Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

Photo by  Bruno Martins  on  Unsplash

[Excerpt from a larger essay--my side of a printed debate on God and morality with Louise Antony--forthcoming in a new edition of Michael Peterson and Ray VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell). --MDL]

As a part of a larger project of defending an atheistic accounting of “robust ethics,” Erik Wielenberg has recently taken on such arguments and suggested a model for reconciling an evolutionary account of morality with his view that morality is objective (even “robust”).  One assumption of my argument so far has been that unless there is a direct connection between the reproductive advantage of our moral beliefs and their truth--so that their being true is responsible for their being fitness conferring--then we’ve no reason to assume their truth.  But as Nagel says, “value realism” is like an unattached spinning wheel.  It does no such explanatory work, and so we are left merely with the view that we have the moral beliefs we do because of their reproductive advantage--they have been fobbed off on us by our genes, as Ruse says.  Wielenberg instead posits an indirect connection that is routed through a “third factor”[1]-- a set of evolved human cognitive faculties (e.g., reason).  It is plausible that certain cognitive faculties have evolved because they confer fitness upon their possessors.  Further, there is “wide agreement” that “if rights exist at all, their presence is guaranteed by certain cognitive faculties.”[2]  Suppose, then, that there are rights and that such rights are based upon those cognitive faculties.  It will follow that any creature with such cognitive faculties possesses rights, and any such creature who exercises those faculties to believe There are rights believes truly.  This, of course, is because having the cognitive faculties is both necessary for having the belief and sufficient for having the rights. 

In this way, the relevant cognitive faculties are responsible for both moral rights and beliefs about those rights, and so the cognitive faculties explain the correlation between moral rights and beliefs about those rights.[3]

This is a neat way of explaining how evolution might ultimately be responsible for our having true moral beliefs, even if those beliefs are about non-natural truths.  Does it succeed?
            Wielenberg is entitled to the assumption of rights due to the rhetorical context of his argument.  After all, I and others have argued that there would not be moral knowledge even if there were moral truths, and so his strategy--positing some moral truth and determining whether it could be known given the conditions laid down--is the natural way to proceed.  And his proposed model is, so far as I can tell, internally consistent.  After all, if our cognitive faculties are a product of our evolution, and if having such faculties is sufficient for having rights, then anyone capable of believing that there are rights is in possession of both the faculties and the rights. 

But one wonders whether the assumption is safely lifted from the paper and transferred to the world itself.  Indeed, there are two assumptions at work: there are rights, and rights are based upon the possession of certain cognitive faculties.  Wielenberg cites “wide agreement” regarding the connection between those faculties and the possession of rights.  But the entrenched evolutionary skeptic might suggest that our belief in rights is just a part of that fobbed-off illusion.  When Bertrand Russell appealed to “wide agreement” regarding certain moral beliefs, George Santayana replied--no doubt with Darwin in mind--that such appeals are little better than “the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.”[4]  Further, given the background assumption of evolutionary naturalism, we might expect that such faculties themselves emerged as an evolutionary solution to the problem of survival and reproduction.  As such, they are of instrumental value as a means to such ends, much like opposable thumbs.  Can we rest the case for the intrinsic value of persons upon their possession of extrinsically valuable properties?  Human rationality is certainly good for humans just as arboreal acrobatic skills are good for rhesus monkeys, but beyond bald assumptions, does Wielenberg’s view provide the conceptual resources for thinking that it is a good in itself as would seem to be required for it to do the work assigned to it?

            Wielenberg’s strategy may go some distance towards reducing the improbability of our possessing moral knowledge given the emergence of rational and moral agents who have both rights and a tendency to believe that they do.  But the model in itself fails to address a more astonishing cosmic coincidence to which Santayana pointed in his critique of Russell.  As an atheist and naturalist, Russell famously said, “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[5]   The forces of nature are not goal-oriented, and we should not think of the emergence of homo sapiens as the achievement of cosmic purposes.  We are here because nature “in her secular hurryings”[6] happened in at least one corner of the universe to throw spinning matter into the right recipe for things such as ourselves to form. But at the same time, Russell defended a view of morality that includes objective and intrinsic values--a form of Platonism not far from Wielenberg’s robust ethics. Santayana argued that these two commitments are mutually at odds.  As he saw, Russell’s moral philosophy implied that “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.”[7]  But Russell’s naturalism--and rejection of cosmic purpose--implies, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.”[8]   It would be marvelous indeed if, in the accidental world that Russell described, the very things that ought to exist should have come to be.  It would be as though among the eternal verities a special premium had forever been placed upon, say, conscious moral agents, and, despite the countless possibilities, and because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris.  Presumably, Beings with cognitive faculties have rights is a necessary truth--if a truth at all--and, as such, it was inscribed in the Platonic empyrean long before the Big Bang.  How astonishing it seems that such things with that “remarkable property” of being such that they ought to exist--should have appeared at all when the things responsible for their emergence had no prevision of such an end.  Did we win the cosmic lottery?  Santayana observed that at least Plato had an explanation for such things because the Good that he conceived was a “power,” influencing the world of people and things so that the course that nature has in fact taken is determined at least in part by moral values.[9] It is for such reasons that Thomas Nagel has posited the idea that “value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.”[10]  Nagel’s good is a power, unlike Russell’s, and as such it plays a role in explaining the moral shape that the world has taken.  But presumably no such moral guidance was at work in Wielenberg’s universe, seeing to it that portions of the material world should be fashioned and formed into moral agents.  Yet here we are!
            I think this point remains despite Wielenberg’s further ruminations on whether Darwinian Counterfactuals are, in fact, likely or even possible.  He suggests that if physical law does not strictly require that emergent moral agents should have developed moral sensibilities something like our own, so that evolution would naturally narrow the range of possible outcomes, it is highly likely--at least “for all we know.”  Daniel Dennett has suggested that there may be certain “forced moves” in evolutionary design space.  For instance, given locomotion, stereoscopic vision is predictable.[11]  Wielenberg seems to be suggesting a forced move of his own.  But both moves are forced--if at all--only once certain conditions are in place.  Nagel has a relevant observation here on precisely the example Dennett cites.

