Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Infantile Religious Morality

In “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” Walter Sinnott Armstrong criticises William Lane Craig’s contention that theism, if true, provides an adequate foundation for morality. Armstrong contends that Craig’s position is “incredible”[1] and subject to a “cavalcade of devastating objections.”[2] He goes on to conclude that his criticisms do not just call into question Craig’s argument for a theistic based system of ethics, he contends that his arguments are conclusive against any theistic account of ethics that is compatible with Christianity. He states, “Other theists might try to give better arguments for a religious view of morality, I don’t see how they could avoid all the problems in Craig’s account without leaving traditional Christianity far behind.”[3]

In several posts (see the related posts below) I have criticised some of the arguments Armstrong makes in this article. In this post I want to turn to another. The claim that “divine command theory makes morality childish;” Armstrong states,

A second objection is that the divine command theory makes morality childish. Compare a small boy who thinks that what makes it morally wrong for him to hit his little sister is only that his parents  told him not to hit her and will punish him if he hits her. As a result, this little boy thinks that, if his parents leave home or die, then there is nothing wrong with hitting his little sister. Maybe some little boys think this way, but surely we adults do not think that morality is anything like this.[4]

Its worth noting that Armstrong’s sketch is something of a caricature; the picture is of a little boy who thinks hitting is wrong because his parents will punish him if he engages in hitting. This tacitly implies that divine command theorists believe that actions are wrong because God will issue punishments to us if we do them. No divine command theorist to my knowledge holds this view. What we typically hold is that an action is wrong for a person to perform if a perfectly good, omniscient being (identified as God) commands that person to refrain from the action in question. The fear of punishment does not come into it.

This point, however, is largely tangential because the heart of Armstrong’s position appears to be based on three ideas.

[1] That some children see morality as dependent on the commands of their parents.
[2] That it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent.
[3] That the conception of morality proposed by a divine command theorist is analogous to basing morality on the commands of a parent.

Hence, divine command morality is infantile or childish.

In responding to this line of argument, it is worth noting Armstrong’s argument is not new. In fact, it simply summarises an early argument made by Patrick Nowell-Smith in his widely-anthologised essay Morality: Religious and Secular. In this article all three of Armstrong’s premises are defended in more detail than Armstrong provides in the short paragraph above. I think that by critically examining Smith’s argument one can see the problems with Armstrong’s.

Like Armstrong, Nowell-Smith argued, “religious morality is infantile.”[5] Similarly, like Armstrong, it is clear that Nowell-Smith’s target was a divine command theory.[6] Nowell-Smith’s thesis is that a divine command theorist possesses an ethical consciousness that is frozen or arrested at the pre-critical stage of a child. A mature adult whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly would have outgrown it.

In arguing for this thesis, Nowell-Smith draws upon the theories of moral development proposed by Piaget.[7] According to Piaget, children start out with a view of morality that Nowell-Smith labels deontological, heteronomous and realist. Children view morality as obedience to certain rules (deontology) which hold because an authority figure, usually the parent, has promulgated them (heteronomous) and wrongdoing is perceived as any external action that violates these rules (realism). This view of ethics is appropriate for small children; however, as they mature and become more rational their consciousness changes. They begin to see the point of certain rules and understand the reasons behind them and the function of such rules. This is the stage where ethics become in Nowell-Smith’s words “autonomous.” Instead of just accepting a parent’s word for it the child learns to figure these things out for him/herself.[8]

Nowell-Smith goes on to argue that these same features of heteronomy, realism and deontology are present in “religious morality” or more specifically, divine command theory. Consequently, divine command theory reflects a childish way of viewing ethics, one not worthy of a grown-up, educated adult.[9]

Nowell-Smith’s analogy between divine command theory and childish morality ignores a fundamental disanalogy between the case Piaget describes and that of the divine/human relationship. As Richard Mouw has pointed out, Piaget views the transition from heteronomy to autonomy as corresponding to the time when a child begins to be on an increasingly-equal footing with his or her parents. The infantile stage of morality is appropriate while the child is in infancy because of its limited rationality and knowledge. In this state the child is unable to make decisions as competently as the adult, hence it relies on and defers to the judgement of adults. However, as the child grows equal to the parent in these respects he or she ceases to rely on parental judgement. He or she is now just as competent to answer these questions as his or her parent is and so his or her thinking becomes autonomous.[10]

Consequently, Piaget’s model of development applies to situations where the subordinate is temporarily in a stage of inferiority to the authority but is undergoing a process of growth towards equality. It is when this equality is reached that the authority relationship is no longer appropriate. However, the relationship between adult humans and God is fundamentally different. Adults are not growing into divinity so that when mature they will equal God in rationality and knowledge. Rather, they are permanently in a state where they are inferior to God in these respects. In this context the failure to reach a moral consciousness that is equal to God’s is not a sign of arrested development and the infantile charge loses its sting. It is inappropriate for adults to behave like children but not inappropriate for them to fail to think like God.[11]

Nowell-Smith’s argument, therefore, is unsound. I think the same response can be attributed to Armstrong’s argument. Returning to Armstrong’s three premises,

[1] That some children see morality as dependent on the commands of their parents.
[2] That it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent.
[3] That the conception of morality proposed by a divine command theorist is analogous to basing morality on the commands of a parent.

There is a subtle equivocation in this argument; turning to premise [2] that it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent, as we saw, this is because an adult child has grown to a position where he or she is on par in terms of maturity, rationality, insight, knowledge, and so on, to the parent. The problem is once this is clarified [3] is false. The conception of morality proposed by the divine command theorist is not analogous to basing morality on par with the commands of a parent who is an equal as no divine command theorist thinks of adult human beings as being on par with God in terms of maturity, rationality, insight, knowledge, and so on.

Of course there are other respects whereby the conception of morality proposed by divine command theorists is analogous to a conception that sees morality as dependent on the commands of a parent, so in this sense [3] is true. The problem is that these respects do not include the features of the relationship between an adult child and their parent that makes the conception inappropriate and so if correct then [2] would no longer be true. Either way the argument fails.


[1] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 106.
[2]
Ibid. 108.
[3]
Ibid. 114.
[4]
Ibid. 109.
[5]
Patrick H. Nowell-Smith “Morality: Religious and Secular,” in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: SCM Press, 1966) 95.
[6]
Ibid. 96. Nowell-Smith characterises the view he critiques as follows, “They have simply assumed that just as the legal propriety of an action is established by showing it to emanates from an authoritative source, so also the moral propriety of an action must be established in the same way; the legal rightness has the same form as moral rightness, and may therefore be used to shed light on it. … Morality, on this view, is an affair of being commanded to behave in certain ways by some person who has a right to issue such commands; and once this premise is granted, it is said with some reason that only God has such a right.”
[7]
Ibid. 100.
[8]
Ibid. 100-103.
[9]
Ibid. 103-108.
[10]
Richard Mouw The God Who Commands: A Study in Divine Command Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 12.
[11]
Ibid. 12-14.

RELATED POSTS:
On a Common Equivocation
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on God, Morality and Arbitrariness
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part II
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II

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