Thoughts about Plantinga’s Interesting Paper on “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation, and Supervenience”

I’ve been studying Plantinga’s very interesting paper, “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation, and Supervenience.” (See here for Ex-Apologist’s very brief post about it.) Plantinga’s stated goal is to show that metaphysical naturalism cannot accommodate realism about moral obligation by "displaying the failure of the most natural way of arguing" that metaphysical naturalism can accommodate moral realism, viz., supervenience.


There are many things about this paper which I find interesting.

First, unlike William Lane Craig, Plantinga directly interacts with some of the strongest cases for naturalistic moral realism, such as those provided by David Brink and Peter Railton.

Second, Plantinga concedes what many critics of moral arguments (ranging from Richard Swinburne to Michael Martin) have argued, viz., that moral properties do supervene on nonmoral properties. Indeed, Plantinga argues that moral properties strongly supervene on nonmoral (or descriptive) properties and so the two are, in some sense, equivalent.

Third, (in footnote 14) Plantinga makes the interesting (and, IMO, correct) observation that theism does not entail that there be such a thing as moral obligation, since theism does not entail that there be created rational agents. Rather, he says, “what is necessary is that if there are rational agents, there is such a thing as moral obligation.”

Fourth, he argues that the supervenience of moral properties on nonmoral properties (hereafter, SMPNMP) is logically compatible with the truth of divine command ethics. This is significant, he says, since divine command ethics is one of the options. Thus, even if a moral obligation is equivalent to some naturalistic property P, it could also be the case that P is equivalent to the property, “being such that it is an essential property of God to command all persons to perform it.”

This is arguably the most important (and most interesting) part of the entire paper. In his words, “To show that obligation is naturalistic, one must find a naturalistic property that is much more tightly connected with obligation; mere equivalence isn’t sufficient.” Plantinga thinks SMPNMP is an insoluble problem for metaphysical naturalism conjoined with moral realism: in his words, “one can’t show that rightness is naturalistically acceptable by finding a naturalistic property to which it is equivalent.”

If, like me, you find these things interesting, then you’ll want to read his paper for yourself.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    Hi, Jeffery,

    I had posted (in the comment threads of some previous posts) some arguments that were relevant to some of the matters at hand (in particular, I had commented on the supervenience of moral properties on properties described involving only non-moral
    terms, as well as a critique of Moore’s Open Question Argument(OQA)), but it seems the posts didn’t make it through the transition.

    Anyway, while it’s clear that (assuming moral realism), showing that there is a necessary equivalence (assuming moral realism) between moral properties and properties
    described in non-moral terms does not really tell us much about, well, anything, Plantinga’s argument has several problems, such as:

    1. There is the serious issue of the vagueness of ‘naturalism’, ‘naturalistic property’, etc. In particular, Plantinga does not explain what counts as a naturalistic property.

    2. Plantinga seems to assume that there is a burden on the naturalist (using the term as Plantinga does, which is vague) to show that somehow (quoting Plantinga) “show that naturalism can accommodate prima facie obligation by showing that there is a naturalistic property equivalent to prima facie obligation. (Henceforth I’ll take ‘obligation’ to mean ‘prima facie obligation’.)”

    But that seems to assume that (among other things), prima facie it’s not the case that moral obligation (or more precisely, moral obligatoriness) is naturalistic, but other properties are prima facie naturalistic. But Plantinga has not shown that. He would have to clarify what he means for a property to be ‘naturalistic’ and explain why it would not be the case that moral obligatoriness is such a property.

    3.Plantinga tries to raise a dilemma: on sparcism, it might be that moral obligation
    (i.e., moral obligatoriness) is identical to being commanded by God, etc., so that’s a problem for the naturalist, and on abundantism, there is allegedly another problem.

    So, let’s consider the cases:

    3.1. Sparcism.

    On sparcism, the problem would similarly be for the theist to show that moral obligatoriness is a non-naturalistic property (whatever that means, assuming that Plantinga’s usage of the word ‘naturalistic property’ is coherent).

