Is It Morally Permissible for Some People to Rape and Murder? Responding to Erik Wielenberg’s Argument That Divine Command Theory Fails to Explain How Psychopaths Have Moral Obligations
Reviewer 1 Report
The article advances a current debate on an objection to Divine Command Theory. For instance, it distinguishes between moral accountability and moral permissibility when explaining Wielenberg’s argument, and it demonstrates that the moral epistemology surrounding the debate on DCT and psychopaths have had a too narrow focus on emotions and conscience. These are real strengths.
However, in its current state, I cannot recommend publication. I have two main concerns.
First, the article takes some time to get going. The author's discussion and contribution start on page 5 of 10. I would recommend significantly shortening the introduction, the background (Wielenberg’s previous argument), and the explanation of his argument. See for instance how Christopher R. Pruett introduces the argument status of the current debate in his article in this same special issue.
Second, the author's discussion of Wielenberg (pages 6/7-9) relies so heavily on David Baggett’s work that it is not clear how this article contributes to the discussion beyond Baggett’s work.
When all this is said, the article is interesting and promising, it engages a lively current debate, and I would strongly and wholeheartedly recommend the author to revise and resubmit.
Some general suggestions:
I recommend that the author consider whether “(R) God commands person S to do act A only if S is capable of recognizing the requirement to do A as being extremely authoritative and as having imperative force” is a reasonable understanding of what it means for God to communicate his commands. Wielenberg holds this understanding, and he quotes Adams on it (Finite and infinite Goods, 268). However, this sentence might (and I write might be as I myself am not completely sure) not represent Adams's view perfectly. Phrases like “extremely authoritative” and “imperative force” might be read to imply a higher bar for what it takes for something to be God’s command than what Adams’s examples on the pages prior to 268 imply.
I recommend that the author take a look at an unclarity in Wielenberg’s article. To me, it is not entirely clear how Wielenberg’s appeal, in his Divine command theory and psychopathy, to the psychological research on psychopathy substantiates his claim concerning psychopaths. He appeals to psychological research arguing that psychopaths “have an absent or signiﬁcantly diminished capacity” (Wielenberg, p.5) for emotions (he mentions emotional shallowness on p. 6), presumably thereby also emotions related to morality. From this, he concludes that psychopaths are “incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands” (Wielenberg, p.5).
The author is onto this unclarity when he briefly argues that there are various routes to moral knowledge, but I suggest that he investigates it further. It seems to me that there are, in Wielenberg, some hidden premises here, namely that “perceived authority” and the perceived “force of moral demands” is a matter of emotive response. It is quite strange to me that he adopts an emotivist approach to moral knowledge and moral motivation and combines this with a rationalist approach to morality. It may also seem like he conflates moral motivation with moral knowledge. And it may also seem like he understands Adams’s phrase “imperative force” which he often shortens to “force”, to mean “be really motivated to do” – while I think Adams would understand the phrase to be about imperative, realizing that this is something you should do.
The author might also find it interesting to consider Wielenberg’s weight on emotion and conscience as what constitutes the ability for moral knowledge. Wielenberg’s own approach to ethics is quite rationalistic, and he (like all of us) knows Kant’s ethics quite well. So, when he uses the example of psychopaths that “know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow” (Wielenberg, p5), this might just illustrate that a rationalistic and not emotivistic formulation of morality is what fits psychopaths.
Comments to Page one:
The author lays out Wielenberg’s argument, stating that one of the premises is that “psychopaths don’t know what’s right and wrong”. This, I believe, is not a correct reading of Wielenberg’s argument. His argument does not concern what a person happens to know, but the ability to know. Wielenberg writes that psychopaths are “incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands” (Pages 8 and 9 of Wielenberg’s article).
Page one and two:
The author writes that A moral realist wants to explain “how and why everyone has moral obligations.” A theory that does not conclude that moral obligations apply to 100% of people, but leaves out substantial groups like psychopaths, loses plausibility points and “should be considered implausible.”
