The Moral Bankruptcy of Divine Command Theory: Matthew Flannagan’s Failed Defense

Cover of Doctor Hector Avalos's book Bad Jesus: The Ethics of the New Testament, yellow background, with a frame including the key focus of a painting depicting Jesus whipping people in the temple square.Theology has no salvageable theory of morality. Theists complain atheists have no reason to be moral. But in fact theists have no reason to actually be moral, as in: to elevate compassion, honesty, and reasonableness above all authority, even the authority of their own gods. Unless they covertly adopt a naturalistic moral theory (and most do), they are not actually moral people. They are minions. Theists are essentially the unquestioning gestapo of whatever monster manufactured the universe. Or rather, whatever monster some men made up and duped them into thinking it made the universe. Which means, they are essentially the gestapo of whatever random ignorant madmen wrote their scriptures and now thumps their pulpits with sufficiently fiery claims of special divine communications at bedtime.

I’m sorry to say, but that’s the truth. Theism actually has no moral theory.

This is why.

Hannibal Lecter created the universe? He escaped from a future holodeck simulation and then used a stolen TARDIS to Make the Universe after evaporating God by discovering the Babel Fish? Oh crap. Well, I guess we better get down with murder and elegant cannibalism or else he’ll be angry with us and send us to hell. Because he is now eternal and the supreme being and made the universe. So we can’t deny, his will and character is now the ground of all morality. And, oh yeah. This all totally makes sense.

Is that any more sensible than…?

A cosmic Jewish zombie named Jesus who telekinetically fathered himself by a virgin and now resides in outer space, is possessed by the spirit of a supernal ghost that is in some sort of parallel-dimensioning identical with but distinct from himself and an ancient Canaanite storm god, and promises to make you live forever in an alternate dimension if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood, and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that has eternally tainted our mammalian flesh ever since a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. So you better do what he says.

And lest we forget, that’s the Jesus who has nothing to say against slavery or the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women or the execution of homosexuals, other than, at best, that you shouldn’t invite sluts and homos to legally murder the sluts and homos because that would be hypocritical (John 7:52-8:11, a forgery). Oh no, you are supposed to wait for Jesus to murder them (Matthew 3:12). This Jesus is actually a morally dubious person.

You can always invent any Jesus you want, of course. A Jesus who fought for abolition and women’s suffrage and the decriminalization of homosexuality—and, oh, let’s say, promoted democracy and human rights and universal education (also not things Jesus ever says one word for in the Bible). But that’s just a guy you are making up in your head. Because you don’t like the guy on paper. Except… That you have to invent a better Jesus than the one that’s in the Book, really says all that needs saying here.

Matthew Flannagan & My Article for Philo

Several years ago (though it entered print only a couple years ago) I published a paper in the philosophy journal Philo, responding to Christian fundamentalist Matthew Flannagan on behalf of noted atheist philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, whom Flannagan had written an article against, defending William Lane Craig’s Divine Command Theory against Sinnott-Armstrong’s rather scathing destruction of it. Sinnott-Armstrong was probably bored at this point. I was recruited to write the rebuttal. The result is Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as We Know Them, Ethical Naturalism Is All There Is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan,” Philo 15.2 (Fall-Winter 2012), pp. 200-11, I think so far my favorite paper for a peer reviewed philosophy journal.

The abstract reads:

In responding to Matthew Flannagan’s rebuttal to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument that ethical naturalism is more plausible than William Lane Craig’s Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (DCT), this author finds Flannagan incorrect on almost every point. Any defense of DCT is fallaciously circular and empirically untestable, whereas neither is the case for ethical naturalism. Accordingly, all four of Armstrong’s objections stand against Flannagan’s attempts to rebut them, and Flannagan’s case is impotent against a properly-formed naturalist metaethic.

In this paper I found Sinnott-Armstrong indisputably correct on every point but one, and even on that one he was correct, he just didn’t adequately prove it. My other peer reviewed paper on normative ethics, the chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” in The End of Christianity (ed. by John Loftus: Prometheus, 2011: pp. 333-64, 420-29), is an example of proving the point he intended, which is that grounds for morality not only do, but necessarily must exist independently of any gods, because in no other way can moral claims be sufficiently motivating so as to be true.

Flannagan has since published replies to my critique of him on his website (“Richard Carrier and the Arbitrariness Objection,” 5 September 2014, and “Richard Carrier and the Abhorrent Commands Objection,” 5 October 2014, and “Ethical Supernaturalism Is Still More Plausible Than Naturalism: Carrier’s Preliminary Objections,” 20 August 2014). Below I will summarize my paper in Philo, which summary already refutes most of what Flannagan now says—since what he now says pretty much ignores what I said, so restating what I said is a more than adequate rebuttal. And then I’ll address the remainder of Flannagan’s new rebuttals. The end result is not any different from where we started…

Recently I noticed that Jonathan M.S. Pearce of A Tippling Philosopher had discovered my paper in February of 2014, well before Flannagan wrote his reply, and noted it was admirably efficacious on the subject. As he advises, “Richard Carrier has recently written a rebuttal to apologist Matthew Flannagan which appeared in Philo” and “I must say, the article is brilliant; it offers such a good riposte to Flannagan’s own critique of and defence against Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s own critique of DCT,” such that even after Pearce’s summarizing key points of it, “I advise anyone to read it in full (if and when that is possible).” I have now made my whole paper available (link above), so people can do that. I believe it has the most utility the more widely it can be read and employed.

The Minutiae of the Debate

My article proceeds as follows:

  • “Christian theism cannot produce a coherently motivating account of moral obligations” (p. 200)
  • Because all attempts to do so reduce to either Ethical Naturalism (moral facts are entailed by observable natural facts) or DCT (Divine Command Theory: morality consists of what God tells us to do), and DCT is incoherent and unlivable.
  • DCT is only livable if we have access to God’s will. We do not. (I’ll expand on this below.)
  • And even if a loving and just God exists, he would (by virtue of being loving and just) arrange the world so that Ethical Naturalism were true anyway (because that is what a loving and just person would do). Therefore even theists should be Ethical Naturalists.
  • DCT is also “circular, because it presumes (without argument) that ‘loving and just’ decisions are morally right” (p. 202).
  • And any attempt to get around this ends up reducing to Ethical Naturalism.

