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Sunday, March 26, 2023

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In 2003, Steven Pinker sat down with Robert Wright and had a far-ranging discussion as part of an interview series that Wright was doing. At one point in the discussion, Wright and Pinker address the idea of moral realism. Pinker, an atheist, uncomfortably acknowledges that there might be something to the notion of an external morality whereas Wright seizes upon the "teleological flavor" of the idea that living things evolve over time to conform more and more closely to this morality, prompting him to suggest that there "may be a purpose" to the whole exercise. Wright's perspective strikes me as tinged with panentheism/process theology, which embraces the idea that kosmos and theos have a co-evolutionary aspect. Video here, cued to the moment I'm referring to.

Hello Bill and Brian!

I agree with Bill. It seems to be a category mistake to classify God, sin, and moral value/disvalue in the category of empirically observable entities. This point doesn’t entail that such things don’t exist, nor does it mean that we lack evidence to support belief in them -- assuming the falsity of a radical empirical naturalism.

“But why couldn't there be objectively true moral declaratives -- e.g., it is wrong always and everywhere to torture innocent human beings for one's sexual gratification -- in the atheist's world?”

It seems to me that there can be objectively true moral propositions and objectively real values in the atheist’s world. There might be values that exist as abstract objects such that propositions as “It is objectively good to help a neighbor in need” are true insofar as they correspond to relevant states of affairs grounded in The Good (an abstract object).

Questions: suppose there is no God, but there is The Good. The proposition “It is objectively good to help a neighbor in need” is true. Why (categorically) ought we help our neighbors? Categorical oughtness is quite different from goodness.

Are categorical obligations grounded in Reason itself? Is the existence of God a better explanation for the existence of categorical oughts (not to mention a better explanation for the existence of Reason itself)?

Hello Bill,

It seems your objection to Chesterton does not require the distinction you made in your Substack article. You could have simply argued as you did above saying that we do not literally see instances of sin; therefore, sin is not a fact one can see in the street. A category mistake is being made. Sin is not an empirically observable entity.

With that said, 1 John 5:16 says, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death…”

Perhaps, Chesterton is using ‘see’ in the same sense the Biblical author is using it? If so, then sin is a fact one can see in the street in the manner one can see their brother committing a sin not leading to death.

As to the distinction you make between ‘sin’ and ‘moral evil’, I understand the distinction, but reject it. I see all moral evil as sin. I know that I lack philosophical sophistication but would enjoy exploring this further with you, Elliott and others.

Excellent comments, Elliot.

>>It seems to me that there can be objectively true moral propositions and objectively real values in the atheist’s world. There might be values that exist as abstract objects such that propositions as “It is objectively good to help a neighbor in need” are true insofar as they correspond to relevant states of affairs grounded in The Good (an abstract object).<<

That was indeed the point I was making.

Your question is not easy to answer. Why ought one do what is good, and why ought one not do what is evil? >>Categorical oughtness is quite different from goodness.<< I agree; they are different. It is not quite satisfying to say that one ought to do what is good because it is good. But if you bring in a Cosmic Enforcer (God) who rewards and punishes, then The CE's imperatives would be hypothetical as opposed to categorical. "If you want to go to heaven and avoid hell, then do not steal, lie, commit adultery, etc."

This is related to the Euthyphro Dilemma. Does God command the good because it is good, or is the good good because God commands it? Either way, trouble. One solution invokes the divine simplicity, but it poses quite a challenge to the discursive intellect.

Brian,

>>Perhaps, Chesterton is using ‘see’ in the same sense the Biblical author is using it? If so, then sin is a fact one can see in the street in the manner one can see their brother committing a sin not leading to death.<<

In ordinary English one says things like: "I saw the thug murder the homeless man." But that involves an interpretation of the fact -- one man's killing of another -- as illegal. Similarly, one is going beyond the facts when an act -- one man's anal penetration of another -- is said to be sinful. If an act is sinful, then it is objectively morally wrong (whether or not it is illegal) AND an offense against God. You could say that it is objectively morally wrong because it is an offense against God, an act of disobedience, a flouting of a divine commandment. This brings us back to the Euthyphro problem.

>>As to the distinction you make between ‘sin’ and ‘moral evil’, I understand the distinction, but reject it. I see all moral evil as sin.<<

But I take it you will agree with me that on the notional or conceptual or semantic plane, there is a distinction between sin and moral evil. If that were not the case, then one could not raise the question whether there could be moral evil without sin (and thus without God). Since the question makes sense, the distinction makes sense.

Your point, however, is that in reality (on the real plane, so to speak) moral evil reduces to sinfulness, that all and only the morally evil is sinful, and that this beconditional is true because moral evil just is (identical to) sinfulness. I don't deny that. Do I affirm it? As a believer I am inclined to, but as a philosopher I want to understand just wwhat I am affirming and why. Fides quarens intellectum.

