This is the second part of the paper I presented to the Naturalisms in Ethics Conference at Auckland University last year.
In my previous post, I noted that Robert Adams has argued that if God exists, then divine commands “best fill the role assigned to wrongness by the concept”. He argues that if moral obligations are divine commands this explains the fact, that (i) “wrongness is an objective property of actions,”, (ii) it accounts “for the wrongness of a major portion of the types of action that we have believed to be wrong,” (iii) it “plays a causal role … in their coming to be regarded as wrong”, (iv) it explains how moral obligations constitute a “supremely weighty reason” for acting or refraining from an action, and (v) he contends that DCT explains the intuition that moral duties comprise “a law or standard that has a sanctity greater than that of any merely human will or institution”.
Moreover, in my last post, I also argued that, for Armstrong to conclude his arguments call into question any theistic account of ethics, he must argue that his harm account of moral obligation provides a better explanation of all these features. Failing that, if his account doesn’t preserve these features of moral obligation, then he must provide us with a reason to suppose that they are not part of the concept of moral obligation. Or he must provide reasons for revising our concepts.
In his monograph “Morality without God” he attempted to do this. It’s my contention that he has failed in this task.
1. Social Requirements
Let’s begin with (v), In “Morality without God”, Armstrong purports to address this line of argument, he claims that “the best line of argument-because it is the only argument is that moral laws require a lawgiver”. He attributes to popular writer Dinesh D’Souza. He then proceeds to make short work of D’Souza’s argument.
However, this is neither the best, nor the only argument offered in favour of a DCT. In subsequent articles and a monograph, Adam’s has developed (v) in some detail. Adam’s proposes a “social requirement theory” of obligation whereby “being obligated to do something consists in being required (in a certain way under certain situations) by another person or groups of persons not to do it”. Obligations are a kind of social relationship where one person makes a demand on another, failure to comply results ruptures in the relationship expressed in terms of blame, censure, punishment and alienation, which can be expiated by forgiveness. Adam’s offers a sustained argument that the role of guilt, censure, punishment, social inculcation, moral motivation, moral knowledge and forgiveness plays in our concept of obligation, make a social requirement theory plausible. Nowhere in Armstrong “Morality without God” does Armstrong even cite let alone address this argument.
2. Supremely Weighty Reason
Similar problems afflict (iv) In “Morality without God”. In this regard Armstrong provides two arguments as to why his account provides a better explanation of this feature of moral obligation.
First, he argues that divine commands do not constitute the right sort of reason for action. “If our only motivation to avoid hell or go to heaven, then our motivation is far from ideal”
Second, he argues that the fact that “harming others is sometimes in our best interests” does not entail people have no reason to refrain from harming others. Because, as Armstrong carefully goes on to argue, people can have reasons to not harm others which are independent of self-interest.
Both arguments attack a straw man. The first assumes that the only reasons divine command theorists give for obeying God is “divine punishment”. This, however, is false. While Adam’s social requirement theory does allow censure, blame and social estrangement and punishment to provide some reason for compliance with a person’s commands. He argues this is insufficient to turn a person’s demand into a moral one. The reason to comply with social requirements becomes stronger if the demand is a reasonable one. This reason becomes stronger again if the person who makes the command is a just person who loves us and is committed to our welfare. It becomes stronger still if the person is significantly more informed about the matter in question than we are. The commands of God, a perfectly rational, omniscient just and loving person, then provide supremely weighty reasons for compliance.
It’s hard to see how Armstrong could dispute this given he thinks an act is irrational if “normal people” would never advise someone “they cared about to do it”. If it’s irrational to act in such a way that normal, loving people would advise us against, how is it arbitrary to act in accord with the commands of an omniscient, rational, loving and just person?
The second argument assumes that defenders of DCT claim that if harming someone is in our best interests we have no reason to refrain from harming others. This is also false: Hare, Layman, and Craig argue that unless self-interest and morality ultimately coincide, one does not have an overriding or supremely weighty reason for so acting. One can have reasons for not harming others, but these reasons can be overridden by self interested ones. Or they don’t count as reasons for “virtually everyone”
Armstrong fails to address this criticism. Showing that we have a reason to not harm others does not show we cannot have other stronger reasons to harm others. In fact Armstrong later explicitly states that his account does not “establish a strong reason to be moral”, which he defines as: “a reason strong enough to motivate everyone to be moral or to make it always irrational to be immoral” So far from refuting this claim he appears to concede the point.
3. Accounting for the content of obligations
Armstrong also fails to address (ii). Adam’s contends:
The property that is wrongness should belong to those types of action that are thought to be wrong- or at least it should belong to an important central group of them. It would be unreasonable to expect a theory of the nature of wrongness to yield results that agree perfectly with pre-theoretical opinion. One of the purposes a metaethical theory may serve is to give guidance in revising ones particular ethical opinions. But there is a limit to how far those opinions may be revised without changing the subject.
Our pre theoretical intuitions suggest that there are a number of important cases of wrongful actions which cause no harm. Acts such as recklessness or attempted murder or conspiracy to commit harm, are obvious examples. Here however I will focus on one important example. Suppose a doctor derives sexual gratification fondling a child under general anaesthesia. Providing that the child was not informed of the event, it’s difficult to see how any of the typical, psychological harms associated with child molestation would occur. Nor, from fondling, need there be any physical harm involved in such an instance either. Yet the action is clearly wrong.