That’s really the end of Flannagan. As I state in the article, I could end there. But his errors didn’t. And I was tasked with being thorough. I noted Flannagan’s case for DCT consisted of arguments for DCT against Sinnott-Armstrong’s refutation of it (Flannagan’s defensive case), and arguments against Sinnott-Armstrong’s replacement of it with Ethical Naturalism (Flannagan’s offensive case). I took each in turn.

Defensively, Flannagan tackled Sinnott-Armstrong’s four arguments against him, with (as I explain) the following results (“On the Facts,” pp. 203-07):

  • First: DCT is arbitrary. Because (essentially) it does not solve the Euthyphro dilemma. Or as I put it, in more modern terms, it fails to answer “Moore’s Open Question.” (Since theism is really, let’s be honest, a crank pseudophilosophy, outside fundamentalist echo chambers, philosophers barely take theistic metaethics seriously anymore—so ancient arguments about pagan sky spirits, however clever, are too quaint for modern times; we’ve moved beyond that.)

Flannagan responds by simply insisting, ‘but, no, the real God is loving and just, so it’s not arbitrary, it’s loving and just!’ He never grasps the point. Why is being loving and just better? And therefore, why does being loving and just make what you say moral? DCT has no answer. Flannagan never provided any. He thus never understood Sinnott-Armstrong’s point. And in result, he provided no rebuttal to it. This becomes the crux of the whole debate, as I’ll discuss in the next section below.

  • Second: DCT can justify rape. (Or, as I point out, all the things the OT God actually does command, up to and including sex slavery and genocide.) Of course, this is a bait. The argument forces the DCT advocate on the horns of a dilemma: admit DCT doesn’t actually work in any way acceptable to modern society, or defend rape.

Predictably, Flannagan defends rape. To be fair, he does it in such a way that he is technically correct, as in, if the conditions he imagines existed, rape would be ethical—namely, if it was the loving and just thing to do (and we can imagine scenarios, though Flannagan wisely avoids attempting it: like, maybe, being forced to rape someone lest, the coercer informs you, the victim will be killed instead, although to be honest, one might not even be able to make that scenario defensible). But that again misses Sinnott-Armstrong’s point.

Flannagan admits that rape is wrong because it is not loving and just, a point with which Sinnott-Armstrong agrees. But what Sinnott-Armstrong is saying is that if God turns out to not be loving and just (and the OT certainly does not depict any such character), then DCT makes rape moral. As well as any other evil imaginable. Just insisting God is loving and just doesn’t answer the problem. Which is that DCT doesn’t explain why it’s good to be loving and just, and bad not to be. (And consequently, DCT can be used, and has been used, to justify any evil. But that wasn’t the problem Sinnott-Armstrong was concerned with at this point. His concern is purely with the logic of how DCT grounds the statement “loving and just decisions are moral.”)

  • Third: DCT produces “infantile” moral reasoning, not only by reducing it to obeying what someone else says God wants, rather than applying one’s own critical reasoning to ascertain what is right, but also by eliminating any stable adult motivation to be moral. As atheists well know, from all the theists who terrifyingly admit they would murder and rape everyone but for their fear of hell, this is profoundly immature moral reasoning. Adults reason differently: they won’t murder and rape anyone because they care about them. Not because someone has a cosmic gun to their head. Morality is precarious, without moral autonomy. And moral autonomy requires the moral agent to be self-motivated to believe in what’s right, and to become expert in applying critical reasoning to the task. DCT disincentivizes both developments, and thus holds back moral development to the level of a child.

Flannagan gets offended by being called a baby. And misses the point entirely. Because he thinks he was being called a baby. He never addresses either of the very real (and psychologically demonstrated) problems with impeding normal moral development by discouraging independent moral reasoning (critically deciding for oneself what is right) and independent moral motivation (caring about people). DCT does indeed run these risks. Because it does indeed exclude any role for independent critical reasoning (on DCT, you can’t decide God is “evil” and thus to be defied, not obeyed…no matter how evil God is) or independent moral motivation (on DCT, actions are not right because you care about people, they are only right because God said so; so to know what is moral, you have to investigate what God said, rather than investigate what hurts people).

  • Fourth: DCT entails moral skepticism, because it makes moral facts inaccessible and unknowable. (I’ll say more about this one below.)

Flannagan responds by again missing the point, and thus not addressing it. He instead gets hung up on a red-herring technicality about variables in a formal proposition (a debate more thoroughly analyzed by Jason Thibodeau at the Secular Outpost, with another rebuttal by Flannagan, and a closing riposte by Thibodeau). He never responds to Sinnott-Armstrong’s actual point: which is that either moral facts are wholly unknowable on DCT (and therefore DCT entails we can know nothing about morality, and therefore by definition cannot ground any morality), or they are knowable by virtue of observable properties apart from DCT. But if they are knowable by virtue of observable properties apart from DCT, then they are already sufficiently moral by virtue of those properties. So we don’t need DCT.

Flannagan thinks he can get around this by supposing we can know what God commanded by some sort of “sign” that is itself not the reason something is moral yet is sufficient to inform us that God approves of it. But what Sinnott-Armstrong is saying is that there is no such sign. So all that’s left is “DCT fails to ground morality” or “morality is already grounded, so we don’t need DCT.” Sure, if Flannagan can put us on the phone with God, he might be able to rebut this argument. But he can’t. So the argument stands.

To make the point clear, since Flannagan compares knowing what is moral on DCT to knowing when water is present without a knowledge of chemistry, I put the argument back in his terms (“On the Facts,” p. 207):

Flannagan’s analogy of laymen identifying water without recourse to molecular instruments only verifies the point: God’s commandments are more like faeries than water. Water is consistently, reliably identifiable across all cultures and all historical time. The will of God has never been. Not even remotely. Flannagan’s rebuttal to Armstrong thus again makes Armstrong’s point for him. A rebuttal that proves your opponent’s point is, well, not really a rebuttal.

Keith Parsons then pointed out that his analogy fails on other grounds as well.

So much for Flannagan’s defensive case. What about his offense?

