Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin

 God and Morality

In the final chapter of God and Morality, Mark Linville argues for a view in which morality is objective and depends on God. He does not argue that moral realism is true, but assumes as much and then offers a model for understanding how objective moral truths depend on God, which he calls “moral particularism”.

Linville begins the chapter by offering a critique of a view he rejects, in which morality is made true by divine fiat. On this view, the claim that adultery is wrong is true only in a relational and contingent manner. Adultery is immoral because God has prohibited it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the act itself. One problem for this view, however, is that things really could go either way, i.e. God could have commanded adultery, and it would have been good. Or consider the following options: (i) God creates Adam, grants eternal friendship to him, and provides him with what he needs to flourish; or (ii) God creates Adam and allows him to experience nothing but eternal pain, grief, and torment. If morality is true merely by divine fiat, then God is good regardless of the option he actualizes. Both (i) and (ii) are consistent with God’s goodness. But as Linville points out, the term “good” appears to no longer have any real meaning here, because it fails to pick out any feature or property in a distinctive manner.

Fortunately, there are other options available for those who think that morality in some sense depends on God. Aquinas, for example, holds that God is himself the good. The good is not identical to God’s commands, but rather God is the criterion of goodness. As William Alston states it, God is himself the ultimate criterion of value. Alston calls this view value particularism, because “the criterion of value is a particular being rather than a principle or abstract idea” (p. 143). Linville agrees with this. However, Alston goes on to argue that moral obligation depends on God’s commands. Linville disagrees with this latter claim.

The view favored by Linville is moral particularism. This is the view that God’s nature is the standard for both the right and the good. On this view, the ultimate explanation of the significance and value of love is the loving nature of God. That is, loving others is commanded because it is obligatory. It is not obligatory because it is commanded. God is the ultimate ground of the requirement that we love others, because God is himself love (1 John 4:8). The command, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) reflects this reasoning as well. God’s nature yields the obligation, ultimately.

When we reflect upon the obligation of loving others, it is also important to point out, as Linville does, the Christian doctrine of imago Dei. It is crucial that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the ground of our value. This fits nicely with the above. It is quite plausible to think that personhood has value because God is a person, just as love has value because God is love. We owe others love, justice, and mercy because they are persons, made in God’s image. God, a Person, “is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate” (p. 158).

For those engaging in moral apologetics, there are many other issues in this chapter worth considering. One is a response that is often given to the claim that morality depends on God, namely, that there are plenty of atheists who still know particular moral facts and seek to apply them to their lives. I will focus here on the former claim concerning knowledge of moral facts. Consider the following moral fact, offered by Linville:

“Recreational baby-stomping is wrong.”

If we understand this claim, and our moral faculties are functioning properly, we should just see that it is true. One can know that recreational baby stomping is wrong, without any knowledge of theology or God. God can set up our world so that we can form such value judgments that do not depend on understanding their grounding in Him. This belief can have warrant, whether or not one believes in God. This is important because the claim that is relevant to moral apologetics here is not that one must believe in God to have properly functioning faculties. Rather, the claim that is relevant is that the theist can offer a better explanation for why human beings have faculties that reliably track moral truth—those faculties were specifically designed for the task.

I would add that theists have another and in my view stronger claim to make. On theism, there is an explanation for the very existence of such moral truths. There is a personal and morally perfect being whose nature grounds them. It is difficult to see how such truths are metaphysically grounded, on naturalism. In his reply, Evan Fales argues that there is no need to bring God into the explanation. Instead, we can simply say that the moral law is ultimate. The problem here, however, is explaining the existence of the moral law, with its self-evident moral truths, in a purely natural world. Did the moral law arise from the Big Bang? How would that work? Moral truths don’t seem natural. They don’t have weight, spatial location, and so on. The theist has a ready explanation for the existence of such truths, as we’ve seen, whereas the naturalist does not. A moral law fits well within a theistic framework, but not a naturalistic one. This is a key piece of evidence in favor of theism.



Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part IV


Darwinian counterfactuals, ethical nonnaturalism, and theism


The nonnaturalist has a ready reply to the argument from Darwinian counterfactuals. For he might wish to maintain that certain natural properties bear a necessary relation to the moral properties that they exemplify, regardless of any evolutionary possibilities. But nonnaturalists who are also metaphysical naturalists seem to have problems of their own in the face of such Darwinian counterfactuals. How is it that unguided human evolution on earth has resulted in just those moral beliefs that accord with moral verities? As Gould has argued, everything about us, even our very existence, is radically contingent. If we were to rewind the reel, it’s highly unlikely evolution would again attempt the experiment called Homo sapiens. The Dependence Thesis in the hands of the nonnaturalist seems highly improbable. A sort of moral fine tuning argument is suggested. The theist may have an advantage just here. For, on theism, as Santayana put it, the Good is also nature’s Creator.

The theist, like the nonnaturalist, is in a position to say why there is a necessary connection between certain natural properties and their supervenient moral properties. Adams, for example, suggests theistic Platonism, so can account for why nobody could exhibit Hitler’s qualities without being depraved and an affront to God’s nature. But the theist also has an account of the development of human moral faculties—a theistic genealogy of morals—that allows for something akin to Street’s “tracking relation”: we have the basic moral beliefs we do because they are true, and this is because the mechanisms responsible for those moral beliefs are truth-aimed. The theist is thus in a position to explain the general reliability of those considered judgments from which reflective equilibrium takes its cue. Certain of our moral beliefs—in particular, those that are presupposed in all moral reflection—are truth-aimed because human moral faculties are designed to guide human conduct in light of moral truth.

Humean skepticism or Reidean externalism?

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Linville reads Hume as a skeptic across the board, not just in ethics. His ethical views were part of a seamless whole that includes his discussion of the beliefs of common life. In each discussion—causality, substance, personal identity—he aims to show both that the belief in question is without any epistemic credentials and that relevant human propensities explain the belief without making any assumptions about the truth of the belief. From a Humean perspective, we lack positive reasons to accept either the dependence or independence thesis. His is a variety of epistemological moral skepticism, so it resembles AEN.

Reid countered Hume by common sense. Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher but casting out a devil, as Chesterton put it. There is no set of premises more certainly known from which such beliefs follow. Hume is right: the beliefs of common life are not endorsed by reason, but, instead, are the inevitable by-products of our constitution. But Hume is mistaken in inferring from this that such beliefs are, therefore, without warrant. Why, after all, trust the rational faculties to which Hume appeals, but not trust the faculties responsible for our commonsense beliefs? Both come from the same shop, and Reid thought the shop was God’s creation.

Reid thought the commonsense beliefs that arise spontaneously and noninferentially given our constitution are warranted even though they fail to measure up to the exacting standards of epistemic justification assumed by foundationalists after the Cartesian fashion. These days we say such beliefs are properly basic. A belief is properly basic just in case the faculty through which it is acquired is functioning as it ought. Plantinga puts it this way: a belief is warranted just in case it is the product of a belief-producing mechanism that is truth-aimed and functioning properly in the environment for which it was designed. This account accommodates those perceptual, memorial, testimonial, and even metaphysical beliefs that are the guides of common life and, closer to our purposes, are among the fund of native beliefs with which we begin in theory assessment. Even closer to our purposes, such an account accommodates those moral beliefs employed in reflective equilibrium.

Reid appealed to a set of “first, or ‘self-evident’ principles” of morality discerned through faculties that he thought were wrought in the same shop as reason and perception. Just as there is no reasoning with the man who, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, is convinced that his head is a gourd, neither is there advantage in engaging in moral argument with a man who fails to recognize self-evident principles of morality.

There are moral principles to which we should “pay homage,” as Norman Daniels puts it. We pay such homage when we utilize them as data for the construction of moral theories or as a kind of court of appeal in assessing them. But our confidence in these constitutional beliefs is wisely invested only in the event that we have reason to believe the faculties responsible for them to be truth-aimed. Reid’s theism provided him with such a reason; the moral faculties were forged in the same shop as our other cognitive faculties. They are designed by God for the purpose of discerning moral truth. “That conscience which is in every man’s breast, is the law of God written in his heart, which he cannot disobey without acting unnaturally, and being self-condemned.”



Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part III


Epistemological arguments and the Dependence Thesis

Linville has been arguing that AEN provides an epistemological argument for moral skepticism, to show that our moral beliefs lack warrant because the mechanisms responsible for our moral beliefs appear to be fitness-aimed, rather than truth-aimed. If our best theory of why people believe P doesn’t require that P is true, then we lack good grounds to believe P is true. This much resembles an argument by Gilbert Harman.

