Ecological Apologetics

Ecological Apologetics

Caleb Brown

Air travel cultivates appreciation for nature. That I am sitting in a metal tube, bumping elbows with strangers and developing neck strain all fade as I open my window to the blinding beauty outside. Trans-Pacific flights reveal lonely cargo ships, barely visible in the vast blueness that swallows the world. Trans-continental flights survey the barren crags and mesas of the southwestern deserts. From this high up, patterns sifted from the soil by flowing water draw the eye with artistic precision.

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Shorter, lower flights allow intimate interaction with aerial terrain. On a hopper from Dallas to Colorado Springs, my propeller plane banked and wove its way through glowering thunder banks. On the way from Charlotte to Gainesville miles of farmland sprouted plumes of smoke that rose and then flattened upon encountering wind. They seemed to be gargantuan, flagged pins on the only real map.

But what did these pins mark? Was the farmers’ attempt to clear their land and produce food harmful as well as efficient and artful? What are the consequences of vaporizing tons of carbon-based plant life through combustion? What, for that matter, is the ecological impact of the flight that enabled me to see what these farmers were doing?

We revel in the beauty of nature, and we must use nature to survive. Both of these truths will not let us leave it alone; they will not let us leave nature natural. Even to experience nature, a pleasure that makes us feel more alive and more human, we must enter it and thereby change it.

There is whimsy and power in human smallness before nature—the gentle curve of a foot-path enhances the grandeur of a mountain. The orange streak of a fragile jetstream lit by a dying sun deepens the purple cast over the Blueridge Mountains. But frail footpaths and ephemeral jetstreams breed the sterile flatness of parking lots and runways.

Perhaps parking lots have their place. But the intuition that the natural world is something good, and therefore is something that must be treated carefully, is undeniable. It strikes us at 32,000 feet and when looking into the eyes of a puppy, when contemplating the cruelty of some humans to that sweet nose and those clumsy paws.

While people differ over where, precisely, this intuition points, and what, exactly, it should lead us to do, members of nearly every demographic and tradition acknowledge that the natural world is good and that our treatment of it is not a neutral matter. Regardless of what is felt to be the right way to treat nature, the conviction that wrong ways exist and have been practiced is nearly universal.

This moral intuition is deep and widespread, but how it meshes with other widespread beliefs is not clear.

If we all got here through the survival of the fittest, why should we be concerned about the wellbeing of non-human species? Certainly, the general wellbeing of the biosphere is important for the wellbeing of humans, but cruelty towards domesticated pets does not impact the survival of humanity. If anything, nurturing these pets diverts resources that could be used by humans. To say that caring for these pets increases our psychological wellbeing is simply to restate in psychological terms our moral intuition that the wellbeing of animals is important.

If mass-extinction events are part and parcel of evolution, then why do we have a moral duty to avoid them? Perhaps, by avoiding mass-extinction events, we are preventing evolutionary progress. How would we feel if primates had thwarted our emergence?

Naturalistic evolutionary attempts to explain our moral intuitions generally attribute them, like everything else about us, to a highly sophisticated sense of self-interest. Our moral intuitions towards nature developed because they are, in the end, best for our own survival, or at least for the propagation of our genes. But even if a sufficiently nuanced evolutionary mechanism could produce these instincts, it cannot explain why it would be wrong for us to act contrary to them. We regularly engage in activities, from eating Oreos to choosing Netflix over exercise, that reduce our health and, through epigenetics, reduce the fitness of our descendants. But if reducing our evolutionary fitness in these ways is not wrong, why would disregarding our survival-driven instincts towards nature be wrong?

It seems that naturalism can only explain the psychological phenomena of our moral intuitions towards the natural world by reducing them to mere instincts. It cannot give these instincts the moral weight we know they possess. Pure naturalism cannot explain our knowledge that the natural world is valuable and that abuse of this world is wrong. It takes something more than naturalism to explain what we know about nature.  

But not any type of supernaturalism will do. The trick is to find a way of explaining the value of nature without reducing it, as naturalism does, to something that is unable to ground our moral intuitions. Supernaturalisms that link the spiritual world too closely to the natural world risk reducing the value of the natural world to the worth and power of the spirits that inhabit nature: “The tree is the home of the god, so it is sacred,” or, “I will treat this tree carefully because the spirit that lives in it will make my children sick if I don’t.” Viewpoints like these do not reflect a feeling that the natural world has value in and of itself. Rather, they render it valuable merely by association.

But I think Classical Theism might be a type of supernaturalism that can ground our moral intuitions. Because Classical Theism posits a God who is distinct from nature, it does not reduce the value of nature to that of spirits who inhabit it. Under Classical Theism, to say that the value of the natural world comes from God does not reduce nature’s value to something else, because everything comes from God. God-given value is as inherent, as intrinsic, as real in and of itself as anything in the world. God-given value is not a reality that we can, like our genetic instincts, transcend and ignore.

Many portray our treatment of the natural world as the moral issue of our day. It is certainly one of them. But why is it a moral issue? It seems that naturalism cannot explain the moral significance of nature. Something more is needed. Classical Theism might be this something.

The Psychopath Objection to Divine Command Theory: Another Response to Erik Wielenberg (Part One)

The Psychopath Objection to Divine Command Theory: Another Response to Erik Wielenberg

Matthew Flannagan

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at MandM.org.nz.

Recently, Erik Wielenberg has developed a novel objection to divine command meta-ethics (DCM). DCM “has the implausible implication that psychopaths have no moral obligations and hence their evil acts, no matter how evil, are morally permissible” (Wielenberg (2008), 1). Wielenberg develops this argument in response to some criticisms of his earlier work. One of the critics he addresses is me. In some forthcoming posts, I will respond to Wielenberg’s arguments. In this post, I will set the scene by explaining the argument and the context in which it occurs. Subsequent posts will offer criticism of the argument

  1. Wielenberg’s New Argument from Psychopathy.

Wielenberg calls his new argument the Psychopathy objection. The Psychopathy objection is the latest move in the contemporary debate between Wielenberg and his critics over the defensibility of divine command meta-ethics. By divine command theory, Wielenberg has in mind the divine command meta-ethics (DCM) defended by Robert Adams (1999) (1979), William Lane Craig (2009), William Alston (1990), Peter Forrest (1989) and C. Stephen Evans (2013). This version of DCM holds that the property of being morally required is identical with the property of being commanded by God.

In previous writings, Wielenberg has pioneered the promulgation objection to divine command meta-ethics. (see Wielenberg (2005), 60–65; Morriston (2009); Wielenberg (2014), 75–80). According to this objection, a divine command theory is problematic because it cannot account for the moral obligations of reasonable unbelievers.

In making this argument, Wielenberg takes for granted the existence of “reasonable non-believers” people whom “—have been brought up in nontheistic religious communities, and quite naturally operate in terms of the assumptions of their own traditions.” Similarly, “many western philosophers, have explicitly considered what is to be said in favor of God’s existence, but have not found it sufficiently persuasive.” Wielenberg assumes many people in these groups are “reasonable non-believers, at least in the sense that their lack of belief cannot be attributed to the violation of any epistemic duty on their part.” (Wielenberg (2018), 77)

Wielenberg argues that if the property of being morally required is identical with the property of being commanded by God, then these people would have no moral obligations. Seeing reasonable non-believers clearly, do have moral obligations it follows that, DCM is false. 

Why do reasonable non-believers lack moral obligations, given DCM? Wielenberg cites the following exposition of the problem from Wes Morriston:

Even if he is aware of a “sign” that he somehow manages to interpret as a “command” not to steal, how can he [a reasonable non-believer] be subject to that command if he does not know who issued it, or that it was issued by a competent authority? To appreciate the force of this question, imagine that you have received a note saying, “Let me borrow your car. Leave it unlocked with the key in the ignition, and I will pick it up soon.” If you know that the note is from your spouse, or that it is from a friend to whom you owe a favor, you may perhaps have an obligation to obey this instruction. But if the note is unsigned, the handwriting is unfamiliar, and you have no idea who the author might be, then it is as clear as day that you have no such obligation.

In the same way, it seems that even if our reasonable non-believer gets as far as to interpret one of Adams’ “signs” as conveying the message, “Do not steal”, he will be under no obligation to comply with this instruction unless and until he discovers the divine source of the message. (Morriston (2009), 5-6)

I have responded to Wielenberg both in my book and in a recent article. I argued that Morriston’s argument contains a subtle equivocation. In the first line above, he expresses a disjunction. A person is not subject to a command if he does not know (a) who issued it, or (b) that it has an authoritative source. The example he cites, the case of an anonymous note to borrow one’s car, is a case where neither of these disjuncts holds. The owner of the car knows neither who the author is, nor whether its author has authority. We can illustrate this mistake, by reflecting on examples where, a person does not know who the author of the command is, but does recognize that it has an authoritative source.

Consider two counter-examples I offered, first:

Suppose I am walking down what I take to be a public right of way to Orewa Beach, New Zealand. I come across a locked gate with a sign that says: “private property, do not enter, trespassers will be prosecuted.” In such a situation, I recognize that the owner of the property has written the sign, though I have no idea who the owner is. Does it follow I am not subject to the command? That seems false. To be subject to the command, a person does not need to know who the author of the command is. All they need to know is that the command is authoritative over their conduct. (Flannagan (2017), 348)

A second counter-example I provided was; 

Suppose, for example, that an owner of one of the beachfront properties in Orewa puts up a sign that states “private property do not enter, trespassers will be prosecuted” and that John sees the sign and clearly understands what it says. He understands the sign as issuing an imperative to “not enter the property.” John recognizes this imperative is categorical and is telling him to not trespass; he also recognizes this imperative as having authority over his conduct, he also recognizes that he will be blameworthy if he does not comply with this imperative. However, because of a strange metaphysical theory, he does not believe any person issued this imperative and so it is not strictly speaking a command. He thinks it is just a brute fact that this imperative exists. Does this metaphysical idiosyncrasy mean that the command does not apply to him and that he has not heard or received the command the owner issued? That seems to be false. While John does not realize who the source of the command is, he knows enough to know that the imperative the command expresses applies authoritatively to him and that he is accountable to it. (Flannagan (2017), 351)

In the first example, I am aware of the command but do not know who issued it. Despite my ignorance of the source of the command, I know it is authoritative over my conduct, and hence can be said to be subject to it. In the second example, John does not believe he is being commanded. However, he discerns the imperative expressed by the command and is aware both that it authoritatively applies to him and that he is accountable for performing it. A person who doesn’t believe in God can be subject to his commands if he discerns the imperative the command expresses and percieves its authority. 