Once conscious organisms appear on the scene, we can see how it would go. For Example … certain structures necessarily have visual experience, in a sense that inextricably combines phenomenology and capacities for discrimination in the control of action, and that there are no possible structures capable of the same control without the phenomenology. If such structures appeared on the evolutionary menu, they would presumably enhance the fitness of the resulting organisms.... But that would not explain why such structures formed in the first place.[12]

Even if we think it likely that the evolution of moral agents such as ourselves should drop into a predictable groove, we are still left to explain why the natural world should be deeply structured in such a way that its natural processes and algorithms should produce such agents at all.  The whole thing is quite wonderful, and without the guidance of God, a Platonic demiurge, or Nagel’s guiding values, it seems an astonishing bit of luck.  It adds an additional epicycle of coincidence to the so-called “anthropic coincidences” in that not only have we beat astonishing odds simply by arriving on the scene--because of the mind-boggling improbability that the universe should have permitted and sustained life of any kind--but that it is also the achievement of ends eternally declared to be good and morally desirable by necessarily true but causally impotent moral standards. It is a called shot, but without a Babe Ruth to place it.  To base one’s argument on an assumption that defies such odds seems a bit like planning one’s retirement on the assumption that one will win the lottery.  One might suggest that Wielenberg help himself to the additional unjustified assumption of Nagel’s causally effective guiding values, for this would fill a void in his view, and anyone with the liberality to grant the one (i.e., rights) is likely to grant the other.


[1] To illustrate, suppose we notice a strong--even exceptionless--correlation between chilly weather and the turning of fall leaves.  But suppose we are told that the chill in the air is not the cause of the colorful leaves.  But then we consider a third factor--the earth’s tilt from the sun resulting in both less light and colder weather--which is responsible for both the color (due to the light) and the chill.

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

[5] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine and Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 153.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] “Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.” Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p. 143.

[10] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Consciousness, p. 116.

[11] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

[12] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 60. 

Image: "Darwin" by I. Dolphin. CC License. 

Chapter 6, God and Cosmos, “Moral Knowledge” (Epistemic)

To start off this chapter, Baggett and Walls give a set of scenarios. Suppose you look at a clock tower at 2 o'clock and form the belief that it is 2 o'clock. The first scenario is the discursive knowledge case. The clock is accurate and fully functional in this case. Given this, one seems to have justification and (inferential) knowledge. The second scenario is the nondiscursive knowledge scenario. While the clock is accurate and fully functional, one does not infer the time from such factors. Rather, having glanced at the clock, you simply find yourself believing it's 2 o'clock. Or you intuitively know the time accurately without even looking at the clock (though this seems farfetched for us in the actual world). The point here is that this is something more intuitive and perhaps even properly basic, which counts as knowledge.

The third case is a Gettier case. Suppose that the clock broke 24 hours before. It is just a coincidence that you look at the clock at 2 o'clock. Here Baggett and Walls distinguish between objective justification and subjective justification. Objectively speaking, one lacks justification because one is relying on a defective clock. However, one has subjective justification because one has no reason to suspect that the clock is broken and has good reason to believe that it is 2 o'clock. However, one presumably lacks knowledge in this case. The last scenario is the random time scenario. Suppose that the clock was never made to give accurate times, but instead its hands are guided by a random set of electronic signals. So the clock gives the time it does because of causes which are completely disconnected from the actual time. Suppose it gives the time 7:15 when you know well that it is early afternoon. Here there is no knowledge and no justification to think that the time indicated is accurate.

While some may think that naturalism rules out moral knowledge, it does not mean that naturalists lack moral knowledge. For them (and everyone else) to lack moral knowledge, it must be that naturalism rules out moral knowledge and that naturalism is true. However, Baggett and Walls want to maintain that naturalists have moral knowledge.

They start by discussing discursive moral knowledge. Consider three categories of people. The first have argued that on naturalism, both morality and logic lose their validity. Some examples are C. S. Lewis, Victor Reppert and Alvin Plantinga.

The second, such as J. L. Mackie, Richard Joyce, E. O. Wilson, and Michael Ruse, argue that on naturalism, theoretical reasoning retains its power and validity, but normative moral categories are lost.

The last category of people think that reason (and logic) is reliable, and so we should think that morality should be thought of as reliable too. Such are moral realists like Derek Parfit, Erik Wielenberg, David Brink, and David Enoch.

For example, they may say that we are committed to the existence of other norms of reasoning with the same ontological and epistemological properties as moral ones. Angus Ritchie (a theist) argues that there are true statements which (1) are both descriptive of entities and are also prescriptive to those rational agents who come to know their truth, and (2) they are neither analytic nor knowable by empirical research alone. Ritchie identifies norms of theory choice in the physical sciences. Some call these epistemic norms. Ritchie uses inference to the best explanation (IBE) as an example. Physicists routinely make such inferences. The principle is both descriptive and normative, for it tells us what we ought to accept on the basis of evidence generated by empirical observation and experimentation.

Hence based on IBEs, we are committed to the existence of synthetic a priori imperatives. David Enoch takes another approach by arguing that human beings can't help but engage in explanatory projects in order to make sense of the world. Since the practice of explanation is indispensable, and principles of IBE are indispensable to that practice, we have to take their deliverances seriously. Ritchie further conjoins this with the practice of reflective equilibrium where we take singular intuitively compelling judgments and systematize them into general rules.

Next Baggett and Walls discuss nondiscursive moral knowledge. Psychologists distinguish between the "adaptive unconscious," whose operations are fast, automatic, and effortless, and the operations of the conscious mind, which are slow and require work. The former is known as System 1 and the latter as System 2. Some knowledge is nondiscursive. Some, like Plantinga, have argued that certain beliefs are rational, justified, and warranted without being evidentially supported by other propositions because they are properly basic. Baggett and Walls suggest that it is reasonable to think that certain foundational, axiomatic moral convictions might qualify as properly basic beliefs.

Baggett and Walls next discuss moral Gettier cases. Angus Menuge says that the shared claimed of variants of evolutionary ethics (EE) is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history, which is contingent and could have been different. He makes a distinction where weak EE says that it is only our moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had evolved differently, while strong EE says that moral ontology itself (what actually is right or wrong) would be different if we evolved differently.

Strong EE's main problem is that it makes human rights contingent. It cannot account for moral values and obligations well. Furthermore, Menuge points out that if rights are based on our natural capacities, then some individuals who suffer physical or mental defects do not have rights. Another point is that natural selection may explain what is good for an organism, in that certain characteristics can increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Yet the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.

Weak EE on the other hand gives us no grounds for thinking that we could know moral reality. On weak EE, it seems that one is right just by mere coincidence, since our epistemic moral faculties are not properly connected to moral truth. Erik Wielenberg replies that it is a mistake to assume that humans could have evolved with radically different moral principles from the ones we actually possess. While he admits some luck is involved, he does not think it is significant since the same luck afflicts many of our nonmoral beliefs also.

Baggett and Walls now discuss the challenge to justified moral beliefs. If moral beliefs are not dependent on the relevant moral truth-makers, then a tracking relation has not been established to show that our moral judgments essentially depend on actual moral truth. Gilbert Harman, for example, says that if moral beliefs can be given an evolutionary explanation, then they can be explained without appealing to their truth, and thus moral beliefs lack justification. Many others such as Guy Kahane, Michael Ruse, Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville have advanced similar evolutionary debunking arguments.