Harman’s so-called “problem with ethics” is that moral facts, if such there are, appear to be explanatorily irrelevant in a way that natural facts are not. According to Harman, we need not suppose that over and above such natural facts about Hitler as his monomania and anti-Semitism there is a moral fact of Hitler’s depravity. Nor must we appeal to his actual depravity in order to explain our belief that he was depraved. Harman may thus be viewed as arguing in his own manner that we have no reason to believe that the best explanation for our moral beliefs involves their truth. We have no good reason to think that the causes of those beliefs are dependent on whatever would make them true.

Sturgeon has replied first by noting that moral facts are commonly and plausibly thought to have explanatory relevance. Both Hitler’s behavior and our belief that he was depraved are handily explained by his actual depravity, and this is in fact the default explanation. Sturgeon follows the method of reflective equilibrium, a method employed in both science and ethics, which begins with certain considered judgments, and with the assumption that our theories, scientific and otherwise, are roughly correct, then moves dialectically in this way between plausible general theses and plausible views about cases, seeking a reflective equilibrium. Sturgeon notes that, whereas he allows for the inclusion of moral beliefs among the initial set, Harman does not. But he argues there’s no non-question-begging justification for singling out moral beliefs as unwelcome in the initial set while allowing those of a scientific or commonsense nature.

Photo by  veeterzy  on  Unsplash

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

Sturgeon’s approach invokes the supervenience of moral properties on natural properties. On standard accounts, if some moral property M supervenes on some natural property (or, more likely, some set of natural properties) N, then it is impossible for N to be instantiated unless M is also instantiated. In all worlds in which Hitler believes and acts as he did, his depravity would supervene on such properties and be instantiated; he couldn’t have had those properties without being depraved. Harman, by denying this, tacitly assumes there are no moral facts or properties, which is of course the point at issue.

Sturgeon’s appeal to reflective equilibrium is crucial in his reply to Harman. Brink goes to some length to argue that Harman fails to demonstrate any explanatory disanalogy between the scientific and moral cases. Linville finds Sturgeon’s reply successful. Sorley once said the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics. He thought that holding off on ethics until the task of worldview construction was complete would result in an artificially truncated worldview, and that moral ideas would be given short shrift. The exclusion of moral experience seemed arbitrary. Harman seems to be following in the tradition Sorley criticized. Harman’s results are achieved only by begging the question against the moral realist.

But even Sorley would in principle admit that the initial “ethical data” must prove to be compatible with everything else that is included in our final interpretation of reality. In fact, the same year Sorley delivered the Gifford Lectures, George Santayana published Winds of Doctrine, in which he complained that Bertrand Russell’s then-held moral realism was the result of Russell’s “monocular” vision. Santayana said Russell didn’t look and see that our moral bias is conditioned and has its basis in the physical order of things. Eventually Russell abandoned his moral realism, crediting these very arguments. AEN suggests following Santayana’s advice, and bearing in mind Sharon Street’s worry: “If the fund of exhaustive judgments with which human reflection was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence…then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter is always just a subset of the former.” What we require is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated. So, what reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed, that the Dependence Thesis is true?

Santayana suggested that if God exists and has fashioned the human constitution with the purpose of discerning moral truth, then we have reason to embrace the Dependence Thesis. But neither Russell nor Santayana was a theist. Moral realists need to give an account of moral beliefs that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth. Quine offers such a story with a Darwinian spin to inspire confidence in our ability to acquire knowledge of the world around us. Natural selection is unkind to those whose behaviors stem from either false beliefs or profound stupidity. We should expect our cognitive faculties to be truth-aimed and generally reliable given such selection pressures.

Plantinga has challenged such stories with what he calls “Darwin’s Doubt.” The connection between fitness-conferring behavior and true belief might not be so certain as Quine suggests. If Plantinga is correct, then evolutionary naturalism is saddled with a far-ranging skepticism that takes in much more than our moral beliefs. Despite Plantinga’s many ingenious examples in which adaptive behavior results from false beliefs, many people just find the link between true belief and adaptive behavior plausible. And in any event the moral and nonmoral cases appear to be significantly different.

