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


At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls were invited to participate in a panel discussion of their book Good God with Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offering some critique and feedback on their work. Baggett and Walls provide a concise summary of the book, which is a cumulative and abductive moral argument for theism, while Copan and Craig offer insightful analysis. If you are interested in better understanding the moral argument in general or its abductive version in particular, this discussion will be well worth your time.

In Part 1, moderator Mark Foreman introduces the panelists and explains the context of the book. David Baggett provides a summary of their moral argument. Paul Copan offers what he thinks are the major highlights, a response to John Hare's criticisms, as well as some criticisms of his own.

In Part 2, Jerry Walls explains why it was necessary to address Calvinism in their moral argument. In Part 3, William Lane Craig responds to the critique of the deductive moral argument in Good God. And David Baggett responds to Craig by offering a defense of the abductive moral argument in Part 4.

In Part 5, the panelists (Baggett, Craig, Copan, and Walls) field questions about the effectiveness of abduction, the consistency of the abductive moral argument, and a few more on the subject of Calvinism.


Summary of Chapter 7, God and Cosmos: “Moral Transformation”

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss the performative aspect of morality, what John Hare calls the moral gap. They argue that theism possesses the necessary resources for moral transformation. Secular theories however do not have such resources and either reduce the moral demand, artificially exaggerate human capacities, or settle for substitutes for Divine assistance.

C. S. Lewis painted a picture of the moral enterprise. He envisioned a fleet of ships, where each individual ship must be seaworthy, the ships must avoid running into each other, and they need a destination. Likewise, morality has these three aspects: (1) individual moral flourishing, (2) harmonious interpersonal interaction, and (3) all of us striving toward a moral destination.

Although morality celebrates every step in the right direction, it seems to impose a demand for more. Telling lesser unjustified lies is an improvement over telling whoppers, but it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of morality. Morality calls us towards the goal of moral perfection. So the real question is what can secularists say about moral transformation? How do they close the moral gap (the gap between our best efforts to live a moral life and the moral demand itself)? Note that a full-fledged moral account has to address matters of character and virtue, not just moral behaviors. Morality pertains not only to what we do, but to who we are. Note that their view is not that secularists are morally weak or deficient. Neither is their claim that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person. Rather, if the secular worldview is true, then there is a moral gap.

Immanuel Kant was one of those who recognized this gap. The first aspect of Kantian moral faith is the conviction that the moral life is possible. On Kant's view, our natural capacities are not up to the task, yet the moral demand is constantly there. Without adequate resources to meet the moral demand, a moral gap is inevitable. If morality requires of us what we cannot do, however, then we may complain based on the principle that "ought implies can." If we cannot live up to the moral standard, then it is not the case that we ought to. The standard cannot be authoritative if it's impossible to meet. However, there is another possibility. If there are resources to help us meet the moral demand, then there may be a duty to use these resources. So the principle can be modified to "ought implies can with the help available." If naturalism does not have such resources, however, then it seems that secular theories fall short of explaining the authority of morality.

First, a secular theory may try to close the gap by exaggerating human capacities. Hare takes utilitarian Shelly Kagan as a contemporary example. It seems obvious that our own interests have the most motivational force for us. As Hare says, "We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than the utilitarian principle allows." Kagan makes a counterfactual claim that "if one's beliefs were vivid, then one would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint."

Baggett and Walls first reply that if it is the case we ought to do something, then it must be the case that we can do it, not just in the counterfactual sense of "I could do it if I wanted to," but we must be able to want to. Second, they reference Hare who argues the counterfactual is false. There are two ways to understand vividness. Vividness might capture the degree of clarity and distinctness regarding a belief, or it might pertain instead to the degree of importance we attach to a belief. Kagan means to use vividness in the former sense. In reply, then, we can look at cases where we can be very clear about someone's pleasure without caring much about it. Consider misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Another example is when the love of power, envy, fear, and resentment are operative in families, even where awareness of the needs of others is great. Also, there's willful blindness such as choosing not to be vividly aware of a need such as famine relief.  Greater clarity of the pleasure and pain of others does not necessarily result in an increased tendency towards partiality. Even if it did, it may not lead to an overall tendency towards partiality. Impartiality requires no bias at all. Hence complete impartiality is beyond the natural capacity, and cultivating vividness is insufficient to close the gap.

Second, a secular theory may instead try to reduce the moral demand in order to close the gap. Baggett and Walls examine some feminist views. The first strategy suggests that women are better suited to meet the moral demand than men are. Feminist Carol Gilligan argued that women are more caring, less competitive, less abstract, and more sensitive than men in making moral decisions. Her claims, however, are controversial and many studies on gender difference in solving moral dilemmas show otherwise. Empathy is a human trait found in both genders. Hence this view is implausible.

The second strategy reduces the moral demand by rejecting the universalist and impartiality constraints in Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Instead one should adopt the views put forth by various care ethicists. Gilligan, for example, says that moral judgments must be specific, but the universalist requires them to be general. Hare replies by distinguishing between the general and specific, on the one hand, and between the universal and particular, on the other. A principle can be universal and yet completely specific in detail. Kant's universal does not imply being general and non-specific.

Contra Kant, Hare further argues that some moral judgments are not universalizable. He calls these particular moral judgments. For example, if a mother is torn between caring for her daughter and helping in a worthy cause, she may be within her moral rights to care for her daughter, even if she cannot show that doing so is morally preferable. She is caring for her daughter and doing so for her daughter's own sake, whether or not everything about it can be universalized. Hare thinks such an example does not lower the moral demand. What would, however, lower the demand is feminist Nell Noddings' sort of extreme particularism. Noddings insists that she bears no responsibility to feed starving children in Africa because duties only arise in the close context of caring. Hence, it seems troubling to reduce the moral demand.

Finally, one may try to find a secular substitute for God's assistance. Baggett and Walls choose to review Hare's discussion of David Gauthier's social contract theory. Gauthier argues that it is rational to agree to be moral, and also to refrain from being a "free rider." (A free rider is one who does not follow the rules of morality and yet gets the benefits of social cooperation.) Gauthier thinks that we are all self-interested and argues that we need to cooperate because there are goods we cannot obtain without doing so. Morality is a set of prescriptions for such participation. Morality in time can then take on value for us.