Street, for example, assumes that our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed but asks if they are also truth-aimed. If there is no fitness-truth relation, then we should be skeptical about morality. If there is a fitness-truth relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the tracking relation) or simply because of the fitness they have conferred (the adaptive link account). The adaptive link account leads to constructivism. The moral realist needs a tracking account but this seems implausible. A tracking account of paternal instincts, for example, has to say that such instincts were favored not just because such behavior preserved DNA, but also because it is independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Richard Joyce thinks similarly, yet thinks that there is wisdom in a fictionalist approach to ethics, acting as if there are binding moral truths for the purpose of social harmony.

How do secularists respond to the challenge? Baggett and Walls first consider replies by secular naturalists who take moral properties to be natural properties. They examine the Cornell realist account advanced by Boyd, Brink, and Sturgeon. Sturgeon replies to Harman by saying that moral facts are explanatorily relevant. Sturgeon thinks that moral facts are commonly and plausibly thought to have explanatory relevance since many moral explanations appear to be good explanations. Consider the case of Hitler. Harman thinks that we should not think that, over and above such natural facts about Hitler as his anti-semitism and will to power, there is a moral fact of Hitler's depravity. Sturgeon follows Kripke in suggesting that moral terms rigidly designate natural properties, so moral terms pick out natural properties and track them. Justice, for example, picks out some properties such as equity displayed in the distribution of societal goods. This, however, seems to embrace weak EE which seems saddled with an intractable epistemic challenge.

Baggett and Walls then consider instead secular accounts which take moral properties to be non-natural properties (which supervene on natural properties). Neither David Enoch nor Erik Wielenberg provides a tracking account and, and both concede that our moral judgments are not likely directly caused by the relevant moral truths. Instead, they endorse a "third factor" explanation. If we can explain why (1) x causes y, and (2) x entails z, then we have explained why y and z go together.

For example, on one view in philosophy of mind, brain state B causes action A, and B entails mental state M (M supervenes on B), therefore we can explain why M and A go together. Enoch says that this is a (Godless) pre-established-harmony type of explanation. Enoch's solution assumes that survival or reproductive success is at least somewhat good generally. Next he says that evolutionary selective forces have shaped our normative judgments and beliefs with the aim of survival or reproductive success. So the fact that survival is good pre-establishes the harmony between the normative truths and our normative beliefs. While Baggett and Walls think that Enoch's approach has potential, they point out that other worldviews can also affirm the value of human beings and their survival, and arguably better.

Wielenberg's approach is similar but identifies a different third factor. His third factor is certain cognitive faculties. He says that relevant cognitive faculties entail the presence of moral rights and generate beliefs about such rights. How do those faculties entail moral rights? Briefly, he thinks that in light of our cognitive faculties that recognize overriding normative reasons to act, rights are thereby entailed. The primary reservation Baggett and Walls have regarding Wielenberg's account is ontological. They think his account does not do justice to the authority of morality, and does not satisfactory explain the existence of binding moral obligations and human rights.

To support the claim that theism better explains our moral knowledge than secular accounts, Baggett and Walls look to Ritchie. In From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments, Ritchie advances a moral argument for God by accomplishing three central tasks. First he presses the distinction between justification and explanation of moral truths. Second, he engages secular accounts that address moral cognition. Lastly, he defends the theistic alternative. Ritchie asks three questions about the genesis and justification of our cognitive capacities. (1) What is the justification for our faith in their reliability? (2) What is the historical explanation for their development? (3) What is the explanation for their capacity for tracking truth? Ritchie grants the naturalist moral justification and even moral knowledge, but argues that naturalism fails to explain the truth-tracking ability of our moral cognition. He thinks that natural selection can tell a story of how humans come to have truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning, namely, that we will survive better if we hold true beliefs that derive from theoretical reasoning. However, he denies that such correlation is nearly so plausible in the moral case. He thinks that a value system based on survival, replication, and pleasure alone is inadequate. He thinks that there needs to be a wider teleological explanation, one that ultimately involves the intentions of God.

In summary, Baggett and Walls think that (assuming moral realism) moral knowledge is possible. Naturalism faces some challenges from those who Gettierize or challenge naturalists on the issue of moral justification. Instead of arguing that naturalism cannot account for moral knowledge, Baggett and Walls grants moral knowledge but thinks that theism provides a better explanation of our knowledge than naturalism. While they admit that third factor solutions seem to have potential, such solutions are entirely consistent with theism, and in Enoch’s case theism seems to feature better resources to deploy such a solution. So in agreement with Ritchie, they conclude that even if moral knowledge is consistent with naturalism, a better explanation is a theistic one.

God and Cosmos, Chapter 4, Part II (Moral Value)

Baggett and Walls next consider a more Platonic effort to account for intrinsic human value. Such a view is advanced by those like David Enoch and Erik Wielenberg. They focus on Wielenberg's book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism. Wielenberg's view (known as robust normative realism) is that there are response-independent, non-natural, irreducibly normative truths, objective ones, that when successful in our normative inquiries we discover rather than create or construct. He thinks moral properties supervene on nonmoral properties. Because of issues over supervenience, he distinguishes three types of supervenience.

Let M stand for a moral property. The first variant of supervenience he calls R-supervenience (R for reductive). The way M supervenes on the base properties here is by being reduced to them. Here, M is identical or entirely constituted by the base properties. The second form is A-supervenience (A for Adams). The instantiation of M might be entailed by the instantiation of the base properties together with the instantiation of certain non-base but necessarily instantiated properties. This comes from Robert Adams’ view of finite goodness. His view is that the property of being finitely good is the property of faithfully resembling God's nature. The third variety is called D-supervenience (D for DePaul). M is not identical, or reducible to, or entirely constituted by the base properties, on this view. Rather, the instantiation of the base properties makes (or explains) the instantiation of M. He thinks the most plausible of these is D-supervenience.

He offers a few ways of construing such a making relation. The first is a grounding relation. Morality on this view concerns a sui generis domain (its own unique domain) that can be reduced to, or consist in, facts that might be formulated in other terms. Wielenberg worries that there isn't a well-understood and useful grounding relation that is distinct from other metaphysical relations like identity and constitution.

The second way, which Wielenberg favors, is construing making as causation. He acknowledges various worries. One concern is that causation requires the existence of laws of nature connecting causes and effects, but it seems implausible to suppose there are laws of nature that connect nonmoral and moral properties. Another concern is that causal connections are usually thought to be contingent, but Wielenberg posits a necessary casual connection. Lastly, it is sometimes thought that causes must precede their effects. Wielenberg thinks the answer to these objections is by understanding causation in a particularly robust fashion, the same causal relation many theists take to hold between a state of affairs being divinely willed and the obtaining of that state of affairs. So, when asked why does being an instance of torturing someone just for fun entail moral wrongness, he says it is because being an instance of torturing someone just for fun makes an act wrong. He thinks no further explanation is available (since all explanations must stop somewhere).