The core of Street’s paper is her “Darwinian Dilemma” she poses to value realists like Sturgeon. Our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also truth-aimed? Either there is a fitness-truth relation or there is not. If not, and evolution has shaped our basic evaluative attitudes, moral skepticism is in order. If there is a relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the “tracking” relation), or we have the moral beliefs that we have simply because of the fitness that they have conferred (the “adaptive” link account). Adaptive link leads to constructivism. The moral realist needs a tracking account, but Street thinks fitness following mind-independent moral truths is implausible. A tracking account of paternal instincts would have to say more than that the behavior tends toward DNA preservation—something like the instincts were favored because it’s independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Nonnaturalists have the worst deal in light of the causal inertness of moral properties on their view. Ethical naturalists have a better time at it, but why not just eschew realism and go with an adaptive account?

A dilemma similar to that urged by Street comes from another consideration of Darwinian counterfactuals. Sturgeon thinks moral terms rigidly designate natural properties. If justice picks out some natural property or properties, we might expect an ethical naturalist to conclude that moral judgments if true are true in all possible worlds. But Linville writes that to insist that our moral terms rigidly designate specific earthly natural properties to which human sentiments have come to be attached appears to be an instance of what Judith Thomason has called metaphysical imperialism.

Sturgeon dialogued with Gibbard, who argued for expressivism. Sturgeon’s reply is that perhaps our ancestors called bargaining outcomes just because they really were. But is this so? The bargaining situation Gibbard had envisioned involved a cast of characters who were self-interested individualists. In such a situation, there was pressure in the direction of equitable arrangements. But imagine a different set of initial conditions—like lupine bargainers. If justice supervenes on certain natural facts, these will essentially include facts about the psychological constitution of the respective bargainers. It seems to Linville that the most plausible explanation is that such counterfactual moral beliefs are formed as the result of selection pressures that are themselves in place due to the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—contingencies that are morally indifferent. While ethical naturalists in those worlds no doubt argue for the supervenience of the moral on the natural, the efficacy of moral explanations, and the existence of corresponding moral facts, we should, Linville thinks, regard them as mistaken. If the moral beliefs of the actual world have also taken their cue from predispositions that were fitness-conferring, then it is hard to see why our own ethical naturalists are in any better position so to argue.


Photo: "Darwin Divergence" by Jwyg. CC License. 

Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part I


Nietzsche had the insight that those, like George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), who think they can have morality and moral duty without a religious foundation are deluded. “They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality.” Nietzsche thought there are no moral facts, precisely because there are no theological ones. The moral argument takes Nietzsche’s assertion as one of its premises: if there is no God, then there are altogether no moral facts. But contra Nietzsche it also urges that we have, in our moral experience, good reason to suppose that there are indeed moral facts.

Such arguments come in numerous forms—without a lawgiver there’s no moral law, prudential considerations, requirements of moral knowledge—but Kant’s is one of the more sophisticated: If there’s no God, then the moral law makes objective demands that are not possibly met, namely, that the moral good of virtue and the natural good of happiness embrace and become perfect in a “highest good.” But then the demands appear to be empty, and in the face of such an antinomy, we might come to think of moral requirements as null and void. For Kant, though God is not the author of the moral law, he is required as a sort of Director of the screenplay. If death is the end, he also argued morality wouldn’t seem to matter as much as it should.

Linville’s argument will instead focus on this: theists can, where naturalists can’t, offer a framework on which our moral beliefs may be presumed to be warranted. In particular, the naturalist’s commitment to a Darwinian explanation of certain salient features of human psychology presents an undercutting defeater for our moral beliefs taken as a whole. This argument is thus chiefly epistemological in nature, and seldom strays from the discipline of metaethics.

Wilson and Ruse have suggested ethics to be an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate. The pressures of natural selection, on their view, have had an enormous influence on human psychology, including the hardwiring of epigenetic rules, widely distributed propensities to believe and behave in certain ways, which have developed through the interaction of human genetics and human culture. Such rules give us a sense of obligation because of their adaptive value, not because they detect any actual moral obligations. Objectivity in morality is illusory, a useful fiction. Ruse thinks Darwin’s theory complements Hume’s subjectivism.

On Hume’s view, belief in objective moral properties is at best unwarranted, and talk of them is in fact meaningless. The only fact of the matter we find in moral judgments is an object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in ourselves. The mind, as Hume put it, has “a great propensity to spread itself on external objects,” so that the subjective feelings that, given our constitution, result from such contemplation of some act, are mistaken for perceptions of objective properties of the act itself.