Hare thinks that such an account fails. Morality simply does not present itself to us as justifying itself first instrumentally, as a means for the production of cooperative goods, and then we end up caring for justice. Following Kant, Hare thinks that practical reason does not start from maximizing self-interest, and then choosing to bring others into affective ties, and finally end up valuing justice for its own sake. Rather, practical reason starts from recognizing the self and others as under the law. Hare also lists many other difficulties with such a view.

Going back to the moral gap, there are some challenges related to it. It is common to ask "Why be moral?" A good answer is that morality is its own reward. But as Linda Zagzebski points out, the question of "should I try to be moral?" arises. It doesn't make sense to attempt to do something one cannot possibly do. What is the point of someone trying to become a great artist if he lacks the talent and cannot achieve it? Knowing that it is worthwhile is not sufficient to provide rational motivation if the chances of success are too remote. Zagzebski further identifies three ways in which we need moral confidence. First, we need confidence that we can have moral knowledge. Second, we need confidence in our moral efficacy, both in the sense that we can overcome moral weakness, and in the sense that we have the causal power to bring about good in the world. Third, we need confidence in the moral knowledge and moral efficacy of other people, since moral goals require cooperation. Moral despair cannot be rational. Hence, we must be able to rely on more than our own human powers and those of others in attempting to lead a moral life—God. This is the basis for Zagzebski’s moral argument.

One might try to avoid moral despair by embracing David Hume's form of skepticism. His skepticism over causation, induction, an enduring self, etc., had no practical implications. When Hume said that various beliefs were not rationally justified or rationally grounded, his subsequent counsel was not that we abandon such beliefs or stop such practices. Is this an option? Baggett and Walls argue that this possibility obtains only if certain Humean strictures are satisfied. One of those features is that the beliefs and practices in question are impracticable to give up. Moral beliefs and practices, however, do not qualify, since they can be abandoned and in certain circles surely are. Hence, appealing to Hume's form of skepticism does not work to evade the force of Zagzebski’s moral argument.

John Hare, summary of “Divine Command Theory” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

Moral Right and Wrong

In his chapter on divine command theory (DCT), John Hare argues that “what makes something morally wrong…is that God forbids it, and what make something morally right…is that God requires it.” To this end, Hare first defines moral obligation (moral right and moral wrong). Although Hare reveals that other explanations for moral obligation exist (divine command consequentialism, divine command virtue ethics, etc.), he decides to couch moral obligation within a Kantian framework, particularly the categorical imperative. Any moral consideration that is capable of being willed as a universal law and treats individuals as ends instead of mean is understood as right (morally obligatory). Any decision that transgresses/distorts these formulas are understood as wrong.

Divine Command

For Hare, “the purpose of commands is for the speaker to effect change in the world through the expression of her will.” But how? Hare is especially concerned about those divine commands that can be characterized as precepts and prohibitions. When given by divine authority, these seem to bring about a reason for acting in accordance with the command issued. To frame how this happens, Hare returns to Kant for an analogy. Kant understood the state as an arbiter of external freedom. It issues commands and establishes “sanctions” in an effort to supply such freedom to its citizens. Similarly, God provides commands and endorses sanctions for noncompliance in an effort to provide something good for morally free beings to enjoy. Such commands ought to be followed (like the laws of the state), not out of fear of punishment, but out of respect for what is being provided.  In both cases, there is a union of wills between authority and subject—the authority seeks good for his subjects and the subject complies with commands to that end.

The Relation between Moral Obligation and Divine Command

To highlight the relationship between moral obligation and divine command, Hare discards Philip Quinn’s assertion that divine commands cause obligation and rejects the notion that divine commands constitute obligation (Robert Adams). In their place, Hare offers his own proposal—God wills obligations via commands by means of what John Austin refers to as an “explicit performatives.” Like a king who declares laws into existence, God commands obligations simply “because of the necessity of the judgment that God is to be obeyed.”

Answers to Objections

Against those who believe that such a theory leads to an infinite regress (Why does one obey what God says? Why does someone do that? and so on),  Hare argues, along with Ockham, that if God exists and is impeccably good, obedience to him is required. This conclusion keeps the “vicious regress” from progressing ad infinitum.  Against those who claim God’s commands are arbitrary, Hare concludes, along with Adams and others, that God chooses what is right from what is good and this is rooted in who he is. Against those who believe DCT renders humans infantile, Hare argues that human sophistication is sustained by how commands and given and how humanity fits within the arc of God’s grand metanarrative. Against those who believe that DCT establishes an unassailable gulf between theists and non-theists, Hare states that divine commands provide a basis for obligations felt by believers and nonbelievers alike.


Virtue Ethics Response

Virtue ethics expositor Brad Kallenberg admires Hare’s commitment to moral obligation as “internally related” to the command of God. That said, there are three primary objections Kallenberg has with DCT in general and Hare’s delineation of this program in particular. First, Kallenberg does not appreciate how Hare couches DCT in individualistic terms. He wonders why Hare does not make more of the fact that divine commands are typically issued to a group. He also wishes that a distinction had been drawn between the compelling nature of commands as revealed to individuals verses a collective.  Second, Kallenberg asks how someone is supposed to tell the difference between divine invitation, advice, and command, as Hare does not articulate any meaningful ways of deciphering such. Finally, Kallenberg takes issue with the way in which Hare conflates what he refers to as an “overly generic” interpretation of Kant with J. L. Austin’s speech act theory.

Natural Law Response

In her response to Hare’s presentation, Claire Brown Peterson concedes two of DCT’s major commitments: 1) “certain actions can be objectively good or bad even if God does not command those actions” and 2) “any action, (good, bad, or neutral) becomes obligatory once God commands it (and wrong once God prohibits its).” However, she disagrees with the idea that “no action is obligatory unless God has commanded it (and no action is wrong unless God has prohibited it).” Peterson believes that if obligations are rooted in revealed speech acts of God, then it becomes difficult to explain morality in those who are not cognizant of such communication. Many who may not be privy to revealed speech acts seem to understand something of what is right and wrong and behave accordingly (at least some of the time and even then imperfectly). Ultimately, Peterson does not believe that if people know God would want people to do X then God has issued a command to do X.

