Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument (Part 2)



by Stephen S. Jordan

Mankind’s Inability to Keep the Objective Moral Law

            Lewis’s first point acknowledges the existence of an objective moral law; his second point is this: “None of us are really keeping [it].”[1] These two concepts are so deeply ingrained within his version of the moral argument that he claims:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.[2]

Much has already been said about the first concept –“they know the Law of Nature [sic]”; the rest of this section will deal with the second – “they break it.” His second point is not a judgmental one that only applies to others; he is “quite willing to admit that he belongs among the moral lawbreakers.”[3] In fact, he admits “. . .that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behaviour [sic] we expect from other people.”[4]

Lewis claims what is obvious to any rational human being: no one perfectly adheres to the objective moral law. In fact, one of the “most natural thing[s] in the world [is] to recognize that human beings are imperfect and fall short of moral ideals.”[5] Lewis observes that moral failure, or “falling short,” elicits a sense of guilt in all humans,[6] moments when,

…all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them.[7]


Guilt serves as a trigger that alerts one to his own failure to do what ought to have been done in a particular situation.[8] Psychologists define it as “moral transgression in which people believe that their action (or inaction) contributed to negative outcomes.”[9] Guilt “has long been considered the most essential emotion in the development of the affective and cognitive structures of both conscience and moral behavior.”[10] Even “the atheist feels guilt (accompanied by dread) when he recollects his violation of the moral law. Even he can feel the law’s inexorable demands.”[11]

            If there is an objective moral law and it is clear that all men fail to adhere to its demands, it seems odd that one would experience guilt before such an abstract, impersonal moral code. Rules and principles do not elicit feelings of guilt and shame within individuals; only persons are responsible for this. Does this indicate that there is One behind the objective moral law that is more like a Person than anything else? According to John Henry Newman, “Inanimate things [such as rules and principles] cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear…”[12] Along the same lines, A. E. Taylor states, “When we feel as we ought to feel about the evil in ourselves, we cannot help recognizing that our position is not so much that of someone who has broken a wise and salutary regulation, as of one who has insulted or proved false to a person of supreme excellence, entitled to wholehearted devotion.”[13] If there is indeed a Person behind the objective moral law, then transgression of this law is ultimately an offense directed against the One to whom all persons are responsible.

            At this point, Lewis notes, “. . . after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power – it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.”[14] Lewis refers to the One behind the Law as “a Power”; it certainly seems that such a being also has to be “a Person” – considering the guilt and shame that individuals experience when they transgress the objective moral law.

            Mankind’s inability to adhere to the moral law is ultimately transgression against the Person behind the law; this is a frightening position for mankind to find himself in. As Lewis says, “He is our only possibly ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.”[15] Is there any way out of this predicament? The only way out for man is if the divine Person decides to provide a way of rescue. Guilt can only be alleviated by a person; in this case, it can only be cured if the divine Person, the One who has been wronged, God himself, chooses to forgive.[16] Matter, nature, a divine mind or Power, an impersonal force, or some other conception of the divine, cannot forgive; “Only a Person can forgive.”[17]

Although there may be several theistic religions that set forth the notion of a personal God,[18] Christianity stands alone as being able to provide an adequate ground for such a God. Throughout Scripture, God is active. He makes the decision to create (Gen. 1:1), walks in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8), experiences emotions (Is. 61:8), converses with human beings (Job 38-41), loves (Jn. 3:16), displays compassion (Mt. 9:36), judges (Jas. 4:12), disciplines (Deut. 8:5), and performs a host of other person-like acts. In addition to these examples, there are two fundamental reasons why Christianity is unique in its conception of God as a Person: 1) the Trinity; and 2) the Incarnation.[19] These two doctrines are unique to Christianity; the former demonstrates that God has always been personal (consider the interrelationships of the three Persons within the Triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), whereas the latter reveals that God is an actual Person (Jesus Christ is God “manifested in the flesh”; 1 Tim. 3:16).

The good news that Christianity offers is that God, the “one lawgiver” (Jas. 4:12) who stands behind the objective moral law, the Person who has been transgressed, has decided to offer divine forgiveness to those who choose to accept it (1 Jn. 1:9).[20] Additionally, Christianity provides hope of moral improvement, and even radical transformation, through the indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:6).[21] Some think that time cancels sin and will ultimately alleviate guilt, but, as Lewis suggests: “[M]ere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Jesus Christ.”[22] Only when one admits his guilt, repents of his sin, and turns to the Person and Work of Christ can he receive God’s divine forgiveness and experience moral transformation – which are the two things that he most desperately needs in light of his moral predicament.       



            Lewis’s moral argument, in a broad sense, as evidenced in this essay, begins with eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with the obvious fact that mankind is unable to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with a discussion of how the Christian God is the only One who is able to account for these realities. The latter half of the essay, an emphasis has been placed on the nature of guilt, which is an objective reality for all who have transgressed the moral law. Because guilt is not elicited by rules and principles, but rather by persons, and since humans experience guilt when failing to adhere to the moral law, the One behind the moral law must be more like a Person than anything else. Finally, the moral predicament that Lewis highlights in his argument – “they know the Law of nature” and “they break it” – is ultimately remedied through God’s offer of divine forgiveness and promise to morally transform all who admit their guilt, repent of their sin, and turn to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.



[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 124.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[5] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 127.

[6] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 11.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] What if one does not feel guilty when he really is? Or, what if one feels guilty when he is actually innocent? According to David Baggett, “Guilt it is thought, properly attaches to morality in a way it doesn’t to breaking the laws of logic. We don’t feel guilty, and shouldn’t, for making a logical mistake. Maybe we feel silly or even embarrassed, but not guilty. The feeling of guilt, though it can be absent on occasions when we’re still actually guilty and present on occasions when we’re not (which is enough to show these things aren’t identical), more typically points to a real state of guilt.” David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 176.

[9] David A. Cole, Julia W. Felton, and Carlos Tilghman-Osborne, “Definition and Measurement of Guilt: Implications for Clinical Research and Practice,” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 30 (July 2010): 536-546.

[10] Francesca Gino, Ata Jami, and Maryam Kouchaki, “The Burden of Guilt: Heavy Backpacks, Light Snacks, and Enhanced Morality,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 143, no. 1 (2013): 414-424.

[11] H. P. Owen, The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1965), 118.

[12] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1874), 109.

[13] A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London, England: MacMillan and Co., 1951), 207.

[14] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 31.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Why the need for divine forgiveness? David and Marybeth Baggett provide a helpful response to this question: “As Newman and others in the history of moral apologetics could see, though, there is a limit to how much human relationships can explain. Sometimes guilt doesn’t seem to be connected to any particular human person. At other times the wronged person is no longer around to confer forgiveness. On yet other occasions the wrong seems to be so grievous that no human being likely has the authority to offer forgiveness. In all of these cases, it becomes more plausible to think that forgiveness by God himself is necessary.” David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett, The  Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 180.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] For example, consider the following discussion found in Clement Webb, God and Personality (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1918). Judaism: “But it would be absurd to deny that a religion has a personal God which has ever taken as its ideal the great Lawgiver to whom his God ‘spake face to face as a man speaketh unto his friend’” (86). See also Exodus 33:11. Islam: Anthropomorphic language is used of the God of Islam. “But it would seem that the tendency of that teaching is to reduce the personal relations which can exist between man and God to the lowest terms, to those, namely, which may exist between a slave and a master of absolutely unlimited power. Still this is a personal relation, and on the whole it would seem best to describe the God of Mohammedanism as a personal God” (86-87). Eastern religions: “If we may say that the God of much Indian worship is not what we should usually call a ‘personal God,’ we must take care not to imply by this that the Indian’s religion is not his personal concern, for nothing could be less true. Moreover, the important and widely prevalent type of Indian piety known as bhakti is admitted to be devotional faith in a personal God: while Buddhism, which originally perhaps acknowledged neither God nor soul, has produced in the worship of Amitabha, the ‘Buddha of the Boundless Light,’ the ‘Lord of the Western Paradise,’ a form of piety which has seemed to some scholars too similar to the Christian to have originated except under Christian influence” (88).

[19] Human knowledge of the Trinity and the Incarnation is solely understood by way of divine revelation. Humans know what they know about God because God has revealed himself to them. Divine revelation is made possible through communication, which is a personal task that is carried out by persons. According to Carl Henry, “[D]ivine revelation is Christianity’s basic epistemological axiom, from which all doctrines of the Christian religion are derived…” God’s decision to reveal himself to humanity indicates that he is intrinsically personal, which only further serves to reinforce the argument that Christianity provides the best possible explanation for a personal God. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority Volume 1: God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976), 213.

[20] An interesting discussion on forgiveness can be found in C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 177-183. Another discussion on forgiveness is located in Lewis, Mere Christianity, 115-120.

[21] Christianity not only speaks of the possibility of radical transformation, it provides countless examples of it throughout history (e.g., the disciples, the apostle Paul, early church leaders, Augustine, Saint Patrick, and John Newton). See Baggett and Baggett, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, 193.

[22] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 55.

Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument

by Stephen S. Jordan


Countless philosophers and theologians throughout history have postulated arguments in favor of a divine being. There are four kinds of classical arguments that have attempted to establish the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, and the moral argument. The origins of the cosmological and teleological arguments can be traced to the ancient world, the ontological argument dates to the medieval time period, but the moral argument is a relative newcomer as it has modern ancestry.[1] Although the moral argument emerged onto the philosophical scene largely through the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the eighteenth century, it was C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) who popularized the argument more than anyone else in the past two centuries.[2]

Lewis’s moral argument is detailed primarily in Book 1 of Mere Christianity; however, portions of Lewis’s moral argument are found in his other writings as well. Therefore, this essay will pull from a broad Lewisian corpus in an attempt to present a more robust picture of his moral argument, which begins with reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with mankind’s inability to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with the necessity of a divine being (of a particular sort) in order to account for these realities.[3]

The Existence of an Objective Moral Law

            In Book 1 of Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the existence of objective morality is obvious (or self-evident) for at least four reasons. First, when two or more individuals quarrel, they assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong of which each person is aware of and one has broken. For example, when one says, “That’s my seat, I was there first!” or “Why should you shove in first?” he is not merely stating that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him, but rather that there is “some kind of standard of behaviour [sic] which he expects the other man to know about.”[4] At this point, oftentimes the other man will provide reasons for why he did not go against the standard or he will provide excuses for breaking it. Such a response is an acknowledgement that a moral standard exists; an individual would not try to provide reasons or give excuses if he thought no such standard existed. Second, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that “the human idea of decent behaviour [sic] was obvious to every one [sic].”[5] This does not mean “that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind [sic] or have no ear for a tune.”[6] Writing during wartime, Lewis provides an example to drive his point home: “What was the sense in saying the enemy was in the wrong unless Right [sic] is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour [sic] of their hair.”[7] Third, mistreatment reveals what an individual really believes about morality. To validate this claim, Lewis states, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong [sic], you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[8] Although some deny the existence of objective morality through their actions, they always affirm it through their reactions. When an individual is mistreated, he will usually react as if an objective standard of proper treatment does, in fact, exist. Fourth, making an excuse for a mistake is providing a sufficient reason (in one’s mind) for breaking a standard of behavior. As Lewis says, “If we do not believe in decent behaviour [sic], why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[9] He continues by adding, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[10]

            Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis constructs a case for the existence of objective values such as love, justice, and courage.[11] Lewis states that there are three possible responses for one to consider regarding objective values: 1) reject their existence; 2) replace them; or 3) accept them. One, if objective values are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If values are subjective, then values as a whole become a matter of preference. Furthermore, if objective values are rejected, then rules/laws are no longer possible or binding upon humans because every rule/law has a value behind it.[12] Next, to attempt to refute a value system and replace it with a new one is self-contradictory. According to Lewis, “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.”[13] Furthermore, to attempt to replace a value system with another one is to assume that there is something awry with the present system, which can only be realized if an objective standard of judgment exists in the first place.[14] This leaves one viable option: accept the reality of objective moral values.