Brian,

You will agree that as things are in our society, there are plenty of things (actions and omissions) that are immoral but not illegal. One question we ought to discuss is whether everything immoral ought to be illegal. I would say No. Suppose a man is by himself in his house and proceeds to drink himself into a stupor. You and I will agree that that is immoral. Will you also say that it ought to be illegal? We need to consider a whole range of examples: masturbation, sodomy, bestiality/zoophilia, self-mutilation, tattooing, and so on.

"As to the distinction you make between ‘sin’ and ‘moral evil’, I understand the distinction, but reject it."

I’m skeptical that, from the Christian perspective, moral evil is identical to sin. Suppose we grant arguendo that sin is the disobeying of a divine command. There are morally evil acts that don’t involve the disobedience of a divine command. Take, for example, any murder that occurred temporally prior to any divine command. Wasn’t murder morally evil before God prohibited it? If a farmer in 5,000 B.C. brutally killed his neighbor and took his wife, wouldn’t this have been evil despite the fact that it occurred before the issuing of a divine command to prohibit it? Wasn't the way in which Joseph's brothers treated him morally evil? And yet this treatment occurred prior to the issuing of any divine commands. Hence, acts such as murder and attempted murder were morally evil before they were sinful, and thus on Christian assumptions moral evil is distinct from sin.

Or consider a morally evil act committed by someone unaware of any divine commands prohibiting such acts. Such acts are evil but not sinful. Isn’t this one of Paul’s points in verses such as Romans 2:14-15 and Acts 17:30? God “overlooked such ignorance” although those who didn’t have the law were by nature “a law to themselves” and their consciences “sometimes accused them and other times defended them.”

It seems to me that, even from the Christian perspective, moral evil is distinct from sin, and that this is a real distinction (the former thing and the latter thing are different) and not merely a distinction of the reasoning process.

Bill, you wrote:

“But if you bring in a Cosmic Enforcer (God) who rewards and punishes, then The CE's imperatives would be hypothetical as opposed to categorical. "If you want to go to heaven and avoid hell, then do not steal, lie, commit adultery, etc."

In Kantian terms, which seem right to me, any person who follows the CE’s imperatives merely on the motives of getting reward and avoiding punishment acts in accordance with moral duty, but not from (i.e., for the sake of) duty. The person’s action would thus have no moral worth. He would be like Kant’s shopkeeper who refrains from ripping off his customer, not because treating the customer fairly is the right action, but because cheating would be bad for his projected business profits. The act would be an exercise in self-interest, but not a morally worthy action.

Suppose God is the Cosmic Grounder. The CG’s imperatives would serve to explain one’s saying something like “One ought to do what is objectively morally right because it is in itself right.”

Now, as you noted, we face the Euthyphro problem. Some have said that it is a false dilemma. There is a third option: God commands the good because he is The Good. God is like Plato’s form of the Good. Hence, his commands are good and following them is intrinsically right. But now we are moving in the direction of the doctrine of divine simplicity – which raises its own set of (fascinating!) problems.

Elliot,

DDS continues to fascinate me. In a day or two my revision of my SEP entry on DDS will be finished. I added a section on modal collapse arguments against DDS. A number of young philosophers and theologians are doing good work in this area.

Hello Bill and Elliot,

You both have brought up made many good points.

Bill, you have argued that Chesterton was wrong for two reasons:

  1. A sinful act presupposes the existence of God, and since the existence of God is not a fact “one can see in the street,” then sin cannot be a fact “one can see in the street.”
  2. Sin, because of its ontological status, just is not the kind of the thing “one can see in the street.”

I pointed out that the Bible seems to presuppose that sin is something we can empirically see (1 John 5:16). If Chesterton’s claim was made in the same sense, then I think 2 misses the mark. It seems obvious to me that what we saw happen at the Presbyterian school in Nashville last week was an act of moral evil. Perhaps, I am making certain assumptions, and perhaps, I am not being precise when I say this, but I am being Biblically consistent, and so is Chesterton.

Bill, you endorse the following conditional:

(1) If the existence of sin is a fact one can see in the street, then the existence of God is a fact one can see in the street.
If one can speak colloquially about seeing sin in the street, would you endorse this?
(1') If, colloquially speaking, the existence of sin is a fact one can see in the street, then, colloquially speaking, the existence of God is a fact one can see in the street.

Bill, I agree with you that the distinction you make between ‘moral evil’ and ‘sin’ makes sense. I misspoke. Thank you for the correction. I do think all moral evil reduces to sin.

In regards to this, Elliott, you said:

I’m skeptical that, from the Christian perspective, moral evil is identical to sin.