Prophetic Ethics Response

Prophetic ethicist Peter Goodwin Heltzel is skeptical of what he identifies as Hare’s reliance on “Kant of Konigsberg” over “Jesus of Nazareth.” In fact, Heltzel goes so Hare as to suggest that “Kant provides Hare with a philosophical vehicle…for a distinctively Christian command ethics.” This heavy endorsement of Kant is suspect inasmuch as Kant mistakenly advocated for racial and gender hierarchies. Heltzel would have preferred that Hare construct his argument on the foundation of Christ, not the philosopher who (according to Heltzel) proved to be an inspiration behind western imperialism.

Keeping the Moral Demand and the Christian Hope for the Good Life

Photo by  Kristine Weilert  on  Unsplash

If we think that moral realism is true, and we live in a morally rich world then some unsettling issues arise. If, for example, humans really are intrinsically valuable, then something like Kant’s categorical imperative must be required of us. That is, if humans really are rational agents, then they ought to be treated never merely as means and always as ends. This is our moral obligation. The unsettling part of this is that this creates a moral demand upon us that we could never possibly meet. All we need to do is think of the history of humanity, a history riddled with war, injustice, and selfishness of a mind-boggling variety. If that is not enough, at least in my case, I need only think over the past week to tally up a rather depressing number of cases where I have failed to do what I ought. But it only gets worse.

In order to keep the moral demand placed on us, we must follow something like the categorical imperative perfectly. But how is that possible? The only way I can see is by a total transformation of character. That is, not only must we keep the moral law perfectly, but in order to do so we must actually become persons of moral character. Kant saw this himself when he suggested that not only must we do the right thing, we must do the right thing with the right motivation and for the right reasons. Simply doing the right thing is not enough, we must become a certain kind of person. Indeed, we must become morally perfect people if we are going to live up to the moral demand.

And there is yet another difficulty we must overcome. If we understand the human telos in Aristotelian terms, moral perfection requires not only the maximizing of our own character, but a society of others with similarly formed character. That is, in order to really live the moral life for which we are intended, we must not only transform ourselves, but the very society we live within must also be transformed. This is a very high demand indeed and one that history gives us reason to doubt will ever occur. No human individual seems able to meet the moral demand, and if we ever hope to actually live as we are intended, all humans must meet the demand together.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of problems here. One: we have a moral demand we cannot meet on our own. Two: if we want to live successfully as human beings, if we want to really experience the good life for which we are intended, we face apparently insurmountable difficulties in our way. So there is a challenge to human rightness and human goodness.

How should we respond in light of this incredible demand placed on us by morality? One might be tempted to give up the moral life together. What is the point of pursuing the good life or trying to do the right thing if we can never succeed? This does not seem like an acceptable option. We must find a way to meet the impossible demand or face the unacceptable reality that the moral and good life is just not possible.

John Hare has suggested that naturalists will opt for one of three strategies when faced with this demand: they will either suggest some naturalistic way for humans to be aided in meeting the demand, they will reduce the demand, or exaggerate man’s capacities to meet the demand. Here I do not want to lay out the naturalistic possibilities for responding to the moral demand. But I will just suggest that broadly speaking there are some major difficulties for the naturalist. One we must keep in mind is that whatever we say about man’s capacities or the possible aids, these must be explicated with some serious limitations. Namely, the limitations of the causal closure of the universe and at least the determination of human actions on a macro-level.  We will be as moral we are determined to be, with or without some material aid or greater capacity. And unless we are willing to deny either that humans are intrinsically valuable in a robust sense or lower the expectation of what counts as the good life (which is itself determined by our view of human dignity and worth) then we cannot lower the demand.

But what does Christian theism say about this problem we face in light of the moral demand? One important thing is that the Christian view affirms that the moral demand I have sketched is actually correct. Jesus told us to love one another as we love ourselves. God also commands us to be holy as he is holy. That is a very high standard, indeed. In addition, the Bible also gives an incredible vision for the good life for humans. The biblical view is that humans are meant for a life of satisfaction and happiness lived out in relationship to God, each other, and creation itself. We see this vision glimpsed in the Garden and in the vision of the messianic kingdom which is to come. So the Bible teaches that humans ought to always do the right thing and that they are meant to live in a world characterized fully by shalom. This is certainly no reduction of the moral demand.

How then does Christianity meet the moral demand? By providing divine aid to meet it. Since Christians are not (or at least should not be) committed to causal closure, real, transcendent help for humans is available. And God has made a dramatic step toward humans in sending his Son as part of the process of transforming the human heart, and creation itself. God also sends his Spirit to enable Christians to act according to the moral law. The Spirit also is at work in the transformation of the character of the believer so that through the process of sanctification, a person is able to be made like Christ.

In addition to that, the Kingdom of God provides the right context for human flourishing to occur. When God’s Kingdom is fully realized, all those who live within it will also be transformed by the power of God. This makes Aristotle’s vision of the good society something for which we can hope and do so not in vain. So not only does Christianity provide the resources for individuals to live up to the moral demand with God’s help, it also makes it possible for humans to attain the good life.

This is such a dramatic and beautiful answer to the problem that the moral demand raises that even if naturalists could say how, on their view, they could both live as they ought and obtain the good life, it is unlikely they could ever match the aesthetic quality of the Christian vision.


Summary of Chapter 5 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

This chapter will continue to discuss the problems in the current philosophical literature that arise from failing to recognize the existence of what Kant called “radical evil.” It will focus on a “the strength-of-desire principle.” This is the principle that we can satisfy the requirements of justice by giving initial preference in moral discussion to the stronger of two desires, independently of whose that desire is. Hare begins by raising an objection to the principle, namely, that it can’t account for the importance we give to the centrality of a desire in a person’s life. Then he’ll discuss responses to the objection. He won’t answer the objections beyond trying to show that they don’t account for radical evil.

According to the strength-of-desire principle, if two people are in competition for some good, and the first desires the good more strongly than the second, the good should be awarded to the first, other things being equal. Singer embraces such a view. Hare wants to propose that it’s unfair to give this weight to how much a desire is felt. There are some people who simply feel their desires very intensely. Hare calls them “Triggers.” Others know at least roughly how important it is to their lives as a whole and that their various desires be satisfied, even though they are felt less strongly. Hare calls these “Eeyores.” The principle discriminates in favor of Triggers. The principle encourages people to have as many strong desires as possible, which means that it encourages the development of the kind of person who makes life less happy for other people.