Frank Jackson objects that there is always a purely descriptive claim that is necessarily coextensive with an ethical predicate, so there are no sui generis ethical properties. Using his making relation, Wielenberg argues that moral properties have a feature natural properties lack, namely, the former are resultant. Tristram McPherson objects to Wielenberg's account by saying that commitment to brute necessary connections between discontinuous properties counts significantly against a view. Wielenberg admits there is some intuitive force to this objection, but argues that such a principle is self-undermining. Lastly, Wielenberg shows that both theists and his own view are committed to metaphysically necessary brute facts. They come from nowhere and nothing external to them grounds their existence. He thinks ethical facts are such facts.

What about the narrower issue of the intrinsic value of human beings? Wielenberg thinks that his account better explains such value than at least certain theistic explanations. He insists that makes something good must lie entirely within its own nature. It is good in and of itself. He strikes off Mark Murphy's, Adams', Linda Zagzebski's, and Mark Linville's accounts because he thinks that human value is extrinsic on such views. Baggett and Walls will address such concerns in a later chapter.

They now turn their attention to reservations they have about Wielenberg’s account. First, Wielenberg thinks human dignity and worth D-supervene on the property of being human (or some specific features of being human). Baggett and Walls think that such a making relation underdetermines why this causation relation holds. Second, it is question-begging to assume that this supervenience story is consistent with secularism because, if humans are created in the image of God, then being human would have for one of its essential features a relational property of which God is a part. Third, Wielenberg is committed to the causal closure of the physical. This limits him to material and efficient causes, leaving little to no room for formal or final causes. The first person needs to be left out in any final theory. There is no room for mental causation in the context of casual closure. This arguably eliminates the means of treating persons as ends-in-themselves because the attitude of respect for a person presupposes mental causation. Fourth, there is a huge qualitative gap between natural and non-natural, between fact and value, between value and disvalue. Fifth, Wielenberg seems to dismiss the historical relevance of theism to the conviction about intrinsic human value, yet it is not clear that his worldview has the metaphysical resources to ground such truths. Sixth, it is not obvious that his explanatory stopping point is a good one. It is not clear what explanatory work is done by saying that an act of deliberate cruelty simply makes something wrong. He seems to be simply stating a moral fact that is in need of explanation. His explanatory stopping point amounts more to an assertion than argument. So, with these worries, Baggett and Walls do not think that Wielenberg's account sufficiently accounts for intrinsic human dignity and value.

Mailbag: A Question on Prior Obligations to Divine Command Theory

By David Baggett A reader of the site sent this question:

In reading a review on NDPR of C. Stephen Evans' book God and Moral Obligations (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/41665-god-and-moral-obligation/), I found the author’s (Terrence Cuneo) argument to be strong ones against Evans’ proposed solutions to the "prior obligations" objection to DCT. It seems that even on a DCT, moral obligations still seem to have some unconditional "oughtness" about it.

I always thought that the strength of a DCT versus a non theistic robust ethic view (perhaps like Wielenberg's) was that a DCT was able to explain the unconditional "ought" of moral obligations. For if moral obligations were brute facts, then the question "why should I love my neighbor" is answered by "because it's simply the right thing to do," and then if someone were to ask, "why is it the right thing to do?", the final answer would be: "because it just is." I thought the advantage a theist has is that he can say that an action is right because God commands that it is right, which on the surface sounds like it provides a wider explanatory scope compared to the "it just is" answer. However, the prior obligation objection seems to ask the question "Why should I obey God's commands" and it would seem like we have a separate obligation (apart from the Will of God), to obey his commands (as the reviewer points out). Thus, it would seem like a theistic component to explain moral obligations might not be better off than the robust ethicist’s view.

What are your thoughts on this? I understand that you've been reviewing Evan's book on the website. I've found the site to be encouraging BTW, thank you so much for contributing to the body of Christ!

Great question, thanks for sending it along! You are not the first to point to this part of Cuneo’s review and to express concern about this aspect of divine command theory. Evans’ book is fantastic, and the prior obligations objection to DCT is indeed interesting, although it doesn’t, to my thinking, pose an intractable objection. I’ll try to explain why.

On the surface there’s certainly an issue to deal with. If DCT provides an exhaustive theory of moral obligations, and we have an obligation to obey God, then our obligation to obey God to obey God comes from our obligation to obey God. This is circular, so something has gone wrong. What should we say about this?

Two of this site’s contributors, friends Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan—who collaborated on a terrific book entitled Did God Really Command Genocide?—deal with this objection (pp. 165-67). They note the objection goes back to Mackie and, before him, Cudworth. They note a few problems with the argument. First, they note, it generalizes, and as such would apply “to every account of moral obligations within any given ethical theory, secular or theological.” One example they adduce is social contract theory. “According to a social contract view, moral obligations are those requirements that rational, impartial persons in a society would agree to. But Cudworth (and Mackie) could argue that one is morally obligated to such a contract only if there is already an obligation to follow such hypothetical agreements. So the hypothetical agreement can’t itself be the source of moral obligations.” See their point? I think this is an excellent insight. In this way we could say the objection, if it were to hold, would show too much.

What do they think has gone wrong with the argument? They think it equivocates between these two claims:

1 If God commands X, then we have an obligation to do X, and

2 There is an obligation to do what God commands.

Only the second proposition affirms an obligation to obey God. 1 makes the conditional claim: IF God commands X, THEN we have an obligation to do X. 1 is consistent with there being no obligations at all. But if God issues a command, what God commands is rendered obligatory. DCT only requires 1, whereas the prior obligations objection requires 2. As Matt and Paul put it, “[T]he divine command theorist need not hold that there is a prior obligation to obey God. All he needs is that God jointly possesses various characteristics or traits such that his act of commanding is sufficient to constitute moral obligations,” which is just the sort of thing that one like Robert Adams does in Finite and Infinite Goods and elsewhere. Jerry Walls and I similarly argued in Good God that, among God’s qualities that give him moral authority to issue binding commands, are his perfect knowledge, love, and power. (See pp. 122-23.)

Even if we don’t have a prior obligation to obey God’s commands, that wouldn’t mean we don’t have moral reasons to obey God. Not all moral reasons are duty-related. Something being morally good, for example, gives us moral reason, perhaps even compelling moral reason, to do it, even if we don’t have a moral obligation to do it. This is one among several other sorts of replies one can give. Among others Evans mentions include that God does actually command us to obey his commands, after he’s established his moral trustworthiness; or, even if the objection were to work, divine commands could still be sufficient to general moral obligations without being necessary; or that the prior obligation to obey God’s commands is a nonmoral ought.