You raise some important points and make some good arguments. I will respond in a separate post.

Warm Regards,

Brian


Hello Elliott,

Thank you for your thoughtful post. There much to discuss here, and I can only begin a response. You asked…

Wasn’t murder morally evil before God prohibited it?

We are granting arguendo that sin is the disobeying of a divine command. Your farmer example assumes that there is a murder prior to the divine command. Certainly, if this were the case, then I would be forced to agree with you that not all moral evil is sin. However, isn’t the possibility of there being moral evil prior to a divine command the very thing at issue? If so, then your farmer example begs the question.

Now, I do not want to dismiss the point you are making. In another illustration you point to the moral evil found in the treatment of Joseph by his brothers. We have no recorded divine command allowing us to classify these actions as sin. Another example might the killing of Abel by Cain. The earliest recorded divine command prohibiting murder is found in Genesis 9:6. This comes after Cain’s fratricide. Are these examples of the existence of moral evil prior to the divine command? I don’t think so. It fails to account for the possibility of there being divine commands given to man not recorded in the Scriptures.

There is evidence in the Bible for the existence of prior unrecorded divine commands. For example, in Genesis 4 God has no regard for the offering given by Cain.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

If sin is disobeying a divine command, then there must have been some command given to Cain that he was close to disobeying, or there could be no sin “crouching at the door”. This command is not recorded in the Scriptures.

Another example of this, can be found in Genesis 20. King Abimelech has taken Sarah, Abraham’s wife, to be part of his harem. God comes to him in a dream saying that he is a dead man because Sarah was married. Abimelech pleads that he is innocent, and God replies...

Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me.

By taking a married woman, Abimelech was on the verge of sinning against God. Clearly, for Abimelech to sin he must be violating a divine command. However, the earliest command we have record of concerning adultery is in Exodus. There must have been some divine command already in place that we do not have recorded in the Scriptures.

I will present one last example – Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. She had the hots for Joseph, but he refused her advances saying, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God.” What divine command was going to be violated if he gave into her seduction? It is not recorded, but there must have been one given our arguendo assumption regarding sin.

It seems uncontroversial that not all of God’s interactions with man are contained in the Scriptures. Based on the three examples above, it also seems uncontroversial that not all of God’s divine commands given to man are contained in the Scriptures. As such, I don't think an example of moral evil that is not sin has yet been provided.

With that said, the next part of your post brings up some important and difficult issues. I will respond to that in time.

Warm Regards,

Brian

Thanks, Brian. You make some good points.

I'm not sure the farmer example begs the question, though the use of 'murder' might seem question-begging. I thought about this point before posting. That's why I didn't use 'murder' in the sentence about the farmer. In any case, it seems self-evident on the basis of moral intuition that brutal homicide of an innocent person without a morally sufficient reason is morally evil, even if the homicide occurs prior to a pertinent divine command and thus is not sinful (assuming that sin is the violation of a divine command). I presented the farmer case hoping that you'd grant that it is intuitively self-evident that the brutal killing of the farmer is evil. What is it, if not morally evil? It's not morally neutral, and it's not morally good. Regarding the story of Joseph, though I don't have the text in front of me, I seem to recall a verse saying something like "You meant to do evil to me, but God meant to bring good out of it by saving the Egyptians from famine." (We should be careful about citing Scriptural texts, though, because we are citing English translations. The translators might not have been completing their work of translation while keeping in mind the distinction between moral evil and sin.)

Also, I worry about the appeal to divine commands being given to humans but not recorded in the Scripture, and yet given prior to the occurrence of any human homicide. This strikes me as an ad hoc rescue maneuver.

Perhaps there is something like natural law that indicates that homicide is morally evil, but natural law is not quite the same as an explicit divine command. Paul in Romans 2:14-15 seems to refer to something like natural law.

What do you think?

Brian and Bill,

I appreciate this conversation. How nice it would be to have it live and in the flesh!

Another concern I have about explaining moral evil in terms of sin is that doing so seems to be a case of taking something obvious – namely, that some act is morally evil – and accounting for it by appealing to something less obvious, such as a set of theological doctrines. It’s a principle of philosophical reasoning that we should try to avoid explaining something by appealing to something else that is less evident. For me, it’s self-evident that brutal homicide is morally evil. But to claim that moral evil is explained in terms of sin is to try to account for moral evil by appealing to something less obvious, namely, the reliability of OT texts, the existence of divine commands, sin, etc.

I’m not saying that theism, etc. are unjustified. I believe there are adequate reasons for theism, divine commands, etc. But it seems to me that theism and the OT references to divine commands and sin are less obvious than the self-evidently true proposition that the brutal killing of a farmer for no morally sufficient reason is evil.