Lewis indicates in his essay entitled, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, that an objective moral standard must exist in order to allow for moral improvement. He claims,

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming” – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”[15]


According to Lewis, talk of moral improvement is nonsensical if there is no “absolute standard of good” that exists. If no such standard existed, one might change his morality, but he could never improve his morality.

            In Miracles, before actually discussing the possibility of miraculous events, Lewis argues for the existence of God by utilizing the moral argument and the argument from reason.[16] There are times when these two arguments overlap. For example, “Besides reasoning about matters of fact, men also make moral judgements – ‘I ought to do this’ – ‘I ought not do that’ – ‘This is good’ – ‘That is evil.’”[17] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed that there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no such standard, then moral reasoning is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t prefer that”).[18] Simply stated, if there is no objective moral law, then everything becomes a matter of preference.

            Within the introductory chapter of The Problem of Pain, Lewis presents what he calls the “strands or elements” found within “all developed religion.”[19] The second strand that is noted involves mankind’s sense of a moral code. According to Lewis, “All the human beings that history has heard of acknowledge some kind of morality; that is, they feel towards certain proposed actions the experiences expressed by the words, ‘I ought’ or ‘I ought not.’”[20] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and is obligated to follow. If such a moral code did not exist, then the words “ought” and “ought not” would mean little more than “I prefer” and “I do not prefer.”

            In sum, Lewis provides at least eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality. One, when two or more individuals quarrel, it is assumed that an objective standard of right and wrong exists.[21] Two, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that an objective standard of decent behavior is obvious to all people.[22] Three, mistreatment reveals what one really believes about morality.[23] An individual might deny the existence of an objective standard, but as soon as he is mistreated, he will respond as if such a standard exists (“That’s not fair!”). Four, when a person makes an excuse for a mistake on his part, he essentially provides a sufficient reason (in his mind) for breaking an objective standard of behavior.[24] Five, if objective moral values (such as love, compassion, etc.) are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If this happens, then values become a matter of preference. Additionally, if an individual attempts to replace one value system with another, he must assume that an objective standard of judgment exists to help him determine that one value system is superior to another.[25] Six, an objective moral standard must exist in order to foster the possibility of moral improvement.[26] Seven, when individuals reason over moral issues, the existence of objective morality is assumed.[27] Eight, the words “ought” and “ought not” imply that an objective standard of behavior exists that mankind is obligated to follow.[28]

(Part 2 coming next week) 


[1] The cosmological argument can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. Although traces of the teleological argument appeared in the writings of Socrates (Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.4.4ff), Plato (Phaedo), and Philo (Works of Philo 3.182, 183.33), it came to fruition later in the middle ages (the last of Aquinas’ “Five Ways”) and modern world (Paley’s Natural Theology). The ontological argument was first formed by Anselm in the medieval time period, although he was not responsible for naming it. Implicit fragments of the moral argument can be found in Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, but its emergence onto the philosophical scene did not take place until Kant utilized it in the eighteenth century.

[2] To be fair, there are numerous “heavy hitters” in the field of moral apologetics between Kant and Lewis, such as: John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), William Sorley (1855-1935), Hastings Rashdall (1858-1935), Clement Webb (1865-1954), and A. E. Taylor (1869-1945). Lewis “popularized” the moral argument, in the sense that he made it appealing to a wider audience, but he would not have been able to do so without these men who came before him.

[3] Lewis’s argument is not a strict, deductive proof for God’s existence. Rather, Lewis provides an argument that is rationally persuasive in the sense that the existence of a divine being (of a particular sort) is the best explanation for the available evidence. See David Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, ed. Gregory Bassham (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 121.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[5] Ibid., 5. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.                              

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Values are the “why” behind rules/laws, whereas rules/laws are the “what.” For example, there are laws against murder because human life is intrinsically valuable.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[14] Lewis expounds upon this in Mere Christianity when he suggests the following: “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others...The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality [sic], admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right [sic], independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Right [sic] than others.” Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[15] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[16] He does this because if God exists, then miracles are at least possible. In his words, “Human Reason and Morality have been mentioned not as instances of Miracle (at least, not of the kind of Miracle you wanted to hear about) but as proofs of the Supernatural: not in order to show that Nature ever is invaded but that there is a possible invader.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 68.

[17] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[18] Naturalism largely fails to account for this. Lewis explains: “If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.” Lewis, Miracles, 60.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 5.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[26] Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, 3-4.

[27] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[28] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 10.


John Hare’s God’s Command, “Summary” (Final Chapter)

 Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Here Hare wants to offer a brief summary of the theory of the book as a whole, an outline of the main points of the theory. The book is designed to defend the thesis that what makes something morally obligatory for us is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong for us is that God prohibits it. Hare thinks the fact that divine command is so central to all three Abrahamic traditions, and that so many of the same problems arise in all three about the relation between divine command and human reason, should be taken as confirmation.

God is taken in this book to be the supreme good, manifested in three ways. First, God is the creator of all that exists other than God, and God maintains it and is present to it once created. Second, God gives us revelation, and for the purposes of this book the primary revelation is of the divine will for our willing, which God gives us in command. Finally, God redeems us, by bringing us to that union with God that is our proper end. These three functions (creation, revelation, and redemption) can be expressed in terms of a threefold sovereign role that God has over the created order, by analogy with human sovereignty. God has legislative, executive, and judicial functions. God makes and promulgates the law by command; God runs the universe and sustains its order; and God judges us and punishes and saves us.

Human beings are created as rational animals through the processes of evolution. We have the purpose of a kind of loving union with God that’s available only to rational animals. Each of us has, however, not merely the purpose common to the whole species, but a particular purpose (unique to the individual) of a kind of love of God particular to that individual. Our destination is a realm in which all these individual kinds of love are conjoined. We all have the same basic value because we all have a call from God of this unique kind. We are individual centers of agency, in time, free, and language users, features that put constraints on what we should take to be a divine command. From these constraints, we can deduce a presumption against taking anything to be a divine command that requires breaching these constraints. We’re born with a predisposition to respond to the command, but a propensity to put our own happiness above the command. We are in that way a mixture, but the predisposition is essential to us, and the propensity is not.

Our power to accept or reject the command is made possible only by God’s sustaining power, and God in the second decree brings all things to good. The relation between our freedom and God’s power is that we are like a lake and God’s power is like the flow in that lake from a hidden spring.

Moral obligation can be both universal and particular. It’s universal when it has all human beings in the scope of the subjects who are commanded to act and the scope of the beneficiaries or victims of that action. Commands are a species of prescription, and we can distinguish five types of divine prescriptions: precepts, prohibitions, permissions, counsels, and directly effective commands. God has objective authority over all human beings, whether they recognize it or not, because God’s commands give all human beings rightful reason to comply, given God’s threefold sovereign role already described. The reasons are rightful because God’s commands make obligatory the good things that God prescribes, all of which take us to our proper end by the path God has selected for us, and our obedience is an expression of our love for God, which is good in itself and our end.

There are at least five objections to Hare’s thesis. One is that it produces an infinite regress. But the principle that God is to be loved is known from its terms: we know that if something is God, it’s to be loved, but to love God is to obey God, and so we can know from its terms the principle that God is to be obeyed.

A second objection is that the thesis makes morality arbitrary. Could not just anything be obligatory if God were to command it? The solution to this worry is that there is a distinction between the good and the obligatory. The thesis of Hare’s book is that God’s command makes something obligatory. When a person judges that a thing is good, she expresses an attraction to it and says that it deserves to attract her. There is a prescriptivist or expressivist side to this and a realist side. The prescriptivist side is that the evaluative judgment expresses some state of desire or emotion or will. The realist side is that there is some value property that she claims belongs to the thing, in virtue of which her state of desire or emotion or will is appropriate. The goodness might reside in resemblance to God. It might also reside in the union with God that is the human destination, or what leads to this union, or what manifests God by displaying God’s presence. If God is supremely good, union with God must also be good as an end, and so must the path to this end be good as a means. God commands only what is consistent with this destination, and thus the command is not arbitrary in the contemporary sense, in which what is arbitrary ignores some consideration that is relevant to a decision.

The third objection is this: If God commands only what is good, is God’s command redundant? Hare again makes a distinction: the moral law can’t be deduced from our nature, but it fits our nature exceedingly well. There are two kinds of deduction we should deny. It might be thought that we could fix the reference of ‘good’ by looking at what most people, most of the time, think is good. But this does not fit the fact that we could be, and in fact are, wrong much of the time in our evaluation. An examination of Greek ethics and its stress on the competitive goods illustrates this. The second kind of deduction we should avoid is the deduction of virtue from our human form of life, even though there is a goodness of organisms that can be deduced from their simply being alive. The human form of life does indeed put a constraint on what we should conceive our virtues to be, but a large part of our conception of virtue is constituted by our ideals. And these can’t be deduced from our form of life, unless we have already screened our description of this form of life through our ideals. The central reason for the failure of this deduction is the mixture in both our natural inclinations and our ideals between what deserves to attract us in this way and what does not so deserve. The danger of some kinds of natural law theory is that God disappears into creation, in the sense that, because we think we can get morality from our nature, we think we do not need a personal divine commander. But creation itself, including our created nature, is not yet sufficiently complete for us to deduce from it how we should live. Reason (in the sense of looking at our nature) can be thought of as a junior partner in determining our duties, and it’s indispensable in disputes between traditions. But its results are not sufficiently determinate to tell us how to live, and we need the revelation of divine command in addition.

A fourth objection is that we live in a pluralist society, and appealing to God’s commands is inappropriate for conduct in the public square in such a society. The reply to this objection is twofold. First, it is discriminatory against religious believers to require them to shed their most basic commitments in public dialogue. Second, there is not enough common ground between all the parties to public conversation so that we could get good policy by sticking to the lowest common denominator.

A fifth objection is that, even if God were to give us commands, we are too unreliable as receivers of them to make them the final arbiters of our moral decisions. Too many bad people have appealed to divine commands in justifying their actions. The question here pertains to what sort of access to the commands we have. One way to proceed is to work out a rational ethical decision procedure and then say simply that God commands us to follow it. But the Abrahamic faiths have additional resources in the content of the narratives they give us of God’s dealing with human beings, in the procedures they prescribe for checking with other members of the community, and in the phenomenology they describe as characteristic of the reception of divine command. They can say that direct divine commands present themselves with clarity and distinctness, external origination, familiarity, authority, and providential care.

Finally, we should deny another thesis found in some forms of natural law theory, the thesis of eudaemonism that we should choose everything for the sake of happiness. We need instead a dual structure of motivation, according to which happiness is properly one of our ends, but we are also to be moved by what is good in itself independently of our happiness. The notion of happiness is not just pleasure. It includes an ideal element, so that we would not count a person in a pleasure-machine as “really” happy. But it is self-indexed, in the sense that the agent pursues it as her own good, and this makes eudaemonism unacceptably self-regarding.

