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Sunday, May 15, 2011


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Mr Lupu,
You are using 'moral autonomy' in what seems to me in a rather liberal and uncritical fashion.

It would be better to examine this concept and also the concept Man.

What does man's moral autonomy comes from and come to that, where does man himself comes from?.

Your old Abraham and Issac example also needs work. It was not as Abraham suddenly heard a voice calling him to sacrifice Issac. You forget that Abraham had by then approx a century of experience of talking with this deity on numerous occasions.


1) Moral Autonomy: I am using 'moral autonomy' in a roughly Kantian sense to mean, among other things, conscious self-reflection and self-governance. I think this concept, in some form, is indispensable to moral agency.

2) "What does man's moral autonomy comes from and come to that, where does man himself comes from?"

The second part of the question is not presently relevant. Regarding the first part, about the origins of moral autonomy, I suppose one could simply say that moral autonomy is part of our nature, regardless of how this nature was created.

3)Regarding Abraham and Isaac example: Actually, in this essay I do not mention this example. Bill mentions this example in connection with premise (3**). The problem arises as follows. A theist may hold that God's commands coincide with any moral law that a self-governing autonomous moral agent will come up with. Of course, if one holds this view, then the case of Abraham and Isaac immediately arises.

Now this issue that Bill raised here is a very involved matter. It has to do with Divine Command Theory as a foundation of morality and with Theological Voluntarism. It also raises serious epistemological questions about the authenticity of divine commands (i.e., how do we know whether a given *voice* is God's voice? do we know it in virtue of some properties of the voice, contextual matters, or the content of the command, or all of the above? This is one issue involved in the Abraham and Isaac case.). The later question in turn ultimately leads to issues about the epistemology of revelation.

How do I know whether this voice on phone is my wife's?
Because I have spoken with her so many times. Same with Abraham and God.

I have faith in my wife not to cheat on me and to take care of my children and my house in my absence .
I have faith in my doctor as he operates on me. I have faith in the anesthesia.
I have faith in the aeroplane as I fly in it.

Exactly in the same sense, Abraham had faith in God with whom he had spoken with and had numerous dealings with for practically a hundred years. Issac was born out of the prophecy of God himself. Abraham had faith that Issac would not die since God had told him that Issac would have descendants.

Just wondering about a 'given' voice is not treating the story as it has been 'given'.

Dear Mr Lupu,
Since you make so much out of 'autonomy' and 'self-governance', it is very important to handle these concepts carefully.

Frankly, I can grasp what 'will' is and 'intellect' is, but what extra is captured in the 'self-governance', I do not grasp.

I wonder if you have read the history of the word 'conscience' in Studies of Words by CS Lewis. Conscience originally meant 'self-witness'.

CS Lewis gives fascinating history of the various ramifications of the word 'conscience' and its later development as an internal viceroy of God.
It was then even adopted by people who did not believe in God, thus making the concept rather incoherent.

So you can not simply say that it is a part of our nature. The ancients did not believe so. CS Lewis says that 'conscience' in the sense of some kind of internal sovereign is not to be found in New Testament and this meaning can not be traced to the New Testament either.

The argument for (1*), I believe, is found in Ockham, though I can't remember where :)

As for (3*), the theist could argue that autonomy is valuable only if it is directed towards the good, and that we direct ourselves towards the good only when we have a well-formed conscience. Peter argues that there can be a conflict between God's commands and the dictates of one's conscience, but it would seem that if we are truly talking about God's commands (rather than, say, what we take to be God's commands, or God's putative commands) then given God's absolute goodness and a case of conflict, we would have evidence that our conscience is not well-formed and have no moral imperative to follow it in such a case. Furthermore, it would seem that following an actual command would perfect one's conscience rather than thwart it (along with one's autonomy).


1) Re: Abraham & The Voice of God.

First, there are questions regarding the authenticity of the biblical story which tells us that Abraham had spoken to God "...and had numerous dealings with for practically a hundred years."

Second, even if one is willing to accept uncritically a literal reading of these matters, the issue of the authenticity of the voice is not resolved. A voice can easily simulate a voice with which one is familiar from past experience. Such simulation may be even created by one's own mind. The question then is whether the content of the voice fits the character of its source. Take your example of your wife. Suppose we agree that you are familiar with her voice. But now suppose her voice tells you to do something that is completely out of her character. Would you not wonder whether the voice originates from your wife or whether perhaps it is a fake? Similarly a perfectly good God could not command to kill an innocent child just for the sake of proving obedience. Abraham should have doubted the source of the voice just on these grounds.

2) Self-governance roughly means that one subjects any reason for action to a process of examination based upon one's own rational light. Example of such a process: Kant's Categorical Imperative.

3)Re: Consciousness.

"So you can not simply say that it is a part of our nature."

Why not? Isn't it? Unless, of course, you are willing to deny that we have consciousness.

"CS Lewis says that 'conscience' in the sense of some kind of internal sovereign is not to be found in New Testament and this meaning can not be traced to the New Testament either."