Here’s another way to think about the problem. If moral evil is explained in terms of violating a divine command (i.e., sin), then by parity of reasoning it seems that moral goodness is explained in terms of obeying a divine command. But that would mean that nothing is morally good in the absence of a relevant divine command, which strikes me as false. It seems self-evident that some acts would be morally good even if there were no divine commands concerning those acts.

Hello Elliott,

As to the question-begging charge I made, I will try to be more precise. We all agree that sin (S) is a subset of moral evil (M), i.e., (S ⊆ M). It is your position that there are moral evils that are not sins. This equates to S being a proper subset of M, i.e., (S ⊂ M). My position is that these two sets are equal, i.e., (S = M). Given that (S ⊆ M), (S = M) if and only if ¬(S⊂M). Any scenario assuming (S ⊂ M) begs the question, and by the same token, any scenario assuming (S = M) begs the question. Here is the scenario you presented in the form of a conditional interrogative…

If a farmer in 5,000 B.C. brutally killed his neighbor and took his wife, wouldn’t this have been evil despite the fact that it occurred before the issuing of a divine command to prohibit it?

The trouble I have with this is the prepositional phase “before the issuing of a divine command…” Why? Because it assumes there can be moral evil before there is sin, which is to assume that S is a proper subset of M. But, this is the very point at issue. Does (S = M) or is it the case that (S ⊂ M)? Presenting a scenario that assumes the latter in its construction is question begging.

With that said, I do accept the distinction Bill made between sin and moral evil. I also grant that it is intuitively self-evident that the killing of the farmer is evil. I would also grant, that the homicide of a person without a morally sufficient reason is morally evil, even if, per impossibile, the homicide occurs prior to a pertinent divine command. (Note the Latin qualification in the last sentence.)

Also, I worry about the appeal to divine commands being given to humans but not recorded in the Scripture, and yet given prior to the occurrence of any human homicide. This strikes me as an ad hoc rescue maneuver.

I understand your concern. I was hoping you would grant that: (I) not all of God’s interactions with individuals are contained in the Scriptures; and (II) the Scriptures do provide examples where there must have been prior divine commands given to individuals not recorded in Scripture. (I) and (II) show that the issue cannot be settled by simply pointing to a story in the Scriptures where a morally evil act was committed prior to the recording of a corresponding divine command.

Perhaps there is something like natural law that indicates that homicide is morally evil, but natural law is not quite the same as an explicit divine command. Paul in Romans 2:14-15 seems to refer to something like natural law.

Based on Romans 2, David VanDrunen, in Christianity and the Laws of Conscience edited by Jeffrey B. Hammond and Helen M. Alvare, ties natural law to the conscience. He also sees some of the Old Testament examples I gave earlier as being examples of this. I agree with David that Romans 2 speaks of the conscience. It seems as if the conscience and natural law maybe synonymous. So, if as you say natural law is not the same as an explicit divine command, would you also say that the violation of the conscience is not the violation of a divine command?

I will stop here to get your response before going deeper into Romans 2.

Brian

“The trouble I have with this is the prepositional phase “before the issuing of a divine command…” Why? Because it assumes there can be moral evil before there is sin, which is to assume that S is a proper subset of M. But, this is the very point at issue. Does (S = M) or is it the case that (S ⊂ M)? Presenting a scenario that assumes the latter in its construction is question begging.”

Thanks for your response, Brian. I agree that my position would be question begging if I had merely assumed without independent reasons that there can be moral evil temporally prior to sin or otherwise in the absence of sin. But I don’t believe that the farmer scenario merely presupposed such. I provided independent reasons for believing that the farmer scenario is morally evil, though perhaps I should have been more clear. Namely, I noted that the killing is self-evidently evil and that, given the evidence available to us, the killing occurred before any divine command. The latter point is linked to my concern about ad hoc rescue.

“With that said, I do accept the distinction Bill made between sin and moral evil.”

It seems to me that you accept the distinction as a distinction of reason (in Suarez’ sense, i.e., a distinction in the mind only) but not as a real (extra-mental) distinction.

“I was hoping you would grant that: (I) not all of God’s interactions with individuals are contained in the Scriptures; and (II) the Scriptures do provide examples where there must have been prior divine commands given to individuals not recorded in Scripture.”

My concern here is that (II) seems true only if we assume that moral evil is impossible without a relevant divine command. Granted, there are references to ‘sin’ prior to recorded divine commands (e.g., Genesis 4:7) but it’s not clear that the author and the translators wrote/translated while keeping in mind the (at least conceptual) difference between moral evil and sin. Another concern I have is the one I mentioned in my comment on April 4 at 9:04 AM. I wrote that explaining moral evil in terms of sin seems to be a case of taking something obvious – namely, that some act is morally evil – and accounting for it by appealing to something less obvious, such as a set of theological doctrines, the reliability of OT texts, etc.