    The theist would have to show that moral obligatoriness is a non-naturalistic property, and for that it seems she would have to show that God (or something like it) exists necessarily, among other things.

    Then aturalist might show that it’s naturalistic, itseems to me, by showing that God does not exist. But someone might say ‘well, but if God did not exist, then there would be no moral obligations’; yet, Plantinga has not argued for that.

    Moreover, the objection that Plantinga raises on sparcism does not seem related
    to morality at all.

    For that matter, a theist might say that the naturalist has failed to show that, under sparcism, the property of being a prime natural number is not the same as the property of being such that God knows that it’s not divisible by any smaller natural number other than 1.

    3.2. On abundantism, it’s apparent that no property described in non-moral terms is equivalent to a property described in moral terms. But again, that does not mean that moral obligatoriness is not ‘naturalistic’. It merely means that it’s not the same as a property described in non-moral terms.

    Plantinga resorts to Moore’s OQA here. But again, for that matter, someone might say that greenness is not a naturalistic property on abundantism just because there is no property described in non-color terms that is equivalent to it on abundantism.

    All that aside, if one accepted Plantinga’s line of argument against moral realism on naturalism is cogent, then despite Plantinga’s claim, that’s a problem for the theist as well, since:

    a. On sparcism, then the theist would have to show that moral
    obligatoriness is not a naturalistic property (why
    not?)

    b. On the other hand, if abundantism is true, it’s apparent that moral obligation is not the
    same property as any property involving God’s commands. After all, one may well
    believe that Bob has a moral obligation not to torture Tom for fun, without believing that God issued any commands. Or a person may believe that God has a moral obligation to make himself known to some of his creatures, without believing that God commanded God to make himself known to them.

    So, on abundantism, it would not be the case that moral obligations just are God’s commands. The property of being commanded by God and the property of being morally obligatory (i.e., moral obligatoriness) would clearly be different properties.

    Plantinga seems to realize that, but still claims that this is not a problem for theistic accounts. He contends that “the theist holds that an act is obligatory because God enjoins it, but it is not the case that God enjoins an act because it is obligatory.”

    But that raises (among others) the question:

    How does God’s commands explain moral obligation?

    In other words, Plantinga claims that God’s commands (or God’s will, in his words) are explanatory prior to moral obligatoriness. But that does not seem to be the case. How does “God commands not to torture people for fun” explain that every moral agent has a moral obligation not to torture people for fun?

    It’s not that they are the same property. It’s not that the claim is analytical (unless ‘God’ is defined in a way that makes it analytical, but that results in other problems), so how is God’s purported command an explanation at all of the moral obligation not to torture people for fun?

    That does not appear to be an explanation at all.

    In other words, even if God exists and issues commands, and there are also moral obligations, and even if necessarily, whenever A has a moral obligation to Y, then also God commands A to Y, there seems to be no explanation on Plantinga’s account as to why there is such a moral obligation (despite Plantinga’s claim), and God’s command does not seem to explain anything.

    Moreover, what would explain the moral obligation to obey God’s
    commands?
    .

    Surely, not a command by God. So, what is it?

  • Noctambulant Joycean

    Thanks for pointing me to the paper. Worth reading.

    Before even reading it and just seeing your summary, I don’t see how Plantinga’s argument gets off the ground. If strong supervenience implies that moral properties (including moral obligations) can be instantiated even if God does not exist, then the naturalist has won the day. After all, for multiply realizable properties, there could be many ways in which said property was instantiated. So we’d expect a supervenience relationship via constitution as opposed to via identity. But that scarcely shows the property is question is non-natural, anymore than the multiple realizability of the property referred to by the term “interacts with human”, implies that the referenced property is non-natural or somehow a problem for natural. This is the case, even if the property could be realized in situations with a commanding God. Same point for moral properties.


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