Here Flannagan really only just says Ethical Naturalism doesn’t work either, so it’s no better. And for this he can exploit one actual weak point in Sinnott-Armstrong’s case, which is that Sinnott-Armstrong never actually grounds morality either (though he does do something Flannagan didn’t do for DCT, which is show how it is actually livable). And here the debate gets into a confusion over what the word “objective” means in the context of ethics. I sort that out before proceeding (pp. 207-08).

Then I conclude (p. 209):

I agree it would be great if we had an omniscient advisor whom we verified in some reliable way really loves us and is committed to our welfare, and if we could actually have a reliable, consistent, and unambiguous conversation with them about what they advise we do. But no one has that. Not even the Christian. Not only can we not verify any omniscient advisor exists, much less one we are sure cares about us, we have no way of knowing what their advice is. Thus, their existence is useless. It is therefore not relevant. Even if God exists, indeed even if a loving God exists, this is of no use to us in ascertaining what is and is not moral. Because He simply isn’t consistently or reliably telling anyone.

So all we have left is the ethical naturalist’s best alternative: an increasingly well-informed moral agent who cares about herself, and a body of advisors who care about her (crowdsourced knowledge, tested and accumulated from past to present). That’s the best you get. You don’t have access to an omniscient advisor. So you have to make do. And that means caring about whether you have enough information (about yourself and the world), and caring how to make the information you get more reliable, and caring whether you are reasoning from that information without logical fallacy or cognitive error. That’s the only way to get closer to the truth in matters of morality. Phoning God simply isn’t an option.

Notice that this is Flannagan’s moral theory, minus the primitive hocum about sky spirits. He argues that we should obey wise, informed, loving, and just persons. If that is true, then it is true even if God does not exist. We should therefore endeavor to become wise, informed, loving, and just persons ourselves, and/or cultivate the existing and accumulated wisdom of others who are. Because unlike faeries, demons, sorcerers, and alchemists, those are the only advisory agents science has confirmed exist to be consulted. They are all you’ve got.

Sure, it sucks that we don’t have a magic spell that makes the world better with a single wave of a wand. But we simply don’t. We have to make do with our technology and labor instead. Flannagan’s own moral reasoning entails this conclusion—when it is applied to the actual facts of the world. Hence, his own defense of DCT, ends up being a defense of Ethical Naturalism (pp. 209-11). Just as predicted.

The Heart of the Debate

In his review of this debate, Pearce correctly notes the most key point of this issue is, as I explain it (“On the Facts,” p. 201):

DCT is therefore unlivable, even if it were correct. It puts moral truth inside an inaccessible black box, the mind of one particular God, whom we cannot identify or communicate with in any globally or historically reliable or consistent way. We therefore cannot know what is moral, even if DCT were true. The supernaturalist is stuck in the exact same position as the ethical naturalist: attempting to ascertain from observable facts what the best way is to live. Should women be allowed to vote and hold office? Is slavery immoral? We cannot answer these questions with DCT. We can only answer them by modeling inside our imaginations our own ideal moral agent (the “God” of our own mental construction), applying that model to the discoverable facts of the world, and then asking it what’s right. But we cannot demonstrate that the “God” (or “ideal agent”) we have thus modeled in our mind or intuition is the “one true” God or not, except by appeal to natural facts that require no actual God to exist. Otherwise, we cannot know the God informing the intuition of Islamic suicide bombers is the incorrect God. It could just as well be the other way around. Likewise, maybe the God who commanded slavery and the execution of apostates, blasphemers, homosexuals, and rape victims was the real God, and the God we imagine in our heads now (who, we’re sure for some unspecifiable reason, abhors these things) is one we just made up.

DCT therefore cannot be the basis for any moral system, even if the God it imagines exists and has opinions in the matter of morality. That DCT-advocates just have to end up acting like ethical naturalists does not bode well for any contention that ethical naturalism is less plausible than supernaturalism.

And the most important turning point here, is where theists simply can’t defeat Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma from 2400 years ago. Flannagan tricks himself into thinking he can avoid things like the Hannibal Lecter Is Our Maker scenario by just writing into his character description that, contrary to his entire literary record, he is in fact “loving and just.” That would at least be a nice improvement. After all, if you are going to be lorded over by a cosmic torturer, you’d at least want him to be a nice guy (contradiction be damned, pun intended). But that doesn’t actually solve the problem. And Flannagan still doesn’t understand why. He still doesn’t understand Plato.

The problem is as I describe it in my article (p. 202):

To successfully argue that “loving and just” decisions are moral requires (i) appealing to the consequences of “loving and just” decisions and the consequences of “unloving or unjust” decisions, and then (ii) appealing to which of those consequences the moral agent prefers. But DCT can accomplish neither, except in exactly the same way ethical naturalism does. Therefore, DCT reduces to ethical naturalism in practical fact. It therefore cannot be an improvement on it.

Why is it that changing Hannibal into a “loving and just” character (and analogously, why is it that rewriting the horrifically demonic character of the Bible into a “loving and just” character) makes it okay to do what he says, whereas, supposedly, we were allowed, or even morally obligated, to defy his evil cosmic tyranny without that tweak? Flannagan cannot say “because God (er, Hannibal) commanded it.” Nor can he say “because God (er, Hannibal) is a nice guy,” unless it is already true that we should obey nice guys, which requires that we don’t need God (er, Nice Hannibal) to exist for that to be true. And this is where Flannagan fails to understand the Euthyphro dilemma.

Because for DCT to be true, what Flannagan needs to say is, “we should obey whatever character God happens to have,” which would mean, we should all be the mass murderers that the God of the Old Testament actually wants us to be. He cannot explain why we should defy such a god, and follow instead a loving and just one. He can’t appeal to God’s (er, Hannibal’s) character, because in that scenario, that character is despicable and abhorrent. Conversely, Flannagan has no reason why we should prefer the decisions of a “loving and just” person (god or otherwise) over a cruel and unjust one. He can’t say “because that’s what God is like,” because that’s back to “we should obey whatever character God happens to have,” which would justify malevolence as readily as benevolence, based simply on the random chance of what character God happens to have.