Various defenses of eudaemonism should be rejected, like this one: happiness includes sympathetic pleasures. This should be rejected because sympathetic pleasures are limited in a way that morality should want to transcend. A second defense is that reason brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. But the notion of reason here simply begs the question. A third defense is to propose that the interests of the whole of creation form a nested hierarchy, so that, if the agent correctly sees this order, she will see that her good is necessarily consistent with the good of the whole. But it’s not hard to think of cases of real conflict, or at least possible conflict, between interests, in which case the question arises of whether any self-indexed good should take the priority. Finally, we can revise the third defense so that the agent perfects herself by identifying with God who is self-transcending. But, if she thereby loses attachment to self-indexed goods, this revision becomes unacceptably self-neglecting. We need a dual structure of motivation. We should hold that happiness and morality are indeed conjoined, but not because of some necessity in the nature of happiness or in the nature of morality, but because of the free benevolence of the supersensible author of nature.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.5, “Transcending our Evolutionary Situation with God”

 Photo by  Mahkeo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

The story at the beginning of this chapter was treated as a Kant-like translation from biblical theology into the language of contemporary (non-theological) anthropology, though it is still a story and not science. We can now go back and put God back into the story, and doing so helps make sense of the story. We can do this in three moments: the encounter, the command, and the punishment.

First of all, God meets our ancestors, though they were probably not monotheists. The story described this in terms of awe and joy. When we feel awe, we have a sense of something’s greatness, and this requires some standard of comparison. There are many kinds of greatness. Kant distinguishes, for example, between the mathematical sublime that responds to greatness in amount and the dynamic sublime that responds to greatness in power. Both kinds of greatness can make everything else seem small by comparison. It is probably impossible to specify a kind of greatness that is the object of all kinds of awe. But it’s plausibly something personal early on. We’re looking after all at agency detection. Such awe is something like reverence. It doesn’t go far enough to say one respects the Torah, and “respect” may also not be adequate as a translation of Kant’s Achtung, which is the feeling occasioned by the moral law that we “recognize as God’s command.”

Bringing in an encounter with God at this first moment explains how we might arrive at the silencing or subordinating of self-interest. Suppression is not the same as subordinating. It doesn’t mean that in the presence of what is good in itself we lose the affection for advantage, but its salience can be radically decreased. This produces a double-source account of motivation. The encounter with divinity might have been with something experienced as great, not merely terrifying but deeply attractive (in Otto’s terms of fascinans as well as tremendum).

The second moment at which God enters the story is the command. This command, in the story, is not connected in any intelligible way with nature. We are invited to think that God selects within the divine prerogative (arbitrium) the fruit as a test, and the test is to see whether the humans will try to usurp the divine function of establishing what is good and bad, or what is right and wrong. For present purposes, the significant feature of the command is that it is not deducible from our nature or from any nature, and it can therefore stand in for the whole series of divine commands that are within God’s arbitrium in the same way. The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response. But, if we generalize to all the divine commands for which we do not see the whole reason, we get some sense of how introducing God into the picture might help from an explanatory point of view.

The third moment is God’s punishment. In Genesis there is expulsion from the Garden, and the condemnation to wearisome work, pain in childbirth, and distorted sexual relations. Despite the punishment, there’s hope that continues, and an ongoing high moral demand. The theistic version of the story tells us that divine punishment doesn’t exclude divine love, and that God intervenes in our predicament to rescue us. The possibility of that redemption is already implicit in the original encounter, but is made explicit in the form of covenant. God goes on making initiatives towards us, and we go on refusing them. Redemption returns us to the argument from grace in Chapter 1.

It’s not surprising that the story fits the theistic explanation, because the original version had God as a central character. But to the extent that the translated version fits what actually happened to our ancestors, it is significant if a theistic explanation is coherent and helpful. Evolutionary psychology gives us an excellent background against which to see why bringing in God might give us a good explanation. There is a fit between what we need and what God’s presence, guidance, and assistance give to us.

Hare now goes back through the discussions of evolutionary psychology to see how our situation as evolved makes some independent guidance helpful. In terms of Greene, we need something both to include us, so that we can get beyond the tragedy of the commons, and to push us beyond the group, so that we do not end up with mere within-group altruism. The failures in psychological altruism that Kitcher posits as the origin of ethics infect both our intra-group and our inter-group lives, and we can see the preachments of the great religious traditions helping us with both. In Arnhart we see our devotion to the competitive goods such as wealth, power, and honor. We have seen Haidt’s claim that because of our evolutionary background we care more about reputation than about truth or sincerity, and that our reasoning is often better seen as an “inner lawyer” managing this reputation than an “inner scientist” trying to work out what is right to do. We have seen Greene’s claim that from an evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are designed for selecting rewarding behaviors.

We don’t have to accept all of these claims in order to conclude that even within the group our ability to care for others is fragile. Our list of failures could be expanded to include unrighteous anger, importunate lust, and craven fear. To make such a list is not “Calvinistic Sociobiology,” because it’s consistent with saying that we also have tendencies to the good, “better angels” of our nature, so that we end up a mixture. But we need something other than just an appeal to our nature to get us to follow the parts of the mixture that we should follow and not the parts we should not.

Now consider the preachments of the traditions. God is luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant, and the law of the Lord is cast in the same terms, giving light and cleansing us, to be rejoiced in, more than gold or honey. The Sermon on the Mount is full of commands that go inside the mind. The Qur’an says to give money to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, etc. In all these ways, the resources of religious traditions have responded to the problems within groups posed by our evolutionary heritage. The same is true of the second class of psychological-altruism failures between groups. For Greene, the tragedy of our between-group hostility can be overcome by utilitarianism, but he cuts this school off from its theological roots and the common ground they provide. A variety of commands takes the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths towards a universal morality. These faiths both include their adherents into a community, and then push them beyond it.

Does the picture of divine command, mixed natural capacity, and divine assistance actually work to produce morally better lives in those who accept it? There is some empirical evidence that the answer is “Yes.” Shared religious life binds people together. More importantly, Robert Putnam and David Campbell compared how religious and non-religious Americans behave in terms of giving money and time to charities and social organizations. The religious Americans gave more money not just to religious organizations but to the American Cancer Society, and they volunteered not just in church and synagogue and mosque but in civic associations across the board. They conclude, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

When we look at the great movements towards the recognition of human value over the last sixty years, we will often find a religious motivation. Hare is thinking of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, and the Lutherans in East Germany and the fall of the totalitarian state. Why is this? Hare suggests it’s because of the nature of the God they worship. It’s true that belonging to a community is very important, but the God of Abraham not only includes us in community but pushes us out beyond community, to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized who are the object of God’s care just as much as we are. God commands both the inclusion and the moving-out. And these do not need to be competing goals.

What Needs Explanation



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.  


Matt Dillahunty, David Baggett Discuss an Abductive Moral Argument


On Thursday night, David Baggett and Matt Dillahunty held a live discussion on the abductive version of the moral argument. Many are familiar with the deductive form of the argument:

1. If there are objective moral values and duties, then God exists. 

2. There are objective moral values and duties. 

3. Therefore, God exists. 

The deductive version can be a powerful and effective argument for the existence of God, but Baggett and Walls suggest that there are some contexts where the abductive version has the advantage. In particular, the abductive argument requires substantive interaction with rival accounts of the moral facts. This means that the abductive argument will engage and invite engagement at a different level than the deductive argument. Abductive arguments aim to find the best explanation of certain facts from a range of hypotheses. This search for the "best explanation" encourages the atheist to offer her own explanation of the moral facts which can then be compared with the theistic explanation to determine which theory best fits the facts. This is the kind of moral argument presented in Baggett and Walls' Good God and God and Cosmos

In this discussion with Dillahunty and Baggett, a number of topics were covered. But one might divide the debate into two main sections: 1. An Exploration of Abduction and 2. Why Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations.

Thank you to Capturing Christianity for hosting this discussion. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4.2, “Philip Kitcher”


Hare thinks Kitcher’s book The Ethical Project is ideally suited to the purposes of the present chapter. He argues for a pragmatist naturalism that is governed by the principle “No Spooks,” including God, but also a realm of values, faculties of ethical perception, and “pure practical reason” (in Kant’s phrase). Although Kitcher’s book isn’t an argument against God’s existence, he does briefly give two reasons for denying the existence of God. They are (first) that not all religions can be true because they contradict each other, and there is no core set of doctrines holding them all together, and (second) that the methods by which people reach religious belief are unreliable. Hare’s book has, in addition to pointing out overlaps between the Abrahamic faiths, defended a view of general revelation according to which all human beings get enough revelation of the divine nature to be without excuse if they reject God, even though they do not all have an innate sense of a single God.

In general, it doesn’t follow from the fact that some set of beliefs contains beliefs that contradict each other that they are all false, any more than disagreements across time about scientific claims show that all scientific claims are false. As to the claim about the unreliability of the methods by which humans reach their religious beliefs, Hare’s argued that the methods are natural to us, though not infallible. He’s also written about some of the ways internal to theology for correcting some of these beliefs. So we can’t settle the question of whether the communication with that divine being is reliable independently of a view about the existence of that being. In any case, the important question for the present chapter is not the truth of atheism but what follows for ethics from the assumption that God does not exist.

Kitcher starts from a distinction between different types of altruism. The most important for understanding the ethical project is “psychological altruism,” which differs from “biological altruism” and “behavioral altruism.” Psychological altruism involves the intention to promote what are taken to be the wishes or the interests of others. Kitcher suggests that ethics arises as a means of reducing psychological-altruism failure. In the kinds of groups that we can imagine our first human ancestors to have formed, it was crucial for survival to be able to trust each other not to defect from the various forms of cooperation that constituted their way of life.

One key step in this development is what Kitcher calls “normative guidance,” which is defined in terms of the ability to apprehend and obey commands. He makes the reception of supposed divine commands central to the development of ethics, even though he thinks there is no transcendent being to give such commands. He makes it clear that he thinks fear is the central original motivation, the fear of divine punishment. Unless there were sanctions for disobedience, fear could hardly be central to the initial capacity for normative guidance. This fear then gets internalized as conscience, and the commanding voice seems to come from within, initially and crudely as the expression of fears.

Hare notes a difficulty here. On the supposition that our original human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it’s important to notice that the hunter-gatherer societies that we know about do not, on the whole, have moralizing high gods. After various principled exclusions, out of over 1250 societies, 23 societies are left in the sample (among those early hunter-gatherers), and of these only one has “moralizing high gods,” the Yahgan or Yamana. Hare thinks this matters because it suggests that worship of the divine is much older than what the narrative about an “unseen enforcer” implies. The idea that humans invented gods in order to enforce the law has a long tradition behind it, but the anthropological evidence doesn’t support this. The societies that didn’t have moralizing high gods may have had “enforcers,” but equally some emotion other than fear of punishment may have been the primary emotion involved in their religion. Something like awe or respect or reverence is a good candidate. This would make ancient religion more continuous with our own. We would then need to ask what accounts for this phenomenon. An encounter with God is one explanation, though not the only one. What is remarkable in Kitcher’s account is the absence of any recognition, especially for educated people, of the human desire for the divine. It’s striking that a central desire of so many of the world people both educated and not, and both now and in our history, is here excluded.

Another reason for worrying about making fear of punishment central to religion is that this makes it contradictory to think, in Kant’s phrase, of “recognizing our duties as divine commands.” Kant gives an argument in the Groundwork that we can’t base our duties on fear of divine punishment. But this is quite different from respecting God as the head of the kingdom of ends, who can maintain the system in which good is rewarded and evil is punished. The moral agent needs the state to punish, but not because her moral motivation is fear of punishment. Rather, she values freedom, and values punishment as a “hindrance to the hindrances to freedom.” The moral agent is to aim at the highest good (union of virtue and happiness), and this requires the belief that the system by which virtue is consistent with happiness is in place and the apparent disproportion of virtue and happiness that we experience in this life is not final. Hare, then, wants to distinguish two different motivations. One is fear, because punishment can force the costs of free-riding above the costs of cooperation. The other (more satisfactory to the Kantian) is hope: a belief in punishment is part of a belief in a world morally governed. There is a difference between being motivated by a fear of divine punishment and being motivated by love of justice, which is a system that divine punishment maintains.