The first utilitarian response is “minimalist” in taking “strength” in the strength-of-desire principle to be a measure of either intensity or the tendency to action. “Intensity” is taken phenomenologically, as a matter of internal experience. Hare’s assuming a correlation between intensity of desire and tendency to action (though he realizes it doesn’t always obtain). Sometimes the principle’s application seems eminently fair. But sometimes it is unfair, but the minimalist can say we need to look at the whole set of desires that each party has. So perhaps one person’s desire is weaker, but more integrated with other desires. Some less intense desires may be central in the sense of being backed up by higher order desires; and some more intense desires may not be so central. The minimalist can give greater weight to desires that have purchase over other desires in the way central desires do.

But Hare says this move by the minimalist to accommodate the sense of unfairness of applying the principle fails. Adolescents are living through a period of maximum potential desire-satisfaction and aversion-avoidance. Contrast them with the “fifty-year-old” whose motivational structure has this feature: the desires and aversions are flattened out but connected with each other into a more coherent pattern. There can still be strong commitment, but it is more to the structure as a whole than in an adolescent, with more tolerance for the frustration of individual desires. Hare thinks that if we could wave a magic wand and accommodate all the desires and aversions of the adolescent or fifty-year-old, the minimalist would say we must prefer the adolescent. The adolescent’s aversion to boredom, for example, will be far greater than the fifty-year-old’s. The very connectedness that provided the initial minimalist response about centrality also makes boredom for the fifty-year-old more tolerable.

The fifty-year-old also recognizes that there are many different kinds of links between lower-order and higher-order desires, so is more able to tolerate the frustration of a number of desires because of the link with her higher-order desires. This again leads to privileging the adolescent’s perspective, but it wouldn’t be fair to discriminate against fifty-year-olds in this way.

The minimalist might say that the fifty-year-old’s desires should trump after all because the adolescent desires tend to be so frustrated. But Hare says that even if this is right it’s only because of contingent features of the adolescent’s situation. Hare wants to draw a distinction between desires I identify with and desires I do not. The apostle Paul distinguishes between two sets of desires he has: there are the desires produced by sin, and the desires which he identifies as what he wants. One way to make the distinction is to point to the difference between authority and power. Those with authority are entitled to obedience even if they do not receive it. Those with power do receive it, even if they are not entitled to it. The person I want to be and thus the desires I want to have can be authoritative for me, even if they are not the most intense or the most likely to lead to action (the most powerful). The law of sin may still have some power, but it no longer has authority—there’s been a decisive shift from the old man to the new man, even though there may still be habits left over from the old way of life.

So here is one way to characterize what it means to identify with a desire: regarding the desire as sinful. Sin is a nature, a large-scale pattern of desires. In the fifty-year-old, potentially anyway, there’s a coming to terms with oneself—which can be seen as a measure of wisdom and maturity. Recognition of good and bad. The bad can be recognized without being endorsed. She sees herself more as a whole more than she once did. She doesn’t blame faults on isolated desires or traits of character but on the whole package turned in the wrong direction. Because she sees more of the connections between her desires, she can see how complicated and pervasive are the influences of both sin and good. So there’s such a thing as (1) acknowledging desires, (2) endorsing them, and (3) identifying with desires. To identify with desires is to acknowledge them and not want to change them or have them changed. It’s stronger than acknowledging but weaker than endorsing it.

Hare’s point so far is that the minimalist can’t rescue the strength-of-desire principle from the charge of unfairness by appealing merely to the distinction between higher-order desires and lower-order ones. We need an account of what it is for a desire to be central. Even if we could provide an account of identification and endorsement, we would still not know what centrality meant; for centrality requires, in addition, that one find the object of the desire important to life as a whole. We can’t get to the idea of importance simply by adding up the number of decisions controlled. That would be more a measure of power than authority.

Decision theorists have a variety of ways to get a person’s preference ordering, by asking, for example, what she would sacrifice for what else. But this alone doesn’t make for centrality, either. There are too many different ways in which people prefer things.

The second view Hare considers is what he calls “the naturalist view,” because of its reliance on a view of human nature. Griffins’ Well-Being is an example. On this view we should assess the strength of desires not in the sense of felt intensity, or tendency to action, but in a sense supplied by the natural structure of desire. Griffins starts with a list of what makes human life good. He sets up a list of prudential values, which he calls the “common profile.” Autonomy, deep personal relations, accomplishment, etc. arranged in some hierarchy. The strength of a desire can be measured by the relative place of the desire in this hierarchy, which can be described as the natural structure of desire and the informed preference order. Hare thinks this preserves the strength-of-desire principle (interpreted in the naturalist way) and overcomes the objection from unfairness.

But he thinks there are objections, including that the list is parochial, or if expanded incoherent. Too much left out, like communal values and religious ones, or power and prestige. If the list is added to, the possibility of conflict arises.

The second objection: The list is too benign. It omits goals we actually have and which control much of our behavior, but which are not consistent with living morally. Power and prestige, for instance. We have all sorts of ignoble motivations. We shouldn’t be misled in constructing the list of prudential values by the names that people offer for them. Consider for example the abusive relations that have been tolerated in the name of deep personal relations. The root problem is the naturalist approach that reads these various values off our nature—some might be good and some bad, and radical choices might be called for. But how is this possible? (The question we saw earlier in the book.)

The third view Hare considers is the Rationalist View. Hare says we need a view that allows centrality to be considered in moral decisions alongside strength of desire in the minimalist sense, but which does not depend on too benign a view of human nature. Central desires need to be given weight independently of the desires’ intensity or tendency to lead to action, if we are going to avoid discriminating against Eeyores. But nature as the naturalist construes it doesn’t give us the notion of centrality we need. Here Hare wants to focus on a view of centrality that focuses on identifying with a desire (one of the three ingredients mentioned earlier). His interlocutor is the rationalist view of Susan Wolf (in Freedom within Reason). On this view, there is a kind of “deep” identification with a desire, or ownership of it, which allows us to hold a person responsible for an action which comes from such a desire, and thus enables us to apportion deep praise or blame to the action. We can apportion such praise and blame if we can determine whether the person whose desire it is possesses the ability to act in accordance with Reason.