Let’s call the combination of naturalism and an overall Darwinian account of the origin of the species evolutionary naturalism (EN); according, then, to one like C. S. Lewis, on EN, the dictates of conscience are little more than an aggregate of subjective impulses which, although distributed widely throughout the species, are no more capable of being true or false than a vomit or a yawn.

An argument—call it the argument from evolutionary naturalism (AEN)—thus emerges from such considerations:

  1. If EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection.
  2. If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.
  3. There are objective moral facts.
  4. So, EN is false.

This isn’t an argument for God, but for the falsity of EN. Also, naturalism doesn’t entail Darwinism, but Darwinism seems to be the only game in town. Linville’s primary focus will be to consider objections to the first two premises. He realizes there are plenty of anti-realists out there, but wishes to focus on realists who try to ground their realism in EN. One might object to the first premise by denying that natural selection is solely or even partly responsible for the emergence of human morality. And the second premise might be accused of a common fallacy by moving so quickly from an account of the origins of human morality to the assertion that its claims to objectivity are false. What might the evolutionary naturalist say about the possible connections between the workings of natural selection and the truth of our moral beliefs?

AEN and the genetic fallacy

The second premise initially appears to be guilty of the genetic fallacy; identifying the source of a belief is generally not evidence of its falsity. But sometimes identifying the origins of a belief is relevant to a consideration of its truth, as in cases where it can be shown that the explanation of someone’s belief is epistemically independent of whatever would make the belief true. (Like forming a belief about the number of people in a room by a random drawing.)

Might we offer a similar evolutionary argument for moral skepticism? Sober suggests it’s a tall order because we’d have to identify the processes of moral belief formation and the would-be truth-makers for moral beliefs, and then show such processes and truth-makers to be independent. Call this the Independence Thesis.

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Of course the Independence Thesis doesn’t entail that morality is an illusion, but merely that our moral beliefs are probably false. But we need not argue for the falseness or probable falseness of our moral beliefs. Nor is it necessary to argue for the truth of the Independence Thesis. It is one thing to suggest that there are positive reasons for asserting epistemic independence, and quite another to say we lack any reason for thinking that a relevant dependence relation obtains. We would have a reason for thinking there is such a relation just in case the best explanation for a person’s having a given belief essentially involves the truth of that belief. It seems that a plausible Darwinian yarn may be spun in such a way as to offer a complete and exhaustive explanation of our various moral beliefs without ever supposing that any of them are true.

It was no background assumption of the evolutionary explanation of our moral beliefs that any actual moral rightness or wrongness existed in the ancestral environment. When we look at the animals, we explain their behavior and the impulse toward their behavior by appeal to adaptiveness. Moral properties are not included in the cast of characters. On a Darwinian story, conscience is what arises in a social creature once the social instincts are overlain with a sufficient degree of rationality.

Arguably, given an evolutionary account of human moral beliefs, there is no reason for thinking that a relation of epistemic dependence obtains, and so, given an evolutionary account, belief in moral facts is unwarranted. If our moral beliefs are without warrant, then they do not amount to moral knowledge. Linville thus modifies (2) in AEN to

(2*): If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there is no moral knowledge.

An evolutionary account serves to undercut whatever warrant we might have had for our moral beliefs, and if they lack warrant, they are not items of knowledge.

Wilson and Ruse think Darwinism poses a rebutting defeater for our moral beliefs, as well as for moral realism itself. Linville instead thinks the proponent of AEN might back off from the stronger claim that Darwinism entails that there are no moral facts, speaking instead of whether we are warranted in our ordinary moral beliefs. In this way AEN becomes an epistemological argument for moral skepticism. As Richard Joyce observes, the conclusion that our moral beliefs are “unjustified” is “almost as disturbing a result” as an argument for the actual falseness of those beliefs.

On the suggestion that Darwinism presents us with an undercutting defeater for moral beliefs, (3) becomes

(3*): There is moral knowledge,

and this takes us to the conclusion that

(4) EN is false.

What we lack is some reason for thinking that the adaptiveness of a moral belief depends in any way on its being true. Linville turns the tables on Sober. Instead of Sober’s suggestion that the AEN defender must show that moral beliefs are independent of any truth-makers, perhaps the onus is on those who assert dependence. Why, given EN, should we suppose the world to include anything more than natural facts and properties and our subjective reactions to those properties?