When Kitcher comes to consider concrete cases where ethical decision is influenced by religious faith, he is concerned to deny that these cases involve anything like ethical “insight.” He has two reasons for saying this in the case of Quaker John Woolman’s realization about the wrongness of slavery. One is that Woolman is reflecting on the New Testament and not directly on experience, and the other is that he doesn’t mention the name of the slave whose sale “afflicted” his mind. But neither reason is persuasive.

Having accepted that divine command theory may reflect a deep fact about cultural competition, Kitcher rejects it. He has four main objections. The first is Plato’s argument from the Euthyphro. The main problem here is that he has not considered the versions of divine command theory that navigate between the horns of Plato’s dilemma. Mackie had already seen how to do this, and there are excellent versions in Adams and Evans. A second objection is that we get an infinite regress if we ask, “Why should we obey a divine command?” Recall Scotus’s answer is that God is to be loved (and so obeyed) is knowable from its terms (and so does not require prior justification).

A third objection is from horrible commands such as the commands to kill Isaac or slaughter the Canaanites. Abraham’s situation is quite different from ours. He points to Wolterstorff’s claim that the stories might be fictional, and to Baggett and Walls’ discussion in Good God.  The fourth objection is that religion leads to hierarchy of an oppressive sort, and so undermines what Kitcher takes to be our initial situation of equality. But Hare argues that such a hierarchy can’t be essential to religion (for it wasn’t a feature of the religion of hunter-gatherers). Religion, just like any social phenomenon, can be used for violent and oppressive purposes, but also for peacefulness and inclusion. We can add that the corruption of the best is often the worst.

Kitcher’s answer to the normative question is that humans have throughout history had an ethical project whose method can be idealized in a certain way, and that we need to appreciate how central the ethical project is to human life. But the skeptic may ask why he should be bound by the rules emerging from this project. Why adopt any ethical tradition? Kitcher’s answer to the normative question belongs in the same family as Greene’s (“We can grasp the principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”) The ethical project is central to human life, as we observe it, but so is self-preference. Our nature as evolved is a mixture. That is exactly why we need ethics; we are best by psychological-altruism failure on all sides.

The most important point may be that Kitcher thinks that ruling out any false beliefs about the natural world means that any modification of ethical practice invoking the commands of an allegedly transcendent being would rightly be rejected and excluded from the outset. Religious conviction, which is to say most people’s conviction, does not even get into the conversation. But surely, Hare counters, what we need are the conditions for settling disagreements on these central concerns without assuming religious grounds don’t even make the threshold for conditional mutual engagement. Kitcher’s account of ethical method would be a great deal more plausible, and more consistent with his overall pragmatism, if he allowed that religious disagreements could be consistent with conditional mutual engagement in this way.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4, "Transcending our Evolutionary Situation without God"

This section attempts to bridge the gap between natural selection and moral obligation without bringing God into the picture. It looks at two figures: Joshua Greene and then Philip Kitcher.

8.4.1 “Joshua Greene”

Hare begins with Joshua Green’s book Moral Tribes. The governing metaphor of the book is that of two tragedies, which Greene calls the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of common-sense morality. The tragedy of the commons is a multi-person cooperation problem. Morality is thought to be given to us by evolution to solve such dilemmas by cooperating because we can trust each other to do so at least to some significant degree. Something like the Golden Rule facilitates cooperation, but why be committed to such a rule? Perhaps brotherly affection, or a tit-for-tat agreement. Or they may be friends, or care about reputation, or may fear the other’s built-in irrational desire for vengeance.

But also, we have at least a small amount of care for strangers and a readiness to help them “hard-wired” into us, and Greene claims that such “neighborliness” can be found in other primates and even in capuchin monkeys. The problem is that tribal loyalty and self-interest are stronger. For the first of these (tribal loyalty), Green quotes the anthropologist Donald Brown, whose survey of human cultural differences and similarities identified in group bias and ethnocentrism as universal. For the second (self-interest), he quotes studies on what he calls “biased fairness” in which our perception of reality and fairness is unconsciously distorted by self-interest.

The tragedy of common-sense morality, on the other hand, results from a higher-order dilemma. Imagine different tribes who’ve come to accept different moral pictures. What seems common sensical to one tribe isn’t to another. The point of this parable is that the situation of these tribes is our situation. What we need to find is a metamorality that can adjudicate conflict between us. Once we see the evolutionary forces that gave rise to morality we can “climb the ladder of evolution and then kick it away,” as Wittgenstein says about his method in the Tractatus. Greene argues that the unnatural metamorality we should end up with is utilitarianism. This is because utilitarianism trades only in the currency that is common to all the tribes, and that currency is happiness and its maximization.

The picture raises three questions, deriving from the three arguments in Chapter 1: the arguments from providence, grace, and justification. Consider them in reverse order. Why should I regard the conclusions of this metamorality as binding on me? This is Korsgaard’s so-called normative question. The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? The third question is how can I reasonably believe that moving to this metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way? This question focuses on the cost of the moral demand, construing it as Green does in a utilitarian way.

The first question asks for a justification. How can Greene justify the claim that we should live under his form of the moral demand? He rules out religion, but the exclusion is unfortunate, because it deprives him of resources for justification that he needs. It’s hard to find accurate figures, but one estimate is that, by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will belong, at the present rate of change, to one of the major religions. Surely we should be looking at the resources of those religions to see if they can help us with common currency.

It is significant here that Greene has distorted the history of utilitarianism by excising its religious roots. He says it was founded by Bentham and Mill, but he ignores Hutcheson, who first writes of the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers, and especially Paley, whose work preceded Bentham and indeed the success of whose book at Cambridge provoked Bentham to write his own version of the theory. The point is that utilitarianism starts with Christians, and works out the view that, as Butler puts it, benevolence, especially God’s benevolence, seems in the strictest sense to include in it all that is good and worthy. Bentham, but not Mill, is cutting himself off from the roots of his own theory. Indeed, the prizing of benevolence is common currency to all areas of the world in which the five major religions have established a significance presence.

What is Greene’s answer to the normative question? There are various question-begging answers. One is that strengthening our sympathies for distant strangers is the honest response, the enlightened response to world hunger. But the striking thing is that he does not squarely face this question. At one point he implies this: the love of what is good simply because it is good, which Scotus calls the affection for justice. But there is a problem here. There is another abstract principle behind nature’s working, namely, competitive self-replication. Nature is a mixture. We can’t generate a justification of the obligation to follow a universalistic moral demand just from the principles behind nature’s working because we need to know which principles to invoke.

The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? Here again Greene doesn’t provide an answer, and he concedes our brains weren’t designed to care deeply about the happiness of strangers. He thinks Hume’s right that reason is the slave, but he wants to allow more space than Haidt to reason. He wants reason to be able to transcend the emotions, which he regards as automatic processes that tell us what to do.

But if our reasoning process starts from emotional inputs as its premises, and this input is contaminated in the way Greene says it is, how is the processing supposed to give us pure utilitarian theory as its output for how we should live our lives? We are dealing here with a mysterious emergent property. But Hume’s a telling case here. He concedes that if we had a society in which those whom we exploited were not able to harm us because of their weakness, we would not be moved by any abstract principle of justice to end the exploitation, even if they resented it. We might hope to be moved by the calm passions of compassion and kindness, but the reach of our natural endowment of these is, as Greene acknowledges, significantly limited. What is supposed to get us to accept a higher standard?

What creates the problem here is the combination of optimism about the new metamorality with pessimism about the input processed by our reasoning. One solution is to be more optimistic about the sentiments. Frans de Waal has criticized the denigration within sociobiology of human moral capacity, and called this kind of denigration “Calvinist,” tracing the view back to Calvin’s picture of the total depravity of human beings. The roots of morality, he thinks, lie in empathy and reciprocity, and are already present in primate sociality. For de Waal, the philosophical defender of moral sentiments is again Hume, and the enemy is Kant. But de Waal is not consistent in what he says about religion. He concedes that there is no human culture without religion, though humans had social norms before they had our current major religions, and he says that, if we were able to excise religion from society, it is doubtful that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. This means that, ironically, in terms of the second question, at least sometimes he says we need religion (just as Kant does), even though he is not himself a religious person. It also means that our sentiments in the absence of religion are not sufficient to take us to a morally good life.

The third question asks how I can reasonably believe that moving to this utilitarian metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way. Something like an argument from providence can be found in both Mill and Sidgwick, Mill in Three Essays on Religion, and Sidgwick at the very end of Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick, though, doesn’t endorse the solution, though the problem it addresses is recognized as a real problem. A utilitarian needs to have something to say about how prudence (understood as the pursuit of one’s own happiness) is consistent with the moral demand (understood as the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number). Without an argument like this it is not clear how Greene can hold his utilitarian metamorality and the pursuing of individual happiness are consistent.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.4, “Paul Bloom”

This subsection is about a different kind of anti-realism, namely, anti-realism about God. It examines the question whether evolutionary psychology gives us any reason to doubt the existence of God. Since the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God is a presupposition of much of the literature Hare’s been considering, he thinks it’s worth discussing.

Bloom says that religion emerges as a by-product of certain highly structured systems that have evolved for understanding the social world. Another term sometimes used here is that religion is a “spandrel effect,” where the spandrel is the space (sometimes decorated) between the outer curve of an arch and the angle formed by the moldings enclosing it, so that the spandrel does not itself bear weight. Religion would be like the ability to understand calculus, not itself emerging because of adaptive claims, but made possible by faculties that did emerge in this way. Bloom says he’s trying to explain universal religious belief here, not those that vary from one culture to another, and not religious rituals.

There are two tendencies with which humans have evolved that are relevant here. The first is what Justin Barrett calls a “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD). Our tendency to find agency around us has no doubt arisen for survival reasons: “Better to guess that the sound in the bushes is an agent (such as a person or tiger) than assume it isn’t and become lunch.” The second tendency, less firmly established, is that we implicitly endorse a strong substance dualism of soul and body, of the kind defended by Plato and Descartes, and that this endorsement is a by-product of our possession of two distinct cognitive systems—one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities. These tendencies might produce a belief that there is a supernatural agent behind natural phenomena and that this agent like our own souls is spiritual and not bodily.

Hare considers what the theological implications would be of Bloom being right about these two side effects. We can generally explore why people form the beliefs they do without that settling the question whether the beliefs are true. But in this case, the origins of the belief would cast its truth into question. Not unlike Freud’s argument that it would be irrational to believe in something just because one desperately wanted for it to be true.

So what is the bearing on the rationality of religious belief of the claim that there is an explanation of such belief from the two side effects? We should ask what kind of psychological explanation would resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation, and whether the present explanation is one of these. It’s hard to give a general account, but perhaps this much is true. A psychological explanation of some phenomenon would resist such incorporation if it postulated a kind of causation of that phenomenon that would be inappropriate for God to employ. But there is no reason to think that it is inappropriate for God to use randomness, in the sense in which this is part of evolutionary theory. There is no reason to think that God would not allow us to acquire our basic cognitive capacities by random mutation plus natural selection.

So far this is a merely defensive maneuver. But perhaps more can be said. Following Justin Barrett’s work, we might suggest that the hypersensitive agency detection device is a form of access to religious belief that fits our nature well. In this book Hare has been arguing that the moral law, though it can’t be deduced from our nature, fits that nature well. Now we can suggest the same about our theistic belief acquisition. Barrett links the agency detection device with a set of subsystems designed to carry out particular tasks important for our survival. Concepts that are “minimally counter-intuitive” given the operation of these subsystems will seem plausible, and will be easily remembered and transmitted. This does not mean that these subsystems always yield true beliefs. We can’t deduce the truth of a belief from its deliverance by one of these subsystems. But these beliefs fit our nature, as constituted by these systems, exceedingly well.