“would you also say that the violation of the conscience is not the violation of a divine command?”

Well, it depends on what you mean by a “divine command” and what you mean by “conscience.” It seems clear that conscience is not the same kind of thing as, say, one of the 10 Commandments. I suppose this is a good time in the dialectic to define ‘divine command.’ If natural law were merely a matter of divine commands, then natural law theory and divine command theory would seem to be the same kind of theory, namely, a divine command type theory. But moral philosophers treat NL theory and DC theory as different theoretical approaches to normative ethics. How are you defining “divine command”?

Lastly, I wonder if by “moral evil” you might mean something like “morally illicit” or “morally proscribed” or “morally forbidden.” If so, then it makes sense to say that moral evil is identical to sin, since sin is by definition a matter of being morally forbidden by God. But moral evil seems to be a different kind of thing. Moral evil can be understood in terms of badness freely done by some person, and badness is not necessarily a matter of illicitness. For example, plausibly, it’s morally evil to engage in bullshit (in Frankfurt’s sense). There’s no explicit divine command against BS, although there are NT verses indicating that we should avoid empty babbling and careless words (for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Mt. 12:36, and in 1 Tim 6:20). But it is plausible that cases of BS were morally evil before the time of the NT.

Let’s think in terms of the relation between moral goodness and moral oughtness. It would be morally good for someone to both devote his entire working life to curing all forms of cancer and devote his entire working life to reforming all legal institutions wherever they need reform. But one can’t do both. Since ought implies can, it’s not the case that one ought to do both. Hence, there are some things that are morally good but not morally obligatory.

Hello Elliott,

I am enjoying our ongoing conversation. Thank you.

…I noted that the killing is self-evidently evil and that, given the evidence available to us, the killing occurred before any divine command.

I took this to be a thought experiment designed by you – an experiment that I took as question begging. Rather, it seems you intended to assert the following:

  1. If at 5,000 B.C. there is no divine command prohibiting killing, then at 5,000 B.C. killing is not a sin.
  2. At 5,000 B.C. there is no divine command prohibiting killing.
  3. At 5,000 B.C. killing is morally evil.
From this it follows that at 5,000 B.C. killing is morally evil but not a sin. I affirm 1 to be true with the understanding that both the antecedent and consequent are false. As such, I reject 2, which just is the antecedent of 1. Lastly, 3 is problematic. Let’s start there.

It seems to me that killing in and of itself is not necessarily evil. How do you know that the killing in your scenario was morally evil? In Bill’s post above he linked to a video showing the killing of a homeless man by some individual. He asked the question, “What do you see?” From there he went on to argue that we see a killing, but that we cannot see the evilness of the act. You agreed. So, what makes the killing in your scenario a moral evil?

My answer is that the killing in your scenario is morally evil because the intention of the farmer in committing the act was an evil intention. This intention was evil because it went against conscience – the very work of God’s law written on the heart of the farmer (Romans 2:14-15). Everyone has a conscience given by God. This conscience acts as a law to these individuals. As such, at 5,000 B.C. divine law was communicated to this farmer via his conscience, which was violated when he killed his neighbor. This is also why I think the antecedent in 1 is false (and therefore premise 2 is false).

Let’s think in terms of the relation between moral goodness and moral oughtness. It would be morally good for someone to both devote his entire working life to curing all forms of cancer and devote his entire working life to reforming all legal institutions wherever they need reform. But one can’t do both. Since ought implies can, it’s not the case that one ought to do both. Hence, there are some things that are morally good but not morally obligatory.

Elliott, you bring up so many good points. There is too much to discuss! May we come back to this once we deal with ‘divine command’ and ‘conscience’?

Brian

Thanks for your post, Brian. And thanks for your email notifying me of your reply. And thanks to Bill for allowing us to continue the conversation on his site. I'm enjoying it as well.

I've stated parts of my argument in different posts. I should try to articulate a summary in one post. Here it is.

Our Assumption: Sin is the intentional violation of a divine command.

My claim: The thesis that moral evil is identical to sin (ME = S) is false. It’s not the case that moral evil is identical to sin.

Supporting Reason (SR) for my claim: If ME = S, then whatever is morally evil is sinful. But here is a counterexample to the claim that whatever is morally evil is sinful. The case of the farmer killing his neighbor is an example of a morally evil action that is not sinful. (Suppose the event occurred in 5,000 B. C. in the Yellow River Basin. It’s a hypothetical case. Yet it’s plausible. Given our understanding of human affairs, it's probable that something like it occurred.)

Support for SR:

Why is the farmer case a counterexample?

1. It is self-evident that the killing is morally evil. (You granted on April 9 that it is self-evident that the killing is evil.)