In “Morality Without God” Armstrong provides two responses to this kind of counter example.
First, the while the doctor causes “no actual harm” he created a significant risk the patient would find out and suffer harm in the form of “pain and humiliation” This is an implausible response, if wrongness is identical with the property of causing harm, then, if there is no actual harm, the action is not actually wrong. Moreover, this response entails that a person who knows about such molestations and covers them up is acting in a morally laudable way, while the person who reports the incident engages in serious wrongdoing. The former act decreases the chance that anyone will find out, and hence decreases the risk of harm. By contrast, in virtue of the fact that it elevates the risk of the victim discovering what the doctor had done, the latter significantly increases the risk of harm.
Second, Armstrong contends that actions like this qualify as harm. Discussing a similar case involving the rape of an unconscious woman Armstrong states:
“the doctor causes his victim to lose her ability to control what happens to her body in a very intimate way. He also violates her rights and dignity and such violations can count as harms”
Here Armstrong identifies harm with loss of ability to do what happens in one’s body, and violation of rights. He elaborates the relationship between these two ideas in an earlier paper  where he distinguishes between a neutral loss and a moral loss. The former involves the loss of something valuable; the latter involves the loss of something valuable that the looser has a right to. It’s morally wrong to cause moral losses on others, not neutral ones. This elaboration suggests that Armstrong understands the harm of sexual assault to be violation of the right to control one’s body intimately. This right is grounded in that person’s dignity.
However, this raises an immediate challenge. One important criticism of naturalistic ethics is that it cannot provide a plausible account for human dignity and rights. Craig himself has argued that “on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings”. Rather, it’s a human “temptation to species-ism, that is to say an unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species.” Craig’s references to “speciesism” – a term associated with Peter Singer – allude to a serious point made by both Singer and Nicholas Wolterstorff. In Justice: Rights and Wrongs Wolterstorff challenges the secularist who believes in human dignity and rights to identify a non-theological or non-religious property that:
(a) is possessed by all members of the human family;
(b) is not possessed by a terrestrial non-human animal;
(c) can be plausibly said to give humans worth sufficient to account for the standard rights we grant to humans; and,
(d) is not a property that is possessed by different humans to different degrees.
Criteria (a) and (b) are required if rights are going to be granted to all human beings and not to animals like cows or dogs; (c) is required for the property to ground the kinds of human rights we recognise; (d) is necessary if all people have “equal rights”. If the property that grounds rights comes in degrees, and some people have it more than others, then people will not have equal rights. The problem according to Wolterstorff, is that no non-theological property we know of appears to fill this roll. Singer, a non-theist, has made the same point: arguing that our moral codes must be radically revised so that the welfare of human infants is not given more importance than that of pigs.
Armstrong anticipates this objection and responds:
[H]umans are moral agents, because they are free and have freewill….The kind of freedom needed or useful here involves the ability to reflect on and respond to reasons… Because normal adult humans have the ability to tell what is moral and immoral, and because they have the ability to reflect on their choices and conform to what they take to be moral, they are governed as well as protected by morality…they have moral duties in addition to moral rights, in this respect humans are special even according to secular morality
This is far too quick, as Wolterstorff and Singer have both pointed out, normal adult humans have these properties but infants and small children do not. Infants do not have free will, children are not moral agents in this sense either. David Boonin has noted “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant.” So this answer gives us no reason for thinking a child or infant has a rights or dignity, over and above any other animal, and so fails to address the counter example I mentioned.
 Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1(1979) 74.
 Ibid, 74
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 75
 Ibid, 75.
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Morality without God” 97
 See Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and “Divine Commands and the Social Nature of Obligation” Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987) 262-275.
 Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 242.
Ibid chapters 10 and 11, see also “Divine Commands and the Social Nature of Obligation” Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987) 262-275.
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Morality without God” 119
 Ibid, 114
 John Hare The Moral Gap (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; Paperback 1997); Why Bother Being Good? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, April 2002); “Moral Faith and Providence” a paper presented at the 1996 Annual Wheaton Philosophy Conference, accessed 27 December 2010; “Is Moral Goodness without Belief in God Morally Stable” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008).
 C. Stephen Layman “God and the Moral Order” Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002) 304-16; “God and the moral order: replies to objections” Faith and Philosophy 23 (2006) 209-12; “A Moral Argument for The Existence of God” Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 49-66. Layman is not himself a divine command theorist, he simply argues theism accounts for the overriding nature of moral obligations better than atheism does.
 William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” in in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics Eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 182.
 Robert Adams “Moral “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York :Oxford University Press 1987) 158
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Morality without God” 118
 Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 74
 See Matthew Flannagan, Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century? 274
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Morality without God” 58
 Ibid, 57.
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “You Can’t Lose What You Aint ever had: A Reply to Marquis” Philosophical Studies 96, 1997: 59-72
 William Lane Craig “Opening statement” in Are the Foundations of Morality Natural or Supernatural? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris. University of Notre Dame, 7 April 2011, transcript available at http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/05/transcript-sam-harris-v-william-lane-craig-debate-%E2%80%9Cis-good-from-god%E2%80%9D.html
 Nicholas Wolterstorff Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) see chapter 15.
 Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Morality without God” 70-71
 Nicholas Wolterstorff Justice Rights and Wrongs 325-341
 Peter Singer Practical Ethics
 David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 121, the neurological data is summarized in Michael Tooley’s Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) Ch. 11.5.