Sunday, July 15, 2007


Some people seem to believe in a very strange kind of authority: one that can pull normativity out of a hat (or decide which of two incommensurable values is the greater). I don't get it.

I can understand what we might call "guiding authority", which derives from the utility of the rule of law, but that is clearly a very different matter. We grant guiding authority to legal institutions because we are too biased and ignorant to enforce justice ourselves through vigilante action. But this is a contingent matter; perfected super-humans would have no need of such guides. Note in particular that the kind of authority in play here is merely epistemic, rather than metaphysical. We need the authorities to help us find the truth; not to create it!

Contrast this with the pure authority that Pruss calls for on Right Reason. There are no objective grounds for deciding between vocations, so - he argues - if we want there to be a "right answer" for us to discern here, we require the pure authority of God to decide a vocation for us.

I find the notion absolutely ludicrous. Note that he's not claiming that an omniscient God could guide us towards the independently best option. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that God has the pure authority to just make up the normative fact of which option is best. Other theists seem to share this bizarre view. They hold that a pure authority can just decide stuff for no reason, and these arbitrary decisions would actually matter! The mere act of authoritative command suffices to create reasons ex nihilo.

Am I wrong in thinking that this view is absolutely insane? Can anyone defend it, or at least make it a bit more comprehensible to me...?


  1. ok how about

    1) is it that the theory that suposes such a authority also rejects your hypothetical perfect super humans that you use to reject it? And that they might say since such an observer doesn't exist it cant be used for analysis (before rejecting that out of hand think quantum physics).

    2) and related they might say "god creates the rule of law, and no one can challenge it because no one can compete with his analysis unless they are him"

    3) they might say god is the omega/alpha so to talk about there being meaning outside of him is nonsense, and any meaning that exists is his meaning.

    4) and my last thoguht - "god is a train and you can either get a ticket or lie on the tracks"
    i.e. you can hurt yourself (maybe via seperation from god - which is a bad in itself) but not create any good by opposing it (let us say for example there is effectively no net value in any decision or action - except the ticket buying one).

  2. Hi Richard

    Clearly what Alex is propounding is a form of divine command theory, or as I like to call it divine relativism. It is a coherent position just (like most forms of relativism) not in my opinion a particular plausible one.

    In regards to the vocational issue, I am just not motivated to think there must be a truth of the matter of which vocation is best for me, I think there are plenty of good options which may or may not be rankable. So I am happy with I guess what I would call vocational pluralism.

  3. Perhaps he is assuming that humans aren't autonomous, self-interested entities, but rather that they are created servants. Of course, you may think that that assumption is insane, but it might help you to make sense of what he's saying.

  4. Macht, that's interesting. If we understand servitude as the flipside of authority, my general questions would extend to that. How can it be that two rational beings are brought into a relation where one has pure authority over the other? Do creators have rightful authority over the beings they create? If we think of a scientist creating artificial life, for them to claim authority over the resulting free being seems simply immoral -- indeed, any obligations are most likely to run in precisely the opposite direction!

    So I still can't really imagine how pure authority/servitude could possibly exist. None of this is to assume that humans are "self-interested"; I merely assume that we are "autonomous" in the limited sense of being rational agents (i.e. able to reason for ourselves), which should be uncontroversial. The normative conclusion then seems to follow from the bare fact of rational autonomy (since a rational agent ought to do whatever they have most reason to do). Put another way: where is the normative force of alleged authority (or servitude) supposed to come from? ["Show me... the reasons!" *rubs thumb against fingers greedily*]

  5. i.e. is the thought supposed to be that the diktats of a pure authority constitute reasons for their servants? (If so, why is this?) Or are servants not bound by reasons -- not really rational agents after all, but perhaps something more like dogs? (Though even then, I'm not sure there's any normative force to the claim that my dog ought to obey me; it's more just an expectation given his training.)

  6. Hmm, interesting suggestion. Two thoughts mainly on the possible differences between the mad scientist and God.
    1. On some views God is not just the creator but also the sustainer of creation, in other words on this view the only reason you can read these words right now is that God (not google ;)) sustains them and you. Would that make a difference on your view Richard?
    2. I don't know if you have read David Brin's uplift series but the premise of that is a galaxy full of intelligent life and that most species need to be uplifted to reach human (or beyond) levels of intelligence. There is naturally a client/patron relationship and typically client races are supposed to obey and be grateful to those who have blessed them with intelligence. While this isn't pure authority there seems something vaguely intuitive about it to me.

  7. David, re 1: Take a world created and sustained by an evil demon who makes suitably demonic commands (e.g., "eat your child's face off"). Would we have any good moral reason to obey these commands? Surely not. So being a creator and a sustainer is not sufficient for having legitimate, reason-giving authority to command.

  8. A fair point God-rousing dog pipes, but remember I believe we are discussing here not the cases where there is an objective truth of the matter, but instead where there is no clear truth. Perhaps being creator and a sustainer is only sufficient for having reason giving authority in cases where there is no clear truth of the matter.