Craig, (2018) Evan’s (2013) and Adams (1999) have raised similar counter-examples. In a dialogue at the University of Purdue between with Wielenberg Craig responded by citing my second example and discussed is subsequently on his podcast. Evan’s gives a similar counter-example. He imagines a person walking on the border between Iraq and Iran, who perceives a sign warning him to stay on the path. Because he is on the border, he does not know whether the Iranian or the Iraqi governments posted the command, yet he knows some government has issued it. (Evans (2013), 113-114) Adam’s argues: “We can suppose it is enough for God’s commanding if God intends the addressee to recognize a requirement as extremely authoritative and as having imperative force. And that recognition can be present in non-theists as well as theists.” (Adams (1999), 268) These examples all suggest that reasonable believers can be “subject to God’s commands” without believing or knowing that God exists.

In his most recent work, Wielenberg (2018) appears to concede the problem. He concludes that a reasonable unbeliever does not need to recognize moral obligations as God’s commands to be subject to them. However, he suggests this response to the promulgation objection raises a deeper worry. Wielenberg suggests that, behind the responses of Evan’s, Adam’s, Craig and myself is a “plausible principle” which he labels R.

(R) God commands person S to do act A only if S is capable of recognizing the requirement to do A as being extremely authoritative and as having imperative force. 

R enables the divine command theorist to claim consistently that a reasonable non-believer has moral obligations. However, Wielenberg contends this comes at a cost; this is because when conjoined with DCM, R implies that Psychopath’s lack of moral obligations. 

According to Wielenberg “the mainstream view of psychopaths in contemporary psychology and philosophy” which is that lack “conscience and are incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands”. Wielenberg states, “According to principle (R) above, since psychopaths cannot grasp morality’s authority and force, God has not issued any commands to them, and so DCT implies that they have no moral obligations” (Wielenberg (2018), 8) 

Wielenberg summarises his argument as follows:

The Psychopath Objection to Divine Command Theory

[1] There are some psychopaths who are incapable of grasping the authority and force of moral demands. (empirical premise) 

[2] So, there are some psychopaths to whom God has issued no divine commands. (from 1 and R) .

[3] So, if DCT is true, then there are some psychopaths who have no moral obligations. (from 2 and DCT). 

[4] But there are no psychopaths who have no moral obligations. 

[5.] Therefore, DCT is false. (from 3 and 4)

In the next few posts, I will criticise this argument. In my next post, I will argue that the argument is crucially ambiguous in some of its key terms. In a subsequent post, I will argue that these ambiguities undermine the argument.



Notes:

Adams Robert Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again [Journal] // The Journal of Religious Ethics. – Spring 1979. – 1 : Vol. 7. – pp. 6-79,.

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

Alston William Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists [Book Section] // Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy / ed. Beaty Michael. – Notre Dame  : Notre Dame University Press, 1990.

Craig William Lane Debate: God & Morality: William Lane Craig vs Erik Wielenberg [Online] // Reasonablefaith.org. – February 23, 2018. – 8 10, 2019. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iVyVJAMiOY.

Craig William Lane This most Gruesome of Guests [Book Section] // Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics / ed. King Robert K Garcia and Nathan L. – Lanthan: : Rowan and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2009.

Evans C Stephen God and Moral Obligation [Book]. – Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2013.

Flannagan Matthew Robust Ethics and the Autonomy Thesis [Journal] // Philosophia Christi. – 2017. – 2 : Vol. 17. – pp. 345-362.

Forrest Peter An argument for the Divine Command Theory of Right Action [Journal] // Sophia. – 1989. – 1 : Vol. 28. – pp. 2–19.

Morriston Wes The Moral Obligations of Reasonable Non-Believers: A special problem for divine command meta-ethics [Journal] // International Journal of Philosophy of Religion. – 2009 . – Vol. 65.

Wielenberg Erik Divine command theory and psychopathy [Journal] // Religious Studies. – 2018. – pp. 1-16.

Wielenberg Erik Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless [Book]. – New York : Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wielenberg Erik  Virtue and Value in a Godless Universe [Book]. – Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2005

Matthew Flannagan

Dr. Matthew Flannagan is a theologian with proficiency in contemporary analytic philosophy. He holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Otago, a Master's (with First Class Honours), and a Bachelor's in Philosophy from the University of Waikato; he also holds a post-graduate diploma in secondary teaching from Bethlehem Tertiary Institute. He currently works as an independent researcher and as teaching pastor at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand.

Editor's Recomendation: How Reason Can Lead to God

Editor's Recomendation: How Reason Can Lead to God by Joshua Rasmussen

A magnificent and prodigious talent as deft in analytic skill as he is adept at uncommon common sense, Joshua Rasmussen has produced a disarming, brilliant, bridge-building book that renders the recondite accessible. It takes readers on a fascinating journey, inviting them to think for themselves, try out his arguments, and come to their own conclusions. He is a remarkable philosopher in the best and old-fashioned sense: respecting his readers; asking vitally important, existentially central questions; rigorously following the evidence where it leads; animated by deep confidence in the revelatory power of reason to show the way. Any genuine seeker of wisdom and truth will find in these pages an eminent kindred spirit and faithful fellow traveler.
— David Baggett, Executive Editor

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Editor's Recommendation: Cultural Apologetics by Paul Gould

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by Paul Gould

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Reading this book is a pure joy. A breath of fresh air, Cultural Apologetics is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Paul Gould was meant to write it. His ideas having marinated, his prodigious teaching skills honed, his reading wide and deep, he was able to write with the fertile mind of a philosopher, capacious heart of a poet, vivid imagination of an artist, and the nimble hands of a passionate practitioner. This is essential reading for every actual or budding apologist; in fact, the book deserves a very wide readership among believers and skeptics alike. Not a book to be read quickly, but digested and savored. Read, relish, and reread it; use it in class; give it away as a gift. Culturally informed and sensitive, embodying what it extolls, eclectic in numerous respects, and punctuated with clever and telling illustrations—both verbal and visual—this remarkable book makes a powerful case for an expansive apologetic true to a good anthropology. Just the corrective to reawaken the imagination of a disenchanted age. Every page crackles with insight and erudition. At moments it’s veritably sublime and enchanting; as inspiring, persuasive, and moving as it is eminently practical. I simply can’t recommend it enough.


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With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He developed two subsequent books with Walls. The second book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, critiques naturalistic ethics. The third book, The Moral Argument: A History, chronicles the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. It releases October 1, 2019. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Rawlings School of Divinity in Lynchburg, VA.


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Interview with Paul Gould

Paul Gould is the author of the recently released Cultural Apologetics. See our recommendation here.

1.     Paul, what is the problem you are addressing in your book Cultural Apologetics?

I want the gospel to get a fair hearing. The problem is that for many today the gospel is viewed as either implausible or undesirable or both. So, Christianity suffers from an image problem. Because many today no longer see the relevance of Jesus to all aspects of life, the Christian voice has become muted. We can add to this the fact that many of us are just as fragmented as our nonbelieving neighbors, and so the Christian conscience is muted. Moreover, many today fail to see the world in its proper light. Instead of perceiving the world as created and sustained by a loving God, we think that the world is ordinary and mundane. As a result, the Christian imagination is muted too. Add all of these factors together and the prospect for a genuine missionary encounter is significantly diminished.

2.     How would you characterize cultural apologetics

In the book, I defined cultural apologetics as the work of renewing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination so that Christianity will be seen as true and satisfying. There is a global and local component to cultural apologetics. Globally, the cultural apologist works “upstream,” within the culture-shaping institutions of the world (the university regarding truth, the arts regarding beauty, and the city and cultural innovators regarding goodness) so that Christianity is seen as reasonable and desirable. Locally, the cultural apologist works “downstream” and is concerned with how the gospel is being received and understood at the level of individual lives. In all cases, the cultural apologist’s posture toward culture is one of creating and cultivating the good, true, and beautiful.

3.      Any surprises for you as you did research for this book?

One of the biggest surprises was the realization that we live in an unprecedented time. Every other culture in the history of the world prior to modernity believed there was a tight connection between the social order and the sacred order. Reading Philip Rieff’s book, My Life Among the Deathworks, helped me understand how urgent the need for cultural apologetics is today. Reading C. S. Lewis’s essay “Talking about Bicycles” was also a fun surprise. In many ways, that essay, which is not well-known, unlocked Lewis for me. He talks about four stages we go through regarding just about anything, and he illustrates using a bicycle. Those four stages—unenchanted, enchanted, disenchanted, and re-enchanted—organized a major theme in my book—the idea that re-enchantment is possible if we join with God and others. This shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but I was also blown away at the Apostle Paul’s brilliant speech in Athens. My whole approach to cultural apologetics is built out of Paul’s example on Mars Hill.

