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 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 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.



The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we can opt out of, and intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It is simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, ineliminably requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like, but we can know it doesn’t it doesn’t look like hate.

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C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

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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, 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!


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.


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,

[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:

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.


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. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 183.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

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:


(1) God has no reasons for His commands,


(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).


(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.



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:


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


(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.



Mailbag: Can God Have Moral Reasons for Divine Commands?

Jason writes:

"He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it"

A point of clarification: You seem to be saying that there are actions such that, prior to God's commands, there are moral reasons to perform them and that (at least for such an action) God's commanding that we perform the action gives us additional moral reasons to perform it. Is this a correct interpretation of your view? If this is correct, then an immediate consequence is that God's commands do not generate or constitute the moral reasons that exist prior to God's commands. Presumably, this also entails that God's commands do not generate or constitute the strength of these prior reasons.

Assuming that I understand your view correctly, I have additional questions: Suppose A is an action such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform it. What is the nature of A's deontic status at this point (that is, prior to God's command)? Since, on your view, DCT is a theory of deontic value, presumably the answer is that A has no deontic status. So, on your view A is neither obligatory nor wrong prior to God's command. Is this right?

Suppose now that there are two actions, A and B, such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform each of them. Suppose that the reasons to perform A are much stronger than the reasons to perform B. Don't we want to say that A has a different moral status than B? Suppose we are faced with a decision between A and B. Don't we want to say that A is the action that we should perform? Given that it is the action that (at least in the context of a choice between A and B) we should perform, don't we want to say that A has a different deontic status than B?

Suppose now that I face a choice between A and C. A is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to perform it; and C is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to refrain from performing it. What we want to say about such a situation is that I ought to perform A and I ought to refrain from performing C. Indeed, we want to say that, if I perform C rather than A, I will have done something wrong. But, if this is correct, C has deontic value; it is morally wrong and its moral wrongness is dependent only on the existence and strength of reasons that count against performing C (and in favor of A), which reasons exist prior to God's commands. So, how can it be that God's commands make an action have its deontic value?


Hi Jason,

Thanks for your comment and question!

I’m not Dr. Baggett, but I think I can suggest some ways one might respond to the criticisms you raise.

One thing to keep in mind is the good/right distinction. Divine command theory (DCT) is usually presented by its advocates as a theory of moral rightness (moral obligations, in particular) and not a theory of moral goodness. DCT says that moral rightness is constituted (or caused or, in Hare’s case, prescribed) by divine commands. On each account, if God commands that P, then we have a moral obligation to P. Of course this is one among other theistic ethical accounts of moral obligations.

If something like DCT holds, then we can have moral reasons to act that are not themselves morally obligatory reasons. In other words, an action could be good to do, but not morally obligatory. For example, perhaps it is good for me to spend all my money building wells in drought-stricken areas. But that is not morally obligatory, at least because there are equally good other causes that I could support, like, say, bringing an end to human trafficking. In God’s case, we can say that he has moral reasons to give a command; it is consistent with moral goodness. But that does not presume a theory of moral rightness.

One issue in the discussion of moral obligations, I think, is that we use the term “ought” in different ways. There’s a rational use of “ought” and a moral use of “ought.” Rationally speaking, I ought to do what is in my self-interest. I ought to pursue my self-interest on pain of irrationality. Arguably, it is always irrational to do some act that is not in my interest. And this is precisely the sort of insight that undergirds many ethical theories, like utilitarianism and social contract theory. I ought to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number because, if everyone follows that rule, then it will ultimately result in the most good for everyone, including myself, or so the story goes.

However, it seems that there is another sense of “ought” that is not captured by appeal to rationality in general or self-interest in particular. Phenomenologically, we can spot a difference in ourselves in the case of adding 2 and 2 to make 5 and when we have morally wronged another person. And, it seems to me, that many of our moral choices, psychologically, do not make any reference at all to rationality. When I think about the wrongness of murder, I do not remind myself (at least not at first) of how such an act would not be in my interests. Rather, I have the sense that such an act would be wrong no matter how my interests factor into the equation. There’s a certain gravity, weight, and transcendence with such prohibitions that, at least by my lights, resist the reduction to the merely rational ought.

