to the conversation late, so not sure if anyone’s reading this. Anyway, this is an interesting argument. I agree with the overall structure of the argument, but I would take issue with the notion that a directive is necessarily the creation of a mind. Sometimes the mind is the creation of directives. Certainly our minds develop, as children, through the directives of our social environment. As you say, the directives are external to each of us before we internalize them, and they are mental directives, e.g. books, social convention, narrative stories, etc.

          Does mind create culture or does culture create mind? Well, both. Culture arises from biological and environmental conditions–which are themselves products of a larger context of conditions.

          This is the pantheistic understanding of God which, in the context of this discussion, has as it’s only disagreement with traditional theism, the idea that the constraint on awareness that is central to the human mind nevertheless allows for it being analogous to the god from which it derives.


          1. Hi WH,

            hmm, I’m not sure I grasp the idea of an extra-mental directive. For instance, imagine the wind blows some ink onto a nearby piece of paper. By pure fluke the ink droplets form a pattern: they spell out ‘pick up this piece of paper’. Is that a directive to pick up the paper? Surely not. It looks like one, but once we become aware of how it was formed we would – I think – all conclude that there is no real instruction there, just the appearance of one. Why? Well, because the wind isn’t an agent. It lacks a mind and so when it blew the ink onto the page it was not attempting to express any kind of desire.

            If you think directives do not need a director – a mind of some kind – then presumably you would hold that the apparent instruction to ‘pick up this piece of paper’ is a real one? If not, how do you distinguish between apparent instructions and real ones? The wind is blowing quite hard outside: what if the sound of the wind rustling the leaves starts to sound like an instruction to go to Africa. Am I being instructed to go to Africa? If not, why not?

            So, hmm, I don’t really understand how there can be a directive without a mind to issue it. Not a real directive. And I don’t see how someone who thinks that there can be extra-mental directives can continue to distinguish between real and apparent directives.


          2. Moonraker, I had to reply to this post again because there was no reply link to the post you just did.

            Anyway, the examples you give are not moral examples. I hold, with the Stoics, that morality begins even in the lowest life forms, with care for one’s survival. This develops in many animals to care for one’s offspring. In social animals, wherein one’s survival depends on cooperation, this develops into care for the survival of others. It’s a small step from this stage to the sublime saying of Jesus that the sum of morality is the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self.

            As I said before, the moral (I like the world ‘love’ better) existed before mental cognition as we understand it did, and is condition which makes human mental cognition possible through the development of language. Love is the origin of what we know as conceptual mentality; it existed before we were able to form mental concepts about it.

            But I think I agree with you much more than disagree. This internal directive very much comes from an external source, by which I mean it was not caused by what we understand as our selves (it creates the notion of self/other). As you say, it is common to all of us. I also think the designation ‘God’ is quite commensurate with this directive. God is love. The directive is the director. I think because we identify so much with our mental states, we tend to think this is the supreme form of being, so god is an entity with a mental state. I’m just suggesting maybe this isn’t correct, maybe every act of love, no matter how small the mental capacity that accompanies it, is the supreme way of being.


  11. I should add, of course, that I’m just presenting my position as forcefully as I can for the purposes of testing it! Haha, I re-read my post and it sounded for forthright than it was supposed to!


    1. Excellent discussion guys.

      “Hmm, yes but isn’t it question-begging to assume at the outset that it is a mistake to anthropomorphize morality?”

      Just to clarify, I said I thought the premise anthropomorphized the source of morality, not morality itself. If I assumed my hunger was a command to eat, or my fear of snakes was a command to avoid snakes, wouldn’t I be anthropomorphizing? For me, the categorical distinction between those instincts and ones moral intuitions are built on top of hasn’t been adequately established.

      On question-begging, I tend to think the opposite, that assuming that these are commands presupposes the God outcome. It stacks the deck in that conclusion’s favor. But I suspect this is something we might have to agree to disagree on.


      1. Hmm, yes but doesn’t the same point hold? Anthropomorphizing involves a mistake, and so to say that talk of moral commands anthropomorphizes morality (or the source of moral norms if one prefers) is still to just assume at the outset that morality (or the source of moral norms) is not a person. However, whether morality is or is not a person is something to be discovered, not assumed. IF you just assume that morality is not a person then you’ve assumed DCT is false.