2. The killing occurred in the absence of any relevant divine command. The killing occurred thousands of miles away from the cultures addressed in the OT, and roughly 1500 years before the 10 Commandments are said to have been delivered to Moses.

Therefore, given our assumption, the killing is not a sin, since it wasn’t an intentional violation of a divine command. The killing was, however, morally evil, as shown in (1). Hence, it’s an example of moral evil which isn’t sin.

Support for (2): I grant the possibility of a divine command issued separate from the Decalogue. God is able to issue divine commands at will. But there is no sufficient evidence of a clear divine command that was issued at a time and in a place pertinent to the case of the farmer in the Yellow River Basin in 5,000 B. C. The lack of evidence probabilistically supports the conclusion that there was no such divine command.

If I had stopped at SR, my argument would have begged the question because it would have presupposed a difference between moral evil and sin. But I didn't stop at SR. I provided two independent reasons to support SR and a separate consideration to support the second reason.

You wrote: "As such, I reject 2 ..." It seems to me that your rejection of (2) rests on the assumption that there must have been a divine command -- unknown to us -- which prohibited such killings in 5,000 B. C. But as I indicated before, this assumption seems like a case of ad hoc rescue. Moreover, if God had already issued a divine command against murder that would have addressed murder in 5,000 B. C., why would God repeat the command in the Decalogue?

My point about the relation between moral goodness and moral obligation was intended to motivate the distinction between moral goodness and moral evil on one hand and matters of obligation and prohibition on the other.

We do have much else to discuss. I'll try to address your questions about killing in a separate post.

“How do you know that the killing in your scenario was morally evil? In Bill’s post above he linked to a video showing the killing of a homeless man by some individual. He asked the question, “What do you see?” From there he went on to argue that we see a killing, but that we cannot see the evilness of the act. You agreed. So, what makes the killing in your scenario a moral evil?”

The questions (a) “How do you know that the killing in your scenario was morally evil?” and (b) “What makes the killing in your scenario a moral evil?” are different. The first is a question of epistemology. The second is a question of metaethics/moral ontology.

One can answer (b) by claiming that the killing is intrinsically evil. Nothing external to the killing makes it evil. It is in itself evil. (Non-consequentialists sometimes provide this kind of objection to consequentialists who claim that the non-beneficial results of an act make that act morally wrong.)

It seems to me that my argument doesn't require an answer to (a) other than to say what I already said, namely, that it is self-evident that the killing is evil. If a proposition is self-evident, then it is knowable without the need for a supporting argument. (Think for example of the proposition "2 + 2 = 4.") And if moral intuitionism is true, then at least some basic moral propositions are self-evident.

I did agree that one can't see with one’s eyes the evilness of an act, since evilness is not a visible property. But if moral intuitionism is true, then one can be directly aware of the evilness of an act. This awareness is not based on a faculty of vision (w/ one’s eyes), but rather is a matter of direct moral awareness.

“This intention was evil because it went against conscience – the very work of God’s law written on the heart of the farmer (Romans 2:14-15). Everyone has a conscience given by God. This conscience acts as a law to these individuals. As such, at 5,000 B.C. divine law was communicated to this farmer via his conscience, which was violated when he killed his neighbor.”

I agree that, in general, human beings have direct moral awareness, as I noted in my previous post. It makes sense to call this moral awareness “conscience.” But I don’t think that conscience is itself a law, precisely speaking, and I’m not sure that Paul meant to say such. Rather, conscience is a faculty of moral awareness by which one is aware of the natural law or the laws of reason. Paul seems to have been referring in Romans 2:14-15 to natural law (or perhaps to reason itself, anticipating Kant) and not to any particular divine command. Natural law is not a divine command, if by ‘divine command’ you mean an authoritative and directly communicated order such as the 10 Commandments are said to be. This is the point I was trying to make on April 10 at 7:42 AM.

If conscience is not a divine command (precisely speaking), then to act against conscience is not itself to violate a divine command. Rather, to go against conscience is to act against one's moral awareness, which might be an awareness of the natural law or the moral requirements of reason and might not be awareness of any divine command. Perhaps, then, the farmer in 5,000 B. C. violated his conscience (i.e., his awareness that the killing was against the moral requirements of reason) but did not violate any actual divine command.

Hello Elliott,

I sure do appreciate your patience with me. Thank you. Also, thank you for laying out your complete argument. I think the place we should focus is on ‘divine command’ and the ‘conscience’. This is where our disagreement is most evident. But before this, let me make one minor observation.

Our Assumption: Sin is the intentional violation of a divine command.