Acting on a desire that bypasses my will is an example of not acting on a desire deeply mine. Hare here relies on the Humean (and Calvinist) compatibilist tradition, which distinguishes between necessity and compulsion. To value something, on the view that deeply identifying with a desire requires its going through one’s will, is to think it good or to think there is some reason to want it. Alternatively, to value something is to endorse the desire for it. Not all desires are endorsed. Endorsing or valuing is more than acknowledging a desire. We can value things inauthentically in some sense, so more needs to be said. The rationalist makes this move: She says that the agents in such cases of inauthentic valuing are not able by their own powers to act or choose in accordance with Reason. Reason means this: whatever faculty or set of faculties are most likely to lead us to form true beliefs and good values. The idea is that an agent is responsible for a decision if it is made in light of all the reasons there actually are for doing and for not doing it. The rationalist could say that an agent deeply identifies with a desire if the object of the desire is something she values and at the time of her valuation she is able to act or choose in accordance with Reason in this sense.

Hare’s contention is that the rationalist’s account does not allow for radical evil. Wolf exaggerates our natural capacities to live a moral life. Wolf tweaks her view to suggest that what is necessary for being responsible is that we recognize and appreciate a set of reasons sufficient to show which action or choice would be right. (But I’m still not responsible if the reasons I entertain for an action are not sufficient to show the action would be right.)

Note, Hare says, that the failures allowed on this account are cognitive failures or deficiencies of time. Hare’s already suggested that cognitive failures can be a product of moral failures. An agent’s own moral failings can cause her to be blind to certain moral considerations (or reasons for action). What considerations a person is open to depends in part on what sort of person she has allowed herself to become. The rationalist position is that a person is responsible for an action only if at the time of performance she possesses the ability to act for the sake of the reasons there are in favor of the action and against it. But a person can get into bad habits; and when she does, she can become insensitive to some of the considerations there are against an action. She gets used to seeing things the way it becomes in her interest to see them. But Hare insists she’s still responsible, and she’s owned those desires. This is true, he says, despite her inability to do otherwise, that she “can no longer act or choose on the basis of the reasons there are against her pattern of action.”

And there aren’t just failings from deterioration. Some failings start at the beginning. We may have grown up ignoring certain considerations. Considerations of cultural blindness should be a cause for hesitation about our moral capacities—think slave owners a few centuries back. Kant, contra these rationalists, would say we can’t overcome evil propensities on our own, despite faintly hearing the call of the moral law. On Kant’s view, we can nevertheless hold people responsible even if they can’t themselves overcome the desires which obscure the call of duty. They deeply own their desires. How to combine realism and accountability? The rationalist insists that the responsible agent must be able to act and choose by her own powers in accordance with Reason. But this is too optimistic, Hare says. What we need is a theory which both allows that morality is possible for us, and does not exaggerate our natural capacities. One theory of this kind is that the morally good life is possible for us, but not by our own devices.

The rationalist’s strategy for understanding responsibility is to move back from desiring to valuing (because not all desiring is deeply owned), and then to move back from valuing to Reason (because not all valuing is deeply owned). Hare thinks the rationalists have stopped too soon, for the faculty that leads us to form our beliefs and values doesn’t reliably track the True and the Good. Even if such a thing as Reason exists, our access to it is unreliable. Even in those in which a faculty for Reason survives, we shouldn’t go on to say that for these folks accountability means that they can by their own devices act and choose in accordance with it. This does not fit with the experience of the overwhelming difficulty, even in the best of circumstances, of leading a morally good life.



Summary of Chapter 4 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap


This chapter marks the beginning of the second part of the book, dealing with human limits and various attempts in contemporary moral philosophy to make sense of morality given these limits. The first part of the book asked, with Kant, how we can become other men and not merely better men? Kant refused to exaggerate our powers or reduce the moral demand to fit our powers. This chapter (and the next) will deal with the first of these strategies: exaggerating our powers. This chapter will look at some recent utilitarian writing to illustrate this strategy of puffing up the capacity. To eliminate the gap some utilitarians puff our capacities to godlike proportions to live the moral life. Shelly Kagan does this in The Limits of Morality. He makes the claim that if all our beliefs were vivid, including especially our beliefs about the interests of others, we would tend to conform to the impartial standard that utilitarian morality requires.

For a utilitarian, the moral demand is that we are to perform those acts which can reasonably be expected to lead to the best consequences overall, impartially considered. The moral demand, Hare wishes to stress, is far higher than most people are comfortable with. On utilitarianism, a great deal of the expenditure entailed by our current standard of living would be forbidden. The price of a movie ticket, given to famine relief, could do much more good. Some might think that this construal of the moral demand is too great for human nature to bear. This aspect of the utilitarian demand concerns the demand for impartiality between persons, but there are other demanding features of the utilitarian principle, like the need to resist the human tendency to give more weight to the agent’s own interests than the utilitarian principle allows.

Kant put such a point negatively: our initial condition (before the revolution of the will) is one of preferring happiness to duty. In our initial condition, our own interests tend to have more motivational force for us than the utilitarian principle allows. We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than we should, on utilitarianism. Now, if it’s the case that I ought to do something, it must be the case that I can do it. This does not mean merely that I must be able to do it if I want to do it, but that I must be able to want to do it. Kant thinks we’re under the sway of our desires as a whole (before the revolution of the will), so the desire to do my duty will not have the requisite force to overcome my other desires. It’s not clear, then, that I am able to want most of all to do my duty; at least, it is not clear that I am able to do so regularly. If it’s not the case I can, it’s not the case I ought, and Practical Reason, which prescribes a life of duty, will not be practical or prescriptive for me. Impartiality, for the utilitarian, is in the same predicament as Practical Reason is for Kant.