It seems to me that the robust realists generally water the whole concept of moral obligations down, so in a face-to-face battle between theistic ethics and secular robust realism, what’s often getting discussed are two different conceptions of moral obligations. Wielenberg, for example, talks about moral obligations arising from enough compelling normative reasons to perform a particular action. To my thinking such a conception of moral duties is a watered-down, domesticated view of what a moral duty is, and insufficient to do justice to what Evans calls the Anscombe intuition—the notion that a moral obligation carries with it a binding prescriptive power and authority that can’t be reduced merely to compelling reasons to perform an action. Cuneo, the same fellow who pressed the prior reasons objection to Evans, also raises an objection against Wielenberg similar to what I’m suggesting here. He writes this:

Consider Wielenberg's own view concerning moral reasons. According to this view, when an agent has decisive moral reason to act in some way, then that agent is morally obligated to act in that way (7; cf. 52). In one place, Wielenberg claims that "to have an obligation just is to have decisive reasons to perform a certain action" (57).

There are two ways to understand this position. According to the first -- call it the unqualified view -- a limited range of normative facts, such as moral and prudential facts, favor or justify responses of certain kinds. If this view is correct, when a moral fact favors or justifies the performance of an action, then there is a moral reason to perform that action. However, under this view, the term "moral reason" does not designate a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that a moral fact bears to a response of a certain type. Rather, it designates a state of affairs in which there is a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response (or, alternatively, it designates a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response).

Now distinguish two variants of the unqualified view. According to the first variant, moral obligations determine moral reasons. This variant, however, cannot be the view that Wielenberg accepts, since his position is not that moral obligations determine moral reasons but that moral reasons either determine or are identical with moral obligations. According to the second variant, moral obligations just are decisive moral reasons. This variant of the view avoids the problem just stated. … But it is not easy to understand. This view implies that the state of affairs that consists in some moral fact M decisively favoring a response is a moral obligation. But M cannot itself be a moral obligation, for no complex state of affairs could have M as a constituent and be identical with M. It is not apparent, however, what other sort of moral fact M could be.

Now consider the second understanding of Wielenberg's position. Under this position -- call it the qualified view -- the term "moral reason" designates a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that something could bear to a response of a certain kind. This relation is just one of many such relations. In fact, according to this view, every system of norms generates and entails a correlative set of reasons: norms of etiquette generate etiquette reasons; norms of chess generate chess reasons; norms of the Mafia generate Mafioso reasons; norms of morality generate moral reasons, and so on.

If this view were correct, it trivially implies that if we are morally obligated to refrain from acting in a given way, then there is a moral reason for us to refrain from acting in that way. Unfortunately, this position also trivially implies that if we are "Mafioso required" to refrain from a given action, then there is a Mafioso reason to refrain from performing it. While this position might be able to explain how moral obligations are grounded in (or are identical with) moral reasons, it implies nothing regarding the normative weight of these reasons and the obligations they determine (or are identical with). Instead, it invites us to ask the higher-level question whether we have reason to act on the qualified reasons we have.

In brief, I see no compelling reason to think the prior obligations objection should be construed as evidence that (secular) robust realism provides as good an explanation of objective moral obligations as does classical theism and divine command theory.


Mailbag: A Question on Atheistic Moral Realism

  Dear Dr. Baggett,

I'm a Christian from Malaysia that has been interested in philosophy for the past few years now, and I have a burning question about the moral argument that I hope you'd be able to help me with.

Why can't the naturalist posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are? I think J. S. Mill took this approach. Both the laws of logic and morality are prescriptive; the laws of logic prescribe how we ought to think if we want to be reasonable, while moral laws prescribe how we ought to behave if we want to be morally good.

The naturalist can claim that just as the law of noncontradiction can exist without having a logical lawgiver, moral laws can exist without the need for a moral lawgiver.

I think I got this from the moralapologetics website where Trent Dougherty interviewed Wielenberg on the issue. Was hoping you could help because something *feels* wrong about this response; it shouldn't be that simple. Yet I can't seem put my finger on what exactly is wrong with this response to the moral argument.







Hi Declan,

Thanks for the question. It's a good one. Here are a few thoughts at least. Some do indeed argue that moral facts aren't significantly different from other normative facts--be they logical or epistemic or even aesthetic. All of these normative standards do share some things in common alright. Both logic and morality, for example, as you note, are prescriptive--the former for theoretical rationality, the latter for practical rationality.

Philippa Foot once argued even the standards of etiquette are more than hypothetical imperatives because they too prescribe certain behaviors even for those indifferent to etiquette. But the contextual relativity of such standards, and their lesser gravity, still seem to distance etiquette from morality, at least until they start shading into one another.

Logic's a bit of a tougher case than etiquette because it has greater gravity. But I think Wielenberg's unwillingness to see a significant difference between logical and moral norms is a mistake. It may well be the case that all genuine norms have their locus in God--reflecting aspects of His nature--His rationality, His beauty, His goodness, etc. J. P. Moreland argues that to be so in his work. I'm quite open to this because it makes sense that, as Plantinga once put it, necessary truths may well best be thought of as reflections of God: thoughts God thinks, owing to who He is, in this and all possible worlds (modal realities).

Nevertheless, despite whatever all the various norms may hold in common, moral ones seem distinct in an important sense. Both logical (and epistemic) and moral norms may all be both authoritative and prescriptive and unavoidable, but moral norms are, additionally, the sort of standards whose violation should make us feel guilty. I don't think of such guilt merely or primarily as a feeling (another way my view is a bit different from Wielenberg's). I see it as an objective moral condition. It's not that the violation of every moral norm results in guilt; not every moral norm is a duty; some are values. But the neglect of some values, anyway, violates a moral duty, and in such cases we are guilty. I don't generally see violations of logical or epistemic norms in the same way.

"Oughtness" may apply to them all, but this shows an important way oughtness locutions can be variously construed. Usually it's only the moral ought whose violation properly generates guilt. We often use ought language to point to prescriptions that don't attain to the level of obligations. As in etiquette. In the case of logic, the normative standards do give us reasons to make some sorts of inferences and refrain from others. And sensitivity to such reasons is good--expansively construed. Robert Adams says sensitivity to good reasons is a form of excellence, and I agree. But the violation of constructive dilemma or modus tollens doesn't, or shouldn't, generate guilt, a need to be forgiven, or alienation from others that forgiveness can fix--features of shirking moral obligations all.

I think Wielenberg, Parfit, McGinn, Enoch, and others put the cart before the horse. It's true that norms are connected with reasons, but moral obligations possess distinctive features. By my lights, we don't find reasons to act and then presume we have explained moral obligations. Rather, moral obligations themselves give us compelling reasons to act. Inverting this has been one of the ways a number of secularists have watered moral obligations down, neglected one of their most important distinguishing features, and mistakenly acted as though moral obligations can be explained merely by adducing a certain set of normative reasons to act. Acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Morality carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.

Hope that helps!