So, I guess, Flannagan had better build Terminators and send them into the future to assassinate Holodeck horror movie characters before they find TARDISes. Or admit the Old Testament God is a demon the worthy of any horror film villain himself, and somehow convince everyone that we are lucky enough that that God just happens not to exist. (Oh wait. Atheists are already doing that.) No, Flannagan can only instead appeal to one simple fact: we should reject the commands of “abhorrent” gods and embrace the commands of “loving” ones because otherwise, life would suck—for us. But that’s true even if God doesn’t exist. Adding God is a Ptolemaic epicycle that accomplishes nothing and serves no function. The commands of a loving and just person is a conceptual category that does not require that person to exist for their commands to be loving and just. If it is good to obey such commands, it is good regardless of whether they are fictional or real.

Unless, of course, you want people to do what you want—and you can dupe them into thinking that’s what God wants, too. Which is easy to do, because God never actually tells anyone what he wants, while Christians happily assume He wants whatever can be made to sound good to them. Up to and including mass murder, if it’s convenient.

Flannagan’s Floundering

In a footnote (“On the Facts,” p. 211, n. 8) I took to task a straw man fallacy in Flannagan—which he still denies is a straw man. But alas, it is. My reconstruction reflects the actual intended meaning of Sinnott-Armstrong. Flannagan just won’t admit he failed to charitably represent his argument as intended. Instead, as I explained:

Flannagan’s handwaving about the meaning of the word “makes” [in respect to what “makes” something moral] is thus completely off point …. When Armstrong says “reason [r] is what makes rape morally wrong” he simply means “r is the reason rape is morally wrong.” Thus “r is what makes rape morally wrong” simply means “rape is morally wrong when r.” God is in the same position as any other moral agent: looking for a reason why he should declare an act immoral. What answers this question for God, answers the same question for any other moral agent. God is therefore superfluous. And if morality is not to be arbitrary, God cannot say “because God commands it” is r; therefore rape cannot be wrong because God commands it.

Flannagan tries to avoid this by insisting God has reasons that don’t compel rape to be immoral but just, sort of, kind of suggest, or something, that maybe God should decide it’s immoral. For some reason. (Which would be r. But Flannagan is chasing his tail here, so bear with me.)

In his own words (“Arbitrariness Objection“), my emphasis:

If by moral ground, he means the existence of some antecedent moral requirement for God to command as he does, then the divine command theorist will deny that God has a moral ground for his commands, seeing moral requirements just are divine commands there are no moral obligations prior to God’s commanding. The problem for Carrier is that construed this way it doesn’t follow that his commands are arbitrary. To be arbitrary God would have to lack any reason for his commands. But the fact one is not obligated to do something does not mean one has no reason at all to do it. Carrier here conflates lacking a reason for doing something with lacking a moral obligation to do it.

This is the most confounding nonsense I’ve ever read in moral theory. If God is not obligated to declare rape immoral, then by definition his doing so is arbitrary. That is what it means to make an arbitrary decision as to what will be moral or not. Arbitrary does not mean “flipped a coin and picked at random.” Arbitrary means picked for reasons unrelated to the issue. If God chooses what will be moral based simply on what he wants, for example, then that is arbitrary. He still has “a reason” (his happenstance desires). But that reason does not morally ground the decision.

And that’s by Flannagan’s own admission! Flannagan is saying God has no moral ground for his decision as to what is moral. If he did, that ground would then exist without God—and DCT would be false. But if God has no moral ground for deciding what will or won’t be moral, then he may have reasons for picking one thing over another (maybe his random aesthetic preferences; maybe he lost a bet at poker with Satan) but those won’t be moral reasons. In other words, having a ground is not the same thing as having a moral ground. Hannibal Lecter has “a ground” (a reason) to kill and eat people. That does not make killing and eating people moral. Even if it turned out Hannibal were God.

Flannagan tries to escape this problem by insisting God is a nice guy, so his desires will just happen to line up with what is good. But that betrays a belief that something can be judged good independently of God. Otherwise, Flannagan must obey the moral commands of Hannibal, if he should be God. Or the OT demon, if the Bible should turn out to be true. Or any thing the whims and (by definition on DCT) amoral desires of God happened to wish for, given that God is not obligated to wish anything immoral. If even God is under no moral obligation (and there is no other ground for morality apart from him), then it follows moral obligation does not exist. Just the arbitrary whims of whichever God happens to exist, and whatever he just happens to want at any given time.

Why Flannagan would think this is a good idea is truly frightening. He would march to the gestapo step of Hitler himself, if God turned out to be, in fact, exactly who Hitler imagined. And this Flannagan thinks is a hot recommendation for moral theory? That Flannagan can give no reason to reject and defy an abhorrent God, is precisely what renders his moral theory morally bankrupt. It is simply a glove into which any evil can slip its hand. Unless Flannagan must insist that the commands of God are only moral if God is loving and just. But that then refutes DCT: by admitting that what follows from being “loving and just” is moral without God commanding it so. Otherwise, God can command that the “cruel and unjust” be moral, and Flannagan would obey. Which is terrifying. Because that is precisely the scary infantile moral reasoning Sinnott-Armstrong was also alarmed by. It means DCT advocates are always just one step away from committing any evil. All they need decide is that God wants it. Done.

The only way to escape this scary fact about himself, Flannagan must admit that “loving and just” decisions are moral decisions regardless of whether a God commands it so. Because only then can Flannagan justify defying the commands of a cruel and unjust God. Flannagan never understands this. And thus never addresses it. He again simply isn’t rebutting anything I actually said. And it should be quite obvious he can have no rebuttal.

In similar fashion, all of his other attempts to rebut me simply fail to address what I actually said. And indeed, my summary of it above acts as adequate rebuttal to all of Flannagan’s new attempts to rescue DCT.

For example, in “Ethical Supernaturalism,” Flannagan says:

Carrier’s first objection is that “we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God.” This objection misses its target. I emphasized repeatedly in my paper that I was rebutting objections to a conditional proposition. The contention is that: If God exists then a divine command theory is plausible account of the nature of moral obligation.

I cannot believe Flannagan thinks this is a rebuttal. My point was that DCT fails precisely because he can’t establish the condition! Now he admits the condition can’t be established? That concedes my point. If you can’t establish the condition, you have failed to establish its consequence. The consequence. You know. DCT.