For example, belief in a super-knowing god may be natural, helping account for children being “intuitive theists.” Barrett also suggests plausibly that the connection between God and moral concerns is intuitive as well. In other words, the theist can legitimately hold that God chooses means for our access to divine command that are not inappropriate but entirely fitting to our nature, the kind of means that we would expect creatures with cognitive subsystems like ours to use. Hare says we should conclude that at least from the evidence marshalled in the present section, there’s no demonstration that belief in God is irrational.


John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.3, “Sharon Street”

In 2006 Sharon Street published an article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” which has been the subject of a considerable literature in reply. Her argument relies on the primary claim that our normative dispositions—that is, our dispositions to form certain normative beliefs rather than others—are (largely) selected because they have some natural property. For example, perhaps they contribute to reproductive success by promoting certain kinds of cooperation. But from the perspective of realism, accepting this claim defeats our epistemic entitlement to our normative beliefs, because we will come to be aware of the unlikely reliability of the processes that shaped those beliefs.

This is the Darwinian dilemma: the realist has either to deny the primary claim or to concede that her “normative judgments are, by her own lights, irrational.” She’s not arguing for skepticism or for the impossibility of ethical knowledge. Rather, she is trying to show that, if there is to be ethical knowledge, it has to be understood on an anti-realist model. Her point is that all that natural selection needs is our beliefs in the normative facts, not the normative facts themselves. If our normative and theological beliefs are largely the product of our evolutionary history, fitness-enhancing beliefs about morality and gods will be adopted, regardless of whether they are, in the realist sense, true or false. Even if a particular belief is false, it may promote genetic propagation.

This is the challenge. But there is a good response to it. Even if we grant that natural selection has given us normative belief-forming dispositions that are not truth-tracking, and that have in fact given us a mixture of “nasty” belief-forming dispositions and corresponding behaviors alongside other “nicer” ones, and even if we grant that therefore our normative beliefs are unreliable to the extent that they are given to us by natural selection, nothing follows about how many of our normative beliefs are formed in this way.

Consider the analogy with mathematical beliefs. To what extent do we have the ability to track truths about non-linear algebra? The point is that, even if we get our cognitive equipment from evolution, we can use that equipment to reach beliefs that are independent of adaptive value. It remains possible that cultural evolution has been operating to refine our normative stance in a truth-tracking way. If we use the phrase “cultural evolution” loosely, we can make the point that admitting a significant initial effect of biological evolution on belief formation does not license the conclusion that natural selection is the sole force in all our belief formation thereafter.

The initial effect of natural selection is still relevant, because, if we were given cognitive equipment that was hopelessly and permanently vitiated, then we could not hope to use this equipment to discriminate subsequently between the beliefs in the initial mixture that we should endorse and the ones we should reject. We would be, so to speak, fatally handicapped. But there is no reason to think our situation is hopeless in this way.

Are our current normative disposition all simply products of natural selection and not (partly or wholly) products of experience, reflection, and reasoning guided by moral reality as such? This is a metaphysical question, not one proper to science in its own domain. Ruse’s recognition of this separates him from Mackie. We need to distinguish the claims of science and the claims of “scientism,” which is the attempt, as Ruse puts it, to make science say everything. Metaphysical naturalism claims baldly that there is nothing beyond physical reality, but this is a claim that requires philosophical justification and is not within the proper sphere of science. Street’s argument does not give us any reason to believe that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Image: Australopithecus Afarensis, Lucy. C. Lorenzo. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.2, “Michael Ruse”

Michael Ruse is an anti-realist, in some ways like Mackie, but in other ways different. He thinks ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators. Ruse is a moral skeptic. He does not think the sense of right and wrong has a justification at all. It’s an illusion foisted on us by our genes, like a mirage in the desert.

Yet Ruse is quite optimistic that our moral lives will not be affected by the kind of skepticism he endorses. Hare is skeptical of this, thinking we surely need some kind of justification for morality to answer the “normative question” of the first chapter. Not everybody is consistently moved by the forces of natural selection to cooperate in the way morality requires. Moral obedience is fragile. We do find precursors of the moral sentiments in our non-human ancestors, but we also find defection, and we have inherited both of these tendencies. We are by nature, in this sense, a mixture. But this means we need support from our cultural sources not only for our beliefs about what morality requires, but for our beliefs about why we should comply with it, or endorse it, why it’s valid as a demand on us. There’s evidence in the psychological literature that the force of the moral demand can be undermined by teaching, as Ruse does, that objective morality is an illusion. Saying that ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators is likely to have the same undercutting effect as an egoist ethical theory has on economics students, particularly when morality might call for a sacrifice.

But is it just an unfortunate truth that morality is an illusion? What arguments does Ruse have for his skepticism? He has basically two, and they are versions of the same arguments we saw in Mackie. But here is the irony. Ruse ought not to accept either of them any longer because of differences from his mentor that he has come to have in other parts of his theory.

First, the argument from relativity. Ruse’s form of the argument makes a significant shift from the factual to the counterfactual. Ruse embodies a pendulum swing away from Mackie back to human universals, encoded in our genes (with environmental triggers). He appeals to what he calls “our shared psychological nature,” which includes a sense of right and wrong. So his argument from relativity is counterfactual. We could have had a quite different morality if our evolutionary history had been different. Since evolution could have taken a different path, there can’t be an objective set of values that lies behind our moral practice.

But for a divine command theorist this is not a successful objection. God could use evolution to produce the kind of creatures God wants to have, and this does not deny “random” mutation of the kind that Darwinian evolution proposes. Ruse concedes this, and agrees that a Christian can, consistently with science, “be committed to a form of what is known as the ‘divine command theory’ of metaethics.” But then the fact that humans could have evolved differently does not give us reason to think there is no objective value. Perhaps God willed us to evolve to recognize the values there actually are, and gave us commands to supplement the limits of this evolutionary history.

Ruse’s version of the argument from queerness is similarly undercut by his later concessions. He doesn’t use the term ‘queer’ but he does insist that it’s biological theory that requires us to take the skeptical position about justification. At the causal level, he thinks what’s going on is probably individual selection maximizing our own reproductive ends, and there’s no room here for objective rightness and wrongness. But Mackie was an atheist who thought theism was a “miracle.” Ruse, on the other hand, aims to expose the over-reaching character of some contemporary militant Darwinism that wants to turn science into metaphysics and to make science the arbiter of all truth. Darwinism, he holds, should not try to say everything. Whether there is or is not a God Ruse says he does not know, and science doesn’t tell him. Such claims go beyond science. He says in light of modern science someone can be a Christian and that he sees no arguments to the contrary.

To be consistent, though, Ruse should say the same of objective morality. Mackie’s argument from queerness required the premise that anything that has causal relations with the world must be accessible to science. Ruse at least sometimes now wants to deny this, and if he denies it then the foundation of the argument from queerness disappears. There’s a tension in Ruse’s thought that can be resolved by rejecting the skeptical hold-over from the less generous views of his mentor.

Here is a general principle worth emphasizing. Antagonism to realist claims in ethics or theology that made sense against the background of a thoroughgoing reductive empiricism makes no sense once that kind of empiricism is rejected.


Image: "Australopithecus sedibaby B. Eloff. Courtesy Profberger and Wits University who release it under the terms below. - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10094681


John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.1, "Evolution and Anti-Realism"

This section explores whether evolutionary psychology gives us a reason to be anti-realists, either about value or about God. The first of these forms of anti-realism rejects the view described earlier as “prescriptive realism.” According to prescriptive realism, when we make moral judgments we are both expressing some attitude of the will or desire and claiming that evaluative reality is a certain way independently of our judgment, so that our judgment is appropriate to it. The second part of this, the realism, is at stake in the present context. Mackie, Ruse, and Street will be covered. The second form of anti-realism is about God, and the fourth part of this section, concerning Paul Bloom, will focus specifically on this.

8.3.1 “John Mackie”

We begin with John Mackie’s argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. His first sentence is, “There are no objective values.” He was Humean (like Haidt), and thought our tendency to believe in objective value results from what Hume called the mind’s “propensity to spread itself on external objects” together with the pressure of our sociality. He proposed an error theory, “that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.” In other words, Mackie conceded that realists are right about what moral language means, but he held that nonetheless what people mean when they make moral judgments is always false.

He conceded if DCT were true then moral judgments that claim objective prescriptivity would also be true, but he was an atheist and thought DCT false. He was also opposed to Kant’s universalism, and behind this to the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is simply impracticable, and inconsistent with human nature, he thought, because “a large element of selfishness—or, in an older terminology, self-love—is a quite ineradicable part of human nature,” and it’s doubtful any agency could effect the fundamental changes that would be needed to make practicable a morality of universal concern.

Mackie offered two arguments against realism, which he called the “argument from relativity” and the “argument from queerness.” The first says moral views are too diverse for us to suppose plausibly that we are all receptors of the same objectively prescriptive values beaming down to us. They rather seem to reflect participation in different ways of life.

But in reply, Hare says on DCT it’s unsurprising to find substantial variation in the reception of divine commands. First, in Kant’s language, we are born under the evil maxim, so that we have, in addition to the predisposition to good, the propensity to evil. The closer a faculty is to our heart or will, the more likely the faculty is to be distorted in its perceptions by the preference for our own happiness over what is good in itself, independently of its relation to ourselves. There are manifold ways in which it’s possible to get value perceptions wrong, and so there is manifold variety in moral views.

The contrast with color perception is interesting here. Though there are marginal differences in how different people split up the spectrum, there’s large-scale agreement.

Second, what God commands one set of people, or one person within a group, may be different from what God commands another.

A third important point is that Mackie may have been wrong about the amount of variety. The pendulum seems to have swung back within evolutionary psychology to the acknowledgment of human universals. It’s surprising in fact how much agreement there seems to be on basic principles between cultures, though the details and application of these principles vary substantially.

The argument from queerness is that the objectively prescriptive values that realism proposes and their effects on us are very strange things, not easily related to any kind of causation we know about within science. The simpler explanation is a subjectivist one. The notion of something objective in the world like rightness and wrongness is, in Mackie’s terms, “queer,” by which he meant inexplicable by scientific theory. He accepted that it might make sense if we believed in a God who was prescribing, but science acknowledges, in his view, no such thing.

Hare adds that Mackie was right to point out that a theist has less reason than an atheist to be an anti-realist about value. A divine command theorist already believes in a divine spiritual person outside normal science. She will still have valid questions about how a spiritual being communicates with material beings like us, but she will be less inclined to think such communication is impossible.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.2, “Evolution and Reducing the Moral Demand”

The first way of thinking about the relation between evolution and morality is that evolution shows the idea of impartial benevolence to be utopian. 8.2.1 covers the views of Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart.

8.2.1 “Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart”

Here Hare looks at two attempts to oppose a Kantian or universal morality on the basis that it is unrealistic for our present condition, given our evolutionary endowment. Herbert Spencer is now deeply unpopular because of the use that was made of his eugenic ideas in the twentieth century. For Spencer, as Michael Ruse puts it, what holds as a matter of fact among organisms holds as a matter of obligation among humans. The relevant fact about organisms is the struggle for existence, and the consequent weeding out of the less fit, Spencer says.