Blessings, Dave


Photo: "Mail" by T. Johnston. CC License. 

Podcast: David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity

On this week's episode, we get a special preview of Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls' upcoming book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. In the first part of a two part series, Dr. Baggett takes on a wide array of secular ethical theories and explains how each fails to provide an adequate explanation for human value and dignity.

In part 2, we take aim at the views of Erik Wielenberg. Dr. Wielenberg is a top-notch philosopher and atheistic moral realist. His new book, Robust Ethics, is a serious piece of philosophy. Nevertheless, Dr. Baggett has some objections about Wielenberg's view as it relates to human value. And we’ll be hearing those objections this week.


Photo: "Collapsed" by G. Fornaro. CC License. 

On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics


Editor's Note: The whole video is well worth watching, but you can find Wood's comments about the moral argument around 23 minutes into the video. Also, we would like to thank The Gospel Coalition for highlighting Wood's story

When David Wood was a boy, his dog was hit by a bus and died. Although his mother was terribly upset, he was not. He figured it was just a dog, now it’s dead, end of story. A few years later when a friend of his died, his response was largely the same. He didn’t feel any particular regret or remorse, but at the same time, largely owing to the very different responses of others, he sensed that maybe he should. Not everyone emotionally impaired in such a way turns violent, but he did. In years to follow, he extended his emotionally dead and unempathetic take on those around him by engaging in some horrifying acts, like brutally attacking his father with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t). Wood was convinced that right and wrong were fictions to be discarded at will and that the apathetic universe couldn’t care less how anyone acts.

The absence of empathy that Wood seemed to exhibit as a young boy is often indicative of psychopathy or sociopathy. Although sometimes these categories are treated interchangeably, some insist that there are crucial clinical differences between them. For example, some (like Chris Weller) suggest that, though both psychopaths and sociopaths tend to lack fear and disgust, sociopaths are more likely to be found holed up in their houses removed from society, while a psychopath is busy in his basement rigging shackles to his furnace. Psychopaths are dangerous, violent, cruel, and often sinister. Showing no remorse, they commit crimes in cold blood, crave control, behave impulsively, possess a predatory instinct, and attack proactively rather than as a reaction to confrontation.

In contrast, upbringing may play a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath than those diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopaths project an appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity, but sociopathic behavior is actually conniving and deceitful. Often pathological liars, sociopaths are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation—not for lack of a moral compass (like we find in psychopaths), but because of a greatly skewed moral compass. Despite their differences, both psychopaths and sociopaths can wreak quite a bit of havoc and do much damage in people’s lives.

Since Wood was (1) remarkably unempathetic from such a young age, (2) seemingly lacking a sense of right and wrong rather than having a merely skewed sense of morality, and (3) engaging in extremely antisocial and violent behavior, perhaps this would suggest that he was more a psychopath than a sociopath. Since this is not my area of specialty, though, I am doing nothing more than offering my untutored guess. Yesterday the Gospel Coalition posted an article about Wood called “What Sociopaths Reveal to Us about the Existence of God.” For present purposes, we needn’t worry with the exactly right psychological diagnosis, but it bears pointing that, if anything, Wood seemed to be riddled with the more congenital, more entrenched, more debilitating of the two mental disorders, which is instructive. Wood wasn’t at all inclined to believe he should refrain from hurting others for fear he would thereby violate their “intrinsic value,” since this was a notion he scoffed at as a young man, thinking people were just biological machines for propagating DNA inhabiting a speck in a vast, empty, meaningless universe. For Wood was also, as a young man, an atheist, but this piece is not about his atheism. It’s rather about this mental phenomenon of psychopathy/sociopathy and its bearing on moral apologetics—and vice versa.

What does any of this have to do with the moral argument for God’s existence? Atheists Sam Harris and Erik Wielenberg, both well-known and outspoken atheists, think that the existence of psychopaths, in the clinical sense of the term—by some estimates making up as much as one percent of the population—poses a challenge to theistic ethics generally and divine command theory more particularly. In Sam Harris’s debate with William Lane Craig, Harris pointed out one potential connection between psychopathy and moral apologetics, but we can dispense with it fairly quickly. (Harris also devotes a section of his book The Moral Landscape to the issue of psychopathy, thinking it provides a case study of dissection of conventional morality.) In the debate Harris pointed out that psychopaths manifest an inability to distinguish between true moral claims and commands from authority. They tend to think that moral rules are just arbitrary impositions by someone in charge. Interestingly, Wood himself now admits that for years this was his own view—that for years he was willing to give up everything for the sake of a false freedom from the control of others he despised. At any rate, casting a moral theory of obligations as rooted in divine commands as an arbitrary morality of “authority,” Harris ambitiously argued that there is a psychopathic core to divine command theory—not a compliment to his theistic interlocutors.

As this site has emphasized repeatedly, divine command theory, rightly understood, is not at all an effort to render morality arbitrary, nor does it unintentionally accomplish such a feat de facto. Of course there is the occasional radical voluntarist (sometimes dubbed an Ockhamist, though writers like Lucan Freppert and Marilyn Adams have argued this is unfair to Ockham), but most mainstream divine command theorists don’t embrace anything so scandalous. No, God has reasons for the commands he issues—reasons tied to the nature and telos he’s given to us and, most ultimately, to his own perfect and essentially loving character.

Setting aside that arbitrariness misunderstanding, though, the even more egregious misstep of Harris’s is the suggestion that submitting to moral authority is psychopathic for equating morality with a presumed authority. This is a rookie mistake. Morality, particularly moral obligations, is authoritative—this is what Anscombe pointed out when she talked about the verdict- and law-like nature of moral obligations, what Richard Joyce means when he refers to the punch and clout of moral duties, what Mackie was pointing to when discussing the “queerness”’ of morality; part of what it means to reject objective morality is to deny that such prescriptively binding obligations exist. This shows there’s nothing question-begging about insisting on this aspect of morality; someone can deny objective morality, but such authority is precisely part of what they are denying. Psychopaths are not denying that morality possesses such authority, but rather insisting that morality, invested with such authority, doesn’t exist. Clearly such authority just is part of morality classically construed—whether morality is real or not. So acknowledging such authority is no evidence that those doing so are mentally unstable; such authority is rather one of those important moral facts in need of adequate explanation. The moral argument, especially in its long (abductive) game, wishes—carefully, patiently, and systematically—to make the principled case that theism, better than the plethora of secular moral theories on offer taken individually or in any particular combination, can provide the better explanation of such authority. The recognition of a true and legitimate authority hardly qualifies as psychopathic. Harris’s charged rhetoric here is strategically hyperbolic and borders the conversationally uncooperative.

