What Needs Explanation

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A critic of the moral argument for God’s existence might wish to make much of saying there’s something as unhelpful as unassailable in appealing to God as the explanation of any particular moral phenomenon (or any phenomena, for that matter). By definition “omnipotent,” God (at least in the Anselmian sense) can presumably do anything at all, including, presumably, providing the needed explanation of, say, moral obligations. God can do anything and everything, so God can “explain” morality, invoking his specter bring us no closer to any actual helpful explanation. Though unassailable in that way, such an effort of explanation by appeal to the divine is well-nigh worthless. So some critics argue.

Such critics’ resistance, thus construed, is understandable. In brief, the critics take the import of the moral argument to be exploiting the alleged strength of the explanans—that which is doing the explaining. Since an omnipotent God is the source, there’s no shortage in the presumed strength of such an explanation, but the critic rightly discerns there’s something illegitimate about so tidy an account.

However, we suspect that this critique involves a misunderstanding of at least some of these explanatory arguments. A moral case for God as the best explanation of various moral phenomena need not and should not focus, to begin with, on the explanans—God as explanation—so much as on the explanandum: that which is to be explained. In the case of morality, we offer a four-fold abductive case, starting with the moral facts of objective values and duties (and going on to include moral knowledge and what Kant called moral faith). Let’s zero in on objective moral duties for the moment to see how this works and how the concern of the critic can be addressed.

The case we want to build requires that the first step we take is a careful, attentive look at moral obligations using a variety of analyses. For example, by considering the nature of moral language, the logic of moral discourse, and the phenomenology of moral experience, we can glean insights into the nature of moral obligations. Among the salient features of moral obligations that we can identify is that they are unavoidably prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and, at least sometimes, categorical, not merely instrumental. Violations of moral obligations often, though not always, produce feelings of guilt, which are themselves often assumed (rightly or wrongly) to track an actual condition of moral guilt. Violating moral obligations also often, if detected, can strain relationships, causing estrangement and alienation. Harm can be done by shirking one’s perceived moral duties, and, where estrangement has taken place, offers of forgiveness can often heal the relational rifts.

Although all of these features—and others—tend to be important aspects of moral obligations, some of them don’t always obviously apply. If the neglect of a duty goes undetected, for example, it may not strain relationships; or someone may do something wrong but rationalize it in such a way or so often that it leads to no guilty feelings at all (though objective guilt remains a living possibility). A feature of moral obligations that seems perhaps less a contingent matter is what we’ll call their “authority.” It’s the idea that moral obligations, at least some of them, aren’t optional. They are more than mere suggestions. They possess clout, “oomph,” as Richard Joyce puts it (who himself is skeptical of their existence, but he’s at least conceptually clear on what he’s rejecting). This is much of what C. Stephen Evans is driving at when discussing the “Anscombe intuition” about moral duties. Authority is different from power. Someone or something with power can force or coerce your compliance; rightful authority deserves your obedience and allegiance.

The authority of morality, in particular, is something that cries out for explanation. If it’s taken seriously, as it arguably should be, it requires a robust explanation. To stop short of pursuing this inquiry is to ask at least one too few philosophical questions. If, however, someone were to offer a deflationary and distinctly reductionist account of moral obligations, suddenly the explanandum in question becomes sterile and feckless. The domestication of moral obligations understandably defangs the moral argument, but here a needed distinction is important. That critics might endorse a watered-down, instrumentalist account of moral obligations does indeed mean the moral argument won’t have purchase in their eyes, but this simply doesn’t so much as even suggest that the moral argument fails. For the critics may well be simply wrong to reduce the import of moral obligations in this way, and indeed arguably they are.

At the least it’s worth noting that theirs—the critics’—is the distinct, deliberate departure from the more classical usage of moral language and interpretation of moral experience. Echoes of the distinctive features of moral obligations echo all the way back to the dialogues of Socrates. The newcomer on the scene here is the reductionist, not the proponent of the binding authority of morality. What seems crystal clear is that it’s the reductionists’ account of moral obligations that’s congenitally unable to do justice to the aforementioned features of moral obligations classically construed, particularly their binding authority. This doesn’t mean the deflationary analyses are wrong, but it does at least minimally mean that they are the departure from the typical understanding of moral obligations.

For those who gravitate toward the more historical and classical understanding of moral obligations—replete with their rich moral phenomenology and prescriptive authority—such binding, categorical, and authoritative moral obligations make up the fertile, robust explananda in strong need of adequate, substantive explanation. The focus, at least for our abductive moral argument, doesn’t begin with the power of God as an explanation, but rather with that which is need of explanation. Moral obligations—which most all of us at moments seem able to apprehend—speak to us poignantly, not with a loud trumpet blast but with a quiet, confident, ineradicable authority.

The rights of children not to be abused are one of those perfect correlates (of binding duties) that tug at our hearts and flood our minds with illumination and conviction. Does anyone really think that the prohibition against such acts is merely instrumental? That children ought not be violated just because it will bring about the desired end? There’s nothing remotely contingent or merely instrumental in such obvious and axiomatic truths. The need to respect such rights is most plausibly seen as a categorical fact, an authoritative moral law, a binding duty. And that calls for an explanation adequate to the task. But before the abductive case can even get off the ground and the name of God invoked as a possible or plausible explanation, we need to see the need for the thick realities of morality to be robustly explained, rather than its desiccated caricature blithely explained away.