Realizing he just hosed himself, he tries to salvage something useful out of admitting he supplied no evidence for his hypothesis, by arguing that it’s useful the other way around: “If the best account of the nature of moral obligations is that those obligations are God’s commands, then the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for the existence of God.” How it does not occur to him, that the inability to identify any moral command as a command from God, refutes this very statement, is beyond me. If we can identify no commandment as from God, then it cannot be the case that “God commanded it” is the best account of where that commandment came from. To the contrary. We have already far better accounts: Men made them up. They did so for various reasons. Sometimes from false superstitious beliefs (“Kill witches to protect the little babies from their spells!”). Sometimes from bigoted revulsion (“Kill the homos!”). And sometimes, just sometimes, from a genuine desire to make society work better so it will be nicer for everyone including the moral agent, and then even from a correct observation of the behavior that does that. Which is, after all, the actual function of morality as a tool of civilization.

This is why Flannagan thinks “loving and just” decisions are so good. Because they make the world good for him. And they do so without being so obviously privileged and self-centered that everyone would laugh in his face for suggesting they kowtow to his wishes in such a fashion. Rather, they make the world good for him, because they make the world good for everybody. And being the only set of behaviors that work well to that end is precisely what makes them moral. Flannagan is an Ethical Naturalist and doesn’t even know it. This is most surprising since none of his morality comes from any discernible divine source. It all comes from human inventions, and inventions that made the world better for everyone, which is why everyone (or everyone of sense) is on board with them, like women voting, not keeping slaves, or not punishing rapists by legally ordering them to continue raping their victims (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Flannagan not being able to think this through, exhibits precisely the infantilism Sinnott-Armstrong was warning against.

As I commented for Loftus in The Christian Delusion (p. 101), “any rational would-be rapist who acquired full and correct information about how raped women feel, and what sort of person he becomes if he ignores a person’s feelings and welfare, and all of the actual consequences of such behavior to himself and his society, then he would agree that raping such a woman is wrong.” DCT distracts anyone from ever going through those steps of reasoning. It thus distracts anyone from ever developing into a good adult person, an autonomous agent who thinks critically and does what’s right because they want to, not because they were told to. Flannagan almost sees the glimmer of this light, when he realizes there is something good about the decisions of a “loving and just” person, but he simply can’t work out what it is about being loving and just that makes it good or commendable. It’s a complete mystery to him.

Flannagan is just lucky his God is loving and just I guess. Even though, we don’t know that. Flannagan just wishes it be so. Because the OT God is not loving and just. And even Jesus comes across as a mentally deranged jerk (Mark 11:12-25) who doesn’t know how societies work (Matthew 5:38–42, if actually adhered to, would result in the surrender of civilization to any tyranny; it in effect guarantees all nations would be Iran) or that germs exist (Mark 7:1-22). Not someone I’d be taking advice from. But even Flannagan would agree, that all this is a-o-k, as long as he can be convinced God is loving and just. Which he just conceded he cannot present any evidence of. Because he’s just stating a conditional, you see. Holy moly.

I won’t fisk the rest. It’s already rebutted by my points in the previous two sections. I trust any sensible person can see how.


For a complete ground-up defense of my moral worldview, see Sense and Goodness without God. After ten years, that book still holds up. I’d at most make a few minor tweaks and corrections. And no atheist has produced anything like it since. It remains the only comprehensive defense of a non-supernatural worldview in print, going all the way from semantics and epistemology to physics and metaphysics, to ethics, metaethics, aesthetics, and basic political theory.

My moral theory itself, taking the groundwork of epistemology and other essentials as given, is grounded formally in my peer reviewed paper in TEC—so those who want the formal peer reviewed model still need to start there. Flannagan shows no signs of having read it. He does not appear to know anything of my moral theory. Despite attempting to critique it. His critique is so wildly off the mark, the article in TEC is already an adequate rebuttal. So anyone who wants to explore that debate further, will also have to start there. But for the fully worked out system of why we should believe these things, and how we can understand and navigate the world accurately, without relying on “conditional” statements about ghosts and magic and sky spirits, SAG remains the place to start on that.


  1. Authoritarian psychology is like a thing for us as a social, tribalistic species and so when that sense of authority gets stuck in the mud of religion their thinkers seem to get too deep a sense that “this God guy just has to be necessary to a moral theory for reasons.” Seems to create a straightforward false intuition for them that their rational powers won’t correct for.

  2. humesapprentice October 8, 2015, 11:47 pm

    They just never quit do they? We atheists should point out the holes in the Christian/Muslim/Jewish arguments, but I don’t think it’s worth our time to respond when the conversation runs past a certain point, that is, not when the theist has gone far past the point of reason. I remember when Matthew Ferguson debated Nick Peters. Ferguson hosed him. And yet a couple days later Peters wrote on his blog that he thought Ferguson hadn’t made any good arguments. So some people never learn. What we should do is try to reach people who can learn, and only respond to theists to the extent that the teachable people need.

    1. I agree. But I can’t take full credit for it. It’s my adaptation of the proverb “apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand,” which I heard a character repeat in a movie, and which the internet says was coined by author Bodie Thoene (I don’t know in which of his works).

  3. Paul Doland October 9, 2015, 8:25 am

    “Which is that DCT doesn’t explain why it’s good to be loving and just, and bad not to be.”

    I thought that in DCT, it is considered definitional. In DCT, whatever God says is good and moral, is so by definition. If God is Hanibal Lector and defines killing and eating people as moral, it is by definition.

    Which reminds me of the William Lane Craig/Sam Harris debate where WLC complained that SH simply defined good and moral as that which furthers the well being of sentient beings, or something like that. Almost laughable that WLC would complain about somebody else seemingly defining away a problem. When, in fact, it can be reasonably demonstrated that WLC uses the same definition, except when arguing that he doesn’t. LOL.

    1. I thought that in DCT, it is considered definitional. In DCT, whatever God says is good and moral, is so by definition. If God is Hanibal Lector and defines killing and eating people as moral, it is by definition.

      Yep. That is correct. And it’s precisely the problem Sinnott-Armstrong calls it out on. Because this actually is the absence of a moral ground; it renders even its own morality inaccessible; and it can justify any horror.

      Flannagan struggles desperately not to admit those three things. Even though they are quite obviously and inescapably true.

  4. The best defenses of DCT I’ve encountered focused on obligation rather than morality; that is, a divine command creates a duty to behave morally that would not otherwise exist. I don’t think that helps very much, but the question of motive to persevere in moral behavior when moral behavior leads to results that are personally harmful (even if overall beneficial to others) is a significant one, and DCT does a fairly good job of addressing it.