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Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part III: Personal Dignity and the Imago Dei

Part I

Part II

Reason has a role to play in arriving at a maxim not to violate the dignity of humanity. But the admission of a role for reason to play does not nullify the main point of Darwin’s discussion: the initial social impulse is very much the product of natural selection. Dennett is likely right in his observation that, given the Darwinian account, the belief in rights, and, here, dignity, is actually a “conversation stopper.” Such “rule worship” is adaptive in that it permits us to get on with the business of social intercourse.

Stephen Gould found a basis for something such as dignity in the radical contingency of the existence of Homo sapiens. [David Bentley Hart uses the radical contingency of things, including the universe, as evidence for the need for something noncontingent to account for it all; see his Experience of God.] There’s something astonishing and utterly unlikely that we find ourselves here. But improbability alone is not sufficient for singling out persons as having any special significance. The naturalist’s obstacles in accounting for the dignity of persons are at least threefold, and they are interlocked: how to derive the personal from the impersonal, how to derive values from a previously valueless universe, and how to unite the person and the valuable with the result of a coherent and plausible notion of personal dignity.

Suppose now instead that the personal and valuable aren’t emergent features of reality at all, but rather are basic. Indeed, suppose that personhood is the most basic feature of reality and that, in fact, the impersonal ultimately derives from the personal. Suppose that the one thing that is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate is a person, so that personhood and value are necessarily united in that Being. Theists, of course, maintain precisely this and believe that Being to be God.

Dennett and others insist that any explanation of consciousness that is not in terms of the nonconcious is question-begging. But one might suggest that this very assertion begs the question. Dennett assumes that all ultimate explanations must be mechanistic, so that the teleological, where it occurs, must be explained in mechanistic terms. But this is just to take naturalism as a kind of axiom, and it is far from clear that such an assumption is warranted. On theism, teleological explanations are irreducible and more basic than mechanistic explanations. And the justification for taking them as irreducible in this way is found precisely in the resulting implausibility and possible incoherence of attempting such reductions. We simply can’t explain all that calls for explanation unless there is a place for irreducible teleology in the scheme of things. For the theist, teleology factors in principally at the level of divine purpose and activity, but theism also offers an account of human persons that permits the irreducibility of human consciousness and purposes.

According to theism, God is person and is the source of all value so that the value of personhood is found in the fact that the metaphysically, axiologically, and explanatorily ultimate Being is personal. As Linville sees it, the rationale for Christ’s command to love persons unconditionally is found in the unconditional value of such persons. Because each person enjoys a worth that is categorical in nature—independent of any extrinsic considerations—the morally appropriate attitude to take toward them is one of a categorical regard for that worth.

The biblical command to love God and neighbor is no coincidence. The rationale for loving neighbor is grounded in the very reasons for loving God with the entirety of one’s being. And this is because the value of persons is, in turn, grounded in the personhood of God. Persons qua persons are created in the image of God in that God himself is a person. On a Judeo-Christian worldview, human personal dignity, though intrinsic, is derivative. Linville writes that the value of human persons is found in the fact that, as bearers of the imago dei, they bear a significant resemblance to God in their very personhood. God and human persons share an overlap of kind membership in personhood itself, and human dignity is found precisely in membership in that kind. [Incidentally, Erik Wielenberg, in his recently published Robust Ethics, offers an “explanandum-centered” challenge to Linville (along with Zagzebski, Adams, and Murphy) for his merely derivative, and thus not intrinsic (in the sense relevant to Wielenberg’s analysis, unlike his own theory of non-theistic robust normative realism, so he argues), account of personal dignity—an issue we will consider in a later post.]

Linville argues that, on theism, human persons have been fashioned, in one morally relevant respect, after the most ultimate and sacred feature of reality and thus participate in that sacredness. Where Camus found only an unreasonable silence in the universe, theist and Christian G. K. Chesterton discovered, and rejoiced over, an “eternal gaiety in the nature of things.”

Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part II

Part I Part III

In Part I we looked at Linville’s arguments against two consequentialist theories—egoism and utilitarianism—by seeing their inability to accord moral standing to individuals. Now we resume his discussion by looking at some additional attempts by various ethical theories, starting with virtue theory. [Note: of course there are theistic ethicists who are also virtue ethicists, like C. Stephen Evans, Robert Adams, and others—and historically, of course, Aquinas.] Virtue ethics places a premium on the goodness of agents. Aristotle maintained that excellence or right action should be understood in terms of how a good person, one of practical wisdom, would choose to act. This has led some to claim that the view leads into a circularity problem (for if rightness is what a good person would do, one can’t say good people are those who perform right actions). But Linville doesn’t pursue that issue, instead assuming, for discussion purposes, that the Aristotelian is able to answer such questions. Again, Linville is concerned to ask this question: Does the moral standing of persons factor in to the virtue ethicist’s account?