4.     Any suggestions about ways that apologists can expand on some of the suggestions you make in your book?

I’d love to see apologists pick up some of the themes of the book and fill in the details. We’ve done a ton of work establishing the reasonableness of Christianity, and that work must continue. I’d love to see apologists grow in two areas (at least), however. First, as we develop our arguments for God (in general) or Christian theism (in particular), I’d like to see more “imaginative reasoning.” In other words, let’s make our arguments, but do in such a way that those in our culture can understand. That will require us understanding culture and imaginatively helping others understand the gospel. Second, I’d like to see more work done on how we can walk the “planks” of the conscience and the imagination in our case-making (I see the work you are doing at MoralApologetics.com as helping us learn to walk the “plank” of the conscience in our quest for goodness). The means that we need to learn to use the aesthetic currency of our lives (music, story, dance, painting, cooking, tweeting (!!), and so on) in our apologetic efforts. There are a daily million signposts for God—all we need to do is learn to see them ourselves and then point them out in creative ways to others.

5.     Why do suggest that we need to cultivate a long-term mentality in apologetics?

We tend to focus on the short-term as evangelicals. And we tend to be very pragmatic. If we don’t see an immediate pay-off in terms of well-known metrics (such as gospel conversions or baptisms), we are quick to judge something as a failure. But when we incorporate a long-term vision and begin to think about the conditions of the soil (the culture) in which we hope to plant the seed of the gospel, our metrics shift to a more long-term horizon. The work of establishing the reasonableness and desirability of Jesus and the gospel in a disenchanted culture is going to take time. It is going to take fully committed believers faithfully present within all spheres of culture for the gospel to be viewed as viable. As I describe in the book, we must begin to think of ministry four-dimensionally instead of two-dimensionally. The idea, which I learned from my friend Greg Ganssle, is this. We typically think of ministry in two-dimensions. We look at a map and say, “how can we get the gospel to every point on the map—length and height?” But, there are other dimensions. There is the third dimension, depth, and the fourth dimension, time. I write this book because I’m not just concerned with the state of the gospel today, but I’m concerned with where our culture is heading and the state of the gospel in the future. 

6.     Can you say more about the way moral apologetics, in particular, occupies an important role in cultural apologetics as you envision it?

I think that the work you are doing at moralapologetics.com is crucial to a more robust case for Christianity in at least two ways. First, by helping others see how impressive the moral argument for God is, we awaken others’ rational faculties and set them on a journey that if faithfully followed culminates with Christ. As C. S. Lewis colorfully put it in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity, every human, if they think about it, is aware of two uncomfortable facts: there is a moral law and we fall woefully short of it. By helping others attend to the rich contours of the human experience of morality, the moral apologist can set others on the path toward Jesus. Second, as we work to right wrongs, live for a story bigger than self, and become whole, we help others see and understand the good life. We make the world a little bit better, and that is no small thing, and we encourage others to follow our example. This is especially important today. If we know anything at all, we know that the world is not right. We are outraged at injustice. This presents us with a genuine opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to others. 

7.      Do you see any indications that there’s forming a recognition in the apologetic community for a broader approach of the type you’re endorsing?

I do. For one thing, I’m encouraged by the initial positive reception to my book. I think that many are looking for an approach that is more faithful to the actual contours of the human heart and the actual objections to the faith that people might have. I’m encouraged by those such as Holly Ordway and Michael Ward who are helping us understand the importance of beauty and the imagination for faith, and those such as Baggett and Walls, who are helping us see the strength of the moral argument. I’m encouraged by those who are wanting to utilize all the good gifts from God to show others the brilliance and beauty of the gospel (including many artists, storytellers, and filmmakers). Just to be clear, none of this minimizes the need for traditional apologetics—arguments for God, the deity of Christ, etc. But, importantly, I want us to continue to develop these arguments and do so in a way that might be understood or found appealing to those who might not have a PhD in philosophy. I think this is one way we can show love to our neighbor (I say this as someone who does have a PhD in philosophy and loves to give formal arguments for the faith).

8.     I know you enjoyed Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness, in which she uses a lot of insights from the field of literature. Would you say more about how and why literature, which you adduce quite a bit in your book, can be used in evangelism and apologetics?

One of Stump’s central insights in Wandering in Darkness is the idea that stories can provide for us a kind of lived-experience of others which in turn helps us to see and understand the world better. Her book explores key biblical narratives (of Abraham, Job, Samson, and Mary of Bethany) and applies them to the question of suffering. As we walk along the lived-experience of Job or Abraham, we begin to see and understand God’s loving care even in the face of suffering. More generally, as we read about the hero—or the villain—of a story, we learn from the inside what it feels like to be the hero or villain of a story. Moreover, stories awaken us. They remind us that we were created to live a dramatic life. Stories move us and invite our participation. This is important too because the gospel is a story—the true story of the world. Not only is it the true story of the world, but it is the best story, the best possible story in the world. It is a story that is alive and inviting and that understands us. So, as we awaken others—through stories—I believe we set them on a path that can lead, with some help along the way, to the true story of the world (the gospel).  

9.     Do you think that a cultural apologetic approach can break through the darkest and hardest of hearts—Mike Austin’s, for example?

Ha! Just as your question—and your friendly feud on Facebook—makes me and many of us who know you both laugh, it reminds us that there is comedy in the gospel story too. The truly comic is unforeseen. Who would have foreseen that God’s answer to man’s tragedy of sin is Jesus? And who would have foreseen that God’s answer to the tragedy of the Cross is the Resurrection? Yes, the beauty of the gospel story is that it’s freely offered to all and can break through the hardest of hearts—even Austin’s.

 

 

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The cornerstone of the moral argument is the existence of an objective moral standard. If there really is a standard of right and wrong that holds true regardless of our opinions and emotions, then the moral argument has the ability to convince. However, apart from the existence of such an objective standard, moral arguments for God’s existence (and Christian theism) quickly lose their persuasive power and morality as a whole falls to the realm of subjective preference. Although I could say a fair amount about what the world would be like if morality really was a matter of preference (consider The Purge), the purpose of this article is to provide reasons for believing in objective morality (or “moral realism,” as philosophers call it).

Because of his continued focus on the objective nature of morality throughout his writings, and due to his unique ability to communicate and defend this concept in a clear and compelling manner, I will rely heavily on the thought of C. S. Lewis below. As I’ve read through a number of Lewis’s books, I’ve identified eight arguments he raises in favor of objective morality. Below is my attempt to list these eight arguments and offer a few thoughts of my own concerning each.

1)    Quarreling between two or more individuals.[1] When quarreling occurs, individuals assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong, of which each person is aware and one has broken. Why quarrel if no objective standard exists?

By definition, quarreling (or arguing) involves trying to show another person that he is in the wrong. And as Lewis indicates, there is no point in trying to do that unless there is some sort of agreement as to what right and wrong actually are, just like there is no sense in saying a football player has committed a foul if there is no agreement about the rules of football.[2]

2)    It’s obvious that an objective moral standard exists.[3] Throughout history, mankind has generally agreed that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.”[4] For example, it’s obvious (or self-evident) that torturing a child for fun is morally reprehensible.

As the father of two children, a daughter who is five and a son who is three, I have noticed that even my young children recognize that certain things are obviously right or wrong. For example, while watching a show like PJ Masks, my children can easily point out the good characters as well as the bad ones – even without my help. In short, the overwhelming obviousness that certain acts are clearly right or wrong indicates that an objective moral standard exists.

3)    Mistreatment.[5] One might say he does not believe in objective morality, however, the moment he is mistreated he will react as if such a standard exists. When one denies the existence of an objective standard of behavior, the moment he is mistreated, “he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6]

Sean McDowell relays an example of this when he shares a story involving J. P. Moreland taking the stereo of a University of Vermont student who denied the existence of objective morality in favor of moral relativism. As Moreland was sharing the gospel with the university student, the student responded by saying he (Moreland) couldn’t force his views on others because “everything is relative.” Following this claim, in an effort to reveal what the student really believed about moral issues, Moreland picked up the student’s stereo from his dorm room and began to walk down the hallway, when the student suddenly shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”[7]

Again, one might deny the existence of an objective standard of behavior through his words or actions, but he will always reveal what he really believes through his reactions when mistreated. (Note: Here at moralapologetics.com, we do not recommend you go around and mistreat others, as that wouldn’t be a moral way to do apologetics. See what I did there? Rather, we are simply bringing up the mistreatment issue as a way of exposing a deep flaw within moral relativism.)

4)    Measuring value systems.[8] When an individual states that one value system is better than another, or attempts to replace a particular value system with a better one, he assumes there is an objective standard of judgment. This objective standard of judgment, which is different from either value system, helps one conclude that one value system conforms more closely to the moral standard than another. Without some sort of objective measuring stick for value systems, there is no way to conclude that civilized morality, where humans treat one another with dignity and respect, is better than savage morality, where humans brutally murder others, even within their own tribe at times, for various reasons.

 

To illustrate this point, Lewis says, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head,’ how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”[9] In the same way, if there is no objective moral standard, then there is no sense in saying that any one value system has ever been morally good or morally bad, or morally superior or inferior to other value systems.

5)    Attempting to improve morally.[10] Certainly, countless individuals attempt to improve themselves morally on a daily basis. No sane person wakes up and declares, “My goal is to become more immoral today!”[11] If there is no absolute standard of good which exists, then talk of moral improvement is nonsensical and actual moral progress is impossible. If no ultimate standard of right and wrong exists, then one might change his actions, but he can never improve his morality.

If there is hope of moral improvement, then there must be some sort of absolute standard of good that exists above and outside the process of improvement. In other words, there must be a target for humans to aim their moral efforts at and also a ruler by which to measure moral progress. Without an objective moral standard of behavior, then “[t]here 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.’”[12] 

6)    Reasoning over moral issues.[13] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no objective standard, then reasoning over moral issues 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 like that”). In short, a world where morality is a matter of preference makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations over issues like adultery, sexuality, abortion, immigration, drugs, bullying, stealing, and so on.