How might a utilitarian reply? One reply is to say that humans do in fact have the resources to empower themselves to live by the moral demand. Hare calls the proponent of this view “the optimist.” The optimist points out that prudence counsels that we not (generally) privilege what we want now over what we’ll want in the future. The optimist claims that I can be moved by the thought of what prudence would prescribe, even if I am not presently moved equally by the future interest. By attending to the future interest, I can make the belief about it more vivid. The optimist then returns from prudence to morality, saying we can say the same thing about morality. We have a bias towards our own interests, but morality is still binding on us. We can be motivated by the thought of what we would be motivated by if our beliefs about the interests of others were as vivid as our beliefs about our own interests. The optimist makes a counterfactual claim: If my beliefs were vivid, I would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.

Hare, though, asks if this counterfactual is true. The optimist claims it is. It’s easier to sacrifice my own interests for others as I acquire more vivid beliefs about their interests. This can be true, for example, when I form a close and long-lasting relationship with someone. And we can be moved towards our duty by imagining in detail the plight of the people we are affecting by our decisions. There’s moral power in vividness.

But Hare doesn’t think the counterfactual true. Vividness might capture the idea of degree of clarity and distinctness attending a belief we hold. Or it might pertain to the degree of wholeheartedness with which we care about the belief, or the degree of importance we attach to it. We can be quite clear about someone’s pleasure, but not care about it much at all. The counterfactual is about cognitive shortcomings. Increased tendency towards impartiality doesn’t necessarily result from greater clarity, and even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily result in an overall tendency towards impartiality. It’s not just an increase that’s needed, but that the tendency to impartiality becomes greater than half. And this is supposed to apply to everyone, but there are misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Love of power, envy, fear, resentment are often operative even in families where awareness of the needs of others is great. Often, too, there’s a willful blindness; folks choose not to be vividly aware of the need for, say, famine relief. Another strategy is rationalization in terms of some normative principle which takes the appearance of objectivity, but derives its motivational power for him from its convenience as a disguise for self-interest. Induced crisis might be yet another strategy. There may be an underlying bias which has numerous techniques of self-persuasion at its disposal. And if we stop thinking of vividness as a cognitive matter, but a matter of caring, one may simply not care about morality enough, even if one recognizes that morality calls for a certain response.

How would the optimist respond? He might stress that most of us have some motivation to overcome our bias towards our own interests. Most don’t endorse the pull to self-interest. But Hare thinks this inadequate. For there may be an endorsement by the agent to the pull of self-interest after all. We may convince ourselves we’re being altruistic or something like that without actually being so. Second, can we try to do what we know we will never be able to do by our own efforts? Nothing more than marginal improvement may be able to be realistically envisioned; there has to be a point in trying. But impartiality as it is construed by the utilitarian principle requires no bias towards the agent’s own interests. This is like trying to jump to the moon, and recognizing this we see it’s futile to try to do it if more than marginal improvement is the goal.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to achieve it? The Christian tradition counsels perfection after all. But this is possible by God’s gift of grace, not by our striving to achieve it. So utilitarianism has a problem if it’s suggesting an exaggeration of human capacities. Hare adds this at the end: “Utilitarianism could be construed as a theory, like Kant’s theory in the Groundwork, about what our lives would be like after such a revolution [of the will]; but then the theory needs a supplement about how human beings can get to the position in which the demand of the utilitarian principle can be lived.”

Summary of Chapter 3 John Hare's The Moral Gap

Chapter 2 dealt with one sort of moral faith—that virtue is possible—and Chapter 3 now deals with another: that virtue and happiness are deeply consistent. This is another moral gap that needs to be closed. This faith makes it possible for a person to combine her built-in desire for her own happiness with a commitment to morality. It requires that we postulate the existence of a being “who assigns not only the proper outcome to our good conduct, but also to our good dispositions whatever reward seems adequate to His good pleasure.” Hare notes there are two parts to this idea.

First, we believe that this being orders the world in such a way that we are often enough successful in our attempts to do good to make it worthwhile persevering in the attempt. Second, we believe that this being rewards our fundamental orientation to the good with happiness, so that we do not have to do evil in order to be happy.

This introduces the antinomy of practical reason—the apparent contradiction that the highest good is possible and that it isn’t. But what is the highest good? Happiness proportional to virtue; the more virtue, the more happiness, and the less virtue, the less happiness. What is virtue? For Kant, it is “the firmly grounded disposition strictly to fulfill our duty.” What is happiness? For Kant it’s lives as wholes that are happy or unhappy. Happiness for Kant is the maximum satisfaction as a whole of our needs and desires as rational but finite beings, creatures of need and not merely rational or moral agents.

Hare notes two interpretations of the highest good. The first, the less ambitious sense, is a world with a system in place in which virtue results in happiness. The second, the more ambitious sense, is a world in which everyone is virtuous and everyone is happy. Hare will try to argue that living morally requires believing in the possibility of the highest good in the more ambitious sense, and the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense.

Is the highest good even coherent? If the good is to be motivated solely by respect for the moral law, why should happiness come in at all? If our end is not just virtue, but virtue conjoined with happiness, is not the purity of our respect for the moral law corrupted? Here Hare suggests a parallel in the Christian life, where following Christ should be done for its own sake, even though doing so is also recognized as conducing to our deepest joy.

Hare’s supposition is that it’s possible that some things can be pursued both for their own sakes and for their beneficial consequences. Perhaps I need to be able to foresee my own happiness as consistent with everything I desire, but not that I have to desire everything else at least partly as a means to my own happiness.

What is all-important to Kantian morality is whether the incentive provided by the agent’s happiness is subordinate to the incentive provided by the moral law, or vice versa. It’s okay for an incentive for happiness to be there, but it must take a back seat to the primary call of duty. (It may well be unavoidable that an incentive for happiness is there, emotional and finite creatures that we are.)

Hare thinks that the moral life requires believing in the possibility of the highest good. Hare think this follows from a number of assumptions necessary for a fully reflective living of the moral life.

Assumption #1: The moral good aimed at by action is possible.

Assumption #2: The moral good I am aiming at is a possible result of my attempt to produce it.

Assumption #3: It is possible for me know that the moral good I am aiming at is produced, when it is produced, by the means I have planned.

Assumption #4: I myself can will what is morally good.

Assumption #5: (Concerning everyone else) The moral good they aim at is possible. (social analogue of #1)

Assumption #6: The moral good they are aiming at is a possible result of their efforts to produce it. (social analogue of #2)

#7: It is possible for them to know that the moral good they are aiming at has been produced by the means they have planned. (social analogue of #3)

#8: It is possible for them to will what is morally good. (social analogue of #4)

Hare notes three ways to derive the social analogues:

  1. Assume that what makes things reasonable for me makes them reasonable for everyone.

  2. Morality requires equal respect, and equal respect requires the assumption that all other human beings are capable of willing the good.