He disparages efforts of those who advocated in the name of a universal humanitarianism for intervention by the state to counteract the effects of the unregulated market in 19th century Britain. In Germany this idea of the law of struggle was taken up, notoriously by Hitler in Mein Kampf. National Socialism took up also the idea of encouraging the natural order by which imbecile and unfit parts of the population are eliminated, and the highest form of life flourishes. Spencer didn’t think this natural order of struggle was permanent. He was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, and he thought that there would be human progress through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that the lower forms of human life most given to violence would decline, and we would end with universal peace. Still, in our current situation, he thought that we should let the order of nature weed out the unfit also in human society, since we are part of nature.

The particular application to eugenics and laissez-faire economics is not the important thing for our present purposes, but the general principle that we should follow our biological nature. Chapter 4 argued against what it called “deductivism,” the principle that we can deduce our moral obligations from human nature. The present principle is a species of deductivism, telling us that we can tell how we ought to live by looking at the nature of organisms in general, since we are organisms. The trouble with this principle is that the nature of organisms in general, and human nature in particular, contains characteristics that, when promoted in human society, produce evil as well as good by Kantian and utilitarian standards. To say this is not so much to argue against Spencer as to display some of the consequences of his view, and the same is true of Larry Arnhart. (Both thinkers seem to be aware of this.)

This deductivism is clearly displayed in Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, a work Hare earlier compared with Foot’s Natural Goodness. The governing principle of Arnhart’s book is that the definition of the good as the desirable (as in Aquinas) means that the good is what is generally desired, or what most people in every society throughout our time on earth have in fact desired. Arnhart claims that evolution has given us these desires because of their adaptive value, and he lists twenty of them. The claim is not that these desires are universal, because there can be defective individuals who lack them. But the principle of his book is that only if a desire is general in the above sense, or is a specification or application of such a desire, is its fulfillment good. The normative theory that results is one, he claims, that enables us to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. He intends a contrast here with Christianity, which invokes the supernatural in explaining how we should live. And he faults Darwin for having been misled by the prevailing universal humanitarianism of his time into a utopian yearning for an ideal moral realm that transcends nature, a yearning that contradicts Darwin’s general claim that human beings are fully contained within the natural order. Arnhart doesn’t deny that humans have a natural sympathy for others, but, though sympathy can expand to embrace ever-larger groups based on some sense of shared interests, this will always rest on loving one’s own group as opposed to other groups. Arnhartian morality will always be, in the language of Chapter 3, self-indexed.

The important point for present purposes is that the list of twenty natural desires doesn’t include disinterested benevolence or the love of the enemy, and therefore the theory can’t say that the fulfillment of such desires or preferences is good. It’s significant that Aristotle is Arnhart’s philosophical hero, to whom he continually appeals. Aristotle thinks an admirable human life usually requires wealth and power and high status, and he may be right about the desires we’re born with, but it doesn’t follow that he’s right in his inference that the fulfillment of this ranking is good. The thesis of Hare’s book has been that “following nature” in this way is not a good alternative to following Kantian or Christian morality.



By David Baggett and Jonathan Pruitt  Goodness is a broader category than moral goodness. One way to show the conceptual distinction, even if organic connections or family resemblances obtain between them, is that something is good to the extent it fulfills its intended function. A good car, to use a contemporary example, is good in virtue of and to the extent it provides reliable transportation. In that case, the goodness in question is not moral goodness, of course; but the same general principle, he thought, applied to the moral goodness of persons. The impetus behind this conviction might be a strongly teleological conception of everything in existence, including human beings. On such a view, persons, too, have an intended function, such as being rational beings. Again, to the extent a person fulfills this function, which includes cultivating virtues of character by developing the right sorts of settled dispositions, he is a good, indeed morally good, human being.

A different way to highlight the distinction between goodness per se and moral goodness in particular is by identifying two salient contrasts with goodness: badness and evil. Contrasting goodness with badness primarily pertains to the relative desirability of various states of affairs. A good state of affairs is one that we are positively drawn to, like a pleasant evening filled with mirth, whereas a bad state of affairs is one to which we are averse, like a painful toothache. When goodness is contrasted with evil, however, it is most natural to think of the ascription as applied to persons and their choices or characters. This was the import of Kant’s suggestion that the only unqualified good is a good will, a distinctive feature only of persons; this is arguably the province of moral goodness (Kant 9). So no state of affairs is rightly thought of as morally good or evil per se except in a secondary or derived sense. A hurricane, no matter how intense, is not morally evil in itself despite the havoc it wreaks, because hurricanes don’t have a mind of their own of which we can predicate such a moral property. At most we can say the hurricane is nonmorally bad because of the suffering it produces.

Moral goodness is one type of value; other comparable values traditionally identified include truth and beauty. Moral value is most naturally applicable to persons, but another disambiguation remains in order. Based on their exemplification of various virtues, persons might be thought morally good, but such an ascription remains importantly distinct from the moral worth or value of such persons. Attributing inherent value, dignity, or worth to persons is acknowledging the objective value they possess qua persons. Kant famously contrasted value in this sense with something like a price (Kant 46). An object or service might be worth a certain monetary amount, but treating persons as worth a particular price is irremediably unseemly. Moreover, even morally bad persons presumably still possess intrinsic human value. Such worth does not depend on their moral goodness, which is part of the import of qualifying it as “intrinsic,” in contrast with extrinsic or instrumental value.

An Aristotelian dictum is that the good is that at which all things aim, and in some cases the activity itself is the end (Aristotle 3). In speaking of an activity that is the end itself, part of what Aristotle had in mind is that some activities are worth doing for their own sake. In other words, some activities have intrinsic value. This is one way to flesh out the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods. Money is often used as an example of a merely extrinsic or instrumental value. Rather than valuable in and of itself, its value derives from the fact that it can be exchanged for other goods (that themselves may have either intrinsic or extrinsic value). Whereas moral goodness primarily applies to persons and only secondarily to states of affairs, intrinsic moral value may have a broader primary application than persons alone. Presumably there are goods—for example, human activities like (at least some) friendships—that have intrinsic value.

G. E. Moore offered an “isolation test” that asks what value we would give something if it existed in absolute isolation, stripped of all its usual accompaniments (Moore 187). Of course, a thorny (even if not intractable) challenge in applying such a test is the risk of subtly replacing prescription with description in the thought experiment. H. P. Owen once made a distinction in this vicinity when he wrote that we may use the notion of intrinsic goodness in either a subjective or an objective sense (Owen 22). Calling something an intrinsic good in the subjective sense is to say that it is desirable “in itself,” while in the objective sense it possesses goodness as a property. A back rub might be thought of as an intrinsic good in the subjective sense, desirable in itself, but characterizing it as an objective intrinsic good strains credulity. Any sense in which goodness would inhere in a back rub as a property would not, at any rate, count as an intrinsic moral good.

Equipped with those distinctions, let’s now consider, by turns, the significance, first, of ascribing objective moral value to human persons, and, second, moral goodness to persons. First consider the contemporary Kantian, Christine Korsgaard. Her moral theory is an ostensible attempt at constructivism, which sees itself as an alternative to substantive moral realism. A key part of her interpretation of Kantian ethics is to fill in the content of potential maxims with agents’ existential commitments, practical identities, based in a sense of who people think they are. Such reflective endorsements can rectify the criticism of Kant’s categorical imperative that it is too formal and abstract to give a determinate enough sense of content to the moral law.

However, since not everyone would choose a sense of practical identity consistent with recognition of the dignity and value of other persons—think of a person whose self-identity is as a member of the Mafia—Korsgaard claims that “our identity as moral beings—as people who value themselves as human beings—stands behind our more particular practical identities” (Korsgaard 121). But Korsgaard’s attempt to do justice to the Kantian principle of respect for others seems to be a tacit recognition of moral realism—that others are in fact worthy of being shown such respect and accorded such dignity. Her effort to provide an alternative to substantive moral realism on this score seems to fail. If valuing is not a response to a property in the thing or action chosen, but merely an expression of one’s identity, morality would also become self-referential, and therefore intolerably narcissistic. Korsgaard is right to affirm that people have intrinsic value grounded simply in the kinds of beings that they are, but this is not constructivism.

Philippa Foot, in her naturalistic account of goodness, also fails to provide an account of the intrinsic moral value of human persons. Foot wants to show that judgments usually considered to be the special subject of moral philosophy really should be seen as belonging to a wider class of evaluations of conduct with which they share a common conceptual structure. In Aristotelian fashion, she argues that happiness is best understood in terms of flourishing, and to flourish is to instantiate the life form of that species. Perhaps the most significant flaw in her analysis is that her account seems to leave unanswered a most fundamental question: Is human flourishing of intrinsic value? She surely thought it was, but can her account explain it? It seems unlikely.

To see why, consider cancer cells, which similarly feature their own natural normativities without such categoricals, however teleologically connected to their survival, implying anything of intrinsic moral value in their survival and flourishing (Foot 48-49). Foot is not suggesting that the biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or even tigers either entail or are predicated on objective moral facts about the value of their survival. Rather, in light of the sorts of entities or species that they are, some behaviors simply conduce better to their flourishing than others.

True enough, but then we’re left with this question: how to effect Foot’s slide from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings? For she is admitting in the case of animals and pestilential creatures that her analysis is neither based on the assumption of, nor logically implies, any intrinsic moral value in their surviving and thriving. Why then is it different for human beings? The insuperable challenge for Foot is to account for such differences with the resources to which she’s limited herself, and it is not at all clear that she can. In fact, in light of what she has said, there are reasons to think that she cannot. If moral value does not follow from the teleologically significant natural normativities of pestilential creatures or animals, then why does it do so in the case of human beings?

Some secular nonnaturalist ethical realists suggest that moral goodness supervenes on natural properties, but among the challenges that sort of attempt encounters is accounting for how physical properties can cause abstract properties to come into existence in light of their qualitative differences. Of course, there’s no shortage of attempts by various secularist theorists to provide accounts of objective values, though an important recurring challenge is accounting adequately for their normative force.

In light of the challenges naturalists and secularists encounter on this score, some consider intrinsic human value and dignity as one of the divine signs that provide a signal of transcendence, a distinct moral phenomenon in need of a substantive enough explanation. How might a classical theist account for the intrinsic value or essential equality of human persons? David Bentley Hart suggests that Christianity gradually succeeded in sowing in human consciences a tenderness of moral intuitions. In contrast to the casual destruction of lives among the ancients, he says that we would do well to reflect that theirs was a more “natural” disposition toward reality. To make even the best of us conscious (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons on us required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls. It was Christian teaching, he argues, that inexorably shows the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within all persons. For those tempted to historical naiveté on this matter, he also issues a sober warning of how precarious and easily forgotten this mystery is that only charity can penetrate (Hart 214).

Christian theists suggest that, on a Christian understanding, the value of human persons is found in the personhood of God. Similarly, Robert Adams thinks that the value of persons derives from what they have in common, a shared, relevant resemblance to God. John Hare partially demurs at this point, however, and in doing so adds an important element about how human dignity can be both intrinsic and derivative. His point is that an account of goodness rooted in God must emphasize not just what good things they share in common but the distinctive ways they are different. For in those very differences are reflections of disparate aspects of God. Human beings aren’t called to reflect God only in virtue of their collective humanity but also as individuals. This is why Hare is skeptical of Moore’s aforementioned isolation test for intrinsic goods, for Hare thinks it isn’t clear that any necessarily-God-maintained good could exist in complete isolation, so as to be the object of the required thought experiment. He suggests instead that a normative property can be intrinsic even if it is necessarily given not just its existence but its goodness by God. Part of his motivation in doing so is his conviction that the good that is the individual’s destination is itself both a relation and a kind of intrinsic good (Hare 188). Whether intrinsic goodness can essentially include such a relational component is a recurring bone of contention between certain secular and religious ethicists.