7)    Feeling a sense of obligation over moral matters.[14] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and feels obligated to follow. Virtually all humans would agree that one ought to try to save the life of a drowning child and that one ought not kill innocent people for sheer entertainment. It is also perfectly intelligible to believe that humans are morally obligated to possess (or acquire) traits such as compassion, mercifulness, generosity, and courage.[15]

8)    Making excuses for not behaving appropriately.[16] If one does not believe in an objective standard of behavior, then why should he become anxious to make excuses for how he behaved in a given circumstance? Why doesn’t he just go on with his life without defending himself? After all, a man doesn’t have to defend himself if there is no standard for him to fall short of or altogether break. Lewis maintains, “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.”[17]

Although the eight reasons provided above do not cover all of the reasons for believing in objective morality, it is a starting point nonetheless. If any of the reasons above for believing in objective morality are valid, then the moral argument for God’s existence (and Christian theism) has the ability to get off the ground. In fact, if there are any good reasons (in this article or beyond it) for believing in an objective moral standard, then I think God’s existence becomes the best possible explanation for morality since such a standard at the least requires a transcendent, good, and personal source – which sounds a lot like the God of Christian theism.

 

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


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

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid. 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.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean McDowell, Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006), 45-46.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 43, 73. Also see Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13-14.

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

[11] Even if someone’s goal is to become more immoral, he still needs an objective standard to measure the level of his badness.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 54.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 10.

[15] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[16] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8.

[17] Ibid.

Mailbag: Does Christianity Fail as a Moral Guide?

Editor’s note: This reply is part of a longer conversation. The first part may be found here. Here Randy replies to Heath’s latest comment:

Moral Apologetics: Thank you kindly for your lengthy response and interest. I admit I am somewhat flattered by this. You wrote a long reply here and I read through it several times. But in the end I found it unpersuasive. The original premise “If humanity’s deep and unshakeable moral intuitions are correct, the “Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response.”

The rational observer would first question the premise that humanity has ever held “deep and unshakeable” moralities. The historical record just doesn’t support this. I hope that sometime in the future we will have such deep, unshakeable morals. But clearly we do not.

Christian theology, in my opinion, has been an abject failure as a moral guide. I find it impossible to believe that a world filled with evil is the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. I find Christianity to be among the greatest enemies of morality, first by setting up factitious excellencies— belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies not connected to the good of humankind. These are accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues.

And then there is the problem of a redeemer. In this unseemly dogma, the son of god suffered and “died” for our “sins.”

Vicarious virtue. If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.

Hello Heath,

I have read your response to the answer Jonathan gave and thought I would chime in!

The original premise is an if-then conditional, meaning that someone can affirm it even if the antecedent (the “if” part) is false; one should really only reject the premise if you think the moral intuitions are correct but that people shouldn’t embrace Christian theism in response (or, rather, are not rational in doing so). This means that questioning whether there is such a morality isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the truth of the original premise.


It seems your argument against objective morality is that history doesn’t support this, and we “clearly” do not have them. Perhaps you have misunderstood the original claim. The original claim is simply that the common human experience is that there is some X such that X is good, and there is some Y such that Y is evil, and so on. The claim is not that we all share the same content of those moral beliefs (as that is what is historically false). In fact, it seems you implicitly recognize there is a perception of evil and good when you later claim the world is “filled with evil”—how could it be filled with something that so clearly does not exist? The original claim is that if our intuitions are correct, then Christian theism is the way to go—and our intuitions are that some things are really good and some really evil. Even if we’re mistaken about the implications—the content—it doesn’t follow that we’re mistaken about the reality of the categories at all. In fact, if we reject the categories of good and evil, then an interesting result is that we’ve never made any moral progress: it makes no moral difference whether we have African-Americans as slaves or not; it makes no moral difference whether we bully homosexuals for fun or not. The (morally horrible) list goes on.

The next claim is that Christianity has failed as a moral guide. That is, Christianity has failed to tell us the correct ways to live. You list the problem of evil, but this isn’t directly relevant to this claim of Christianity being a moral guide (it could turn out that someone who is deeply evil or hypocritical could nonetheless give you great moral advice). Within this same claim, you mention that “belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies” are “not connected to the good of human kind.” But why think this? It seems you suggest these are “substitutes for genuine virtues.” But Heath, remember, your view commits you to saying there are no virtues! But in any case, we can amend the claim to saying that if there were virtues, the ones that Christianity would espouse are replaced by creeds, feelings, and ceremonies. But the mere fact that Christianity embraces creeds, feelings, and ceremonies doesn’t entail that they replace any virtues whatsoever! In fact, there is a long and rich tradition, both intellectual and existential, of virtue ethics and living the right kind of Christian life. I’m afraid you may be taking late 20th and early 21st-century stereotypes of Western Christianity and applying them to the entire foundations of the church.

But let us also not forget that these kinds of activities do not at all seem to be divorced from the good of human kind. Consider the creeds: the creeds encapsulate essential Christian doctrine, and reinforce common but perhaps non-essential doctrines. From these creeds and their entailments and associated doctrines, we commit to believe and practice the idea that all are made in the image of God, that Jesus came to live among us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice for humans, that we should be involved in caring for the poor (see much of the Old Testament and James 1), and that we ought to live in community with others’ needs placed before our own (Philippians 2:4). Next, let us consider “devotional feelings.” It’s not perfectly clear to me what is meant here, but I suspect the idea of reading one’s Bible and praying—perhaps even having an emotional experience while doing so—is in view. If so, I can assure you that many people have had their attitudes and conduct changed by these habitual activities. Given that none of us is a social island, becoming a virtuous person does in fact connect to the good of all. Although I am not sure what ceremonies you reference, I can say that participating in ecclesiastical activities is designed to bring us closer to each other (and hence our communities) and closer to our God. This brings us to the last point: if Christianity is true, then God is the highest good (and its source). Being involved with and close to him is the highest good, and will in turn precipitate the highest goods if we do so.

I’d like to return to the problem of evil. Your formulation is apparently that, given omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the world should not be “filled” with evil. I take “filled with evil” to mean something like “there is a large amount and high degree of evil in the world.” One of the common responses to this is called a “free-will defense.” People have freedom, and they sometimes (often!) exercise it for evil instead of the good. Omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible, and forcing someone to freely do something certainly qualifies. If a loving relationship requires freedom to enter it (as I and many others think it does), then what this means is that God typically allows free choices to be made, and God cannot force a free decision (since this isn’t a thing to be done, and omnipotence entails the ability to do all things). The result is the world we have. But the good news is we aren’t left with such a world: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the “down payment” ensuring that one day the evils of the world will be rectified. One day, God will make everything right: this is referred to as redemption and restoration. Christian theology provides for the restoration of all that had once gone wrong, and redemption for those who have wronged each other and God; how beautiful is that?

This leads us to what you have called “the problem of a redeemer.” You have stated that “If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.” True enough. But the basis of that forgiveness is Christ’s paying the penalty for sins. So perhaps you mean if Christ pays the penalty for sins but I sin against another human (by, say, stealing her wallet), this doesn’t give her back her money. True enough again! All sins are ultimately against God (in other words, stealing the wallet is against the woman, but also against God). The penalty for sin is separation from God; the remedy is life through the Son of God. The sin is paid for by Christ; if a person does not accept, they endure separation from God. Suppose you do not accept and are separated by God. Justice is served since you are “serving your sentence.” Suppose you do accept, and restore her wallet. Justice is served, since Jesus died in your place and he had lived a perfect life on the Christian story; further, the woman has her wallet. Suppose you are unable to restore her wallet. The good news is that this affects your justice in no way; Christ’s perfect sacrifice is still perfect. What about her? She’s in the same boat—she can accept or reject Christ. If she accepts him, the effects of being with God forever far outweigh anything that can happen in this life. If she rejects him, it will be due to sins that she will be separated from God (for example, the sin of understanding and yet rejecting Jesus).

So, to recap, we’ve seen there isn’t a reason against accepting that we have the sense that there are objective categories of good and evil, that Christianity does contribute to the good of human kind, the problem of evil has a reasonable response dealing with creaturely freedom and the expected restoration of all things, and that salvation is offered through the perfect sacrifice of the God-man, Christ Jesus. I hope this at least points you in the right direction, and if you are interested, I’d love to talk more!

Randy

Mailbag: Does the Moral Argument Have a Fatal Flaw?

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In December, we shared a post on Facebook about The Morals of the Story, a book written by two of our editors, David and Marybeth Baggett. Along with the post, we included this snippet from a review of the book:

"If humanity’s deep and unshakable moral intuitions are correct, then The Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response."

In response to this idea, Heath writes,

 The point being that "objective morality points to the existence of god.” Which god, might I ask? Well, of course the Christian god. Who else? Why not Allah, or Shiva, or Quetzacoatyl? These are all gods too. And if objective morality points to god, objectively it points to ALL gods equally. Objective morality. Can there even be such a thing? I think all morality is subjective, not objective. It would be nice if moralities were indeed objective, but since we've decided to tie morality to religion we must necessarily reject objectivity. Example: A large group of profoundly fervent jungle tribesmen find it moral to hack the hearts out of living men, women and children to appease their gods. That is moral to them. Another group believes that 2000 years ago a god sacrificed himself to himself so that the believers can be forgiven for all time. That is moral, to them. A different group of people use reason to construct morals. Morals based on enlightened self-interest. Obviously they would reject the morals of both previously mentioned groups. These are atheists, and only without religious bias can morals begin to be objective.

Reply,

Hi Heath,

Thank you for your comment and you raise a couple of important objections to a moral argument for the truth of Christianity. Of course, your post is brief and one would not expect arguments to be fully developed in the context of social media, so I will try to spell out how I think you intend the argument to go. I take it that you have two concerns about the claim that if human moral intuitions are correct, then this suggests that Christian theism is correct.