    The idea of morality being rooted in God’s nature imo implies the rejection of DCT; God’s commands are definitionally good in such a model, yes, but they’re good because they accord with his nature, not because he gave them. The problem with that is that most Christians want to assert that God is “worthy of worship,” and that requires some standard outside of God.

    1. I don’t think that helps very much

      No. Indeed. It doesn’t. And not only because duties can only be justified by values. Which gets us back to what moral values justify those duties over others.

      But also because duties don’t exist if there is no reason to obey them. And DCT either gives no motivation (no reason to care about those duties over others) or a motivation that lacks any moral ground (do what I say or I’ll torture you forever, which is “might makes right,” generally admitted to be the exact opposite of moral validation).

      And on the latter, DCT makes morality unknowable (owing to God’s lack of communication as to what duties he will torture us for not fulfilling, or even if he will torture us or how) and thus fabricated (men actually just invent duties and claim they come from God, when in fact they just want to manipulate the public into doing their own human will).

      And also on the latter DCT makes morality derived from human desire (since the commands are only “moral” in any sense because we don’t want to be tortured forever—if instead we’d prefer to be tortured forever than obey those duties, the duties cease to have any motivation and thus cease to be “true,” as in, there can be no true sense in which we ought to obey them), which admits that morality is simply what satisfies a human’s greatest desire, which is ethical naturalism (once you delete the fantastical and unevidenced stuff about invisible faerie kingdoms where we will be blessed or cursed after death).

  5. lreadl October 9, 2015, 1:54 pm

    At the same time I was reading through this post, I got an item in my G+ feed from Massimo Pigliucci that discusses more or less the same issue. That article refers to (and refutes) an argument from Robert Merrihew Adams which seems to be similar to Flannigan’s. The article can be found here Any thoughts?

    BTW, as I read Dr. Pigliucci’s postings, more and more, I am intrigued by his adoption of Modern Stoicism as a personal philosophy and, again, would appreciate your take.

    Thank you.

    1. That’s more muddled and less thorough a treatment of the subject, IMO.

      As to “Modern Stoicism,” I haven’t studied his development of that so I can’t comment conclusively. It doesn’t sound sensible to me; this is the 21st century, everything has changed in the last two thousand years about the facts since the Stoics, and correct philosophy is a consequence of facts. The Stoics were also supernaturalists and panentheists, so obviously Pigliucci must be doing considerable violence to their philosophy to adapt it for a science-based atheism. For both reasons, any sound philosophy today would have to be unrecognizable to the Stoics of old. Based on his summary here, it is actually only vaguely Stoic as the Stoics understood it, and it sounds like another arbitrary Manmade Tradition, no different from, and no more scientifically validated than, choosing to live life by the precepts of Epicurus or Aristotle or Paine or Franklin or Confucius or Chung or Tzu or any other random armchair constructor of what they are sure is the one true way for everyone, without scientific confirmation of any of its assumptions (about human desires and needs, about the neurological construction of personality and moral character, and so on). But I have to be fair. I don’t have the time to thoroughly vet it. So maybe he accomplishes the amazing and scientifically backs everything as indeed the best account of these things. I’m just skeptical at first look.

  6. Adults reason differently: they won’t murder and rape anyone because they care about them.

    It seems to me (and my understanding is that this isn’t a million miles from your general point, exemplified by the quote) that any attempt to establish morality as originating entirely from outside the self leads immediately to absurdity.

    To this, I’d add that the trivial amount of reasoning needed to expose this absurdity may be a major cause of failure of traditional (and still very prevalent) moral teaching. By dogmatically insisting that being moral has no self-serving component, yet being unable (by design!) to give any reason why we should behave morally, does society not shoot itself in the foot? Isn’t the person who recognises the absurdity of the traditional dogma immediately left with no external moral guidance whatsoever?

    Would society not benefit greatly if we simply told our children the non-obviously-absurd truth that to be good is to do what it takes to make the world better for yourself, and that in the overwhelming majority of cases, this involves cooperating with he rest of society?

    I discussed this problem in an essay last year:,
    in a subsection entitled “Honesty as a Meta-Virtue.” I’d be interested in whether or not you agree with my analysis.

    1. By dogmatically insisting that being moral has no self-serving component, yet being unable (by design!) to give any reason why we should behave morally, does society not shoot itself in the foot?

      Sort of.

      This has created a serious block against progress in philosophy for sure. This is a common cognitive error in the field: the conflation of self-interest with selfishness. Those are not the same things. In technical parlance, this is confusing egoism with egotism. This blocks progress by failing to admit that altruism is logically impossible, and therefore futile to search a justification for. Yet all the energy devoted to seeking the non-existent consumes time that should be spent seeking the real motivations to be unselfish. So not only does it block progress by sending philosophers on a wild goose chase; while they are chasing impossible geese, they also aren’t making the advances in moral theory they would otherwise be.

      No one sacrifices themselves for no reason. And the reason is always personal to them. For example, if you sacrifice yourself to save your friend, or your country, you are pursuing your desires: you value your friend/country more than the short remainder of your own life. That is self-interest. You simply rank what you value and act on what you want. It is only not selfish, since it does put others before yourself. More common and less extreme examples resolve at the level of sharing and other cooperative and prosocial behaviors, for example, which are also self-interested but not selfish.

      To realize that altruism, as often defined anyway, is a logical impossibility (because no one acts without an internal motivation; therefore anything that could ever be called altruistic can only ever be in fact the pursuit of one’s own desires) frees you to start exploring what actually makes the difference between selfish and unselfish behavior, as in, why one would desire the latter for themselves. Which of course is the only way to ever motivate anyone to be unselfish: you have to give them a reason, which fulfills some desire they have, which exceeds in importance to them the selfish alternative. That is simply an inescapable fact of psychology; indeed, an a priori fact of any sentient being (since by definition a sentient being can only act for no reason or an internal reason; the former is accidental behavior and thus pointless; the latter is self-interest, by definition).

      Meanwhile, I don’t have time to vet your essay, but a quick skim leads me to suspect I more or less agree with it. And it looks like an analysis worth reading for anyone at more leisure.