Let’s turn now to the more serious objection to moral apologetics on the basis of psychopathy that Erik Wielenberg raises. He broaches the topic of psychopathy in his book God and the Reach of Reason. In the context of discussing C. S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, Wielenberg writes, “Perhaps more problematic for Lewis’s argument than variation in the deliverances of conscience is the fact that some people apparently lack a conscience altogether. Psychopathy (sometimes called ‘sociopathy’) is a personality disorder characterized by, among other things, the absence of the capacity to experience various emotions, including empathy, love, and guilt.” An interesting characteristic of psychopaths, experts tell us, is that they know the difference between right and wrong in some sense. Or they at least recognize that others view certain acts as right or wrong and can use such language appropriately. But such words hold no purchase for psychopaths, because they don’t care about morality. Wielenberg quotes psychologist Robert Hare, who’s studied psychopathy for over a quarter of a century: “They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Wielenberg notes that there may be an odd individual here and there who doesn’t know the moral law, just as we find a few people color-blind or tone deaf. Robert Hare, too, uses color-blindness to explain psychopathy:

The psychopath is like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic light. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. . . . Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.

Wielenberg argues the existence of psychopaths poses a problem for Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence. Lewis argues that human conscience is a tool that God uses to communicate with us. “More precisely,” Wielenberg writes, “conscience is a tool that God uses to get us to recognize our need for Him.” Christianity tells people to repent and promises forgiveness; Lewis thus writes it “has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.” Since psychopaths are unable to feel they need forgiveness—and psychologists estimate that about four percent of human beings are psychopaths (at least in the West)—Wielenberg asks where this leaves roughly one in twenty-five human beings? Has God abandoned them? This is how Wielenberg argues that the phenomenon of psychopathy undermines the premise of Lewis’s argument that says “the Higher Power issues instructions and wants us to engage in morally right conduct.” Why would God allow so many to lack the emotional equipment essential for engaging in morally right conduct? Wielenberg admits this may not be a decisive objection, owing to the possibility of a justification for psychopathy that lies beyond our current understanding, but he suggests it’s a phenomenon that does not fit very well with Lewis’s overall view.

In response to Wielenberg, I would point to the rest of Wood’s story. If his story were unique, this tack could be accused of being merely anecdotal, but it is one of many stories of remarkable personal transformation. Constructing his worldview to correspond with his flat and lifeless emotional perception of reality, Wood began to think that all of life was pointless. At the same time, he would try to hold his worldview together whenever occasional doubts crept in, until he finally realized that if life was pointless, so too was his effort to hold it all together. And then, he says, life offered him an alternative. In prison he ran into a Christian who was willing to defend his convictions rather than cower in silence or run for cover when Wood issued his usual barrage of insults and challenges. And the believer, named Randy, challenged Wood in return, forcing him to articulate his convictions, at which point Wood recognized something for the first time: “Things that made perfect sense when unquestioned seemed silly when questioned.” Questions of why the disciples would risk death to testify to the resurrection of Jesus or how life could emerge from lifelessness now began to plague Wood’s mind.

In an effort to refute Randy’s faith and consolidate his own, Wood began reading the Bible. He was refraining from eating at the time—long story—and found in scripture that Jesus was the bread of life. He wanted escape from his imprisonment, and read that the Son of God can set us free. He was painfully sick at the time, and read that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Over and over again he was startled to find Christ to be the answer he was seeking. He spent time reading the books on apologetics Randy had given him, and gradually his secular worldview began to crumble. The design argument and the argument for the historicity of the resurrection began to make more sense to him, and then the moral argument began to speak to him as well. Heretofore he’d held two beliefs at the same time—that humans are meaningless lumps of cells, AND that he was the best, most important person in all the world—and the realization dawned on him how inconsistent these were. A best person, he began to see, required an objective standard of goodness. He went from thinking himself the best person in the world to the worst, and then realized that if his earlier assessment of morality was wrong and there really was an objective standard of goodness and rightness, he was in trouble.

At this point he recognized, without anything much emotional going on in him, what John Hare calls the “moral gap.” Either he was irremediably selfish and sick and there was no hope, or there was someone, or Someone, who could help. He knew he, riddled with his psychological, spiritual, and moral maladies, couldn’t help himself. Who could? Gradually he came to think that only God could do it, and Jesus, the One God raised. Eventually, beaten down, desperate, barely able to know how, he prayed for forgiveness. His was a dramatic conversion, which happens on occasion. Instantaneously, no longer did he want to hurt anyone, and, perhaps even more importantly, he had the strange sense that he’d known the truth all along.

Wood’s moral sense was damaged but not beyond repair. The grace of God and the use of his other faculties (like that of reason) enabled him to understand that he did indeed have moral obligations after all. So perhaps the feelings that psychopaths lack are not necessary in order to recognize the reality and authority of morality. A psychopath is a person who doesn’t feel appropriately about his actions, but reason still leads to moral law. So psychopaths are not incapable of recognizing the moral law, they just lack the right emotional responses to it. Thus they are disadvantaged, but not in a way that precludes knowledge of the moral law. So Wielenberg may be operating on a mistake, namely, the conviction that to be morally responsible one has to have the right moral feelings. Perhaps having moral feelings is not a necessary condition for being morally accountable and that having these feelings is just a gift from God to aid in the moral life. Wielenberg, therefore, may be treating conscience in an overly narrow sense. Perhaps he thinks of conscience as morally appropriate feelings that guide us to right action, but why not include among the faculties of conscience the deliverances of reason? In which case, if our feelings fail us, we are not without a conscience, but just without some of the faculties a healthy conscience would have.

Today Wood runs an apologetics ministry (Acts 17 Apologetics), and he says that, though God created the universe, he created human beings in a special way, imbuing them with his image. Wood realizes now that true freedom is deliverance from his earlier desire to turn against his Creator. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says he now believes in Christianity as he believes in the Sun—because by it he can see everything else. Wood perhaps didn’t have the advantage of most: a well-functioning conscience and active capacity for empathy, which God can indeed and often does use to draw people to himself. Lewis was right about that, but perhaps overstated the case, because God has other resources besides. People don’t fall through the cracks if God is a God of love. Augustine once wrote that God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him. In an important sense, we are all morally sick to the core and in need of healing that only God can provide; we all need to become not just better men and women, but new men and women. Contra Wielenberg, despite his deficiency Wood was still able to apprehend the truth, recognize the possibility he was wrong, throw himself on God’s mercy, and emerge from the darkness into the light. And for a person who underwent such radical transformation, these words from Ezekiel 36:26 seem poignantly apt: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Photo: "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. 

Humility, Naturalism, and Virtue

Can we make sense of the virtues in a world without God? Let’s consider the virtue of humility as a way of addressing this question. In his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Erik Wielenberg develops a naturalized account of humility.[i] This account is worth considering given Wielenberg’s explicit aim of constructing a naturalized version of a virtue that is commonly thought to be uniquely Christian. Wielenberg constructs an account of humility grounded in the assumption that we know that naturalism is true. In order to do this, he first discusses a Christian account of humility. He then explores some of the similarities and differences of such an account with a naturalistic version of this virtue. After discussing these points, I offer several criticisms of Wielenberg’s view.