I am not entirely convinced by this line of reasoning. I think that what makes Wielenberg’s argument forceful is not the fact that it shows that DCT can only apply moral obligations to 96-99% of the population (Sanz-García et.al., (2021), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.661044). It is rather that he identifies a group of people that it is intuitive to think have moral obligations, but for which DCT cannot explain why moral obligations apply to them.
Moreover, I do not think it is correct to say that a moral realist wants to explain “how and why everyone has moral obligations.” A moral realist could want to explain how and why certain people do not have (certain) moral obligations. A moral realist like myself could want to explain why people have the duty to treat people with respect (perhaps, in Kantian terms, an imperfect duty), but that this duty does not yet apply to my toddler.
Concerning the stinger-analogy: an Entomologist should not in advance conclude that 100% of bees have stingers but might after doing research conclude that they all have stingers (I enjoyed footnote 3! I, as well, have no idea!). Similarly, a moral realist might, after doing research, conclude that moral obligation applies to most people but not strictly to all (e.g., perhaps people with dementia do not have the moral obligation to always tell the truth and are therefore not blameworthy when they don’t).
There are some unclarities that make the author's argument not as convincing as it could be.
The author argues that the problem is that psychopaths do not (1) know what’s wrong and (2) should not do what’s wrong (line 203-204). Wielenberg argues that the problem is that psychopaths cannot grasp morality's authority and force (line 211). The author frames the problem in terms of what the person in fact knows. Wielenberg frames the problem in terms of the ability to know.
I think the author puts up a challenge that is more difficult than needed. It is harder to argue that psychopaths do in fact know what’s wrong than to merely argue that they have the ability to know. It is to set the bar higher than Adams does, he thinks it is sufficient that God’s signs could be understood (see Wielenberg, p4). However, when the author states that a “moral conscience doesn’t have to be perfectly correct all the time in order to instigate moral obligations” (line 320), it suddenly becomes unclear whether the author is trying to establish that psychopaths have the correct moral beliefs or the moral ability. My suggestion is to focus on moral ability rather than moral beliefs, thereby engaging directly with Wielenberg.
Concerning the formulation “all that’s required for moral obligations is for someone to know what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right.” There is an unclarity here that is especially pressing when it comes to the case of psychopaths, namely the phrase “should do what’s right”. Should this phrase be understood as (1) “morally speaking, this is what you should do” or (2)“all things considered, this is what you should do”?
(1), I think, is the most plausible. Psychopaths may know what’s wrong (I should not steal), and see this as a moral reason (morally speaking, I should not steal), but conclude that there are other considerations out there (I want this thing!) so that, all things considered, he does not think he should do what’s right. However, (2) is the view where the moral obligation is seen as a moral obligation. This is where the psychopath realizes that there is a moral obligation he must obey.
I’m so thankful for these peer reviews. They’ve helped me re-think these issues and see them from a different angle. I’m making numerous changes in response and the resulting paper will be much improved because of their feedback.
I agree the intro is too long. I’ll reduce it considerably. But I’ll leave in a bit about Wielenberg’s prior argument that rational non-believers don’t have moral obligations under DCT because that sets the stage for his current objection concerning psychopaths.
I understand the reviewer’s concern that this paper doesn’t contribute much to the discussion beyond Baggett’s work. I’ll re-write it to show more clearly that Baggett’s work is merely one piece in my overall argument. Here are additional points I’m contributing towards this conversation:
- I’m arguing that even if the consciences of psychopaths don’t inform them of what’s right and wrong (that is, if Baggett is incorrect and Wielenberg is correct), then psychopaths still have moral obligations under DCT because God can and does make them aware of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right via other means besides their consciences.
- I’m showing how many people, including William Lane Craig, haven’t correctly understood Wielenberg’s psychopath argument against DCT.
- I’m explaining Wielenberg’s argument in such a way that hopefully other people will realize what it’s really getting at, what the implications are for DCT if Wielenberg is correct, and that his objection has to do with moral permissibility, not moral accountability.