So, I could have moral reasons for performing some act A over act B, without God’s command in place. Any supererogatory act will, de facto, come with good moral reasons to do that act, but it will not be morally obligatory. But the divine command theorist will say that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded. Doing some act because it is good is a moral reason to act; however, it is not sufficient to ground moral obligations.

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



by Stephen S. Jordan

Mankind’s Inability to Keep the Objective Moral Law

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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



[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

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

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

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

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

[7] Ibid., 51.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 31.

[15] Ibid.

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

[17] Ibid., 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

SL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.3, “Al-Maturidi”

Al-Maturidi reflects about life together with people with whom one has religious disagreement, and his situation is like our own in this respect. Each party will hold that its own belief is valid, and its opponents’ beliefs are invalid. The only way to get agreement in such a situation is for one party to have reasoned proof that can persuade any fair-minded person. If it does have such proof, the other parties ought to submit. This shows that his conception of theology is not confined to working out the implications of authoritative texts.

Al-Maturidi acknowledges that God gives to human reason an understanding both of the divine speech in general in the Qur’an, and of divine commands in particular. If God didn’t give this understanding, he says, humans would be excused from complying with the commands. But this needs to be qualified. Al-Maturidi also holds that we very often do not know whether something is wise or foolish, just or unjust. The central Mu’tazilite error, he thinks, is to suppose that God’s actions are like human actions. Al-Maturidi doesn’t deny that God has a reason for the divine command, but he does deny that we always have access to it, even in principle. How can we hold these two parts of al-Maturidi’s view together, that God causes our reason to understand His commands, and that very often we do not know God’s reason?

Al-Maturidi gives us a composite picture of human nature. We have both a rational understanding that responds with attraction to the right and with repulsion to the wrong, and we have a tendency towards what is bad in its results. Both are properly described as belonging to our nature. He is referring to an actual tendency in our reason to avoid bearing difficulty and to prefer illegal actions. This is a key point. Like the Mu’tazilites, al-Maturidi can affirm that God gives us in creation a rational understanding, which responds to the right. But this doesn’t mean that our actual decision-making about what to do accurately tracks what is in fact right and wrong. To the contrary, we tend towards what is in fact, in its results, wrong, because our human reason avoids bearing difficulty. This is why we need testing, and why God gives us commands and encouragement, to counteract this tendency. When al-Maturidi says that God causes us to understand His commands, he is referring to God’s creation in us of the rational understanding that is attracted to the right and repelled from the wrong. But when he says that very often we do not know God’s reason, one explanation is our natural tendency to avoid bearing difficulty.

An example he gives of this deplorable natural tendency is that we do not like taking bad-tasting medicine. He thus points to the same range of phenomena that we found described by ‘Abd al-Jabbar in terms of the genus of action. But al-Maturidi analyses the phenomenon differently. Of the same thing, he says, we can predicate both benefit and harm, justice and injustice, wisdom and folly. He writes, “If, then, the beauty of wisdom and justice is established as a general principle as well as the ugliness of foolishness and injustice, God must be described with every and each action. He creates by wisdom and justice and righteousness because it has been established that He is good, generous, self-sufficient and knowing.”

 The Mu’tazilites are described as holding that what makes a thing wrong is not Scripture but what Hare has called the “aspect,” for example, “injustice,” which is not simply the same as wrong itself. But if the thing is only made wrong by its aspect, and it’s not wrong because of God’s prohibition, then it can’t be made wrong by the aspect unless that aspect is itself wrong, either in its essence or in its quality. In other words, the aspect “injustice” can’t make an act wrong unless “injustice” is already named together with the wrong. But if it’s already wrong, then it is divinely prohibited, according to the divine command theorists Hare’s considered in this chapter. To say that the action is made wrong by the aspect and that therefore it’s not made wrong by God’s prohibition, as the Mu’tazilites do, is simply to beg the question.