        I haven’t assumed DCT is true at the outset. All I have done in premise 1 is take talk of moral commands, moral requirements, moral demands, literally. But that’s the default. In every book on ethics ever written such terms are used time and time again. Indeed, they seem indispensable. So, it seems that everyone who writes about morality takes their subject – morality – to be something that, whatever else it does, issues commands, makes requirements of us, places demands on us. Hence why premise 1 seems to be a conceptual truth.

        The burden of proof is always on the person who denies that things are as they appear to be – so the burden of proof is always on the person who doesn’t take things at face value. So the burden of proof is on the person who insists that talk of moral commands, requirements, demands etc, etc, should be taken metaphorically. So an argument is owed for rejecting premise 1.


        1. Well, my original point was that your conclusion seemed crucially dependent on premise 1, and that if premise 1 is false, then the whole sequence dissolves. My recommendation was to scrutinize it carefully.

          The burden of proof is on whomever is making the assertion. You seem to feel that premise 1 is self-evident. I disagree. For me, the language that philosophers have historically chosen to use isn’t evidence. (When biologists write about evolution, they often use metaphorical language referring to “innovations” as though animals were consciously evolving. Anyone who actually understands evolution knows that this is poetic license.)

          I’m not sure we have a way to resolve this stalemate. That is, other than simply agreeing that we differ on this question. But I do thank you for an interesting discussion!


          1. Hmm, I’m not sure that is who has the burden of proof. For surely if the burden of proof is automatically on someone just for making an assertion, then we’re landed with scepticism. And in fact, that sceptical position itself looks incoherent. For you’ve just asserted that the person who makes the assertion has the burden of proof. So by your own lights you have to justify that assertion. Howe are you going to do that without making another assertion? It’s impossible. So by your own lights your own position is unjustified.

            The burden of proof is on the person who denies that things are as they appear to be. So, it appears there is a mug in front of me. I am justified in believing there to be a mug there. I do not have to justify taking that appearance at face value.

            I’d say it appears that there are external norms enjoining us to do things and not do other things categorically. It is these that I refer to as the norms of morality. I think that it must be these apparent norms that others are referring to as well when they talk about morality, for the language they use expresses this: they talk about moral directives, moral commands. There is no suggestion these are metaphors (and metaphors for what?). If someone uses the word ‘command’ this is extremely good evidence that they are talking about a command. I’m not clear at the moment how one can justify ignoring this evidence. For instance, if someone phones you and says he is in France, you have excellent reason to think he is in France (other things being equal). If someone is talking about something that commands, directs, favours – if they use those terms when talking about it – this is good evidence that he is talking about something that does those things.

            Hmm, so anyway I’m not entirely clear yet why you think terms like ‘command’ ‘direct’ ‘require’ shouldn’t be taken literally. Isn’t it worth trying, anyway? I mean, if taking them literally allows us to understand what morality is, why not? It is not as if the alternative theories are up to much (as it recognised even by their defenders).


          2. Well, just so you know, you have landed on a skeptic’s blog. I’m a skeptic because I perceive that the majority of notions about matters outside of common experience have, historically, proven to be wrong. So, my default position on a proposition is to be skeptical unless it’s accompanied by evidence.

            On the command terminology, I think you’re reifying language idioms, making a category mistake, to wedge in an ontological proposition. You’re free to do that of course, but I’m also free not to buy it. I’m not sure what else to say other than to repeat myself. As I’ve noted before, at this point, I don’t expect us to come to agreement on this issue. That’s ok. This is philosophical discussion, and disagreement among intelligent people is normal.


          3. Ah, but my point was that you’ve committed yourself to a far stronger form of scepticism than that. For you can’t allow anything to be evidence for anything if you hold that the burden of proof is always on the person who makes an assertion. In fact the kind of scepticism you’ve committed yourself to is self-refuting. You have asserted that the burden of proof is on the person who makes an assertion. That’s an assertion. So by your own lights you owe an argument – evidence – for the truth of that assertion. You’re not going to be able to provide one that satisfies your own standards because any argument has to have at least one assumption. Hence your sceptical position is self-refuting.

            Re rational disagreement -hmm, yes, but we’re not really allowed to veto anything we want when it comes to intellectual inquiry, surely? Rational people disagree when the case for is roughly the same strength as the case against. So a rational disagreement about the truth of premise 1 would involve the case against it being roughly as strong as the case for. That’s not the situation yet, for I’ve offered very good evidence in support of premise 1 and you haven’t actually offered any against.