On a Christian analysis, according to Wielenberg, the humble person neither underestimates nor overestimates her own value or abilities, but instead recognizes that these are gifts from God. She also acknowledges her dependence on God, and knows that much of what contributes to her flourishing is not within her control, but God’s. Hence, the humble theist is grateful for her flourishing in light of this dependence, and gives credit to God. On naturalism, however, Wielenberg claims that there is also room for an acknowledgment of dependence on something outside of ourselves, because so much of what contributes to our success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when we are born, and economic factors—is outside of our control. On naturalism, these factors are not under God’s control; they are under no one’s control. Given this, no one gets the credit. Sheer chance and good fortune should receive the majority of the credit. As Wielenberg puts it, “It is the dependence of human beings and their actions on factors beyond their control—dependence that is present whether God exists or not—that makes humility in some form an appropriate attitude to have.”[ii]  In either kind of universe, naturalistic or theistic, “...taking the balance of credit for one’s accomplishments is foolish.”[iii] Like the humble theist, the humble naturalist can and should acknowledge her dependence on something outside of herself, substituting good fortune for God.

Wielenberg may be right that there is space within a naturalistic view of the universe for an attitude of humility. Perhaps we should generally expect that there will be somewhat plausible naturalistic versions of many particular virtues if Christianity is true. This is because according to Christianity, the structure of reality reflects aspects of God’s nature. Given this, even if one seeks to remove God from the picture, as it were, there will still be latent theistic features of reality which can make sense of the virtues. However, if Christianity is true then a Christian account of the virtues will be superior to any account available to naturalists, and the virtues themselves will ultimately possess better metaphysical fit with our understanding of the rest of reality, both of which we should expect if Christian theism is true.

For example, and as a way to compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the relationship between humility and gratitude. Of course the Christian can be humbly grateful to God and other people, for what he and they have done on her behalf. But the naturalist, given that dumb luck and blind chance are the ultimate causes of most of the factors contributing to his success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when he was born, and economic factors—has no good reason to be grateful for these things because there is no one to be grateful towards. Even the other human beings who have benefitted our fortunate naturalist only do so primarily and perhaps solely because of dumb luck and blind chance. On naturalism, no person, human (or, of course, divine), is ultimately responsible for anything, and so it becomes very difficult to see what reasons exist for gratitude towards persons, at least. Moreover, what it means for one to be grateful towards dumb luck or blind chance is at best quite mysterious, and at worst incoherent.

As a second way to critically compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you have suffered from a serious illness for many years. The treatments are quite expensive, and your insurance company will no longer cover the treatments because the policy’s coverage has been exhausted. Consider two distinct scenarios:

Scenario 1:  You are desperate to come up with the money to pay for continued treatment, and by sheer luck you find a large diamond buried in your back yard, worth enough to pay for your treatment indefinitely.

Scenario 2:  A wealthy benefactor gives you the money you need to pay for your treatments indefinitely. You know this benefactor because you cheated her in a business deal many years ago.

Which scenario is more conducive to humility?

In the first scenario you are very happy and feel very fortunate at such a stroke of luck. And of course you would have no reason to be proud of what occurred, because you would deserve none of the credit for finding the diamond or for being able to pay your medical bills. Perhaps the whole situation engenders some humility, because you realize you are receiving a great benefit that you did nothing to earn. On scenario 2 you again have no reason to be proud of being able to pay for your treatment, nor do you deserve the credit for being able to pay your bills. On this scenario, however, there are reasons to be more—and more deeply—humbled. First, not only is it the case that you did nothing to deserve the money given to you, but you actually deserve not to receive the money, given the fact that you wronged your benefactor in the past and owe her money because of your own wrongdoing. Second, the action of your benefactor is magnanimous, and simply witnessing and benefiting from the act should foster humility. Third, there is the presence of rational gratitude in scenario 2, but not in scenario 1. In scenario 1, there is no one to direct gratitude towards, because no one gets the credit for your newfound wealth. However, in the second scenario you should feel deep gratitude towards your benefactor, because of what she has done for you in spite of the debt you owe her. Gratitude seems to both deepen the humility you have and provides more reason to be humble.

It will be helpful to make explicit the lessons from the above thought experiment. On theism, humans rely on a personal being who provides constant and intentional support in all aspects of our existence. In contrast to this, on naturalism we rely on mere chance and the laws of nature (or perhaps just the latter). Many of the contributing factors to individual success that are outside of our control are present because of mere good fortune. It might seem that this fact should engender humility, because we realize that we are mere recipients of good luck, so to speak. Granting this to the naturalist, the theist still has reason for a deeper appreciation of her dependence and so for a deeper humility, given her belief that we do not deserve the assistance that God gives to us. This makes the humility deeper and more profound, because while both the naturalist and the theist can accept that there are many factors that contribute to our success in life that lie outside of our control, only the theist can say that she is undeserving of this aid and deserves not to receive it because of her rebellion against God. The upshot is that while the naturalist may be able to give an account of humility, the theistic account is superior because everything that we accomplish is done with God’s active assistance. This assistance is not only undeserved, but is given even though we deserve something quite different. This in turn gives the theist a reason to be more deeply humble, even if the need and justification for this humility too often go unrecognized.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that in a universe where the majority of the credit for any human accomplishment goes to “blind chance,”[iv] it becomes more difficult to give a sound and comprehensive analysis of any virtue and its connections to human accomplishments. It is not clear to me that any sense can be made of attributing credit to chance in this way.[v] What does it actually mean to ascribe credit to blind chance? In contrast to this, we have a clear understanding of ascribing credit to God, and there are several theistic accounts of moral development that are both coherent and cogent.

[i] Erik Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 102-116.

[ii] Wielenberg, p. 112.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wielenberg, p. 110.

[v] I owe this point to Doug Geivett.



Michael Austin is professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. His research focuses on applied ethics, the virtues, and philosophy of religion. He has published numerous journal articles and ten books, including Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, with Doug Geivett (Eerdmans 2012) and Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting (Kregel Academic, 2009). He is currently working on a book dealing with the virtue of humility. He also blogs at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethics-everyone and is on Twitter @michaelwaustin. You can see more from Dr. Austin at his website: http://www.michaelwaustin.com.

Video: Theist Trent Dougherty and Atheist Erik Wielenberg Discuss C.S. Lewis

In this video, Christian philosopher Dr. Trent Dougherty and atheist moral realist Dr. Erik Wielenberg have an irenic and thoughtful discussion on the thought of C.S. Lewis.  Topics covered include the moral argument, the problem of evil, and the argument from reason. The conversation was hosted by Baylor University.