Al-Maturidi considers whether we can talk about an action having right and wrong in itself. The rightness and wrongness of an action depend on the limit and bound set for us, in al-Ash’ari’s language, a limit and bound to which we do not have reliable access, and which is continually maintained by God’s will. Now, the Mu’tazilites might object that al-Maturidi, by denying that our actions are right or wrong “in themselves,” has denied the objectivity of morality. But recall what Hare said of Adams: that, contra Adams, we should be more modest about our abilities, holding with al-Maturidi that we have by nature a tendency towards the wrong as well as a tendency towards the right, and we should not “compare God’s actions with people’s actions.” Al-Maturidi also says every human governor in the perceptible world is a candidate for doing something wrong. The Mu’tazilites are liable to the same objection as Adams. Holding that what we judge by reason has the role they assign in justifying a claim that something is right and wrong denies the full objectivity of morality.

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

We’ve been considering Shafer-Landau (SL) and his effort to refute an argument from atheism for moral skepticism: Ethics is objective only if God exists, but God does not exist, so ethics isn’t objective. In replying to this argument from atheists, he doesn’t address the premise that says God doesn’t exist, but he tries to show atheists that they should reject the first premise. The main reason, he claims, that some atheists accept this premise is because they’re convinced that all laws require authors. He reminds them they believe in the laws of physics and mathematics without believing them to be divinely or humanly authored, so he suggests they do the same with respect to moral laws and reject the idea that they require, to be objective, a divine author.

In our last installment, we mentioned the possibility of important disanalogies between the descriptive laws of physics and the prescriptive laws of morality, which is in the vicinity of an objection that SL now anticipates. In his own words: “Here’s a reply you might be thinking of: while scientific laws may be authorless, normative laws—those that tell us what we ought to do, how we should behave—do require an author.” This would render the scientific laws relevantly disanalogous, definitely undermining the analogical argument he’s making.

SL is not convinced, doggedly insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, which he thinks he has shown is wrong. He’s skeptical there’s any other reason, or at least any good one. But let’s pause for a moment. Note his claim here. Earlier he had said that, in his own experience, people tie moral objectivity to God because of a specific line of thought: that all laws, principles, standards, etc. require a lawmaker. Now he’s suggesting that the reason he’s witnessed most people adducing for their conviction that objective ethics needs God is also the best reason on offer, perhaps even the only one. This now makes more sense of why he would earlier conclude that dispensing with the notion that laws require lawmakers leaves one with no reason at all to think that objective moral rules require God’s existence.

Again, however, it strains credulity to think this is the only or best reason for an atheist to think that morality find its locus in God. Moral properties might simply strike some atheists as ontologically odd entities, and not likely to exist in a naturalistic world. Or perhaps they think that it’s likely, at the macroscopic level, that naturalism entails loss of meaningful agency, without which moral norms don’t make sense. How can we obligated to do actions we may well be physically determined not to do? Perhaps they consider moral convictions a vestige of a supernatural myth they have left behind. And there could be plenty of other reasons besides those. The likelihood is that they’re not necessarily thinking in a tight, carefully reasoned, airtight discursive format; it may be a more intuitive matter for them, an issue of probabilities and likelihoods rather than a deductive inference.

A moment’s reflection, too, would seem to undo the course-grained analysis that dictates that no non-authored laws exist. Here SL’s point is good: there are mathematical laws, and the laws of physics, yet atheists don’t think those to be “authored.” So, yes, an unnuanced acceptance by an atheist of the claim that all laws—irrespective of disanalogies—have to be authored seems worthy of rejection and susceptible to refutation. Again, though, are there many atheists who make this mistake? It seems unlikely.