- I’m also turning the tables on Wielenberg and pointing out that his theory is even worse than DCT when it comes to providing an explanation of the moral rights and obligations of psychopaths.
In order to make this more clear I’ll explain in my intro that Baggett has provided a solid response to Wielenberg’s psychopath objection, which I’ll cover later in the paper, but that I also want to consider the implications if Baggett is incorrect.
As for the purpose of moral theories, it seems to me that moral realists affirm that it’s objectively wrong for anyone to rape. In other words, they want to avoid the conclusion that it’s morally permissible for some people, even psychopaths, to rape. Thus, if a theory concludes that it’s morally permissible for a significant portion of the population to rape, then such moral realists would find that theory implausible. I agree with the reviewer when he wrote that Wielenberg “identifies a group of people that it is intuitive to think have moral obligations, but for which DCT cannot explain why moral obligations apply to them.” I would just extend this and say that moral realists, including Wielenberg, intuitively think everyone has a moral obligation to refrain from rape but Wielenberg is arguing that DCT cannot explain why this moral obligation applies to everyone. Specifically, Wielenberg is arguing that DCT cannot explain why this moral obligation applies to psychopaths. I will re-word my paper to reflect this clarification.
I agree with the reviewer that a moral realist could want to explain how and why certain people do not have (certain) moral obligations. However, in this context I’m maintaining that moral realists want to explain why all people have certain obligations, for example, the obligation to refrain from rape. I’ll clean my writing up to better communicate this.
As for the stinger analogy, it wasn’t my intention to say that the Entomologist in advance concludes all bees have stingers. In the analogy I’m implying that he has done much research which has led him to the conclusion that all bees have stingers and now is developing a theory as to why it is the case that they all have stingers. I’ll clean my writing up to better communicate this.
As for the reviewer’s comment concerning people with dementia not having a moral obligation to tell the truth and not being blameworthy when they lie, it wasn’t my intention to argue that all people have all moral obligations all the time. However, it is part of my argument that everyone does have certain moral obligations, for example, to refrain from rape. I think moral realists do want to affirm this, otherwise they’d have to conclude that it’s morally permissible for some people to rape. Also, one of the important parts of my paper is to help people understand the difference between moral permissibility and moral accountability. A theory of moral realism should explain why everyone, including people with dementia, should refrain from rape (they have a moral obligation to refrain from rape) even if we wouldn’t necessarily hold them morally accountable (and I’m not sure we wouldn’t) for raping someone. In other words, we want to avoid the conclusion that it’s morally permissible for psychopaths, or people with dementia, to rape. I’ll re-word things to more carefully spell out this distinction.
In my previous work I’ve argued that someone has moral obligations if God makes them aware of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right. That is why I’m using this language throughout my paper. I recognize that Wielenberg words it a bit differently; he often says that someone has moral obligations if they recognize a requirement as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force, which is language he took from Adams.
I’ll change my paper to explain that Wielenberg has argued as follows:
- Under DCT someone doesn’t have moral obligations if he doesn’t recognize moral requirements as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force.
- Psychopaths don’t recognize moral requirements as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force.
- Therefore, under DCT psychopaths don’t have moral obligations.
Then I’ll spend some time considering Wielenberg’s first premise, which he pulled from Adams work. I’ll explain that I’ve previously argued that someone has moral obligations if they know what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right. I’ll note that “knowing that they should do what’s right” includes “recognizing moral requirements as extremely authoritative and has having imperative force” and therefore I’m comfortable with Wielenberg’s first premise and can then use my phrase throughout the paper. When I wrote that they “know that they should do what’s right” I did mean morally speaking they know that they should do what’s right and I will adjust my paper to clarify that.