  9. I am not defending a divine command morality. There are plenty of moral truths that as far as I know are not grounded in divine commands. However, bracketing divine commands, morality underdetermines what we should do in a number of concrete situations. I doubt that there is an objective moral truth as to what book I should work on next, for instance, barring divine commands. Of course there are objective truths as to what books I should not work on under the circumstances: I ought not write a book defending the claim that 2+2=5 (because that is false), or a book of poetry (because I have no talent for it), or a book that happens to be an exact copy of War and Peace (because it's been done already). But after one excludes the things against which there are overall compelling reasons, there will still be a number of choices left.

    But divine commands can determine what is underdetermined. This sort of thing can happen even outside of contexts of authority. I may have no overall compelling reason to write a book on one subject rather than another. But then a friend asks me to write on one of the subjects. Well then, now I may have an overall compelling reason.

    Which qualities God has to have in order to have the requisite "tie breaking" authority is not clear. But it seems to me that being supremely lovable is sufficient.

  10. Actually, being supremely lovable is not sufficient. Being supremely lovable and all-knowing is sufficient, however, it seems to me.

  11. I'm looking at spots in Hobbes' Leviathan right now that suggest more or less the same arbitrary definitions coming from authority. It doesn't make sense unless you consider the argument that allows for such an authority to come into being. In brief, Part One of the Leviathan starts with physical/empirical sensation, memory, deliberation through will, and then rests on a very peculiar definition of good and evil, reminiscent of Nietzsche. "Good and Evil Apparent" Hobbes says, are nothing more than Opinion of a continual condition that deliberates as a precursor to action. The kicker is in chapter 7: "No Discourse whatsoever, can End in absolute knowledge of Fact, past, or to come...And therefore, when the Discourse is put into Speech [via the rules of logic] the End or last sum is called the Conclusion..." Hobbes goes on to address Power as the power over speech and thus expressed Discourse; but the main premise seems to be that such Power is arbitrary and necessarily so, because Fact is only empirically determined.

    I'd say Richard's right when he says authority thus imagined is insane. But I'd change his reasons for calling it insane: it's insane because people listen to and accept opinions and normative definitions of good and evil even when they don't agree, because it comes from an established authority. Hobbes only protects himself from atheism by saying God has nothing more to do with human affairs (chapter 12).

    Mr. Pruss won't like this, and he's not alone. The Leviathan was widely burned for religious heresy.

  12. "I ought not write... a book that happens to be an exact copy of War and Peace (because it's been done already)"

    In my opinion, that would be an excellent reason to write it. ;)

  13. Weirdly this disappeared before. So once more into the breach.

    Alex, yes I thought that was what your position was not divine command as a general justification of oughts, but instead a sort of divine command of the gaps so to speak. The difficulty I see with the position is that given that we are only talking about those cases where there is no (external to God's choices) truth of the matter I cannot see the relevance of the all knowing characteristic. If there is no truth of the matter objectively there is nothing to know.

    Jared, hmm good point Hobbes does provide a powerful argument both for the necessity of an absolute authority and for us to obey them. I take Hobbes to be arguing that this is fundamentally necessary to avoid irresolvable disagreement and potential revision to the state of nature. Personally I find his arguments reasonably compelling.

  14. Here's another way to put the puzzle: supposing that God has "tie-breaking authority", why would he ever use it? If two options equally merit my choice, on what grounds would God recommend one over the other? Ex hypothesi, there are no possible grounds: the exercise of his authority is entirely arbitrary. But arbitrary commands don't strike me as the kind of thing a perfect being would go in for.

  15. Richard

    1. I am tempted to offer a tu quoque here and ask how the commands of an ideal observer (IO) could generate moral obligations.

    If one explains the existence of moral facts by claiming they are simply facts about what an IO would condemn then it seems we have a similar issue. These moral facts appear to be generated by the IO’s volition ex nihlo. If DC theory is absurd for this reason, then so is IO, but I don’t think Ideal obersver theories (IOT) are obviously absurd or absolutely ludicrous

    Of course you could claim that an IO does not generate moral facts from his volition but simply points to objective facts independent of him. But then, contrary to your earlier claims, an IOT theory does not explain moral facts at all. Rather IOT presupposes their independent existence.

    I suspect that the reason we think we should defer to an IO’s dictates is the same with for a God is a divine command theory (DCT). If a being who was perfectly rational, completely informed, completely benevolent etc prohibited an action its hard to see how a person could rationally reject the command. On what basis would they do so? Is it because we detect a mistake in God’s or the IO’s reasoning? By hypothesis God or the IO are not irrational? Is there some fact we are taking into account that they are unaware of? By hypothesis God or the IO are fully informed? Is it that we think the command is evil by hypothesis the being is benevolent? I simply can’t make coherent sense out of the idea that one could rationally reject the commands of God or an IO.

