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The Euthyphro, Divine Command Theory and Moral Realism1

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Divine command theories of metaethics are commonly rejected on the basis of the Euthyphro problem. In this paper, I argue that the Euthyphro can be raised for all forms of moral realism. I go on to argue that this does not matter as the Euthyphro is not really a problem after all. I then briefly outline some of the attractions of a divine command theory of metaethics. I suggest that given one of the major reasons for rejecting such an analysis has been found to be unsound divine command theories deserve to be taken more seriously in contemporary metaethics.

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1

I thank Julia Tanner for having read an earlier version of this paper.

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2 For my purposes exactly what type of attitude the god has towards the thing in question can be left open here.

3 Adams R. M., ‘Divine command metaethics modified again’, The Journal of Religious Ethics 7 (1979), Quinn P. L., Divine commands and moral requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). Joyce R., ‘Theistic ethics and the Euthyphro dilemma’, Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (2002), 49.

4 At least part of the reason why divine command theories are so unpopular is surely due to this tendency to conflate divine command theory with what we might term ‘God’ command theory. Conflate the two and divine command theory becomes prey to all manner of other criticisms – such as that God's goodness turns out to mean nothing more than that God approves of his own character and actions, or that God would lack some important kind of free will etc. – that just would not apply (or would not be worrying) to a non-theist divine command theorist who does not give a fig what any religion says about anything.

5 J. L. Mackie seems to have been a divine command error theorist as he was an atheist yet seems to admit that the existence of a god could vindicate morality, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 48.

6 So expressivist views, such as those held by Timmons M., Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Gibbard A., Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), and Blackburn S., Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). According to which moral claims are not descriptive but express a subset of conative attitudes are excluded, as are pragmatist views according to which moral claims are truth apt though not in virtue of objective natural/non-natural properties but due to them being the result of a proper process; Putnam H., Ethics Without Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), Korsgaard C. M. and O'Neill O., The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Also excluded are ideal observer views according to which moral claims are truth apt but their truth-makers are the attitudes of actual or suitably idealized agents, see Smith M., The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994). I exclude such views not because I believe them to be immune to the Euthyphro, but simply for reasons of space.

7 Divine command theories are hard to categorise. Some consider them forms of metaethical subjectivism: they reduce moral properties to a person's attitudes and thus the truth-makers of moral claims are not independent of all people's attitudes. See M. Huemer, ‘Ethical intuitionism’, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). However it is more common to consider divine command theories to be forms of moral realism (some consider them forms of non-naturalist realism – Fisher A., Metaethics: An Introduction (Durham: Acumen, 2011) for instance- and others a form of naturalist realism, such as Pigden C., ‘Naturalism’, 422, in A Companion to Ethics, Singer P., ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991). After all, the god on whose attitudes morality depends is independent of and radically different from the rest of us and so god's view confers an objectivity on moral claims as robust as that conferred by the more standard naturalist and non-naturalist views. The label does not matter, of course.

8 Cudworth R., The True Intellectual System of the Universe (Bristol: Theommes Press, 1995/1731). Also quoted in Joyce 2002, 57.

9 Blackburn S., Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 114119, Jackson F., ‘Cognitivism, A Priori Deduction, and Moore*’, Ethics 113 (1993), 562563, Smith M., The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 2124.

10 Ridge M., ‘Anti-reductionism and supervenience’, Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (2007), 335. See also Coons C., ‘How to prove that some acts are wrong (without using substantive moral premises)’, Philosophical studies 155 (2011), 92.

11 Miller A., Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction (Cambridge: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 30.

12 Finlay S., ‘Four faces of moral realism’, Philosophy Compass 2 (2007), 20.

13 Ibid.

14 Bedke M. S., ‘Might All Normativity Be Queer?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88 (2010), 46.

15 Zangwill N., ‘Moore, morality, supervenience, essence, epistemology’, American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (2005).

16 Shafer-Landau R., Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 77.

17 Ridge M., ‘Anti-reductionism and Dupervenience’, Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (2007), 337.

18 For a similar criticism see ibid.

19 Blackburn S., Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 114119, Jackson F., ‘Cognitivism, A Priori Deduction, and Moore*’, Ethics 113, 562563, Smith M., The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 2124.

20 A point that has also been made by Dancy J., Moral Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 79, Ridge M., ‘Anti-reductionism and supervenience’, Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (2007), 332333.

21 Korsgaard C. M. and O'Neill O., The sources of normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 39.

1 I thank Julia Tanner for having read an earlier version of this paper.

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