It bears repeating at this point, though, that SL’s point is a very small one. What he has accomplished is just this: for an atheist who makes no distinctions between laws—be they mathematical, physical, or moral—he shouldn’t accept the idea that all laws require authors. What he hasn’t accomplished, remotely, are the following things: Shown that morality doesn’t have its foundation in God; shown that atheists are right to think there are nonauthored laws; shown that morality is relevantly analogous to physics or mathematics; shown that atheists with other reasons for thinking morality finds its locus in God are mistaken. In short, he has yet to show, as he claims to have shown, that there is “no reason to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

But he’s not through, so let’s continue to listen to what he has to say. Recall that he’s anticipated the objection that morality and physics are not relevantly analogous. He disagrees, insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws do. He thinks this, presumably, because he must put quite a bit of stock in the analogy, which, we’ll see, is no doubt true. When it comes to the laws of physics, though, which merely seem to describe how the physical world operates, it seems to many of us that the disanalogy with the authoritative prescriptions of morality, which we egregiously violate on pain of deep guilt, is a large and relevant disanalogy that undermines his argument.

Physicists can explore how space and energy and matter can feature stable laws of operation; but where would authoritative moral dictates and deliverances come from in a purely natural world? SL himself doubts they do, for he’s not a naturalistic ethicist, but a nonnaturalistic one, thinking moral properties are sui generis, not reducible to aspects of the physical world. On that we’re agreed. But the question of which explanation is better—some version of Platonism or some version of theism—remains an important question. And it’s arguable that the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its guilt-inducement for violation, its universality, etc.—find a better explanation in supernaturalism than nonnaturalism. I’m not making that case here, but noting that so far he hasn’t done anything to undermine the supernatural case—in a chapter, recall, called “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?”

In the next installment, we’ll continue considering the import of relevant disanalogies between the laws of morality, on the one hand, and those of physics, mathematics, and rationality, on the other.

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

Shafer-Landau (SL) argues that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, though he doesn’t think this is a very good reason. For he thinks that laws come in various shapes and sizes, and that it’s plausible to think of some of them as lacking an author, human or divine. The laws of physics, for example. Certainly atheists are inclined to think this is so. For this reason he thinks that atheists should reject the idea that all laws require lawgivers, and that if they do so they have no other reason to embrace moral skepticism. I’ve expressed misgivings about aspects of this analysis in previous posts, but now I want to consider in greater detail the analogies he uses.

I’m inclined to think the existence of the laws of physics provides me little reason to doubt God functions at the foundation of morality. Since I think God created the universe, and think this for what I consider a number of principled reasons, I don’t see the operative laws of the physical world as wholly independent of God. I also tend to think such nomological laws are contingent and descriptive, rather than necessary and prescriptive, which constitute, to my thinking, relevant disanalogies with those of morality. SL sticks to his guns, though, insisting that the analogy between the laws of physics and morality holds. I disagree.

SL does recognize, though, that some readers might be more convinced by normative laws than those of science, so here too he emphasizes that not all normative laws require lawmakers. In his own words: “For instance, the laws of logic and rationality are normative. They tell us what we ought to do.” But since nobody invented them, we have an example of authorless normative laws. And thereby SL thinks he’s shown another reason to reject the notion that all laws require lawgivers and that moral objectivity needs God.

What should be said of this attempt? SL admits that the laws of logic or rationality aren’t moral principles, though they are normative ones. Atheists would naturally be inclined to see these as authorless, objective, normative laws that issue in a kind of (non-moral) oughtness. This is the import of their being normative or evaluative.

Should an atheist for this reason think that objective morality wouldn’t need God? It’s hard to say. Clearly SL is convinced they should, but plenty of atheists demur. They might think that this analysis fails to do justice to continuing relevant disanalogies between moral and nonmoral oughts. For example, we don’t tend to feel guilty for doing our best but making a rational or logical mistake. Perhaps we feel bad, morally speaking, for failing to work as hard as we should have, being as attentive as we should have been to the evidence, but we arguably don’t feel guilty for nonmoral failings. We may be ashamed or embarrassed, but it’s not likely we feel guilty.