The Scriptures speak of unintentional sins (e.g. Leviticus 4:2). Sin is a violation of a divine command either intentional or unintentional. Do you agree?
I don’t think that conscience is itself a law, precisely speaking, and I’m not sure that Paul meant to say such. Rather, conscience is a faculty of moral awareness by which one is aware of the natural law or the laws of reason. Paul seems to have been referring in Romans 2:14-15 to natural law (or perhaps to reason itself, anticipating Kant) and not to any particular divine command. Natural law is not a divine command, if by ‘divine command’ you mean an authoritative and directly communicated order such as the 10 Commandments are said to be.…

I am going to argue that the conscience is evidence that Gentiles who do not have the Law are nevertheless under law. This law is written on their hearts and when violated is a sin. In chapter 2 of Romans Paul is explaining how God can be impartial when in that great day He judges both Jews, who have the Law, and Gentiles who do not have the Law. In verse 12 we read…
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under Law will be judged by the Law. (NASB Romans 2:12)

Notice, both groups sin. One without the Law, and the other with the Law. If sin is the violation of a divine command, and Gentiles are sinners who do not have the Law, then what makes them sinners under God’s righteous judgment? It must be a violation of some law – otherwise they are not sinners. The only other law spoken of in this passage is the law written on their hearts. One relationship between this law and their conscience is that the conscience acts as an accusing witness when the law has been violated. In other words, the witness provides evidence that the person is a lawbreaker and therefore a sinner. When one violates their conscience, then one has sinned.

Romans 14:23 says that whatever is not of faith is sin. The argument in this section of Scripture seems to be directly relevant, but I will not take the time to develop this.

One last thing, I feel bad that I am only addressing a small part of the many good points you continue to make. I should be acknowledging these points, and I have not. Please forgive me.

Brian

Thanks, Brian. No worries at all about acknowledging every point. Life is short and philosophy isn’t! But it’s good that we are free here to muster up a set of questions and pursue some of ‘em.

I agree that ‘divine command’ and ‘conscience’ are terms of focus for us. And I appreciate your careful qualification about the assumption concerning intentional violation of a DC.

“Sin is a violation of a divine command either intentional or unintentional. Do you agree?”

I don’t know whether or not I agree. I’m uncommitted but open. I’m concerned, though, that we might be moving further and further from a philosophical discussion into a debate about Biblical exegesis. I have no special education or expertise in exegesis, though the subject interests me.

Here’s one thing I’ll say. If there is such a thing as an unintentional sin, I have doubts that the unintentionally sinful act would be sufficient for either moral guilt or legal guilt. I find the following moral and legal principle quite plausible: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea

(an act does not make one guilty unless the mind is also guilty).

“The only other law spoken of in this passage is the law written on their hearts.”

Perhaps, then, we should change our definition of 'sin' from “the violation of a DC” to “the violation of a legitimately authoritative moral law.” But that would seem to move the definition out of the precincts of moral theology and into moral philosophy. In this case, ‘sinful act’ would be synonymous with ‘morally impermissible act.’

Another problem: suppose conscience is the faculty enabling us to be aware of natural law and that some acts go against natural law. Natural law concerns human nature. Why is human nature normative? If the answer is that natural law comes from God (not in the way a divine command does, though), then we seem to face a modified version of the Euthyphro problem.

Hello Elliott,

I don’t know whether or not I agree. I’m uncommitted but open…. If there is such a thing as an unintentional sin, I have doubts that the unintentionally sinful act would be sufficient for either moral guilt or legal guilt. I find the following moral and legal principle quite plausible…
I had to look this up. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of Law (7th Edition) says…
The maxim that, generally, a person cannot be guilty of a crime unless two elements are present: the actus reus (“guilty act”) and the mens rea (“guilty mind”). Most criminal offences require (1) an actus reus (conduct “external” to the defendant's thoughts and intentions) and (2) a mens rea (a specific state of mind on the part of the accused).
The question before us has to do with an unintentional violation of a divine command. The state of mind in question is ignorance. In Arizona, generally, I am legally guilty for the violation of a law even if I am ignorant of the law. Given (2), why doesn’t this excuse the act? Plausibly, the State of Arizona might argue that the laws of Arizona are reasonably available to the public, and as such, there is a reasonable expectation for those who are going to be in Arizona to inform themselves of Arizona law. As such, ignorance of the law excuses no one - ignorantia iuris neminem excusat.

The unintentional sins mentioned throughout the early chapters of Leviticus would all fall under this. The covenant people would be reasonably expected to know these laws, and therefore would be guilty even if it was not their intention to violate the law. This reminds me of the story when King David was bringing back the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem from the Philistines. The proper transportation of the ark was not being followed and the oxen carrying the ark stumbled. Uzzah reach out and grabbed the ark to keep it from falling, and God struck him dead. Uzzah’s intentions seem to have been good. He was simply trying to keep the ark from falling. Yet, he was judged guilty.

