A tension between Divine Command Theory and the Ontological Argument

I think there is a tension between Craig’s DCT and the intuitive way to think about the Ontological argument.  Before I get into that, I should recap a recent euthyphro dialectic involving William Alston, Jeremy Koons, and William Lane Craig.

The Euthyphro dilemma asks: does God will something because it is good, or is it good because God wills it?  Both sides of the horn are problematic.  The former makes the good external to God—compromising his sovereignty.  The latter makes the good arbitrary so that God could make anything good.  Theists like Adams, Alston, and Craig have offered a third option identifying the good with God or God’s nature. (Since Craig rejects divine simplicity, I’ll ignore that option for the purposes of this post.)

Alston’s form of divine command theory can be called evaluative particularism.  To understand this we need to distinguish between two types of predicates (or properties) which Alston brings to our attention:

  • Platonic predicates: the criterion for the application of each of which is an “essence” or “Idea” that can be specified in purely general terms.  A triangle is an example.
  • Particularistic predicates: the criterion for the application of each of which makes essential reference to one or more individuals.  The Paris meter bar is an example.

Alston’s suggests that God is the particular standard for what goodness is (like the meter bar)—instead of goodness being a platonic form.

Jeremy Koons has criticized Alston’s evaluative particularist brand of divine command theory here.  In response to this third option for the euthyphro dilemma, following Morriston, Koons asks a modified euthyphro:

are qualities like being merciful and loving traits of God because they are good, or are they good because they are traits of God?

Again, both sides of the horn are problematic.  The former makes the good external to God—as we can say the property of being loving is the standard.  The latter seems like the objectionable voluntarism: since God can make lovingness good, why can’t he also make hating good?

To this, Craig would reply that God is essentially loving.  I take essentially to be a de re necessity, where God wouldn’t be God unless he was loving.  My next question is: Why is God essentially loving rather than essentially hating?  This implies there is something special about being loving, namely, that lovingness is good independently of God; but Craig would deny this as it compromises God’s sovereignty.  I’m not sure how Craig would reply to my why question.  My guess is he’d say God being essentially loving is all there is to it, and there is nothing past this stopping point.

In response to the modified euthyphro given by Morriston and Koons, Craig takes the second horn, as he says:

The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them. They are descriptions of the way God is and therefore these are goods. It would just be a subterfuge of the theory to say that God has these properties because they are good. So it is not really a dilemma. It is simply, as I say, drawing out the implications of Alston’s view that the reason impartiality, loving-kindness, love, generosity are goods is because these are properties of God.

Here Craig is saying that lovingness is good because it is a property of God; i.e. God makes lovingness good.  Some will find this horn absurd, but Craig seems to find this horn more plausible than any.

I now want to turn to the way we think about Anselmian perfect being theology as used in ontological arguments, and see the implications if we follow Craig’s reasoning given in his DCT response.  Anselm takes existence to be a great-making property; Plantinga takes omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and necessary existence as great-making properties.  Consider the normative property of greatness.  Following Anselm, Craig defines God as the greatest conceivable being.

God is by definition the greatest conceivable being. As the greatest conceivable being, God must be perfect. Now a perfect being must be a loving being. For love is a moral perfection; it is better for a person to be loving rather than unloving.

So we have an analytic identity between God and the greatest conceivable being. (I take perfect to just be a synonym for greatest—so nothing interesting there.)  Presumably, the relation between greatness and omnipotence is synthetic and not analytic.  I think this is plausible since Craig takes the relation between God and the good to be synthetic as well. My guess is that Craig identifies (or, equivalently, reduces) the good with a cluster of God’s particular properties.  Similarly, greatness would be identified with a cluster of God’s particular properties.

We can ask a similar question about these great-making properties to the one asked about the good.  Is omnipotence a great-making property because God has it, or is omnipotence great-making in itself?  To be consistent, it seems Craig would have to say the former: that omnipotence is great because God has it.

Craig points out that it’s not always clear which properties are great-making:

… is it greater to be timeless or omnitemporal? The answer is not clear … The fact that some properties (like timelessness) are not clearly great-making does not imply that no properties are great-making.

This implies that we first have the epistemological project of determining what property God has, and then it would be the case that we the proper grounding to call those properties great.  Properties such as existence, timeslessness or omnitemporality, the tri-omnis, and being three persons would be great because God has them.  Any other reason for why a property is great would be insufficient; the necessary and ultimate reason that a property is great is because God has it, full stop.  If we thought that property has any independent grounding for being great, it would undermine the belief that that property is great because God has it.

Let’s now consider Anselm’s argument (from wiki):

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

From the definition of God as the greatest conceivable being and the fact that existence is a great-making property, Anselm sets out to prove that God exists. The problem for someone who holds this view on DCT is: How do we go about believing that existence is a great-making property? We can ask a euthyphro-type question with regards to greatness instead of good: Does God have the property of existence because it is a great-making property, or existence a great-making property because God has it? In other words, is the fact that existence is a great-making property external or internal to God? To be consistent, defenders of this view of DCT should say that existence is a great-making property because God exists.

Assuming the coherence of a standard of greatness, this standard is either external or internal to God. On the external horn, you are accepting evaluative facts about greatness that are external to God—which seems no less troubling than the external horn of the original Euthyphro. On the internal horn, Anselm’s OA becomes circular: you first have to accept the conclusion (that God has the property of existence) in order to accept the premise (that existence is a great-making property). Recall that, on this view, existence is great-making because God exists.

There is a more general point behind this regardless of considerations about Anselm’s ontological argument.  Most of the focus in the literature has been on the arbitrariness problems for DCT.  I think the same issues transfer over to the widely-held perfect being theology.





Koons, Jeremy. Can God’s Goodness save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro?

This entry was posted in Philosophy of Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s