    2. Richard, thanks for considering my comment.
      I know that dealing with comments comes at a cost for you, but I would like to emphasise something about my earlier remarks.

      You rightly observe that

      This has created a serious block against progress in philosophy for sure.

      I agree with all your points that follow, but my thoughts were primarily directed at more of a grass-roots level.

      My tentative hypothesis is that moral education that insists on a non-self-serving thesis makes it easier for individuals to deviate significantly from an optimal moral path. This is by virtue of (i) the thesis failing to make any sense whatsoever, and (ii) the thesis needlessly failing to appeal to self interest. Those who struggle to evaluate how their needs are best served, find it easier to reject the rules (and commit crimes), because the real advantages of the rules have never been explained to them, in favour of some dogmatic hog-wash, that amounts to, “just shut up and do as I say.”

      The truth status of my hypothesis comes, of course, from the real world, and not from anybody’s armchair, but I’m inclined to think we won’t lose much by adopting it.


      1. That general thesis I agree with, and have argued before (for example, in my critique of the Shermer-Pigliucci row, in the conclusion of my chapter in End of Christianity, especially before that in my note about AI, and in my rebuttal to Moreland on this point in Sense and Goodness without God, and my popular blog long ago on Darla the She-Goat).

        And good (secular) values education does indeed do this (i.e. it doesn’t just command obedience to a stated set of values; rather, it explains why you would want to; and that is based on actual pedagogical science which has studied the stages if moral development in children).

        You argue more specific things than just that in that article, though. Which might also be correct.

  7. Unless [theists] covertly adopt a naturalistic moral theory (and most do), they are not actually moral people. They are minions.

    This makes me think of those yellow, be-goggled critters from Despicable Me. Those things are called minions. Heh.

    Hold on a tick… minions love bananas… Ray Comfort loves bananas…

  8. Fanboy October 10, 2015, 3:39 pm

    Dear Dr. Carrier, PhD

    i was fortunate enough to have the honor of being a contemporary witness of history-in-the-making by being able to read your remarkable chapter “‘Moral Facts Naturally Exist (And Science Could Find Them)”.

    It is a game-changer, it is unique in its unparalleled brilliance, philosophical rigor and analytical sharpness.

    It must have, at least, taken four professors to peer-review it, a lesser number would be inadequate and, quite frankly, an insult.
    I will say that, indeed, if resurrections were possible, Plato and Aristotle should have been among those fortunate individuals to first get a hold of it.
    But, then again, we know resurrections aren’t possible; after all; we belong to the intellectual elite.

    It is a curious instance of an improbable event that a PhD historian should be able to prove to the point of absolute certainty, that naturalistic moral realism is true, but, nevertheless, it happened.
    Thousands of years of philosophical inquiry couldn’t do it, thousands of philosophers failed and caved in to their delusions, but then, Richard Carrier, PhD, appeared on the stage and the rest is history….

    I guess the story of an unknown patent clerk, if he even existed, initiating a revolution in the world of physics has now been reduced to a mere footnote in the history of intellectual inquiry; a candle in the sun, as they say.

    It can be, and therefor is, no coincidence that this glorious chapter, proving the truth of naturalistic moral realism, appeared in a book that will soon eclipse every effort made by those who devote their life to the deification of their beloved sky-fairies.

    A book edited by none other than the intellectual giant known to the world by the name of John W. Loftus, titled “The end of Christianity”

    The idea that a PhD historian who begs to sleep on random people’s couches and a guy with several theology degrees who makes a living by cleaning carpets should be the end of a 2000 year old world religion seems improbable, but hey, improbable events happen all the time.

    After all, you, PhD, have now succeeded in proving naturalistic moral realism, refuting the teleological argument for all time to come, kicking the C.H.U.D.S. back into the sewer, proving Jesus didn’t exist, proving the concept of ‘nothingness’ logically entails universes popping into existence, toe-fucking various women while getting blown, refuting the argument from reason once and for all and participating in a scientific experiment to determine whether or not it is possible to not spill your drink while getting penetrated. Breath-taking.

    Oh yeah, not to forget, combining Relativity and Quantum Theory. It’s just that, no physicist wanted to look over your proposed solution, but dont worry, they will once your genius shines through (in the next couple of months)

    So then, whats the next step?

    Riemann-Hypothesis? Too trivial, i guess

    Warp-drive? Who cares?

    Cancer cure ? Maybe…

    Everlasting peace on earth ?? Just spread your moral theory, that will do the trick…

    And dont worry about the dissidents who occasionally criticize you like Jeff Lowder, Luke Barnes (kook), Thom Stark (probably kook), Tim McGrew (sky-fairy Gestapo), Massimo Pigliucci (obviously kook), Bart Ehrman (kook, stupid, probably sky-fairy Gestapo) or Victor Reppert (sky-fairy Gestapo).

    These people are, as it can be seen above, either worldview-fascists or no true Stalinists… i mean atheists….

    And those detractors from the atheist-community?

    I admire you for the way you stood up to these rapists at whatever conference that was, disowning them and preaching the virtues of respect for women and honesty which you completely embodied in your role as former husband.

    And the way you talk to these people on your blog makes me suggest you pursue maybe an acting-career…

    Let me tell you this, as soon somebody is searching an actor for the role in a movie portraying the wonderful Roland Freisler i will let you know…

  9. “Theists are essentially the unquestioning gestapo of whatever monster manufactured the universe. Or rather, whatever monster some men made up and duped them into thinking it made the universe. Which means, they are essentially the gestapo of whatever random ignorant madmen wrote their scriptures and now thumps their pulpits with sufficiently fiery claims of special divine communications at bedtime.”

    I thought a Columbia PhD in ancient history would proffer serious, astute, mature and intellectually honest conclusions at least in this context. Humor doesn’t describe the work either, it is so rudimentary. I was hoping for something genuinely stimulating and insightful.

  10. And lest we forget, that’s the Jesus who has nothing to say against slavery or the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women or the execution of homosexuals, other than, at best, that you shouldn’t invite sluts and homos to legally murder the sluts and homos because that would be hypocritical (John 7:52-8:11, a forgery)

    Do you want to learn how much you’ve got wrong, Richard? I mean no offense. Yet, remarkably, you know so little about god and jesus. You aren’t alone. Many who become the most fervent followers were the most misinformed about this one with whom we have to do. Saul for one, couldn’t see until he couldn’t see. Dylan almost died before he came to love the one who just couldn’t be. We are commanded to love him above all and others as ourselves. How could anyone in his right mind expect us to love above all others someone who cannot be known?