So what? Many things are not found in the NT, or the Old one for that matter,yet we accept them as real: e.g., the Earth is round. There are billion galaxies in the universe, and so on.


You make several very good points that lead us ultimately to questions about Divine Command Theory and related issues regarding Theological Voluntarism. I cannot, of course, dwell into these very complicated matters at length, but will try to at least address the points you raise.

(1). “the theist could argue that autonomy is valuable only if it is directed towards the good, and that we direct ourselves towards the good only when we have a well-formed conscience.”

The argument you make on behalf of the theist seems to me to be as follows:

(i) If autonomy is valuable, then it is directed towards the good;
(ii) If a person is directed towards the good, then the person’s conscious is well-formed;
(iii) If autonomy is valuable, then the person’s conscious is well-formed.

Argument (i)-(iii) make two fundamental points. First, they construe the good as conceptually prior and independent from autonomy. And, second, it identifies a property of *well-formedness* of a person’s conscious as a necessary condition for autonomy to be valuable. Both of these points are designed to prepare the ground to the claim that (a) the good, which is prior to autonomy, is itself grounded on God’s commands; and that (b) the property of well-formedness of conscious obtains only when one follows God’s commands.

Both of the last claims, (a) and (b), presuppose that Divine Command Theory is not merely true, but that it is true as a constitutive theory of morality. However, I am very skeptical about whether a cogent case can be made on behalf of Divine Command Theory as a constitutive theory of morality without first providing a convincing theory of revelation that is itself independent from the notion of autonomy. And I do not believe that such a theory of revelation can be ever given.

(2). You are proposing the following Evidential-Principle:

(EP) A conflict between God’s command C to x and one’s own conscious reason R to refrain from doing x is *evidence* that our conscious reason R is not well formed.

I would resist (EP) as stated on the grounds that it adopts a preferential attitude towards God’s commands over self-reflective conscious reasons. But, why should one think that a conflict of the sort envisioned is evidence against our self-reflective conscious reason R, rather than against God’s commandment C? You make two assumptions in order to prefer God’s commands in cases of such conflict:

(i) “…we are truly talking about God's commands (rather than, say, what we take to be God's commands, or God's putative commands)…”
(ii) “given God's absolute goodness…”

The first assumption is what I shall call the Authenticity-Assumption and the second is the usual God’s Moral-Perfection.

I suggest that the Authenticity-Assumption faces serious difficulties. For, how does one recognize a command to x as being God’s command rather than an impostor? After all, as Bill pointed out, Abraham *should have* asked this question. I maintain that there are two ways of doing so.

First, if the command to x can be traced to a revelation or to something that revelation entails, then it is authentic. And that takes us to issues about the nature and character of revelation. I maintain that no theory of revelation can bypass relying upon autonomy. And, second, by relying directly upon one’s self-reflective autonomy and scrutinizing the command issued, perhaps, by asking whether a perfect being such as God could issue a command to x. This way of course relies upon autonomy directly.

Moreover, I maintain that the assumption of God’s moral perfection (as well as omniscience and omnipotence) is not sufficient on its own in order to carry the weight you assigned to it in (EP). A conflict between God’s commands and our own self-reflective conscious reasons is *evidence* on behalf of the superiority of the former only if God’s commands have the right sort of *moral authority*. But we cannot simply assume that the required moral authority is derivable directly from God’s moral perfection, for it is not at all obvious that a morally perfect being has the required moral authority which requires obedience by us.

Moreover, even if you somehow provide an explanation that closes the gap between God’s moral perfection and the moral authority attached to God’s commands, it is not at all obvious that in order for us to recognize and accept God’s moral authority we would not have to rely on our self-reflective autonomy in a fundamental and ineliminable way.

Well if the story of Abraham as given in OT is not authentic, then there is nothing more to be said, one way or another. Hindus never consider this story as relevant to anything, for example.

Regarding the question of character, you forget that in ancient times, all the gods were accustomed to sacrifices of all sorts. We are not used to that world but you try to make Abraham a man of 21C. Things like Faith and Hope are not graspable in a syllogism.

You write
"moral autonomy is part of our nature, regardless of how this nature was created."

Now "nature" is again a word that needs careful usage. There are people for whom Existence precedes Essence, that is there is no human nature.

Is this human nature capable of metaphysical analysis or empirical analysis is required to define it?.

If empirical is required, then one observes billions of humans that find no contradiction between their conscience and worship.
At best, you may say that your nature does not permit you worship.

So you need to get to metaphysical analysis to defend your notion of moral autonomy.

One metaphysics says that moral truths exist and that our intellect grasps them and our reason processes them to derive corollaries and applications to particular contexts. As per Aquinas, the conscience tells us
1) What I have done or not done
2) What is right or wrong
3) If I have done right or wrong.

Where is the notion of self-governance here? Autonomy?

If moral truths be entirely inside me, then why I find that I share them with other men?

Because of evolution? But then you lose a whole lot of things, including the notion of objective morality and thereby autonomy.

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