First, even if humans generally and accurately apprehend moral truths, and even if this is best explained by theism, it is not at all clear how this would be best explained by Christian theism. If morality requires some form of supernaturalism, then many supernatural explanations of morality are available and it is not immediately obvious why the Christian explanation should fare any better than, say, the Hindu explanation. If there are moral truths that need supernatural explanation, then that is evidence that applies equally well to all supernatural accounts.

Second, you suggest that morality is not objective and, therefore, there are no moral truths with which Christians can build their moral case for Christian theism. The hypothetical story about the origin of moral beliefs is meant to motivate this conclusion that moral realism is not correct. Later, in another comment, you add this: “Different cultures have different morals. Hence the subjective nature of it all. I don't get why you presume a standard morality to be everywhere. That is a pipe dream. Not a reality.” In that case, the whole project of The Morals of the Story rests on the mistake of thinking moral realism (the view that there are objective moral realities) obtains. Since the project assumes something true that is false, it must be fatally flawed.

Let me take the second objection first. There are two kinds of reply I want to make here. First, I want to say something about why we should think moral realism is a justified belief. Second, I want to consider whether we have any good reason to think it is not.

Geoff Sayre-McCord, a philosopher teaching at the University of North Carolina, claims that “moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side.”[1] The reason that Sayre-McCord might say that moral realism has this advantage is that we simply find ourselves believing in moral realism and we find ourselves having a high degree of confidence in these beliefs.[2] It seems obvious to most people that there are at least some moral facts.

For example, for most it seems obviously true that the Holocaust was factually, objectively, morally wrong. It seems equally as obvious that torturing children for fun would be wrong in all the same ways. This, of course, is not anything like a decisive argument that moral realism is correct, but it should provide some reason to think we are justified in believing that moral realism is correct.

After all, we take all kinds of seemings as good justification for belief. It seems to me that there are other minds and that I am not a brain in a vat. It seems to me there is a table over there and that I am drinking coffee. These seemings are adequate grounds for having a justified belief that these things are so. If my three-year-old son looks out the window and sees a tree, it seems to him that there is a tree out there, and he forms the belief “There is a tree out there.” Few would say that this belief is not justified until he has more evidence; the seeming itself is sufficient.

 Of course, for all we know, we could be brains in vats or everyone around us could be mindless zombies that act exactly as if they had minds, but epistemologists generally agree that the mere possibility that these states of affairs could be actual should not worry us very much. Justification doesn’t require certainty.

However, justified beliefs can have their justification defeated. One might have good reasons to think that we are brains in vats, for example. Perhaps, like Neo from The Matrix, one could somehow become aware that reality as they experience it is a mere simulation. In that case, the belief that I am not a brain in a vat would no longer be justified.

My suggestion is that our moral intuitions are kinds of seemings analogous to the other kinds I have mentioned and that there are prima facie grounds for counting our moral intuitions as justified beliefs. Just as our experience of empirical realities can justify our belief in the external world or other minds, likewise our moral experience can offer us initial justification for at least certain of our less negotiable moral convictions. If one does not experience these moral intuitions, then, clearly, he could not be justified in believing in moral realism on this basis. Or, if he has sufficiently strong defeaters, he could no longer consider his belief justified, unless he defeats the defeaters. My view is that moral intuitions provide a prima facie reason for thinking that moral realism obtains.

If that is claim, then the next thing we will want to consider is whether there are any defeaters for moral intuitions. You offer one such possible defeater: the reality of moral disagreement. But it is not true that disagreement entails or even implies that a belief is false or that there is no truth to the matter. The history of science provides ample evidence of this. People disagreed with the heliocentric model of the solar system, but this did not imply that the proposition “The earth revolves around the sun” is neither objectively true nor false. Today, the flat earth movement is growing alarmingly and unfortunately fast. As a result, there is disagreement about whether the earth there is a flat disc or a globe. But this does not imply that, therefore, the truth of the proposition “The earth is not a disc” is merely a matter of subjective preference or opinion. If some proposition is objectively true then, by definition, whether people agree that it is true or not is not relevant to its status as a true proposition. So, I do not consider the argument from moral disagreement to be a defeater for the justification of our beliefs about moral realism. And so, if I am correct, then I continue to be justified in thinking that moral intuitions generate true moral beliefs.

If our belief in moral realism is justified, then we still have the remaining question of how the truth of these beliefs is best explained by Christian theism. You argue that the evidence is explained equally well by any religious perspective. But this simply is not the case. Some religions may not make any attempt to explain moral facts; they may say that ethics are ultimately illusory, as is the case in various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. One central doctrine of some forms of Buddhism is annata or “no self” doctrine. This is the view that the perception of ourselves and others as moral agents is an error. We simply do not exist as persons. Perhaps we could preserve some form of moral realism on this view, but it would not accommodate what most take to be the obvious moral facts, even by most people living in contexts where the no-self doctrine is promoted. There is a reason why the Buddha needed to achieve enlightenment in order to discover the truth; his doctrines are directly at odds with our most basic beliefs about ourselves and the only way to overcome them is through rigorous practice.  Further, at least some religions are intrinsically bad explanations for anything. Scientology seems obviously and inherently less likely to be a good explanation for any phenomena it might be summoned to explain.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, readily and naturally explains how many of our most deeply held moral beliefs are true. Suppose we think that human beings have dignity and value. The Christian worldview claims that ultimate reality is constituted by a being who is tri-personal. This being is the locus and ground of all value. It is natural to think that when we find the infinite good of the personal God mirrored in finite things, there we would find dignity and value. Many religions simply do not make the same claim about the nature of reality and the good. Polytheistic religions cannot claim the same thing without contradiction. The Christian worldview further confirms the value of human beings by telling us that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and, most dramatically, in the incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being himself. God thought it worthwhile to condescend to becoming a human being in order that he might redeem humankind.

So, in Christian theology and revelation, we find our moral intuitions about the value of human beings easily and logically explained. That is just one example, but there are many others.[3] I think this is enough to show that it is just not the case that all religions are equally equipped explain how our moral beliefs can be true. What objective morality can help do is adjudicate between conflicting accounts and help us decide the best explanation. Not every theology is equally well equipped to provide a good explanation of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation—from moral duties to moral freedom, from moral values to the dignity of people, from moral knowledge to an account of evil, from moral regret to moral transformation to moral rationality. This is much of what The Morals of the Story tries to explore and explicate, while respecting the mental freedom of those who remain unconvinced by the argument. Of course here in this short post I can’t make the full case; not even a whole book can. Philosophy is difficult, and takes a serious investment of time.

Heath, you have given us some important objections to consider and I hope that I have at least provided you with some idea of how a Christian might answer them, though I am also sure I have not convinced you to change your mind. We don’t even have the tip of the iceberg here! Maybe we have the tip of the tip and that is all. Still, I think you can at least see how one might argue that belief in moral realism is justified and how, at least possibly and perhaps somewhat plausibly, Christian theism may well be the best explanation of the truth of those moral beliefs.

If you are interested in exploring how Christians think about morality and how it might be evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism, The Morals of the Story is a good place to start. If you are interested in something a bit more rigorous and technical, you might try Good God or God and Cosmos. Baggett and Walls are wrapping up a new book on the history of the moral argument, which you might find of interest as well when it gets published eventually.

Thanks again for your comment,

Jonathan Pruitt

Managing Editor


[1] Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., accessed December 20, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/.

[2] According to a survey of professional philosophers, most believe in moral realism.

[3]For another, fuller perspective, you might see Baggett’s Seven Reasons Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity. If you are interested in how Christianity better explains our moral intuitions about love, you might be interested in this discussion I had with Brian Scalise.

I offer an explanation of how Christianity in particular best explains how we have moral knowledge elsewhere.

Mailbag: Concerns about the Nature of Moral Obligations

Original context

Jason writes:

Jonathan,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I am very tempted to follow the inquiry into the nature of rationality. I would suggest, for example, that the rational constraint that we should act in our self-interest must be understood as a pro tanto constraint. That is, pro tanto I ought to act in accordance with my self-interest. There are circumstances in which it would not be irrational to act in violation of my self-interest (e.g., when sacrificing my life to save the lives of others). I am also very interested in pursuing the distinction between a minimal conception of rationality and a more robust conception of reason-responsiveness. However, let me set such worries aside for now and focus on the substance of my criticism of DCT and your response to that criticism.

If I understand correctly, you are saying that in the absence of divine commands there are moral reasons to engage in actions, but there are no moral obligations. I take your point that on the commonly defended modern versions of DCT (including that defended by Baggett and Walls), DCT is a theory of rightness and wrongness (or, more generally, deontic moral value). The substance of my criticism is that I am offering a counterexample; that is, I am claiming that I can describe a situation in which (a) there are no divine commands, (b) a person faces a choice between two options, (A) and (C), and (c) the person is morally obligated to choose (A) over (C) [or, more carefully, actions (A) and (C) have deontic value, (A) has positive deontic value, (C) has negative deontic value, that we morally ought to perform (A) and that it is morally wrong to perform (C)].

In my original comment, I did not robustly describe options (A) and (C), I merely stipulated some of their properties. Let me put more flesh on the bones of my argument: Suppose the following: I am hiking in a desert region and I come across a young child who is languishing in the heat in obvious distress. She is dehydrated and delirious and does not respond to questions. In such an example, I face two options: (A) Give the child water and food, escort her to safety, and make sure that she receives the medical attention she needs; (C) Ignore the child and complete my hike.

On DCT, (A) (which we can call RENDER AID) has moral value and there are moral reasons to choose it, which reasons are independent of God's commands. Presumably also, on DCT, (C) (IGNORE) has moral value (negative value, i.e., badness) and there are reasons to refrain from choosing it. In my original comment, I asked whether, on DCT, the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands. If it is, then, I think we can conclude the following:

(1) There are strong reasons to choose (A) RENDER AID and these reasons and the strength of these reasons is independent of God's commands.