Another passage that touches on this is the latter half of Romans 14. Paul is addressing an issue in the church related to those who are “weak in faith”. One mark of a weaker brother is that they hold convictions (faith) about what they may or may not eat. Some foods, they think, are forbidden (unclean) while others are allowed (clean). Regarding this Paul says…
I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean (vs. 14).
The underlying idea here seems to be that if one thinks, believes, has faith, etc… that a particular act is sinful, then to him it is sinful even if the act in and of itself is not sinful. For example, if I take a business deduction on my tax return that I think is not allowable, then I am sinning even if it turns out that I did not violate an IRS code. My disposition towards the act is what made it sin. Consider the following syllogism:
  1. All acts that are thought to be sinful are sinful acts for the thinker.
  2. Some acts that are thought to be sinful are non-sinful acts in and of themselves.
  3. Therefore, some non-sinful acts in and of themselves are sinful acts for the thinker.
Would you consider this sound? If not, what premise would you dispute?
Perhaps, then, we should change our definition of 'sin' from “the violation of a DC” to “the violation of a legitimately authoritative moral law.” But that would seem to move the definition out of the precincts of moral theology and into moral philosophy. In this case, ‘sinful act’ would be synonymous with ‘morally impermissible act.’
Would you spell out the distinction between 'moral theology' and 'moral philosophy' as well as "the violation of a DC" as opposed to "the violation of a legitimately authoritative moral law."
Why is human nature normative? If the answer is that natural law comes from God (not in the way a divine command does, though), then we seem to face a modified version of the Euthyphro problem.
Would you mind spelling this problem out for me?

Thank you, again, Ellott. I am learning and appreciate the discussion.

Brian

>>Would you spell out the distinction between 'moral theology' and 'moral philosophy' as well as "the violation of a DC" as opposed to "the violation of a legitimately authoritative moral law."<<

Think about the difference between theology and philosophy. Moral theology is a branch of theology. Moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy. Further, moral theology from the Christian perspective typically presupposes the existence of God and the truth of the propositions taught in the Bible. Moral philosophy doesn’t presuppose such, nor does philosophy in general.

As I see it, a divine command is a species of an authoritative moral law. The former is to the latter as an apple is to fruit. Just as there are other fruits, so also there are other moral laws such as, say, natural law, the categorical imperative, etc.

Violating a DC : violating an authoritative moral law :: throwing an apple in the garbage : throwing fruit in the garbage. (I use here the ‘:’ and ‘::’ of analogies tests such as the Miller Analogies Test.)

>> Why is human nature normative? If the answer is that natural law comes from God (not in the way a divine command does, though), then we seem to face a modified version of the Euthyphro problem.

Would you mind spelling this problem out for me?<<

According to natural law theory (NLT), roughly, (i) an act is morally permissible iff it is consistent with human nature and morally impermissible iff it violates human nature, and (ii) we can know what is permissible and impermissible via the use of practical reason. (Note: Human nature is rational animality.)

One objection to NLT is that it’s not clear why human nature is normative. Suppose there is a human nature. How does this fact entail moral oughtness? The is-ought fallacy seems to be lurking in the neighborhood.

One might answer this objection by saying that human nature is normative because God willed it. But then one can raise a modified version of the question Socrates asked Euthyphro in the eponymous dialogue:

Is human nature normative because God willed it, or did God will human nature because it is normative?

Note: NLT doesn’t require theism, but many versions of NLT are theistic. However, in theistic versions of NLT, the natural law doesn’t come into existence in virtue of a divine command, and we don’t discover the natural law on the basis of some divine command.

NLT is relevant to our discussion of Romans because Paul seems to appeal to natural law in Romans 1:26-27. Notice that Paul doesn’t claim that the acts addressed in these verses violate a divine command. Rather, he claims that they are against nature.

Consider this little argument for why moral evil (ME) is not identical to sin (S). We have defined S as “the violation of a divine command.”

If ME is identical to S, then whatever is true of ME is true of S and vice versa. Now, ME is possible in a world without divine commands. But S is not possible in a world without divine commands. Hence, there is something true about ME that is not true about S. Thus, it is not the case that whatever is true of ME is true of S and vice versa. Therefore, ME is not identical to S.

Given the indiscernibility of identicals, the first statement is true. Given our definition of S, the third is a keeper.

What about the second? It seems to me that a world with ME and no divine commands is conceivable. I grant that my conceiving of a situation, fallible as I am, does not entail its possibility – hence the challenge to the possibility premise of the modal ontological argument. However, arguably, conceivability provides adequate if defeasible support for possibility.

Is there any good reason to think that a world with ME and no divine commands is inconceivable?

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