God & Moral Ontology: It’s not Me, It’s You

by David Baggett What is the connection if any between God and moral ontology and truth? In this brief talk I will do my best to flesh out some of the contours of this question, beginning with a distinction between explicating a view and defending or justifying it. With our time limits in place, I cannot do justice to either in much detail, let alone both, so I will rest content with saying a few things about both.

Moral ontology is also a broad field of discourse, so I will delimit what I want to say to topics of the good and the right, which are already much more than can be handled adequately, much less fully, in such short compass, yet they are but two of many parts of moral ontology. Concerning moral rightness, I will direct my attention in particular to moral obligations. So, again, I will be talking about moral goodness and moral obligations, and will offer a few considerations in favor of their dependence on God and reasons to think such a dependence relation obtains.

With respect to issues of moral goodness, or value, matters axiological, how might value depend on or be rooted in God? In the history of Christian thought, two important respects in which such dependence has been suggested can be understood, broadly speaking, in terms of a theistic adaptation of a Platonic model, on the one hand, and a theistic adaptation of a more Aristotelian model, on the other. What is interesting to me about these two kinds of views, even more than their differences I’ll discuss momentarily, are their similarities. In each case, as a modicum of Plato and Aristotle exegesis reveals, relevant resemblance to, or partaking in, or contemplation of the divine is seen as residing at the heart of ultimate value. The commonly construed and much vaunted differences between such views, though, are usually accorded pride of place and emphasized more adamantly—namely, to put it with considerable crassness and oversimplicity, the Platonist looks to heaven for his values and the Aristotelian to the earth. The theistic Platonist looks to God’s nature, the theistic Aristotelean, or natural lawyer, to human nature.

To my lights, however, and for present purposes, what strikes me as obvious, even in the face of such a supposed parting of ways, is their potential rapprochement. God construed as the ultimate Good, the locus of value, makes wonderful sense to many classical theists. The sorts of qualities attributed by Plato to the Good and the Beautiful are just the sorts of qualities that the classical Anselmian theist or thoughtful Christian believer would attribute to God. The source and goal of reality that draws us to itself, or himself, and which constitutes the highest perfection and reality, the paradigmatic good—to identify the person of God with the Good thus construed is a very natural move, eminently understandable, and consistent with robust theism. It’s to render the ultimate exemplar and source of moral truth in a Personal matrix, rather than in, say, causally inert principles whose relevance to our lives is far from clear. In God’s unchanging character, on the view I’m sketching instead, can be found those eternal truths, moral and otherwise, upheld and sustained by God in this and all possible worlds. This is, like Platonism, a deep account of moral value in the basic structure of reality, a view that says the truths of morality penetrate to the foundation of reality, in radical contrast with a naturalistic understanding of moral values that, owing to its inherent limitation of resources, relegates the status of such moral truths to rather superficial qualities of reality at best.

Classical theism and Christianity also holds that we have been made in God’s image. What this teaching plausibly entails is that we as human beings have a nature and essence, and what conduces to our nature—which is made after God’s, remember—is that what is good for us in the deepest possible ways is morally good. In which direction does this causal relation go? From being good for us to being morally good, or from being good in itself to being good for us? Here theistic ethicists can reasonably disagree, and hold fruitul discussions. As for me, I am inclined to argue for this minimal thesis: that both paradigms are possible, since, owing to the aforementioned possibility of integration, I don’t see an irremediable parting of the ways between theistic Platonic and Aristotelian portrayals. It seems to me that we can speak of God’s nature and our nature, made after God’s image, and speak both about what is good in and of itself, and what is good in virtue of being good for us. As the ultimate locus of value, God, on my view, is at the center of the picture; but as beings made by God in his image—given the nature we have, made for divine purposes, imbued with a telos, invested with significance by the one who is goodness itself—in such a system, on such a model, that which conduces to our deepest joy, fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing is also morally good. It is good for us, and, most if not all the time, it is also good in and of itself, in virtue, most likely, of relevantly resembling an aspect of God, partaking of his nature, or in some other way asymmetrically depending on God.

Take friendship, for example. What makes it morally good? I don’t doubt, incidentally, that naturalists can see that it’s such a good, but here I am broaching the question of the relative adequacy of a naturalist and theistic ontology to account for the moral goodness. I suspect we have excellent reason to think that part of the story of friendship’s value is that it is good for us—it makes life rich and rewarding and delightful. To such traits naturalists can imply, which means they’re not without some resources here—remember if theism is true, this is a richly teleological world inhabited by created made in God’s image, so this all utterly unsurprising and quite explainable on a theistic picture. But now consider God and the world, a rich theistic context instead of a merely naturalistic one. In light of who we are as God’s creations, the satisfactions of friendship are far more than relatively shallow phenomenal or psychological features that don’t penetrate much beneath the surface. No, rather, friendship satisfies us in the ways God intended us to be satisfied, fulfills us in the way we were designed to be fulfilled. Friendship is two creatures of infinite worth living in loving relationship. It helps satisfy our God-given telos to love God and neighbor. And at the same time, and intimately related to this—not so much as in tension with it, but rather bolstering the picture and fleshing out the story—friendship is good in and of itself, reflective of an aspect of the Triune nature of God. It features a relevant resemblance of or partaking in the perichoretic relationship of the Persons of the Godhead, the God who is, as a result, essentially loving. What is good for us, on this integrated theistic story, is also what is good in itself. At any rate, this is all too brief, but that’s one kind of story of how God and the Good are related, and it’s the one to which I’m most strongly drawn for a variety of reasons, philosophical and theological.