Turning now to moral goodness, Hart is bold enough to suggest that among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics. Among the challenges naturalists face in accounting for moral goodness and such a longing is the inevitable gap between the best that human beings can morally do by dint of their most valiant efforts at moral improvement and the uncompromising standard of moral goodness. At best humans can experience some finite amount of moral development in their lifetime, but that would leave anything like the hope for unalloyed moral goodness beyond our reach. Secular efforts to close this “moral gap” include lowering the moral demand, exaggerating human capacities, or replacing divine assistance to close the gap with a secular substitute. The Christian doctrine of sanctification recognizes the need for divine assistance without exaggerating human capacities or compromising the moral demand.

This line of thought is most germane to a performative variant of the moral argument for God’s existence, which is closely related to the human need to forgive and to be forgiven and liberated from guilt for failing to meet the standard of moral goodness. Here too the resources of Christian theology, in particular its doctrine of atonement and justification, might be seen as especially effective at providing a sufficiently sturdy solution. H. P. Owen, John Henry Newman, A. E. Taylor, and William Sorley are important examples of ethicists who made a centerpiece of their moral apologetic this component of forgiveness for wrongdoing and freedom from a condition of objective moral guilt. Then, once sins are forgiven, sin itself can be ultimately expunged.

The quest for attaining moral goodness potentially raises what Henry Sidgwick called the “dualism of practical reason.” It seems unavoidable that there are occasions in which conflicts arise between what’s doing what’s good for another and what’s good for oneself, and both impulses are morally legitimate. Sidgwick considered this tension to be fairly intractable for ethics, and the only means he saw of resolving it involved a providential God who ensures that the morally good are also ultimately fulfilled and satisfied people. He himself was unwilling to embrace theism on this account, and chose to live with the intractable tension, while admitting that, without a solution, it’s difficult to see how the moral enterprise is altogether coherent.

Even more foundational than either the performative and rational versions of the moral argument, however, is the metaphysical inquiry into the nature of goodness itself. Secular attempts to offer deflationary accounts of goodness, according to which it is reducible to something else (pleasure, fulfillment, etc.) are legion, but many of these efforts fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy; there’s more to say, of course, but for now let’s set those to the side. A contrasting theistic account here is the Thomistic equation of goodness with being. Being and goodness, on this view, co-refer, picking out the same referent under two different names and descriptions.

A more contemporary example of a distinctively theistic account of moral goodness comes from Robert Adams, who takes intimations of an ultimate good or paradigmatic archetype of goodness and beauty as veridical, akin to beatific visions of God among theists (Adams ch.1). Because of the similarity of these perceptions he thinks it only natural that an Anselmian theist would take God himself to be what is apprehended in those moments (Adams 45). Rather than a Kantian, Aristotelian, or utilitarian theory of the good, his theistic Platonic account sees an infinite and transcendent good, understood as God himself, as foundational to the right axiological account. His theory comes from an extensive argument canvassing the language and phenomenology of moral experience, and entails that finite goods are good in virtue of somehow resembling or otherwise participating in goodness itself.

Of course, these are just a few examples of a theistic account of the good, but their underlying shared intuition is important. It resonates with key features of goodness. The source of moral goodness must plausibly be perfectly good, as an omnibenevolent God is, which distinguishes the operative theology from that of the fallible and finite gods of, say, the Greek pantheon riddled with foibles and caprice. God qualifies as the best account of both the first and final cause of moral goodness.

A common view of many historical Christian thinkers is that God is the Good itself, and that all things but God are good by participation. The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought (cf. Augustine 114ff, 1998). Augustine endorses the classical moral psychology, according to which we do all that we do in relation to what we take to be our summum bonum, God himself: “Here the supreme good is sought, the good to which we refer everything that we do, desiring it not for the sake of something else, but for its very own sake. Obtaining it, we require nothing further in order to be happy. It is truly called the ‘end,’ because we want everything else for the sake of this, but this we want only for itself” (Augustine 63-64, 1994).



Adams, Robert 1999. Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1998. The Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1994. Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Foot, Philippa 2003. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hare, John E. 2015. God’s Command. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hart, David Bentley 2015. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kant, Immanuel 2012. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition.

Korsgaard, Christine 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacDonald, Scott, ed., 1991. Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moore, G. E. 1903/1993. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, John 2006. Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Owen, H. P. 1954. The Moral Argument for Christian Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.



Further Readings

Ewing, A. C. 1973. Value and Reality: The Philosophical Case for Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Kinghorn, Kevin 2016. A Framework for the Good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.







John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.1, “The Story”

This first section tells a story about the origins of our morality. The story is just a story, not history or science. The story is not, however, merely fiction. The aim is to embed elements of the essential structure of the story at the beginning of Genesis about the Garden of Eden in an account whose details are mostly drawn from contemporary (non-theological) anthropology. It is still a story or myth, telescoping what a scientific account would spread over hundreds of thousands of years. The story does not mention God, but the fifth section of the chapter suggests that a storyteller who did mention God would provide a satisfying addition from an explanatory point of view. We can see the story as one that an anthropologist might tell her children, or as a Kant-like translation of the biblical story “within the boundaries of mere reason.”

Once upon a time there lived in Central Africa a group of apes. They were different from the groups of apes who lived around them, and they recognized this difference. For one thing, they seemed to be able to think of themselves as a group, and to think of what helped them as a group and what harmed them as a group. They would regularly meet together, and they sometimes had a kind of experience together when they met that also separated them from the other apes. They had an experience of everything belonging together, not just their own group, but everything. And it all seemed to them good and beautiful. Their assemblies gave them great joy and also a sense of awe, and they came to organize their lives together around them. They were able at these times to forget what kept them apart from each other, and to rejoice in what kept them together. Because of their new kind of unity, they were able to invent new cooperative ways to find food, and find new places to live that could sustain their form of life.

There arose among them a symbol for this goodness and beauty they had discovered, and a symbol of how the enjoyment of it distinguished them from the other apes in the old lands. They found themselves refraining from a particular kind of fruit, and this restraint was connected with their distinctive new form of life. Eating this fruit had been typical of the old way, the way of their ancestors, and they now needed to separate off their new way, connected with their new capacities and their new assemblies. They came to think of the fruit as forbidden by their common life, even though there was no reason (other than the symbolic connection) for refraining.

One day, when food was scarce, the elders of the group saw other animals eating the forbidden fruit, and they felt weariness with the restriction and a desire to go back to the old ways. They decided to eat the fruit themselves. This was a decision different in principle from eating the fruit in the old life, even though it was a decision to eat the same food, because it was now a decision against the authority of the common standard for their lives that they had accepted.

When they had made this decision, they found consequences that were natural but unexpected. One was that they lost the joy in their assemblies together. They also found their sexual lives changed. Before, they had been so conscious of what held them together as a group that they had not needed to protect themselves from each other, though they protected themselves and each other against common enemies. Now, they found themselves hiding from each other or fighting each other. The power of their common life waned, and competition increased for what each controlled individually. That included their food, but also their own bodies. They started to hide their bodies from each other by covering them, and to feel a new emotion of shame when they were uncovered.

Finally, the fighting and the competition between them got so bad that they were not able any longer to trust each other in the way required for the cooperation in finding food that they had discovered in their new place. Without this cooperation their lives there became unsustainable, and they were forced to leave. However, they kept with them the memory of how it had been, and the aspiration to return to it. They became in this way divided, each internally in their hearts, between the desire to protect what belonged to the individual and the desire for the common good that had been shared between them.


Top 10 Posts for 2017

 Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Thank you for supporting Moral Apologetics in 2017! We have had an exciting year and it has been a privilege to host some exciting content in 2017. As a way of looking back, we wanted to share with you the list of the most read posts for the year.

1. "On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics"  By David Baggett

2.  "Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity"  By David Baggett

3.  "God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages"  By Michael Austin

4.  "The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage"  By David Baggett

5.  "The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights" By Angus J. L. Menuge

6.  Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig

7.  "What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall"   By Corey Latta

8. "Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s 'Holy Sonnet 15'" By Holly Ordway

9.  "Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture" By Joshua Herring

10. "Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence" By Corey Latta


Image: "Happy New Year" by A. Verde. CC Licence. 

Social Media, Immanuel Kant, and the Church


What on earth do these three things have to do with one another? Well, I recently found myself looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his Religion within the Bounds of Reason, and a few thoughts occurred to me to pass along. In the third section of the book, Kant extends the discussion beyond the need for individual forgiveness and moral transformation to a more communal matter: participation in a community and its role, among others, to furnish eminently teachable moments.

It’s easy to think we’ve morally arrived when we’re sealed in like a hermit away from others, but we acquire patience when we actually have to practice it among other people. We learn love when we strive to have it for people not always easy to love. This is an important reason why community is vital as a sanctification tool.

Kant recognized that victory of the good over evil, and the founding of the kingdom of God on earth, occurs only in the context of community. He thought of such a “community of ends,” or “ethical commonwealth,” as a necessarily religious institution. Why?

When we live in proximity to others, we all too easily have a corrupting influence on each other. Consistent with Christian theology, Kant thought that, despite our potential for good, we’re all also afflicted with radical evil. Believers are in the process of being extricated from our “dear self” that can so easily beset us and derail our best efforts, but we remain susceptible to its allure. Only God’s grace can ultimately liberate us from it.

As I reflected on this, it dawned on me that we live in an interesting historical moment in this regard. Until about a decade ago, social media didn’t exist like it does now, and it has thrust us all, however unwittingly, into a novel relational paradigm, a new robust community. High school reunions don’t mean what they used to; rather than being out of touch with old friends and hankering to reconnect, we get hourly updates about their goings on. Much of this is wonderful, even charming, but it has its downside, and Kant can help us see why.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” is an oft-repeated adage for good reason. The more we’re around others—virtually or otherwise—the greater the temptation to find them a bit wearisome. Patterns emerge; idiosyncrasies begin to grate; and interpersonal conflicts owing to jealousy, selfishness, and a million other causes can easily ensue. This is unfortunate, but Kant also saw such inevitable conflicts in community as potentially redemptive, for they can reveal to us new things about ourselves—our need for deeper transformation, for learning to live with others despite their (and our) moral frailties and failures, and for coming to understand what it means to treat others as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.

Kant thought such communities are forged by a willingness to come together and agree to cooperate based on moral laws. He saw these communities as a kind of church in which we have the chance to learn and grow, becoming better, not worse. The possibility for both exists.

And the context of social media ratchets it all up a notch. Here the ugly underside of the human condition is often on full display: indulgence, rabid partisanship, off-putting communication styles, sophistry, dehumanization, unchecked incivility, shoddy argumentation, disingenuousness, putting on airs, projecting impressions, self-aggrandizement, addictive tendencies, unfiltered commentary, unprovoked tendentiousness, and the list goes on.

The littered trail of not just lost Facebook connections, but ruined friendships—even among strong professing Christians—is adequate commentary that too often social media has brought out our worst, not our best.

To my fellow believers, in particular, I’d like to say this as a word of encouragement and exhortation: of course social media isn’t the (or even a) local church, but we’re all part of the Church universal, and biblical truths apply. If social media is going to serve as a redemptive presence in our lives, we have to remember something that Kant recognized clearly. The ethical commonwealth—the contexts to which we belong, even on social media—is insufficient for true religion. We have to learn to allow God to guide all the members of a group together, all the disparate parts of His body. He’s the Head of the Kingdom of Ends able to coordinate and make cohere all the different roles we’re meant to play.

The same Being or Source is at the root of the moral deliverances to which we all need to heed, especially when it’s tempting not to. From this perspective, the level of cooperation between the members of the groups thus banded together will be a function of how faithfully they follow His lead in their lives. Garden variety conflicts are still sure to arise, but they needn’t—and they mustn’t—irremediably divide; they can instead be means of grace.