            The evidence in favour of premise 1 is the fact that every moral philosopher I’ve ever read who writes about morality refers to ‘moral commands’ ‘moral directives’ ‘moral requirements’ ‘moral imperatives’ etc, etc. This is extraordinarily good evidence that what such people mean by ‘morality’ is at least in part something that commands, directs, enjoins etc, etc. I’m not sure how it gets much better than that. When it is suggested that morality is composed of the commands of a god, nobody replies “but morality does not command!”. Instead the reply is “but that makes moral commands arbitrary”.

            You assert that I am making a mistake in taking talk of commands/requirements/biddings literally. I agree that’s possible. But where’s your evidence? The brute possibility that I’m making a mistake isn’t evidence. It is possible I’m a brain in a vat. That’s not evidence I’m a brain in a vat.

            If Tim tells me he’s in France, then I believe he’s in France. And the evidence I offer in support of this belief is: it is where Tim told me he was. If someone replies “ah, well I think you’re mistaken” then I want to know on what grounds they believe I am mistaken. If they do not present any but just repeat “well, I don’t think he is – I think you are mistaken” then surely this is no longer a rational disagreement? For why should Tim’s talk of being in France not be taken literally?


  12. ausomeawestin,
    “Alas, the order is getting weird on this comment chain too.”

    I’ve actually been wondering lately if nested comments are worth the trouble. Not nesting would mean that people would have to address each other when responding, and discussions would be interwoven, but it would simplify the chronology and end the issue of not being able to reply at the deepest indention.

    I’m frustrated that this tradeoff even has to be considered. I did put in a request with to allow replying at the deepest nested level using the web interface in addition to the various (essentially hidden) ways it can be done now, and they seemed receptive. But it might be several months before that change happens, if it ever does.


  13. hi again Ausomeawestin,

    this is a reply to your comments on moral supervenience. If the moral supervenience thesis: an act’s temporal location is surely one of its natural properties? Similarly, so is an act’s spatial location. So, to rule them out seems arbitrary. We would really have two theses. One would say “any two possible worlds that are identical in all of their natural properties must be identical in their moral ones as well” and another would say “within any possible world two numerically distinct but otherwise naturalistically identical acts have the same moral properties”. But then nothing really stops a DCT from just arbitrarily stipulating that “within any possible world the god of morality will issue same commands regarding two numerically distinct but otherwise naturalistically identical acts”. Of course, no-one would accept this: one would want to know on why this is true. But why should we accept the earlier one? Why should we accept that within any possible world two numerically distinct but otherwise identical acts must have the same moral properties?

    If you’re a non-naturalist about morality it seems to me that you have as much motivation as I do to reject this thesis. We’re in the same boat on this one, surely? For we both think morality cannot be naturalized. But that then opens up the possibility that two acts could be identical naturalistically, yet differ morally. I don’t yet see how you can rule this out in any principled fashion. You could stipulate that this won’t happen – that is a necessary truth that moral properties are fastened by bonds of necessity to certain arrangements of natural properties. But nothing stops a DCT from making that move. THe problem is it just looks arbitrary.

    Only naturalism about morality entails the moral supervenience thesis, and even then it does not entail that two numerically distinct acts within a possible world will have the same morality. So, I’d say that actually the moral supervenience thesis is problematic for naturalists, non-naturalists, and DCTs alike! And that’s all the moral realists. So I really think we all need to think very carefully about this thesis and question whether it is really true. Given it actually raises problems for all of the most plausible metaethical theories, that – to my mind – is excellent reason to think it is not true. Why should it be allowed to stand in the way? What authority does it have? I think it has absolutely none.

    THe evidence is positively against it. At different times different people appear to have sensed different things to be right/wrong in otherwise identical circumstances. Taken at face value that is evidence that two numerically distinct but otherwise identical acts do not necessarily have the same morality. And if that is correct, then there is no reason whatsoever for thinking that two naturalistically identical possible worlds have to have the same arrangement of moral properties.