  3. Because of the social obstacles to virtue, there are social conditions for the attainment and maintenance of virtue. Possibility of individual virtue requires the possibility of virtue-building and virtue-sustaining congregation.

From 1-8 Hare infers Assumption #9: Possibility of what Kant calls “the Idea of self-rewarding morality,” which says morality does its own rewarding. A world filled with people pursuing virtue and concerned with the welfare of others would be a world filled with happiness.

The highest good in the ambitious sense is a possibility, Hare argues: A world in which righteousness and peace kiss and people are not merely happy, but desirous of things consistent with the moral law.

What about the highest good in the less ambitious sense? Here the new assumption is simply that the virtue of a person results in that person’s happiness. Believing in the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense requires me to believe that my virtue will be rewarded whether (roughly) everyone else is virtuous or not.

Hare wants to argue that we do ordinarily think that we will be happiest if we try to be moral; or that we at least think that being moral has a higher chance than any other strategy. Does this require others to be moral? No, Hare says. For the belief that being morally good is consistent with long-term happiness has been held by people who lived in societies in which they were persecuted and exploited.

Whatever else I desire, as a human being I am bound to desire my own happiness, and I will need to be able to foresee this happiness as consistent with my basic choices. As a human moral agent I have to believe that my continued well-being is consistent with my living a moral life as best I can.

If we are to endorse wholeheartedly the long-term shape of our lives, we have to see this shape as consistent with our own happiness. In a world in which there are many rational agents who have willed not to live by the moral law, I can’t rely on the virtue of others to get me from my virtue to my happiness. So I have to believe that there is in operation a system in which my virtue is rewarded without it.

The antithesis says the highest good in both senses is inachievable. Why might we think the highest good in the less ambitious sense is not rationally thought to be true? One reason: consider that experience suggests that the world seems not to reflect in any way the good man’s striving to bring about goodness in it. Another reason: lack of fit between virtue and happiness is not something we could confirm or disconfirm by experience. (So not knowable a priori.)

Because of so many people trying to be virtuous and yet overwhelmed by evil, a case can be made that life is tragic and human life just is vulnerable to evil. What’s Kant’s solution? He brings in the possibility that the relation between virtue and happiness is mediated by an intelligible Author of nature. Our failures to understand what is happening to us do not license the conclusion that the impact of chance is uncontrollable. Kant rejects the inference from our limitations to the denial of a moral order. He’s “limiting knowledge to make room for faith.”

Hare suggests that belief in moral order is needed; whether this requires moral orderer is another question. A moral argument for the existence of God needs to examine whether there are other ways to back up a moral order.

Those who think the problem of evil is intractable often lose moral faith. But Hare notes that many go through painful ordeals without losing faith in either morality or God. Hare: “The structure of the moral argument is that as long as reason in its theoretical employment cannot rule out the legitimacy of moral faith, reason in its practical employment requires it. If moral faith is possible, then it is necessary.”

Hare wraps the chapter up with these two points: (1) Moral faith is consistent with some doubt about whether your continued well-being is consistent with your trying to live a morally good life; and (2) Moral faith does not require believing that all your present preferences for the future will be secured if you try to live a good life.




Summary of Hare's The Moral Gap (Part 1)

John Hare’s The Moral Gap provides what we can call a “performative” version of the moral argument for God’s existence. Hare teaches at Yale and is the son of famed philosopher R. M. Hare, whose work John interacts with quite a bit in his own writings. In a series of extended blogs, I intend to go through Hare’s Moral Gap chapter by chapter to give folks who aren’t familiar with it an exposure to the sorts of arguments the book contains. This is not a critical review, just a quick and cursory summary of salient content. The book is about the “gap” between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities to live by it. It identifies what secularists attempt to do in the face of such a gap, and the way theism and Christianity offer powerful and better resources to close the gap. The book is much inspired by the writings of Immanuel Kant, an important influence on Hare.

The first chapter is entitled “Kant and the Moral Demand,” and it argues that Kant was vividly aware of the moral gap, both because he considered the moral demand to be very high and, as one influenced by the Lutheran pietistic tradition, recognized that we are born with a natural propensity not to follow it. Hare begins his analysis by laying out some key features of a Kantian ethical system, starting with the Categorical Imperative (CI). In this chapter Hare discusses the first two versions of the CI: the Formula of Universal Law, and the Formula of the End in Itself. The Formula of Universal Law says act only on maxims you can will as universal law. A maxim is the subjective principle of an action. To say the principle is subjective is to say that it’s the prescription made by the subject from which the action follows.

Kant talks as though each action has exactly one maxim from which it follows. This raises a problem concerning the level of generality of various maxims. A potential problem for Kant’s analysis is that for each action there may be ever so many maxims of varying levels of generality, some of which may be universalizable, some of which may not be. Hare bypasses this concern altogether by pointing out that Kant thought that there are, in the end, only two maxims: the good maxim and the bad maxim. All actions come from one or the other. The Good Maxim subordinates all desires to duty, whereas the Bad Maxim subordinates duty to the desires. For Kant duty trumps; in fact only those actions motivated by respect for the moral law, on his view, contains moral worth. So take suicide, a potential action whose maxim might look something like this: “From self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.” Such a maxim is bad, and thus suicide, on Kant’s view, is always wrong. Why such a maxim fails the test of universality is something we’ll consider in more detail in a moment. Good maxims are specific enough to give guidance, general enough to be taught to children, and exceptionless.

The CI tests maxims; if a maxim meets the test, the action that follows from it has moral worth; if the maxim doesn’t meet it, the action lacks moral worth. What is the test? Hare thinks the clearest account of the Formula of Universal Law is that it requires willingness to continue subscription to the maxim of an action even if all individual or singular reference is excluded from it. This isn’t how Kant himself put it, but Hare thinks it captures the gist of what Kant was after. In considering the performance of an action, I identify the maxim underlying the action, excluding the specifics such as the fact that I’m the one considering the action for myself, and I ask a question like this: Is this maxim an appropriate prescription for anyone and everyone in relevantly similar circumstances? If not, the action should not be performed. We’ll consider a few ways in which a maxim can fail this test in a moment.