(2) These reasons are so strong as to be overriding. That is, they tend to override other reasons that might be present. So, if I have self-interested reasons to complete my hike, these reasons are overridden by the strength of the reasons to render aid.

(3) Option (C) IGNORE is extremely bad. It is much worse than, for example, failing to notify a cashier that he has undercharged you for your groceries.

(4) The reasons that I have to render aid concern the welfare of a conscious person.

(5) The child, in virtue of being a person, has a special moral status, which status endows her with the capacity to make legitimate demands of other persons.

Given (1) - (5), it would be wrong to suggest that RENDER AID is merely supererogatory. The reasons are overriding and concern the welfare of a conscious person. RENDER AID has deontic status, it is the thing that, all things considered, I ought to do. Thus, I am morally obligated to choose to RENDER AID and that if I choose IGNORE, then I have done something wrong.

So, I am saying that RENDER AID is not merely (minimally) rational. (And it is probably not in my self-interest to help the child.) The reasons in support of RENDER AID are not mere rationality constraints. Now compare the (divine command independent) reasons to choose RENDER AID with the reasons to tell a cashier that he has slightly undercharged you (say by 25 cents). The reasons to choose RENDER AID are much more significant than the reasons to inform the cashier of his small error. We should be able to capture this difference in language; our language should be responsive to this difference. And, when we search for a way of describing the difference, what we come up with is that RENDER AID is morally obligatory. Informing the cashier of his error might be a good thing to do, but it is not morally obligatory. If I fail to help the child in the desert, I have done something seriously wrong, I have failed to discharge a moral obligation. But, on the view you are defending, I am not morally obligated to render aid to the girl unless I am commanded to by God.

So, the upshot is that if we grant, as you appeared prepared to do, that (i) there are moral reasons, independent of God's commands, to engage in actions, (ii) that such reasons have differing strengths, where the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands, and (iii) some such reasons concern the welfare of persons, then there are moral obligations independent of God's commands. The claim that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded is not tenable.

I apologize for the lengthy response. I hope that you find it interesting and worth your time. Like you, I think this topic is deeply important and very interesting, so I am strongly inclined to take advantage of opportunities to fruitfully discuss these issues. Thanks again.

 

Hi Jason,

Thank you for another substantive reply.

I take it that your central claim is this: we can have morally overriding reasons to act without appeal to God’s commands. When we have overriding moral reasons to act, then we have a moral obligation to act. We can see a likely case of this when we imagine that we encounter a little girl stranded on a hiking trail. It seems that, given just natural facts about the situation, we would be morally obligated to act.

A further, but not central, point is that rendering aid to the girl would likely not be in my self-interest, so there are reasons to act distinct from self-interested reasons. Specifically, the right sort of moral reasons in the right amount can generate a reason to act.

Let’s first say something about self-interest and the connection to morality before moving on to address the heart of your reply. It seems to me that there is a real problem if self-interest and morality come apart so that there can be cases where what is right to do is not in my interest to do. This is a worry shared by thinkers like Kant and Sidgwick (perhaps Aristotle as well). If it is not in my interest to be moral, then we cannot hope to make full rational sense of morality (Baggett and Walls, Good God, 13). This is Sidgwick’s problem of “dualism of practical reason.” And in order to solve this problem, Kant thought that we needed to believe that God exists as a “postulate of practical reason.” Hare explains that Kant thought of God as having three roles: the legislative, executive, and judicial (Hare, God and Morality, Kindle location 1740). In his judicial role, God ensures that happiness and holiness ultimately cohere. In this way, it is always in my interest, ultimately, to be moral, and the rational stability of morality is preserved.

Perhaps one could say that morality can be fully rational and yet not always be in our self-interest, which is the view I think you take here. I am not sure that is so. We can always ask, “Why be moral?” Why should I care about moral reasons to act if, in the end, acting is not in my interest? Of course, we find ourselves caring about moral reasons but if we suppose, counterfactually, that we do not care about moral reasons, then it is difficult to show why we should act without some circularity without appeal to self-interest.

I should care because it is right to care; that is one likely answer. And that answer could be translated as “I should be moral because I should be moral,” which is circular. The best answer, as far as I can tell, to the question, “Why be moral?” is that being moral is in our interest. Such an answer avoids the circularity problem and preserves the rationality of morality.

I think this point about practical reason helps illustrate some of my concern with the account of moral obligations you have offered. We, of course, share the perspective that rendering aid is morally obligatory, but we disagree about the explanatory account of that fact.

If I am understanding your view correctly, if we have enough good reasons to act, then those good reasons constitute a moral obligation in at least some cases. But I am not sure why that would be. Certainly, there is an intuitive appeal to the scenario you have laid out. When we encounter the girl on the trail, all morally healthy people would recognize their duty to act. Further, I think it is correct that we recognize this duty without asking ourselves whether God has commanded us to render aid in such cases (though he has with great clarity in the parable of the Good Samaritan). But, and not that this is contrary to your claim, I think it is equally true that we do not asses the state of affairs and add up the moral reasons and then decide we are morally obligated. In such cases, morally healthy people just see that they are so obligated. In fact most of the reasons to act that we are likely to adduce come from our sense of its being a duty already.

So I think we can ask two questions. (1) Why do we have the experience of feeling obligated in such cases, and (2) assuming we are really obligated, what is the explanation of the obligation?

If we assume some conjunction of naturalism and evolution, then in response to 1, we could say that our feelings of obligation are explained by their evolutionary advantage. A species is more likely to thrive when we perform acts of altruism, so our biology has programmed us to have such feelings. And the Christian could say that such intuitions are explained by sharing, to some degree, God’s moral vision. We care about the girl because God cares about the girl and he made us in his image.

The response to (2) has a wide array of options on both naturalism and Christianity. I think your reply gives a good illustration of a possible naturalist reply, but of course, there are many others. Christians may give natural law, virtue ethical, divine command theory, or yet other replies. But the DCT view is this: we are obliged to help if and only if (and because) God has so commanded. (Why we should think of obligations as divine commands is important and perhaps that would be worth exploring in another post. But I will set that aside for now and point readers to Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods).

This view does not entail that moral reasons and moral obligations are alien to one another. God will often command some act because it’s a good thing to do. God’s commands, contra the radical theological voluntarists, are not capricious. Since we are made in God’s image, we naturally find ourselves thinking that we are obligated to render aid when morally good reasons abound, even if we do not psychologically appeal to God’s command in the moment.

Your challenge is powerful precisely because we find ourselves believing so easily and naturally that we are obligated to render aid. Certainly, if we already think that moral reasons are good reasons for acting, then it will be natural to think that whenever we find sufficient moral reasons, then we will find ourselves believing we are obligated. One might even define “ought” in a colloquial sort of way to mean “having good moral reasons to do something,” but how do we solve the ontological problem of moral obligations? What’s easily lost here is the fact that there are subtle ways to domesticate the notion of moral obligations, losing in the process what Evans calls the “Anscombe intuition” about moral obligations.

Let us suppose, again counterfactually, the God has not commanded us to render aid in a scenario like you have described. In this case, we would have morally good reasons to help the girl and it would be bad if we chose not to help. It’s good to save the life of the girl, to provide relief of the family, safeguard future contributions she will make to society, and so on. The bad would be the negation of all these things, and the cost of her death, emotionally and otherwise. In this context, perhaps it is fair to characterize your view this way: When we have the right kind and quality of morally good reasons to act, and refraining from acting would result in tremendous badness, then we are obliged to act.

Put this way, it seems to be a kind of consequentialism. When the good outweighs the bad, then we have a moral obligation. Of course, there are serious problems with consequentialist theories, like the in-principle denial of human rights and the limited power of our moral calculus, of which I am sure you are aware. We could imagine, if we are in the time traveling mood, that we have encountered Hitler’s mother when she was a little girl. If we balance the scales now, it turns out leaving her to die will result in more good than bad.

That said, I do not think you intend to offer a consequentialist theory, and please correct me if I am wrong. But if it is not consequentialist, and it is deontological, then it would seem to follow on a theory like Kant’s that we should eschew the sort of counting up of good and bad and perform our duty, come what may. Even if the result was very bad, I would still be obligated to perform my duty on a deontic system. Thus, Option (C) IGNORE, would not be prohibited because it has bad results. If you mean that the act itself is bad, and I would agree, then I am still not sure how that would be relevant for an account of moral obligations. Some acts which are bad in themselves can be morally obligatory. For example, sometimes disciplining a child requires us to do something bad, like deprive the child of something he enjoys. Depriving a child does seem like, in isolation, a bad thing. But parents are so obligated. Or, perhaps, killing enemy combatants in a just war is a bad, but morally obligatory thing. This tension between moral goodness/badness and moral rightness/wrongness serves to motivate this problem of how we move from one category to the other.

Again, I take it that you think that having a certain quality and quantity of moral reasons creates a moral obligation. The concern I have here comes from the distinction between moral rightness and moral goodness. These are different kinds of entities and having some of one does not generate the other. How would such a transmutation occur? On the other hand, if we say that God is the good, commands what is good, and these commands are moral obligations, then we preserve the distinction and have a plausible explanatory account, without the risk of watering down what’s meant by moral obligations.

 

Interview with David Baggett

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

 

What is moral apologetics and how does it impact the average person?

When I say moral apologetics, I’m referring to various versions of the moral argument. It’s doing apologetics—a rational defense of the faith—using the resources of ethics and moral truth. Of course the phrase “moral apologetics” can also simply be used to express the idea of doing apologetics in a moral way—respectfully, politely, kindly—and I think that’s a good idea too. Particularly if one wants to offer a moral argument for God’s existence, it ought to be done morally. Otherwise it’s like cheating on an ethics test—which would be more than a little ironic.