This is plausibly taken to be a distinctive feature of the moral life, which seems to hint to us that we are morally responsible for our actions, and culpably guilty for our failures, not just before an impersonal set of principles, or ontologically odd sui generis moral realities inhabiting a Platonic heaven, but before something more personal than that. Obviously, this is just the slightest tip of the hat in the direction of the argument that would need to be fleshed out here, but it seems likely that plenty of atheists could well sense that morality, if objective, would lead in this direction. (Among some of them, perhaps, their very resistance to objective morality comes from just this concern.)

SL, though, thinks he’s made his case, adding, “Scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God does not exist. If God is claimed to be specially necessary for moral laws in particular, that will require some further argument, something that has yet to make its appearance.” Note, though, the nature of the claim: scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God doesn’t exist. In what sense has this been established? On the assumption of atheism, and in light of an unrefined account of laws, objective morality would be possible without God. But why assume atheism in the first place? Speaking of epistemic possibilities, atheism might be false. At bottom, all that SL has argued for is the bare epistemic possibility that God isn’t needed for ethics. True enough.

By the way, it’s also epistemically possible that God is needed for ethics. Where, however, does the evidence really point? The chapter still leaves me waiting for something on this score. Meanwhile, SL says he’s waiting in vain for an argument that God is especially important to moral laws. Well, as luck would have it, that’s what this site is all about. For a few years, week in and week out, we’ve been exploring just this question. Moral apologists of a broad variety of stripes have argued in numerous smart ways that the distinctive features of morality—from moral freedom to regret, from moral rights to an account of evil, from moral value to moral obligations, from moral knowledge to moral transformation to moral rationality—provide excellent reasons to think that God exists to undergird these realities. Perhaps SL has heard these arguments and found them wanting, and I respect that; I hope he’ll return the favor when I say that much of what he’s said in this chapter is something I find equally wanting.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss why SL finds problematic the theistic effort to identify God as the author of morality.

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil


Berat writes:


Is there a post on the "ontological foundation of evil"? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can't have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn't have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God's attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I'm highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God's Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. We think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Opposition is not intrinsically evil. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

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


Shafer-Landau (SL) is subjecting to scrutiny an argument that goes like this: ethics is objective only if God exists; God does not exist; so ethics isn’t objective. He has admitted that theists will reject the first premise, but he argues that atheists should reject the second premise. I agree that atheists should reject the second premise, for this reason: I don’t think the God question need be settled before one comes to a conclusion about whether or not objective morality obtains; if it did have to be settled first, there would be no room for moral apologetics.

Before proceeding, a word is in order. The idea that ethics is objective only if God exists is an incredibly ambitious metaphysical claim. An important distinction is in order. Consider the theses of objective morality and of God’s existence. For each thesis, there is a body of evidence for or against it. For nonskeptics about morality, they presumably take the evidence to be in favor of morality, and it’s reasonable to think that such evidence is available. Now, it’s obvious that among such nonskeptics are plenty of thoughtful atheists, who might consider the evidence against God’s existence to be strong, or at least the evidence for God’s existence to be weak, or not strong enough. Should such atheists accept the thesis that ethics is objective only if God exists? Clearly not.

Why? They think they have good reason to be moral objectivists, and lack good reasons to be theists, so there’s no particularly good reason they can see to think ethics is objective only if God exists. Of course, however, they might turn out to be wrong, having, for example, misjudged the evidential case for theism. Also, their rational belief in atheism and objective morality does little to show that it’s false that ethics is objective only if God exists; what it shows is that, on their view, they have no good reason to believe it to be true. They have a certain amount of reason to think it’s likely false, but their case is only as strong as their reasons to be both moral realists and atheists. And it’s crucial to remember that this formulation—that ethics is objective only if God exists—is not needed by a number of variants of the moral argument for God’s existence.