The second formulation of the CI is the Formula of End in Itself. This version of the CI declares you should act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Other persons serve as a moral limit on our actions. Treating humanity as an end in itself is, for Kant, respecting our capacity for free and rational choice; it’s respecting autonomy. To treat another human being as merely a means is to ignore the other as a center of agency. Some, like Korsgaard, seem to push this Kantian idea in the direction of affirming the intrinsic value of persons; for Kant the focus was more specifically centered on agency, which entails that coercion and deception, for obvious reasons, represent rather paradigmatic violations of the principle. Kant even goes further to suggest that, so far as possible, we are required to share the ends of others, which is reflective of, among other things, a deeply communal aspect of his ethical theory.

Adherence to the CI avoids two sorts of self-contradiction, namely, contradiction in the conception, and contradiction in the will. An example of the former might be this: Consider a scenario in which you need a loan, but to get the loan you have to promise to repay it in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, you know you won’t be able to do so. But you want the loan nonetheless and are tempted to lie about repaying it in order to secure it. Lying would be wrong in such a case, Kant says, because it would be based on a maxim that can’t be universalized because it implicated you in a contradiction in the conception. By lying you’re acting on a maxim that, if everyone in relevantly similar circumstances were to follow, would potentially destroy the very institution of money-lending on which you’re depending to get the loan. So you want the institution to be there, but by following a maxim that if universally followed would destroy the institution, you don’t want it to be there. This is a self-contradiction.

The other form of contradiction is a contradiction of the will, which results from, for example, systematically denying assistance to others. There’s logical space for doing this that there isn’t in the loan example, but there is still a contradiction of sorts at play. For, again, Kant saw that we are deeply communal beings who rely and depend on each other all the time. Invariably there will be times when you need the assistance of others; but if everyone were to refrain from helping others, the help you’ll eventually need won’t be forthcoming. If you want the help to be available, yet affirm a maxim that would prevent it, as in this case, you’re implicated in a contradiction of the will. When a maxim falls prey to either form of contradiction, it’s unable to be consistently willed as a universal law. It implicates one in a contradiction and is thus irrational and immoral.

At this point in the chapter Hare spends time discussing the views of his father, who was much influenced by Kant. R. M. Hare thought that moral judgments, to qualify as such, need to be universalizable, prescriptive, and overriding. He also distinguished between intuitive and critical levels of moral thinking. Our intuitions are liable to mislead us on occasion, as critical reflection shows, but even our critical reflection can mislead us because it optimally requires complete information and complete impartiality—the perspective of the “archangel.” The position of the archangel is also taken to be the position of God—though the elder Hare had lost his faith along the way. Still, it’s only judgments at the critical level of the archangel (or God) that are overriding; thus there’s a gap between the divine and human capacities, for we are afflicted with all manner of deficiencies in our moral reflections, from lack of knowledge or impartiality to lack of sensitivity and sympathy. God, either real or hypothetical, would presumably not be similarly disadvantaged.

In Kant too we find poignant recognition of such a gap, for as we engage in moral deliberation we continually encounter the “dear self,” an inflated sense of our own interests and concerns, resulting in an unbridgeable chasm between ‘ought’ and ‘can’. The result is that morality, in its full critical form, is, first, something I ought to be practicing; second, something for which my natural capacities are inadequate (except by approximation); and third, something that I should treat as the command of some other at least possible being who is practicing it. On this picture, morality has three parts: 1. The moral demand; 2. Our defective natural capacities (lack of sensitivity, sympathy, etc.); and 3. The possible being (the authoritative source of the demand). Hare suggests this structure is a holdover from Christianity: Belief in a perfect and infinite moral being, whom we imperfectly resemble, and who created us to resemble him more than we do.

One result of such a structure is that it produces a constant and inevitable sense of failure of a variety of sorts. We fail by caring more for ourselves than others, we show failures of patience, failures of impartiality, etc. This makes the desire to avoid guilt a primary moral motivator, though love the moral law is the nobler moral motivation than the desire to avoid subjective feelings of guilt. We desire to close the gap between what we do and what we ought to do. Yet we seem to be under a demand too great for us to meet without God’s grace to transform us.

Hare identifies three strategies for addressing the gap from a secular perspective: 1. Produce a naturalistic substitute for God’s assistance; 2. Exaggerate our sense of what we can accomplish, so as to fit the demand; and 3. Reduce the demand so as to fit our capacities. A Christian solution will instead be God’s assistance to enable us to do what we can’t do on our own. Augustine says, “God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him.” So the principle of deontic logic that ‘ought implies can’ may need tweaking; we may well be responsible for meeting a demand we can’t meet on our own resources, if there are additional resources outside of ourselves we can and should use that enable us to meet the demand.

Hare ends the chapter by suggesting that believers should value Kant, rather than seeing his work as opposed to their own convictions. Hare will offer criticisms of Kant, but nonetheless thinks there are resonances with Christian thought. For example, Christians should recognize Kant’s three-fold nature of morality: an original predisposition to do good, an innate propensity to evil, which can be overcome by a revolution of the will which requires divine supplement. Hare suggests that what we have here is quite analogous of the tripartite structure of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Like Kant, too, believers should recognize the need for moral faith, which has two parts: faith in the actuality of virtue and in the consistency of happiness and virtue, both of which require belief in God’s work on our behalf.


Photo: "Mind the Gap" by Lisa. CC License. 

John Hare's Review of Good God

John Hare is one of the most important philosophers in the area of theistic ethics. Hare has written many important books on moral philosophy including The Moral Gap and God and Morality. He has penned a mostly positive review of Good God which is available here.

Here's a short excerpt:

Having said all of this by way of criticism, I want to end by reaffirming that the book is, on the whole, a very good book. I do not want to give a predominantly negative impression. Making points of disagreement is usually more helpful and more interesting than simply agreeing. Nonetheless, the book does an excellent job of supporting the moral argument for belief in God, an argument that has been unjustly neglected in favor of other parts of natural theology, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe or fine-tuning.

Photo: ginnerobot/Flickr