Human Value and the Abductive Moral Argument (Part 1)

Baggett and Walls make a powerful abductive case for theism in Good God by arguing from four different categories of moral facts: ontological, epistemic, practical, and rational.[1]  Their thesis is that the existence of God best explains the objective reality of both the good and the right, how we can have genuine moral knowledge, how we can be fully morally transformed, and why morality and happiness ultimately harmonize. Throughout the book, there are intimations of how the Christian God best explains these facts, but I think we could add one additional fact to Baggett and Walls’s list and make a successful and compelling argument for Christian theism.

Here is the moral fact I have in mind: It is good to be human (call this “HF” for the “human fact”). Baggett and Walls agree that this is a moral fact. My aim is to explore what would happen if we put this moral fact explicitly in the list of facts to be explained.[2] Before we consider how the addition of this moral fact might affect Baggett and Walls’s argument, it will help to make three preliminary points. First, one might want to know my reasons for contending that HF is a fact. Second, some explication of the meaning of HF is required. Third, we will want to know whether we really are human, otherwise HF will be irrelevant for us.

Baggett and Walls do not give specific criteria for determining what is a moral fact and what is not. This is not surprising since they take the moral facts in question to be obvious to any moral realist, following Lewis and his discussion of the Tao in Mere Christianity.[3] One may recall Lewis’s parable of the stolen corner seat on the train.[4] We all would sense that we had been wronged morally should some thief swipe our comfortable seat in a moment of inattention. Some moral realities (like the wrongness of stealing) present themselves to us in this immediate and obvious way. Others, like the need for moral rationality and transformation, are thought by Kant to be necessary to practical reason.[5] Does HF follow the pattern set for moral facts given by Baggett and Walls? That depends on what is meant by HF.

The two key terms of HF are good and human. By good, I do not mean some extrinsic or instrumental good, as if being human were merely a way to obtain something else that is what’s actually intrinsically valuable. Rather, I have the sense of good presupposed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “that at which all things aim.”[6] Goodness in this sense describes something that is desirable for its own sake; this why Aristotle so closely identified goodness with happiness. Of course, Aristotle did not think of happiness solely as “feeling good.” Rather, happiness is a form of excellence, where excellence is understood as harmony between a thing’s nature and its accidental properties.[7] A person is happy when she lives according to her nature, with both good character and good fortune. This way of life deserves the title of “happiness” because this is the highest form of life possible for a human being, and, as such, produces the most robust kind of satisfaction possible.

But what about the second term in HF, human? Aristotle’s definition of human is well-known: a rational animal. But Aristotle also thinks of human beings as meant for the specific form of life in the Greek polis.  Humans as rational animals flourish in the prosperous city-state. The philosophers in such cities experience the best form of life since they are able to realize maximally the rational and animal elements. A life of contemplation is the highest good because it realizes “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] Even though Aristotle makes this connection of the human good to the divine he does not, as his teacher Plato did, begin to suggest that embodied human life was something that ought to be transcended. Aristotle would likely see any attempt to transcend the form of life marked out by “rational animal” as an abandonment of one’s humanity and essence, a denial of one’s own nature. That would be supremely irrational, not least because the loss of essential properties would entail that the thing ceases to exist. Aristotle’s reticence to advocate for transcendence and his connection of the human good with the divine further suggests that Aristotle thought of humanity itself as intrinsically valuable.[9] The proper end of man corresponds with the highest reality, the divine.

It is not my intention to commend all of Aristotle’s view, but only to explicate what is meant by HF and to provide some reassurance by appeal to an esteemed figure like Aristotle that such a view has some prima facie credibility. Many have rejected Aristotle’s ethics because of some of the epistemological difficulties of discovering the human good through Aristotle’s proto-scientific method and because of the rich teleology it requires.[10] All that we need for the argument to go through is the more modest claim of HF.

However, the assumption that we are essentially human is contested by materialists and naturalists. They will deny that the term human marks out any real, metaphysical category. David Hull, discussing the implications of materialism, says, “If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did.”[11] Significantly, Hull's conclusion only follows from the conjunction of Darwinism and materialism/naturalism for theists might say that evolution is merely as means through which God brings about metaphysically actual and distinct categories of species. A number of Christians, including John Hare and C.S. Lewis, have thought evolution and Christianity to be compatible. However, one might further contest that certain Eastern religions, like some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, teach that our humanity is ultimately illusory. This illusion is very powerful and much of religious practice is devoted overcoming it. For example, a central teaching of the Buddha is the “no-self” doctrine, which is the view that persons, and therefore human beings, are ultimately illusory. It was only through an ecstatic religious experience that the Buddha was able to realize this doctrine; nirvana is partially constituted by the transcendence of this illusion.[12]

Despite this concern, I think it is obvious for most people that we are human. The belief is intuitive and widespread, like the belief in genuine moral obligations; although this is a defeasible justification, it’s not evidence that should be categorically discounted from the outset. 