SL gives his own reason why atheists should reject the idea that moral objectivity requires God: because the reasoning that supports this premise is one that atheists will not accept. In his own words, here’s what he means: “Recall that the reasoning [in question] stipulated that laws require lawmakers, and that objective laws therefore required God. But atheists deny that God exists. So atheists must either reject the existence of any objective laws, or reject the claim that laws require lawmakers. Since they can easily accept the existence of at least some objective laws (e.g., of physics or chemistry) they should deny that laws require authors. But once we get rid of that view, then there is no reason at all to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

At first glance, this should raise a few questions. When we speak of nomological laws such as those found in physics or chemistry, there seem to be potentially relevant disanalogies between such laws, on the one hand, and moral laws, on the other. Philosophers of science have quite a bit to say about the laws governing the physical universe, and it’s by no means clear what the right analysis is. But supposing it’s fairly plausible to imagine that the nomological laws are contingent, the rate at which a body might fall to the earth might have been different. And even if so, the rate of falling wouldn’t happen because of the laws; the laws would simply describe what happens.

Already we seem to have come across two disanalogies with moral laws. Take a nonnegotiable moral law that says it’s wrong to torture children for the fun of it. A moral objectivist would likely say this is objectively true, and perhaps for the modally minded even necessarily true. It’s hard if not impossible to envision such a law admitting of exceptions or as merely contingent. Since it’s plausible to think some such invariant moral laws exist—and this will prove relevant later to SL’s discussion—it’s worth pointing out that the laws of the physical world are less plausibly thought of as similarly necessary. The second disanalogy might be even more important: the physical laws arguably describe the behaviors of bodies falling through space and the like, whereas the moral laws prescribe how it is we are to behave.

Now, a fair question at this point is how relevant and telling such disanalogies are. Disanalogies don’t always rebut or undermine analogical arguments. What it depends on, of course, is what work SL thinks the analogies are doing. Recall that he’s trying to emphasize that atheists admit that they already reject the idea that all objective laws require God, since they believe in the laws of physics and chemistry without tracing such laws to God. To the extent that such laws are relevantly analogous to those of morality, SL’s point is that atheists who accept the former have reason to reject the idea that moral laws require a lawgiver—and thus, if accepting such a principle had led to their acceptance of the first premise in the argument from atheism, to choose now to reject it instead.

This is, needless to say, a painfully narrow point that SL is making, but thus delimited it has some value. Still, it strains credulity to think that many atheists would have so unrefined and unnuanced a reason for thinking that moral objectivity requires God. Call the reason ‘R’: “laws require lawmakers.” The narrowness of SL’s point makes surprising his further claim that dispensing with R leaves one with “no reason at all” to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence. It seems there may be ever so many potential (and better) reasons to think objective moral rules require God’s existence other than R, or at least that God somehow functions at the foundations of morality.

SL continues to direct his attention at undermining the notion that laws require authors by suggesting that, without it, the following train of thought collapses: Rules require authors, so objective rules require nonhuman authors, so objective moral rules require a nonhuman author, and that must be God.

Again, SL reminds atheists that they already believe that objective laws of the sort we find in mathematics or astronomy are not of our own creation. This shows, he asserts, that we have instances of laws without lawmakers. At issue here is not what role God might have played in creating the universe with its various operative laws, since SL is directing his argument to atheists, who don’t believe God was responsible for any of that. Since they believe in the laws of mathematics or physics and don’t believe that such laws had either a human or nonhuman author, they should, SL writes, reject the notion that laws require lawmakers, and this goes too for moral laws.

In our next installment, we’ll continue examining SL’s analysis and offer a reply.

Image: "Welcome rising sun" by A. Malhorta. CC License.