    2. The only reason I can think of is my suggestion that there might be several mutually exclusive sets of commands which are compatible with both the facts and the nature of an IO and hence neither the facts nor his nature require him to command as he does? Presumably then the question is why should I follow the particular set of commands God issues as opposed to others he could have issued.

    Again however I think the question I raised applies. On what basis could a person rationally reject Gods commands? To do so one would have to assume for starters that they had devised a moral code which is the same as a code a perfectly rational, virtuous, informed being could come up with and they wanted to follow it instead of God’s. Now I doubt anyone could plausibly claim to be in that situation.

    Second even if they could, a question remains, why reject Gods code in favour of yours? After all there is just as much reason ( independent of the moral facts which Gods commands constitute) to obey Gods commands as there is yours. Presumably on these matters some code needs to be adopted hence someone needs to decide on one. Who should make this choice then God (or an IO) or a group of humans individually or collectively? It seems obvious to me that the sensible decision is to let God or an IO do it.

  16. MandM, I don't claim that the IO has "pure authority". They simply offer a heuristic/guide to what our normative reasons are.

    As for whether someone could "rationally reject Gods commands," this will presumably depend upon whether the divine commands are arbitrary -- i.e. an exercise of guiding or pure authority. The normativity of the former is not in dispute. It's the latter I'm interested in.

  17. Richard

    Regarding the tie breaker issue, perhaps there are some situations where its necessary to make a decision one way or the other Consider the following situation: (i) there are good, compelling reasons to issue a set of commands (ii) There are several mutually exclusive sets of commands which are adequate for the task (iii) there is no reason for choosing one of these sets over another
    Now it seems obvious to me that a rational person, in this situation, would simply choose one set of commands. If a person refuses to promulgate one set of commands because there is no reason to prefer it over another set, then he cannot promulgate any because this is true of any set he chooses (by (ii)). And if he refuses to command any set he is irrational (by (i)). Hence it seems obvious to me that a rational person would simply choose one set of commands despite the fact that there is no reason for preferring this set over another.

    Of course I agree that in other situations issuing a commanding a course of action for no reason at all is irrational. But in situations where there is reason to issue a set of commands, but no reason to issue one particular set over another. I incline to the view that arbitrariness is not irrational.

  18. Richard

    1)I was addressing the "pure authority" version. I fail to see why my argument does not apply in that situation.

    2)If IO is simply a guide to what our obligations are then I fail to see how IO explains the existence of moral obligations at all. It might serve an epistemological function by pointing us to obligations that exist independently of the IO. But that won’t provide any ontological or metaphysical grounding for moral obligations.

    3)I also think the idea that God commands for no reason at all is a straw man. What DC maintains is that God does not command things because they are wrong, there being no wrongness independent of his command. The fact that God does not prohibit things because they are wrong does not entail that He has no reason for prohibiting them. It just follows that whatever the reasons He does have, the wrongness of the action is not one of them.

    An analogy with positive law is helpful in illustrating this points. There may be some reason a lawmaker makes some particular law but what makes the act illegal is the fact that the legislative body has enacted this law and not the reasons the law was made. The lawmaker may not be capricious or whimsical but whether an act is law depends solely upon the will of the lawmaker. An act is illegal if, and only if, the lawmaker forbids it.

  19. "in situations where there is reason to issue a set of commands, but no reason to issue one particular set over another, I incline to the view that arbitrariness is not irrational."

    Yes, of course. But there's nothing "authoritative" about that. Either choice is permissible, and the decider should pick one (it doesn't matter which).

    Pure authority would somehow make it so that it does matter which. E.g. God might say, "I forbid Q, pick P instead!" But of course he has no justification for this. It doesn't matter whether I pick P or Q, so long as I pick one. So God should be just as happy for me to pick Q. It's not as though he has made P any better. The two are equal.

    N.B. You've pointed to a situation where an arbitrary choice must be made. But here's another crucial feature: it doesn't matter who makes it. So it's not a case of "authority" in the relevant sense.

    re: your second comment:
    1) In the pure authority case there are no reasons for which the authority's commands are a guide. They're just arbitrary. So there's no reason to listen. (Nor is there any particular reason not to, of course. Again, either choice is permissible.)

    2) That's right. I don't think the IO is metaphysically fundamental here.

    3) I'm talking about normative reasons, i.e. whereby it's analytic that you ought to do what you have most reason to do. So it's incoherent to say that God makes up ought-facts but not reason-facts. The two go together.

    Note that I discuss the normative status of law in my main post. So that analogy is no help to you. (The lawmaker's authority is of the 'guiding' kind.)

  20. Authority is, as the philosopher Max Stirner would put it, nothing but a "spook." Without a god making those arbitrary normative claims, it doesn't exist. And, indeed, the only things that god (should he even exist) has "commanded" us to abstain from seems to be violating the PRINCIPLES (NOT laws, that is) of physics.

    Any form of human "authority" is only possible on an individual basis, which is to say that the only being over which one has authority over is himself.


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