  14. haha, gosh I’m writing a fair bit here (I’m a fast typist). Re non-naturalism. Yes, I am assuming that you’re a Moorean and hold that moral properties are something over and above the natural features of an act or state of affairs. So I assume that you hold that there is a something like a moral dimension to the universe.
    The reason I think this kind of view fails is that I don’t think you can accommodate the normativity of morality. I reject naturalism for this reason as well. The fact an act will hurt someone else is a natural fact about that act. Yet facts cannot issue directives. The fact an act will hurt someone cannot ‘be’ the wrongness, then. For if an act is wrong, it is ‘not to be done’, that is to say, it is something we are directed not to do. But facts do not have minds and so cannot issue directives. Hence, naturalism must be false.
    Non-naturalists (as I understand things) would agree, but would conclude (bizarrely) that the wrongness is therefore unanalysable. They do not conclude that morality is nonsense, but that there just are directives to do and not do things that somehow attach to various features an act possesses. I have to say, I think Mackie was being extremely kind when he described non-natural moral properties as ‘queer’! They’re a bit more than queer, in my view! First, the idea that there can just exist, as brute additions, favourings and directives to do things is unintelligible. Second, it is just false that moral properties are unanalysable. They can be reduced, for it isn’t as if we’re unfamiliar with how directives come into being: we are ourselves sources of such things.


  15. This problem jumps out at you from the first page of the Bible:

    9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.(!!!???)

    How did he know???… I was trying to reason beyond this question, but it only confuses the matter more and more.

    It also seems that most philosophical questions are similar. When I try to build a chain of reasoning on issues like free will, creation, etc., I notice my mind spinning around trying to “bite its own tail”. Many things come to existence by declaration “It is so because I say it is so”.

    I’ve been listening to Allan Watts videos recently where he promotes what he calls an “eastern way” of looking at things – where the world is perceived not in a linear way, as a sequence of events with causal relationship between them, or as consisting of some related parts, but as a whole. I tend to agree that many things are understood by simply looking at them and perceiving them in their entirety – we see what the thing is, what it does and how it works. But when we try to explain them with language, which is a sequence of words with logical connections between them, we fail miserably.


    1. I definitely agree that there are many concepts that are difficult to express in language. There are some concepts I’ve struggled to express on this blog, mostly because I couldn’t find the right language. But the problem with just looking at something is that sometimes it has to be described to you first, and that’s where things often break down.


      1. It is not necessary to describe something to “understand” how it works to the point of using it successfully. Do you think, this cat can describe a “latch”? Cats don’t use words or language. Yet, I’d say, it demonstrate a fair understanding of how a latch works.


        1. That cat is awesome!

          I was thinking of something that we can’t watch happen, like the idea that we have instincts for evolutionary, but not conscious, reasons. (At least not for human conscious reasons.)


  16. My major dilemma with dissecting morality as internal controls is getting my mind wrapped around the concept that God created all this matter we stand upon solely to evolve a special ape. Is what I am speaking of the concept mentioned before called naturalism. I can’t get to a mental point where every animal alive is not following the same set of Morales that are inherent inside of us all. I see mothering instincts that further this belief, I can clearly see the squinting of the eyes in mammals when they are overcome with loving emotions. I can’t separate myself from animal behaviors, and see pure emotions, like mine, as the morale platform.

    How am I to follow a thou shall not kill? How is anything going to follow such a decree? As a young hunter I was good at stealth and great at my first shot. I still felt a pain at the death of the critter. I am assuming that this is common in animal kills as well. They stalk and feel exhilaration on the kill. But they have a pain however small at seeing the wonderfully fluffy squirrel now dead. There is no way to determine this, and maybe they also have some way to morally make a personal atonement. My dog cried to the moon for two nights when the completely hated older dog died. It was gut wrenching to listen to. I don’t know what you call this belief but I heard naturalism and assumed this may be it. I see Morales may be internal to all things, and maybe all things even worship a god. I don’t see man as unique at all, but just as emotionally powerless as any living creature.

    It may be we are always meant to make up for our morale losses, to build more and strive for more instead of sitting still eating everything to oblivion. Life has never eaten itself to oblivion, it has always expanded more than it has self consumed. The divine we hear and read in texts may not always be from the one who has our best interests either. If there is a godlike entity to hold sway over us, it is not too hard to imagine he is keeping us from other godlike forces that exists as well. Have we ever seen anything that exists in solo?

    I apologize for branching off topic on the Morality subject. I wanted people to try to imagine that to have one of any entity has a strong scientific fact backing plenty more..


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