Then I’ll spend some time pushing back against premise two, namely, Wielenberg’s claim that psychopaths don’t recognize moral requirements as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force. Some experts on psychopathy describe the root problem with psychopaths quite differently. According to the leading expert on psychopathy, Robert Hare, “for psychopaths … the social experiences that normally build a conscience never take hold. Such people don’t have an inner voice to guide them; they know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with. Any antisocial act, from petty theft to bloody murder, becomes possible. We don’t know why the conscience of the psychopath—if it exists at all—is so weak. However, we can make some reasonable guesses: Psychopaths have little aptitude for experiencing the emotional responses—fear and anxiety—that are the mainsprings of conscience.” – Without Conscience p. 75-76 This quote seems to reiterate the notion that psychopaths do know right from wrong and that they should do what’s right, but merely lack the proper emotions that often are associated with morality. As the reviewer pointed out, even Wielenberg’s objection seems to imply the root problem with psychopaths is emotive, not rationalistic.
This will allow me the opportunity to challenge Wielenberg’s definition of psychopaths as those who don’t recognize moral requirements as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force. This in turn will bring the discussion back to whether or not the consciences of psychopaths inform them of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right, and explore what experts on psychopathy say about the whether the root of the problem is that the consciences of psychopathy don’t inform them of what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right or that their consciences merely don’t generate the appropriate emotions that normal healthy consciences do.
I greatly appreciate the following feedback and will incorporate it into my paper: Wielenberg seems to argue that since, according to experts on psychopathy, psychopaths “have an absent or signiﬁcantly diminished capacity” (Wielenberg, p.5) for emotions that therefore psychopaths are “incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands” (Wielenberg, p.5). First, it seems odd that Wielenberg would suggest an emotivist response approach to moral knowledge and motivation considering his overall rationalist approach to morality. Second, this move isn’t justified; just because someone has an absent or significantly diminished capacity for emotions doesn’t necessarily mean he is incapable of rationally or cognitively grasping the authority and force of moral demands. Also, this will help me strengthen my argument that psychopaths merely lack the proper emotional responses while still knowing what’s right from wrong and that they should do what’s right.
I agree that Wielenberg seems to conflate moral motivation with moral knowledge when he describes Adams’s phrase “imperative force” to mean “be really motivated.” I will argue that the correct way to understand Adams is that he intended the phrase to mean knowing this is something you should do. Certainly we wouldn’t want to conclude that someone gets off the hook when they aren’t strongly motivated to do what’s right because we often aren’t strongly motivated to do what’s right but are still obligated to do so.
As for a distinction between what a person knows and what someone has the ability to know, it seems there are three scenarios to consider:
- Someone has the ability to know X and does know X.
- Someone has the ability to know X but doesn’t know X
- Someone doesn’t have the ability to know X and doesn’t know X.
It doesn’t seem to me that someone would have moral obligations if they merely have the ability to know what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right but doesn’t actually know these things. It seems to me both Paul (Romans 2) and Adams affirm (Finite and Infinite Goods p. 261), and I agree with them, that someone must actually know, and not merely have the ability to know, what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right in order for them to have moral obligations. Thus, I believe I do have to argue that psychopaths not only have the ability to know these things but in fact do know them somehow. Here is the quote from Adams on p. 261: While explaining his concerns with divine will theories, Adams notes that the idea that God’s will could impose obligations without being revealed to us “yields an unattractive picture of divine-human relations, one in which the wish of God’s heart imposes binding obligations without even being communicated. . . . Games in which one party incurs guilt for failing to guess the unexpressed wishes of the other party are not nice games.” Thus, Adams argues, and I agree, that someone has to know what’s right and wrong and that they should do what’s right in order to have moral obligations.
Wielenberg does argue that psychopaths not only don’t know the authority and imperative force of moral demands, but that they are “incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands” (Pages 8 and 9 of Wielenberg’s article). I’ll change my paper to reflect that and argue that Wielenberg here is proposing something that goes way beyond any empirical evidence from research on psychopaths. How could Wielenber, or anyone else, know they are incapable of such knowledge? The experts who study psychopaths seem to describe their problem more as a failure of their consciences to inform them of these things and/or generate the proper emotional responses, but in no way do they argue psychopaths are incapable of knowing these things via other means (rationally, through friends, family, and society, etc).