Kant offered a good test for actions when it comes to religious practice that would also serve as a useful rule for engagement on social media: Asking whether the word or action conduces to virtue, in oneself and others. If it doesn’t, best to refrain from it.

The Bible would up the ante even more: Is it an expression of love? Is it a way to obey the most important command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? If we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. And though we have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though we have all faith—so that we could remove mountains—and have not love, we are nothing.

In this wonderful and special time of year, a season of soaring hope and charity, and at the precipice of a new year, let’s do something countercultural: let’s allow a spirit of generosity to replace any animus and invective, exchanging harsh tones and cutting comments for words of healing and edification, renewal and mercy, reconciliation and restoration—extending to others the grace that’s been offered to us.

From all of us at MoralApologetics.com, blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.


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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part IX

in this last installment, I’ll wrap up what I have to say by way of a critical reflection on Shafer-Landau’s (SL) chapter on God and ethics in his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? I’ve resisted his caricature of theistic ethics in the form of an extreme voluntarist account that would render morality altogether arbitrary. In fact, I think instead an Anselmian God both makes good sense of and perfectly safeguards necessary moral truths and our pre-theoretic moral intuitions of the deepest ingression.

In SL’s view, in contrast, theists should embrace the horn of the Euthyphro dilemma that says God commands something because it’s already good or right. Again, in my view, this very distinction between the good and right is important, for DCT properly applies to the right, not to the good. On his view, however, he thinks that he’s shown that “even theists should resist taking up the view that God is the author of the moral law. God is constrained by the moral laws, in the same way that God is constrained by the laws of logic.”

SL notes that most theologians aren’t troubled by saying God can’t do what’s impossible, which is true enough, but he’s wrong to think his view is congenial to the classical view of theism. Here’s the difference: when I say God can’t do something, I mean to say it’s either impossible to be done (which hardly impugns his omnipotence) or it’s fundamentally contrary to God’s nature to do. The constraints on his behavior, in the latter case, are internal to his nature. This is exactly what SL denies, arguing that morality is autonomous and functions as an external constraint on what God does. This move is not needed, though, if the Anselmian is right about God’s essential perfection. The Anselmian view threatens neither God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, nor ontological primacy.

On my view, there’s likely a solid analogy between logic and morality after all in a certain respect. Each features a number of necessary truths, but since I think necessary truths have for their best explanation thoughts God thinks in all possible worlds, I see the necessary truths as reflective of God’s very own nature. This is how I generally would go about explicating the locus of goodness—in God’s nature, not his commands; but logic too likely reflects unchanging aspects of God’s perfect and essential nature. Perhaps the truths of mathematics, rationality, and even epistemology too. SL would doubtless be unconvinced, but the point is this: there are rigorous ways to lay out such a case, establishing a picture far more complicated than the simplistic caricatures he happily exposes for their flaws.


The crux of the difference on this score between me and SL can be seen in his suggestion that comes after his discussion: “I am suggesting that theists amend this traditional view to say that God’s omnipotence enables God to do anything, so long as it is compatible with the laws of logic and the laws of morality, neither of which are divinely created.” I happily concur God can’t violate the necessary truths of morality and logic, but their necessity finds its best explanation in God’s unchanging nature. The constraints are internal to God’s nature, not external, allowing room for the possibility that God functions after all as the better explanation and firm foundation of the truths of morality. SL has done nothing to undermine a nuanced, careful analysis of theistic ethics. He’s only defeated straw men.

It’s interesting to note that SL characterizes it as a piece of Socratic wisdom that we see actions as right prior to God’s endorsement of them—in light of the recurring claim Socrates made that he was under a divine mandate to engage in the reasoning he did. His skepticism was not about any ultimate God, but rather of Euthyphro’s pantheon.

SL concludes the chapter by suggesting that theists not take God to be the author of moral law, but rather assume that God perfectly knows, complies with, and enforces it. He says that if his criticisms of DCT are on target, this option is the preferable one for theists, and also carries with it the promise of objective ethical laws.

I agree with his view there is moral objectivity, and so sympathize with that goal. But this chapter of his pertained to God and ethics, and the way he cast the discussion—whether morality requires God—was, to my thinking, problematically strategic. It made the burden of proof for the theistic ethicist unreasonably high. It would be like my asking the atheist, “Is atheism necessary for morality?”

It stacks the deck too much in favor of the other view. The better question is whether there’s good reason to think that God functions at the foundation of morality. Or, does morality in its distinctive features point to a divine reality? Alternatively, what’s the better explanation of objective moral values and duties? Or something in that vicinity.

Finally, note once more that SL’s claim is that by knocking down the most simplistic version of DCT he’s thereby defeated theistic ethics, which is classic overreach, in my estimation.

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VIII

We’re discussing Russ Shafer-Landau (SL), and his critique of theistic ethics. He started with the Euthyphro Dilemma, and then uses analogies to make his point better. He asks us to envision a referee at a sporting match. A good referee is good in virtue of following the rules of the game, rather than making up new rules willy-nilly. A good referee can cite reasons for his calls, and reasons that aren’t merely ad hoc, made up on the spot, lacking rationale.

He admits it may sound odd, or mildly blasphemous, to liken God to a sports referee, but he doesn’t think there’s much harm in it. “The Divine Command Theory has us picture a God who controls our game in its entirety, making up all the rules, perhaps continually, and having no need to cite any reasons on their behalf.” For what other reasons could there be? “If there are not moral rules or reasons prior to God’s commands, then there is nothing God could rely on to justify the divine commands. So any choice is arbitrary.” Had God chosen differently, “we’d be saddled with a morality that encourages torture, pederasty, perjury, and all sorts of other things we now recognize to be evil.”

Recall, though, that on a view like that of Adams’, God typically commands something that’s good. He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it, and the additional motivation for us that the command would provide is another, and those are just two examples. DCT makes an action right, not good, to the thinking of leading DCT’ists today. Presumably, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, God has compelling reason to issue the command, rendering an already good action morally obligatory. But this is not to say that he couldn’t have done otherwise, at least on some occasions. It’s plausible to many, including me, that at least some of God’s commands are contingent. Not all of them follow ineluctably with necessity from his nature; he retains, at least with respect to certain actions, to command them or not to command them. The goodness of the action isn’t affected, but rather whether it’s obligatory or not. Perhaps God might even speak to me personally, commanding me to perform an action, that otherwise wouldn’t be obligatory—like help a particular homeless person. It becomes my duty once he issues the command.

Another important point to remember here is that if we’re dealing with a God of perfect love, there are some things God simply would never command. They would be inconsistent with his character. To say God is essentially loving, for these words to retain their meaning, is to suggest that some actions—those that are irremediably hideous and treacherous, for example—are ruled out. The ascription of love and goodness to God has determinate content, ruling some things out. So though God may retain a measure of divine prerogative in issuing various commands, there are still some commands outside his character he would never command. In fact, it’s right to say he can’t, in the sense, to put it into the terms of modal logic, there’s no metaphysically possible world in which he does issue such a command. As the delimiter of possible worlds, on an Anselmian conception, there are likely worlds and states of affairs we can vaguely conceive of or imagine that nevertheless don’t constitute genuine possibilities.


Now, when we say God is good, SL thinks the only sense we can make of such an ascription is that God follows the moral rules. But this is where the long tradition of analogical predication in the history of the Christian church may prove handy. When we say God is good, we’re not saying God is good in exactly the same sense that we attribute goodness to people. Human beings may be good to one degree or another, but God is, on a view like that of Adams’, goodness itself, the paradigm, the exemplar, the archetype of the good. Ultimate goodness is a person, not a set of principles. In fact, there’s something deeply intuitive about making persons the locus of goodness. States of affairs may be pleasant or unpleasant, but aren’t morally good or bad. People are. It makes sense to think of persons as the primary subjects of goodness, but no merely human person is perfectly good. God, though, almost by definition, is perfectly good. Whether we predicate perfect goodness of God or identify God with goodness, or both, God’s goodness is nonnegotiable on Anselmianism. But his goodness isn’t univocal with our own; ours is the imperfect wheel; his is the perfect circle. There’s relevant resemblance, but also infinite distance, as God is perfect and we are far from it.

So this isn’t equivocation, but analogical predication, with which we can still meaningfully, in a sort of analogically extended sense, ascribe goodness, indeed perfect goodness, to God. If A. C. Ewing was right—and I think he was—this is also consistent with God functioning at the foundation of ethics, for the source of the good is also most plausibly taken to be perfectly good. Obviously, though, all of this is a far cry from SL’s simplistic and minimally charitable analogies and caricatures.

SL anticipates that some will object and say God’s command of rape or torture is impossible. “A good God would never allow such a thing.” Right enough, SL replies. “But what does it mean to be good? If the Divine Command Theory is correct, then something is good just in case it is favored by God. But then look what happens: to say that God is good is just to say that God is favored by God.” That’s not very informative, and in fact wouldn’t preclude a self-loving being from issuing hideous commands.

True enough, except note that SL is offering a DCT account of goodness, having earlier confined it to rightness. This may not have been intentionally duplicitous; he may have just used rightness as a generic term for morality, a penumbral term under which falls both goodness and rightness. But for present purposes, the distinction is a crucial one. DCT nowadays is nearly always delimited to deontic matters, rightness rather than goodness. For extended accounts of how and why God is aptly thought of as good, see the work of Evans, Hare, Adams, etc.

SL is convinced he knows exactly from what an ascription of goodness to God must derive: “A good God, like a good referee, is one who plays by the rules. When we speak of God as morally good—indeed, as morally perfect—what we really mean is that God cannot fail to uphold and respect all moral rules.” SL seems to be operating on the assumption that a perfect God either is perfect in virtue of following all the moral rules or is a vacuous conception because it means he can change the moral rules at will. But surely those don’t exhaust the alternatives. Recall the earlier point that God indeed can’t change the moral rules at will; there are indeed constraints on his behavior if he’s perfect; it’s just that the constraints happen to be entirely internal to his character. They’re a feature of his perfection. A God who could commit suicide, deny himself, or lie would be imperfect. The constraints don’t threaten his omnipotence or sovereignty, but help reveal it. Recall that on an Anselmian picture God possesses all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree, which admit of intrinsic maxima.

SL is convinced the analogy is close between referees and games, on the one hand, and God and morality on the other. But I am not. SL’s insistence is on a God who is not the ultimate reality, but distinctly secondary. He refuses to acknowledge relevant disanalogies between human referees and the divine, and he thinks that constraints on God’s actions necessitate that morality doesn’t find its foundation or locus in God. He does much of this by illegitimately assuming the only theistic ethic on offer is a radically voluntarist version of DCT, and he ignores the illuminating good/right distinction in the process.

Again, he argues that if the moral character of torture is fixed prior to God’s reaction to it, then God is not the author of the moral law. But the moral character of an action is not just based on divine commands. Its goodness or badness traces to a different foundation (on Adams’ view, and that of most DCT’ists). The action may already have lots of moral features to it besides being obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. Its moral hideousness, for example, might already obtain. And God’s command against an action in certain cases, I’ve argued, isn’t contingent, but necessary, meaning such commands couldn’t have been otherwise. This actually makes good sense of necessary moral truths even in deontic matters—and a better explanation of them, to my thinking, than what (nontheistic) nonnaturalists can offer. This resonates nicely with Plantinga’s suggestion in “How to be an Anti-Realist” that the necessary truths can offer an insight into God’s unchanging character.

In the next blog, at long last, I’ll wrap up my response to this chapter of SL’s.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705275