Moral considerations in favor of theism generally or Christianity particularly come in lots of forms. Formal arguments are just one way; but other ways include casual conversations, a sense of conviction over sin, the need for forgiveness, recognition of the dignity and value and equality of people, the primacy of love. I’d hazard to guess that the sorts of considerations central to most people coming to faith are moral ones. C. S. Lewis gave a version of the moral argument in Book I of Mere Christianity, in which he said that the existence of an objective moral standard and the way we all invariably fall short of it are the two most central concepts in coming to understand the universe. By the way he also first gave that chapter as a radio address in England during World War II—you don’t get much more practical than that. Lewis also wrote that until we recognize that we’ve fallen short of the moral law, we have little sense of any need for forgiveness and salvation, so the considerations of morality can function well not just to point people to God, but to the need for the gospel. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, when asked, has said that the moral argument is likely the best argument on offer from natural theology. Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when asked, has admitted that when he has debates on various college campuses, the moral argument tends to be the most effective one.

So when we actually give a moral argument for God or Christianity, the basic idea is that we start with foundational moral realities of which most all of us are readily aware, and then we try to make the case that theism can explain these realities better than can the alternatives—like atheism or various secular efforts.

The average person likely doesn’t think about the argument in its formal versions very much, but there’s something deeply intuitive about recognizing moral truth when we see it and allowing it to point us beyond ourselves—and perhaps even all the way to God. There’s something about axiomatic moral truths that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the human condition. Where did these moral standards come from? It’s not just a matter of what a society happens to dub morality, because societies can be wrong, just as individuals are. There’s an objective standard out there; what does that say about the world we live in? Moral apologists tend to think it says quite a bit.

What’s the history of moral apologetics?

The history of the moral argument is rich indeed. The first really big name associated with the moral argument is Immanuel Kant, who gave a few different versions of it. Before him, you can find precursors of the moral argument or aspects of it in numerous thinkers—from Plato to Aquinas, Descartes to Reid, Pascal to Locke, Pascal to Berkeley. It was Kant, though, who put it together in a systematic way. He saw the reality of the moral law, its authority, our inability to meet the law on our own resources alone, the need for an account of the full rationality of morality. Since him, in the English speaking world, nearly every luminary in the field of moral apologetics has had something to say about Kant. Agree or disagree, we can’t responsibly ignore him. In the 1800s and into the early 1900 several dozen major European thinkers devoted considerable thought to the evidential force of morality where God’s concerned. John Henry Newman is an example, a famous evangelical-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic. A big aspect of his moral argument is the role of conscience as a faculty that puts us in touch with the deliverances of the moral law. Other major thinkers subsequent to Newman were A. E. Taylor, William Sorley, Hastings Rashdall, and lots of others. A number of these gave whole Gifford lectures and wrote whole books on the topic. Of course in the mid-1900s Lewis popularized the argument in Mere Christianity, and since then, in the United States, there’s been a veritable explosion of interest in the moral argument in which a number of top-notch philosophers have devoted to it their considerable analytic skills. Jerry Walls and I are putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling this fertile history.

What’s the nature of your work in moral apologetics?

When I was in graduate school I decided to write my dissertation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which arose in an early Socratic dialogue: Is something moral because God commands it, or vice versa. (At least that’s a common contemporary version.) It struck me as interesting because it related to this matter of God and ethics and whether there’s a connection between them. It’s thought by many to pose an intractable objection to theistic ethics. I didn’t agree, but wanted to figure out what I thought about it. After doing that work it freed me up to extend the argument all the way to the moral argument. If we can defend a strong account of the dependence of morality on God, while effectively critiquing secular ethics and basing the whole thing on moral truths that most everyone agrees on, we have the ingredients for an effective moral apologetic.

So in my work I tend to focus on moral facts like objective moral values and duties, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality, and argues that these realities are better explained by theism than by atheism. It’s interesting and important work, endlessly fascinating to me. Take moral duties, for example. What is it about the world that can account for their existence—these binding, prescriptive, authoritative moral duties that impose obligations on us irrespective of whether we want them to or not, or whether we have any intention of obeying them or not. What does their existence say about the nature of reality? Or take the essential dignity and value of people. What accounts for such a thing? What does such a moral fact have to teach us about the nature of ultimate reality? In books like Good God, God and Cosmos, and The Morals of the Story, those are the kinds of issues we spend time exploring.

Why have you developed an interest in writing about Mr. Rogers?

That might seem a bit odd, right? But I actually see it as integrally related to moral apologetics. I grew up watching him, of course, like most of us did, and always loved the guy. But the recent documentary got me more interested in finding out about his life. There was much I didn’t know—that he was an ordained minister, personal friends with Henri Nouwen, a graduate of seminary, someone with a vibrant spiritual life. The documentary does a remarkably good job talking about his life and ministry—and he really did see his television work as ministry, though nothing ever heavy handed. Watching his story is deeply moving; most leave the theater in tears. I’ve seen the documentary three times already and it deeply touches me every time. Bullied as a kid, he went on a lifelong quest to see the good in others, even if it was hard to see. He was a wonderful man, and as I thought about it I realized that in his quiet, gentle, loving way he was embodying the sorts of principles I talk about when I do moral apologetics. He didn’t give an argument, or paint people into corners, but he lived its truths, and in the process demonstrated their power. St. Francis said, "Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words." We as evangelicals can underestimate the power of a life lived well to communicate important truths and inculcate in others a hunger to know God. Mr. Rogers did this, day in and day out; he was a prayer warrior, someone who took spiritual formation seriously, someone who saw his work in television as a calling and ministry. He saw himself on a mission to protect kids and their innocence, to let them know they’re loved, that they’re special and unique. He saw the absolute primacy of love. His whole life was a moral apologetic.

What are some of the ways Mr. Rogers connects with your work on the moral argument?

He took seriously the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. It wasn’t a coincidence his show was “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He saw that love of God is inextricably tied to love of neighbor. He aimed to be a helper, someone who made the world better in big ways and small, a repairer of creation. He took friendship seriously, investing his time and money and energy in cultivating them with great care. He challenged us all to make goodness attractive—nothing Pollyannaish, but real, actual goodness—and he modeled what doing that looks like. Believers and unbelievers alike look at his life and can see there was something special about him; they can see the love of Christ within him. He didn’t just talk about the primacy of love; he showed us what making love the priority actually looks like.

Part of what drew me to him was that, though he was all about the same principles we talk about in moral apologetics—taking our responsibilities seriously, protecting the innocent, preserving human dignity, making people feel loved, loving your neighbor—he did it in a way that wasn’t heavy handed or off putting, but eminently attractive. Having done a lot of thinking about the theology and theory behind all of this, I’m deeply inspired to see it play out in flesh and blood in a life like his. So I’m aiming to get a trade press contract to write a book about him—particularly about the influences on him like Henri Nouwen, like the child development expert he studied with, Margaret McFarland, and his favorite seminary professor, William Orr.

How do you teach your students to view pop culture through the lens of moral apologetics and why is this important?

Truth can be found in all sorts of places. We just need to cultivate the eyes to see it. I consider it providential that after grad school I was able to get involved with my friend Bill Irwin’s series on philosophy and popular culture. It was a brilliant idea to use the medium of popular culture to talk about important issues in philosophy that arise in fun and unexpected ways in our music and movies and television shows, and its staying power demonstrates what a smart idea it is. In a sense we can do the same with apologetics, including moral apologetics, and see all around us all sorts of important truths that point us to God. My wife just wrote a piece on the television show “The Man in the High Castle.” There’s nothing specifically Christian about the show, which is an adaption of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but implicitly in the story is a strong moral lesson that we need a moral anchor that mere people or even whole societies alone can’t provide, moral truths that go beyond political power or mere expediency. Whether it’s “The Man in the High Castle,” Harry Potter, or Mr. Rogers, apologists can tap into pop culture in all sorts of ways to build bridges and generate important conversations.

 

Jonathan Pruitt

Jonathan Pruitt is a PhD candidate at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He has an MA in philosophy and ethics from the Talbot School of Theology and an MA in apologetics from LBTS. His master’s thesis is an abductive moral argument for the truth of Christianity against a Buddhist context.

More Than Mere Morality

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

By David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett

Connecting God and ethics nowadays often invites amusement at best, disdain at worst. “Religious nones” are on the increase, yet society seems to be holding together tolerably well. Add to that the number of stories about religiously affiliated folks behaving badly, and for many, it’s just not clear what the purpose of throwing God into the moral equation is. Perhaps nothing more than an authoritarian party-pooper whose rules are inscrutable, and a life spent following them, bleak. Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the posterchild for such a posture—religious, affable, yet perpetually clueless. “I don't drink or dance or swear, I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” 

It’s commonplace today to think morality is on better footing without religion’s involvement, which usually just taints and ruins it. All manner of human strife, critics declare, stems from faith convictions—the Crusades, religious persecution throughout history, and contemporary terrorism and unrest in the Middle East. And the Judeo-Christian deity is no better, so the argument goes. After all, Richard Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

As we said, moral apologists are facing a bit of a publicity crisis these days. Still Dawkins’s bluster helps us understand why moral considerations are now often taken as evidence against God’s goodness or existence, as in the classical problem of evil. Moral arguments in favor of God’s existence—even though they’ve been advanced by thinkers as notable as Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and C. S. Lewis—usually tend to push listeners beyond believability, sometimes even beyond civility. “I don’t need God to be moral!” comes the retort. To suggest otherwise is on par with accusations of offensive body odor or, even worse, forcing the premature cancellation of Firefly. What kind of monster do you think I am?