    To refute a fiction, an absurd, ridiculous, preposterous fictitious account of some dude, who was supposedly god, shouldn’t be an all-consuming, life long task. It shouldn’t be that hard, not if it is all just 100% bologna, should it?

  11. “[Whenever morality] is based on theology, whenever the right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established… To derive anything from God is nothing more than to withdraw it from the test of reason, to institute it as indubitable, unassailable, sacred, without rendering an account of why.”

    — Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (1841)

  12. John MacDonald October 11, 2015, 3:51 pm

    I’ve always found “moral relativism” an interesting take on ethics. It helps to explain how certain cultures have practiced cannibalism, and why the ancient Romans could have fed the Christians to lions in the arena for the fun of the spectators.

    1. John MacDonald October 11, 2015, 7:50 pm

      Relativism is important because it recognizes that something isn’t “objectively wrong” just because it “offends” us. The fact that something offends us just indicates the nature of the interaction between the event and our subjective prejudices. It in no way indicates that the event runs counter to some “moral absolute.” And as Derrida said, it is the same with truth. The fact that you are “certain” about a proposition in no way indicates the objective “being-true” of that proposition. Certainty is a subjective psychological state, and may be completely unrelated to the truth of a proposition. We have all been certain about things we later concluded to be false.

      1. Moral facts can still be objectively true on relativism. This is a common confusion. If moral facts are relative to, for example, the biology of bodies (e.g. bullets kill them), and they are (e.g. if bullets didn’t harm anyone, shooting people would not be immoral), moral facts are still objectively true. Because biology is objectively true. And so is the hierarchy of values in an individual’s mind (because the physical brain structure entails that, and is third-party observable). The converse of objective is not relative, but subjective; and morality is only not subjective in the sense of “how I feel is what is true” is not true. Morality still is objectively entailed by subjectively accessible facts (e.g. what you desire; what hurts you). But the rest of what you note is correct.

      1. No, that’s not moral relativism, that’s factual error. People who believe false things about themselves and the world will obviously react differently to events than people who believe true things.

        One must not confuse descriptive with prescriptive ethics. That people have different morals is descriptive, not prescriptive. Descriptive ethics is anthropology. Prescriptive ethics is moral philosophy.

        Moral relativism is the philosophical theory that moral facts are true relative to the situation of the agent (their culture perhaps, or their differing values, or, as is even hypocritically accepted by moral absolutists, their circumstances, e.g. murder vs. self-defense; needing oxygen to live). Cultural relativism is the scientific fact that different cultures have different moral systems. The latter says nothing about whether those systems are true.

  13. John MacDonald October 11, 2015, 8:35 pm

    There are so many “portraits” of Jesus, such as Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change. Each of these portraits explain the agreed upon evidence, and try to explain away the evidence that is apparently recalcitrant to their particular portrait. The “mythic” portrait of Jesus is just another one of these. The problem is that the agreed upon evidence is so scant that we are basically guessing when we try to extrapolate “the big picture” from the agreed upon evidence.

  14. John MacDonald October 12, 2015, 3:37 pm

    What makes an act “immoral?” Is there any distinction between “bad,” “immoral,” and “evil?” How do we make the move from characterizing an act as “subjectively offensive,” to characterizing it as “objectively wrong?” And how do we go beyond “acting friendly” to “acting moral?” Is there a distinction between “friendly” and “moral?” Is “being moral” just akin to “being a good friend?”

  15. Giuseppe October 13, 2015, 2:43 am

    Hi Richard,
    I have read the book Why the World Does Not Exist of Markus Gabriel where the author argues a case for what he calls ‘New Realism’. About God, as his proof goes, if the World (the Being, not the universe) doesn’t exist, then a Creator God cannot exist.
    What do you think about this ‘New Realism’?
    According to Gabriel Vacariu, it would seem the revolutionary discovery in philosophy from Cartesius on:

    … I showed that the world does not exist so, except Einstein’s theory of relativity, everything was wrong: all approaches in philosophy of mind, everything in cognitive neuroscience (in my books from 2012 and 2014, I proved this “science” is a pseudo-science), quantum mechanics (all its alternatives are wrong), all definitions of life in biology, God and infinity cannot exist (simply, human mind inventions), etc. I replaced all these wrong theories, approaches and with my EDWs perspective, the new paradigm of thinking.
    Do you are impressed?


  16. Giuseppe October 14, 2015, 3:53 am

    Which is the difference between what does dr. Avalos (by writing The Bad Jesus) and what did the pagan Celsus (by writing ‘True Discourse”) ?
    I see that both apparently are deriving their anti-Jesus charges basing only on Gospels, but Avalos is Jesus Agnostic while Celsus, it’s often said, was ‘historicist’.

    But could Celsus be historicist only when he did polemize against Jesus by listing his Gospel-based moral defects? Could Celsus be a mythicist when he did assume, for pure sake of discussion, the Christian truth that Jesus was really an angel?

    “Let us then pass over the refutations which might be adduced against the claims of their teacher, and let him be regarded as really an angel. But is he the first and only one who came (to men), or were there others before him? If they should say that he is the only one, they would be convicted of telling lies against themselves.” (Origen, Contra Celsum, 5:52, my bold)

    1. Celsus had only the Gospels as a source, and no modern methods, nor a modern understanding of the psychology and anthropology of religion. So, that’s why Celsus and Avalos would differ on this.

      And note that the passage you cite goes on to make clear Celsus means a historical Jesus was an angel, and Origen agrees with him, arguing only that Jesus was (is) the supreme angel. Celsus has not heard from any ahistoricist sects. He only knows the sects using the canonical Gospels (and the Book of Enoch). The Gospels are his only source. And though he regards them as fabrications, he assumes they are fabrications about their subject as founder. And he assumes that because he has no access to any relevant facts, and thus draws on his primitive assumptions about what he thought was normal in his day regarding mythologized holy men (Celsus is an honest Euhemerist: he believes all mythical gods were once real historical persons, including Hercules, Asclepius, and Orpheus, cf. 7.53).


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