What of moral rightness, matters deontic, and particularly moral obligations? As I write this, I am on a plane coming home from a conference at Baylor centered on some lecture notes of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s on a couple dozen arguments for God’s existence. I was delighted—as the one slated in the forthcoming book to write on the moral argument from the list—to hear Plantinga’s answer to a question posed him. Trent Dougherty, the main conference organizer, asked him which, of the couple dozen arguments, does he consider the best and most compelling? Plantinga’s answer? The moral argument, and, particularly, God as the best account of moral obligations. Why does Plantinga, along with many others, think that God and, in Plantinga’s case, God’s commands, provide such a comparatively solid account of moral obligations?

In brief, I think because moral obligations are a special brand of normative constraints. After all, we speak of aesthetic or epistemic norms and strictures, and undoubtedly there are interesting parallels between those and moral obligations, but in addition to the similarities and resonances, there are also interesting differences and disanalogies. Moral obligations carry a distinctive sort of authority, a particular prescriptivity, an overriding oughtness. Moral obligations have a kind of verdict-like clout, and our failure to discharge them properly, many think, results, at least generally and normatively, in a kind of objective guilt. C. Stephen Evans refers here to the “Anscombe intuition” as recognition of this set of features unique to moral duties—based on the logic, language, and phenomenology of our moral experience.

I have not done much more than hint at justifying a theistic account of moral ontology, so let me do that here by talking about the challenge naturalists face in accounting for the Anscombe intuition, challenges many think insuperable. As noted atheist J. L. Mackie, and plenty of others, naturalists and nonnaturalists alike, have recognized, moral properties and relations—and perhaps especially something like moral obligations in particular, as George Mavrodes has pointed out—seem to be a strange fit in a thoroughgoing naturalistic world. Where would their authority come from? Their lawlike verdict? Their overridingness and clout and punch?

Divine commands issued by a loving Creator who knows what is best and what is best for us  and wishes for our deepest good would carry the requisite authority to sustain binding moral obligations, but naturalists have a notoriously hard time coming up with a suitable secular substitute. Angus Ritchie in his From Morality to Metaphysics argues that naturalistic ethical theories invariably either fail to do justice to our objectivist pre-theoretical moral commitments or they face an explanatory gap in their moral account.  Where naturalists find themselves impoverished, theists find themselves with an abundance of both Platonic and Aristotelian riches – our most deeply held moral beliefs find ample explanation.  

Naturalists can and should of course continue to try making good sense of moral obligations, but let me finish by making two general observations about recurring patterns I see as they go about such a task. Increasingly vocal naturalists are emerging, from Sharon Street to Joel Marks to Richard Joyce, who are admitting that naturalism and robust moral realism are, if not bad for each other, at least in a very strained relationship. That some naturalists, facing invariable prospects of a definitive breakup looming, gravitate to error theory, moral skepticism, or moral anti-realism is, to my thinking, as telling as it’s sad. They remain, I think, at least half right: moral realism and naturalism are not very compatible. At the least moral realism stands in a much healthier relationship to theism. I think a theistic home is the considerably more congenial home to objective moral facts.

Secondly, concerning naturalists who, despite the writing on the wall, assiduously strive to salvage the relationship and remain moral realists, I suggest that you listen carefully to their accounts of morality because, at least in my experience, almost inevitably there’s some subtle sleight of hand going on. Obligations are replaced by rules, objective guilt with subjective guilt, intrinsic goods with instrumental ones, moral goals bereft of sufficient teleology are foisted on hapless and unsuspecting listeners. Their beloved gets toppled from her throne, stripped of her riches, and in reductive fashion domesticated to perform lowly chores alone—like helping us merely “get along.” The result is a watered down, emaciated, deflationary account of morality, a shell of her former glorious self, emptied and divested of her most enchanting distinctives and winsome charms. Authority, the Anscombe intuition, binding and overriding moral obligations all get left behind.

It’s a fun metaphor but my point is a serious one: For those unwilling to jettison pre-theoretical commitments and intuitions about moral realism, I respectfully suggest they at least remain open to finding a better explanation of moral ontology in the theistic fold—a partner finally worthy of a fine lady. Perhaps it’s time she refuse to settle, say they should see other people, and suggest to naturalism, “It’s not me. It’s you.”


Photo: "She's Leaving Home" by S. Drummond. CC License.