We might further support the obviousness that we are human by pointing out how much of public moral discourse depends upon this assumption. For example, those in favor of harboring refugees will often appeal to the humanity of the refugees. Anne C. Richard, former assistant secretary of state, advocates that “in all cases, people should be treated humanely,” which is, of course, the exhortation to treat humans as if they really were humans.[13] We often use the phrase “human rights,” with the implicit belief that humans have rights because they are human. Further, the fact that the illusion of our humanity can only be overcome by the Buddha’s initial and exceptional experience is further evidence of just how obvious this belief is. It is only when one visits a philosophy (or religion) class that he can be talked out of thinking he is a human being.[14] 

On the assumption that we are essentially human, that being an excellent human constitutes the highest form of life possible would follow necessarily by practical reason. It would be a contradiction to act in a way contrary to our own natures; we cannot rationally pursue the impossible end of becoming what we cannot be. The only rational course of action is to pursue a life consistent with our telos. I take it that this piece of reasoning is uncontroversial. It must be a form of excellence to live as humans, if that is what we essentially are. 

Still, there could be an objection like this. We know that artifacts can be made with a bad purpose. A cheater makes a pair of weighted dice for the purpose of cheating. The excellence of these dice is bound up in a bad purpose. Why think that human beings do not also have equally bad teleology?  In this case, there is a disconnect between what’s good for man and the good; being an excellent human entails being bad in some other sense.

I suspect there cannot be a clean reply to this objection (without presupposing theism) in the same way there cannot be a clean reply to other forms of radical skepticism, because this objection implies that our most deeply held beliefs about what is good for us are ultimately incorrect. It is akin to the familiar “brain in a vat” problem. We could, for all we know, have some ultimately bad purpose in the same way that we could, for all we know, be brains in vats. The mere fact that this is a possibility should not concern us.

What we find every in culture is the implicit or explicit acknowledgment of the intrinsic goodness of being human. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we encounter the character of Data. Data is an android and decisively not human, yet he desires to be as human as possible. The crew does not discourage Data from this pursuit. Quite the opposite. They encourage Data to continue his quest to become more human, despite the tremendous difficulty and risk it poses. Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan, is similarly commended for embracing his humanity. Possibly, the often-quoted line from Carl Sagan that we are all stardust betrays an implicit belief in the goodness of being human. Sagan does not say that we are all dirt or dung, which is equally as true from his perspective. He says instead that we are stardust. We are made of something majestic, powerful, something valuable.

Of course, in culture we also find many examples of implicit denials of the intrinsic goodness of being human. The trans-humanist movement declares just by its label that humanity is something to be transcended. Nick Bostrom, a transhumanist philosopher, says, “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution.”[15] But often the trans-humanists’ desire is not really to cease being human, but to free ourselves from perceived human defects. Bostrom himself says among the goals of transhumanism are the “radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.”[16] But the elimination of disease and the enhancement of human capacities is not transcendence from humanity in any sense. It is transcendence of human defect. There is no reason to think that a life free of disease and death would entail the loss of humanity. It may be, as the Bible suggests, the true intention for human life. Ironically, I think that trans-humanists often articulate, without being aware of it, the desire to be a fully realized human being. Perhaps this is further evidence of the basicality and universality of the belief in the intrinsic goodness of being human.

Of course, there is a difference between believing that P and P obtaining. However, for certain common ever-present beliefs, like the belief in the existence of the external world and other minds, one can assume, along with Thomas Reid and Richard Swinburne, that what seems to be the case is the case, unless we have the right sort of defeaters. Therefore, if it seems to us that being human is good, then that is grounds for thinking it is so, unless we encounter defeaters.[17]

All that has been argued so far is just that HF is worthy of being called a moral fact. I think have made the case that it plausibly is a moral fact and we are now ready to consider how Christianity in particular is the best explanation of that moral fact, which is what I’ll do in the next installment. 


[1] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, 1 edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 113.

[2] Given the limits of space, this can only be exploratory.

[3] David Baggett and Jerry L Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 9.

[4] C. S Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2016), 18.

[5] For an extended discussion of this, see chapter 3 of John E. Hare, God and Morality: A Philosophical History (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

[6] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (OUP Oxford, 2009), 3.

[7] I do not take this to be in tension with the conception of goodness presented in Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods. Certainly, prima facie, this view seems too immanent to describe the transcendent, Platonic view that Adams proposes. But as I point out later, Aristotle himself did not think that the human good was the only sort of good or even that the human good does not some participate in the good. Cf. Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 183.

[9] There are inconsistences in Aristotle’s view on this. In Politics, he describes slaves as sub-human, “living tools.” Though such views are abhorrent, it would not negate the fact that being human is intrinsically good.

[10] For a discussion of some of the epistemological concerns, see chapter 4 of John E. Hare, God’s Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). The concerns about teleology are not raised by Hare, but are ubiquitous in the literature due to the infamous fact-value distinction.

[11] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (Suny Press, 1989), 73.

[12] Here is a sample of the Buddha’s teaching on this: “There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.”  Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland,

[13] Anne C. Richard, “Opinion | Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018, sec. Opinion, accessed June 3, 2018,

[14] Perhaps the same is true for other moral facts like moral obligations. We must also remember that the target of this argument is not moral anti-realists, but moral realists, who would be much more comfortable with admitting metaphysical categories, like human, into their ontology.

[15] Nick Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 37, no. 4 (2003): 493.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Though some might say that there are strong candidates for defeaters of HF, my own view is that there are not. What specifically would be the argument that we either (1) are not human or (2) that being human is not good? Reductions of these sort usually presuppose that such reductions are required and then seek to find coherent ways of performing the reduction. (1) and (2) would be the conclusion of an argument and not the motivation for an argument.