Duly admonished, most proponents of the moral argument walk back their claims, profusely apologizing and distancing themselves from any implication that unbelievers can’t uphold fine values and sport strong characters. Yes, yes, they say, we appreciate Mulder’s devotion to Scully, thoroughly irreligious as it is. And they dial back their claims, set aside questions of conversion, and start with common ground, exploring the best explanation of moral agency or rights, duties or knowledge. Such care and judiciousness is admirable. It’s also effective in building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers, and heaven knows the more bridges constructed in these divided times the better.

Nevertheless, despite the provocations associated with the claim, it is difficult to blithely accept that we can somehow achieve radical moral transformation of our own devices. A quick glance at human history or literature removes any lingering doubts to the contrary. Maybe there’s something to this God/morality connection, at least something worth thinking a bit about rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is an idea we find compelling ourselves—that anything like realistic hope for moral perfection is possible only if God makes it happen. In fact, we lay out such a case for readers, along with a number of other considerations for the moral argument, in our recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God.

Once everyone’s hackles are down, cooler heads will often acknowledge that, true enough, this world is a mess, and not even Dr. Horrible can save us. Consensus is that something does have to give. We have heard this sentiment expressed in Sarah Silverman’s recent plea for a better world after her friend Louis CK confessed to abusive mistreatment of women; we heard it in victim statement after victim statement in the sentencing trial of convicted child molester Larry Nassar. In light of these horrific wrongs, we can see that the cursory and superficial manner in which morality is often treated in this era of soundbites and social media is just not cutting it. The very issue of moral transformation is often overshadowed by a rather shortsighted and watered-down account of what morality is all about. It’s not simply conventions and negotiations to ensure we get along; it’s not merely knowing and avoiding social taboos and staying in the public’s good graces. It’s much deeper than that, more solid and foundational to reality itself. It features traditional and authoritative obligations with attendant guilt for wrongdoing; it’s a call to a life of virtue with talk of a coming reckoning and promise of forgiveness for sins. To think about it otherwise is to domesticate it beyond recognition.

Take an analogy. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other. A Tylenol might give relief for a few hours, but only a root canal will eradicate the underlying problem. Rather than seeking the cure we need for our moral disease, it’s tempting instead to alleviate a few symptoms, settle for a few incremental improvements along the way, thank our lucky stars for a modicum of palliative therapy, and deny we’re really that sick after all. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography provides a memorable example of just this approach. As a young man, he once set himself to the formidable task of attaining moral perfection. He outlined his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into; however, unsurprisingly, this strategy failed to achieve its ambitious goals: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.” Having failed to reach his lofty aims, Franklin settled instead for the mere appearance of virtue.

As John Hare deftly explains in his important work The Moral Gap, without divine assistance to bridge the chasm between our ethical obligations and capabilities, we find few options other than exaggerating our capacities, lowering the demand, or forging secular substitutes. But as Kant and Lewis have pointed out, and as we so acutely recognize, that approach—psychologically appeasing as it might be—cannot rescue us from our moral dilemma, obligated to a standard that, try as we might, we cannot meet, called to a sublime vocation of which we’re unworthy. At least on our own finite and meager resources.

Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellec­tually resisted fact. Babylon Bee put a humorous twist on this serious subject with the story of a 29-year-old mom who believed that people are basically good—at least until her daughter grew up a little. “Now that Charlotte is two—hoo boy. That innate depravity is shining through with the brightness of a thousand suns…. She’s like a Category 5 hurricane with a cute face.”

Lewis said that there are two facts that are well-nigh undeniable: the existence of moral truths, and that we invariably fall short of them. Lewis thought these two truths provide the most important clue to understand this world in which we live. They constitute our diagnosis; God’s overtures of love offering forgiveness and transformation is the prescription. The life that awaits us, Lewis proclaims, is about so much more than implementing a moral regiment or diluting the standard: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up.” God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. We are to be remade—a glorious prospect indeed. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”

Human Value and the Abductive Moral Argument (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 183.

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

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

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

[12] Here is a sample of the Buddha’s teaching on this: “There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.”  Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.01.irel.html.

[13] Anne C. Richard, “Opinion | Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018, sec. Opinion, accessed June 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/trump-immigration-refugees.html.

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

On The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma: A Reply to Real Atheology

Photo by  Brendan Church  on  Unsplash

 

In a previous post, I argued that the Euthypro Dilemma (ED) was a false dilemma against Divine Command Theory (DCT).

The ED I am concerned with can be summarized as saying:

Either

(1) God has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

I proposed a third option which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

Recently Real Atheology posted a reply on Facebook as follows:

First, I don’t think this is actually a genuine third option- it’s merely a modified second horn (that morality is independent of God). By admitting that God has reasons for not issuing certain commands, Choo is admitting that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. He is admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should, ought, or must not command us to perform those actions. If these reasons are sufficient to obligate God from not commanding certain actions, then they are sufficient to obligate us from not performing those same actions. What matters morally would still be independent of God. So all Choo does in his (3) is add a divine legislature and enforcer to the concept of wrongness. In fact, he only ever argues for his (3) by way of analogy to finite legislatures and the laws they enforce. He’s right to point out that morality constrains our legal system. Laws can be morally unjust after all. And laws can also incentivize people to conform to moral norms. A defender of a Euthyphro objection could concede all of this, but the point would still remain that reasons are what make it the case that some acts should not be willed either by human agents or divine agents. These reasons may not be sufficient for a divine legislature and enforcer, but that’s no objection, because reasons also aren’t sufficient for finite legislatures and enforcers. It can only constrain them. Finite legislatures and the demands of a divine commander are both constrained by the logical space of reasons (to borrow Wilfred Sellars term). What matters morally is part of the space of reasons and not the will of a being in the causal order. That is the lesson of the Euthyphro.

I’d recommend thinking of the Euthyphro dilemma differently. Either,

(a) Reasons are more fundamental than God’s will (and nature).

or

(b) God’s will (and nature) is more fundamental than reasons.

If (a) is true, then reasons constrain what God could will. His commands would not be arbitrary, because he could justify all of his commands with those more fundamental reasons. This would imply that morality is independent of God. If reasons are sufficient to obligate God not to issue certain commands, then those same reasons are sufficient to obligate us not to perform those same actions. Morality would be an autonomous (or self-directed) decision process.

But if (b) is true, then God’s will determines what reasons there are. There would be no justification for God’s commands on this view. They will always have to face a charge of arbitrariness, because there is no further reasons which justify God’s will. Morality would be about an unqualified claim on our obedience to divine commands. It would not be about reasons for action and autonomous decision-making.

Notice that adding a divine legislature and enforcer to (a) does not give us a genuine third option distinct from (a) and (b) either. It’s just something further added on. This is the difference between the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness and the command-implying sense of moral wrongness. If the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness is sufficient to constrain or obligate the command-implying sense of moral wrongness, then the command-implying sense of moral wrongness is superfluous. This is because the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness would also constrain and obligate what actions we should, ought, or must perform or not perform.

 

Reply:

First, I am in no way admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should not command us to perform those actions. To do so would be to say that God has moral obligations. As far as I can see, I have not stated this anywhere and this does not follow from anything I previously wrote. Given that most DCT proponents are motivated by the idea that obligations must come from an obligator, I think that most DCT proponents are committed to saying that God does not have moral obligations. If the opponent of DCT asserts that the facts of an act must constitute an obligation for God not to command it, then the opponent is just asserting that the major motivation for DCT is false. If so, the problem is with DCT’s motivation, not the ED.

Now, I do think that God, being loving, kind, good (and so forth), would not command certain actions. Take for example the act of torturing babies for fun. Given the badness of such an act, a loving God would not command it to be done. This claim differs from saying ‘given the badness of such an act, a loving God should not command it to be done.’

One might worry that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. Here are three short replies. First, some DCT proponents such as Robert Adams and William Lane Craig argue that God is the Good. If God’s commands are constrained by reasons based on goodness and God is the Good, then there is nothing independent of God which constrains God’s will after all. So this is not a problem for DCT proponents who hold such a theory of goodness. Second, even if one drops Adams’ theory of goodness, it is not true that something independent of God’s will can by itself constrain God’s will. Based on what I said last paragraph, what constrains God’s will is partly explained by God’s character and partly explained by the badness of the act. So part of what explains God’s will is His character, not solely the features of the act alone. Something independent of God only plays a partial role in constraining God’s will. Lastly, the notion of constraining needs to be explained in order to pose a problem. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act make it wrong for God to command the act, then I agree this would be problematic. But as I said above, the DCT proponent is not committed to this. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act determines what God would not command, then it is not clear why this is problematic. One might however think that if the features of an act determine God’s commands, and God’s commands determine our moral obligations, then it is the features of an act alone that is sufficient to determine our moral obligations. This however is wrong. If X because of Y, and Y because of Z, it does not follow that X solely because of Z. All that follows is that X because of Y and Z.  

To end off, I would again appeal to an analogy. Suppose that there is a political authority (be it a single person or a government) which is legitimate (justified by whatever theory of political authority you hold to). Now, one might hold political authority command theory (PACT) which states that if a legitimate political theory issues commands (or institutes laws) and has good reasons for those commands, then those commands would result in our legal obligations.

Now imagine one raises the ED against PACT:

Either

(1) The political authority has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) The political authority has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations.

The defender of PACT can well affirm a third option:

(3) The political authority has reasons for its commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations without its commands.

For example, the political authority may have good reasons to command people not to smoke in a certain area and to smoke in another area. This creates our legal obligation to smoke only at the designated areas. But independent of the political authority’s commanding, the good reasons alone are not sufficient to create such a legal obligation. Now also suppose, there are things that the political authority would not command as the authority is wise, loving, etc. With this, we have a close analogy to DCT. I take it that most would not think the ED is a good objection to PACT. As far as we think that the ED is not problematic for PACT, I think the same can be said for DCT. If any ED style objection is to be raised against DCT, then it should also be a good objection against PACT.