Reviewer 2 Report
This article is clearly written, though with frequent "run-on" sentences that ideally could be broken up into separate, shorter sentences.
In terms of "argument," much seems to rest on the repeated use that "if" Weilenberg's position would be accepted this would result in implicit endorsement of moral monsters such as Hitler. The author says such a view is "absurd," but without ever attempting to put forth criteria for judging something to be "absurd." I believe this is a real defect in the article which I believe could be improved. If nothing else, the author might bring forward the logical fallacy of a "reductio ad absurdum" line of argumentation.
A good deal of the article presumes the overall "accepted" cogency of the Divine Command Theory, and I believe this premise might be probed a bit more. I was also somewhat surprised that proponents of DCT, such as Karl Barth, or even Stanley Hauerwas, appear nowhere in the background of the article.
A "moral realist" approach can be sustained outside of (or perhaps in addition) to the DCT by referencing someone like Thomas Aquinas in his natural law theory (cf. Summa theologiae I-II, Question 94). Aquinas puts for a premise of "right reason" inscribed in the human heart (lex indita non scripta) that would certainly augment a moral realist position.
Finally, I was somewhat surprised by the argument of atheists not being bound by the Divine Command since they do not believe in God (which I gather is drawn from the "logic" of Wielenberg's article). An easy counter would be to posit an analogous case: e.g., Flat-earthers may not "believe" that the earth is round, but nevertheless the facts of the matter are not compromised or dispensed for these deniers.
Comments for author File: Comments.pdf
I’m so thankful for these peer reviews. They’ve helped me re-think more about these issues and see them from a different angle. I’m making numerous changes in response and the resulting paper will be much improved because of their feedback.
I’ll go back and fix any run-on sentences and shorten them, including the few specific ones this reviewer pointed out.
Also, I agree that claiming something is “absurd” isn’t sufficient in terms of an argument. I’ll go back and expand that section but I don’t want to spend too much space on it because I’m not building an argument for moral realism in this paper. Wielenberg and I both agree on moral realism so there’s no need for me to defend that in this paper. I’m not dismissing Wielenberg’s objection by merely calling it absurd. I’m just using the notion of absurdity to help people understand why Wielenberg’s objection is potentially so powerful. In other words, moral realists find absurd the idea that it’s not objectively wrong for some people to rape and murder just like they find absurd the idea that Hitler did nothing objectively wrong. I’m just trying to point out that if Wielenberg’s objection is correct, then moral realists would reject Divine Command Theory as implausible because it’d entail the absurd conclusion that it’s not objectively wrong for some people to rape and murder. Moral realists would find this conclusion just as absurd, and thus implausible, as the idea that Hitler did nothing objectively wrong. I’ll re-word my language to better draw this out.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to defend the overall cogency of Divine Command Theory in this paper. I’ve published other work where I’ve done this and I’ll reference that in this article. But it seems my paper is already very long just dealing with this one objection to Divine Command Theory.
I agree there are other moral realist positions, such as Natural Law Theory. However, Wielenberg’s psychopath objection is specifically aimed at Divine Command Theory so I’ve chosen to merely defend Divine Command Theory in this paper. I have other work in which I compare and contrast Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory and advocate for one over the other. There are similarities between the two theories but also some important differences. I’ll reference this work of mine in this article.
I understand your pushback against Wielenberg’s argument that atheists have no moral obligations under Divine Command Theory. However, Wielenbergs seems to have backed off of this argument and now affirms that under Divine Command Theory atheists would have moral obligations. Thus, it seems I need to focus in this paper on his new objection concerning psychopaths not having moral obligations.
Lastly, the block quote formatting was in my original paper but the journal removed that for some reason for this peer review process.
Reviewer 1 Report
I am satisfied with all the corrections made. I want to congratulate the author on an interesting and well-written article! I think it has been much improved in terms of clarity, in terms of precision when it comes to defining and understanding the ongoing discussion, and not the least when it comes to making a real contribution to Wielenberg's (and Baggett's) work. I wholeheartedly endorse publication.