Consider how a Virtue Ethic (VE) account might look in explaining the wrongness of an action in a context where we do not suppose that any direct duties are being violated. Routley’s “Last Man” counterexample: Imagine you are literally the last person on earth and, for whatever reason, you’re considering some action that will have disastrous environmental effects. The action still seems wrong; does this mean we’re embracing an ethic of direct environmental duties—the according of moral standing to nature itself? Linville says he’d also blame Last Man for defacing great art, even though it’s not plausible to extend moral standing to paintings or statues.

Thomas Hill suggests there’s a natural way to account for environmental wrongs independently of our positing direct duties to the environment itself. Ask, “What kind of person would do a thing like that?” His is an application of a virtue ethic to the question of environmental responsibility. With this emphasis, there is a shift characteristic of VE away from the question of the rightness or wrongness of the actions in question and to the issue of excellence of character, or lack thereof, of the person in question. Hill writes that sometimes we may not regard an action as wrong at all though we see it as reflecting something objectionable about the person who does it. Hill reasons that, while environmentally destructive behavior does not necessarily reflect the absence of virtues, it often signals the absence of certain traits which we want to encourage because they are, in most cases, a natural basis for the development of certain virtues.

Linville finds Hill’s application of this account of human excellences to environmental concerns plausible, but a parallel application to explain our “moral discomfort” in cases of rape or genocide would be highly implausible. In the face of some gruesome killing, it would be a massive understatement to observe the killer “lacks excellence of character.” Nor is Hurthouse’s account of why we should help a person in need adequate: helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. We ought not to explain why one should refrain from rape by pointing to the fact that raping a person would be uncharitable and malevolent. It is, of course, but it’s more. Moral standing is clearly implicated in the case of rape, but appears to have no place in formulations such as VE. The reason rape is wrong, and, indeed, the reason that it is committed only by bad people, is that persons ought never to be treated in that way.

Linville sees no reason to think the Virtue Ethicist egoistic. He writes he sees no more reason to suppose that the egotism objection sticks here than he saw earlier for supposing that consistent utilitarians must always have “social utility” consciously before their minds and not the welfare of individuals. Surely, he writes, we can see our way to the view that generosity may be consciously altruistic regardless of what we learn about the metaethics involved in VE. But the devil is in the metaethical details, he says.

On Confucianism love for humanity gets wrapped into an account of human flourishing. Humans are moral creatures, and flourish insofar as one cultivates the virtue of love of humanity. Respect-for-persons gets folded into his account of flourishing. “What makes a good person good?” is answered by reference to the person’s regard for humanity and the role that such regard plays in the overall cultivation of character. The “external foundation” that appears in Confucianism is a principle of respect-for-persons, and it compares favorably with the celebrated Kantian formulation of such a principle. (Hursthouse notes that virtue ethicists largely have eschewed any attempt to ground virtue ethics in an external foundation.) Hackett’s explanation of the role of personal worth in the thought of Confucius would work equally well were he discussing Kant’s Principle of Humanity: “Personal being is intrinsically valuable, and the locus of ultimate, intrinsic worth; while love, as recognizing and implementing the actualization of the worth, is the essential principle of ultimate moral requirement.” But this is at odds with classical views in the Aristotelian tradition. Linville’s conclusion is that standard accounts of VE have no conceptual room for the moral standing of individuals, and that this counts against such theories. We should be able to say simply that rape and genocide are wrong because people ought neither to be raped nor exterminated.

Kant’s Principle of Humanity says to treat others as ends in themselves, simply as a means. What informs this principle is the idea that people are of ultimate and unconditional worth, and to treat them as “ends” is just to respect their autonomy as persons who have wills and ends of their own, and thus to act toward them in a way that is consistent with that worth. Kant distinguished two ways something can have value: either it has a dignity or it has a price. It has a price if it has a market value; this is mind-dependent—how much is one willing to pay for it? Something has dignity just in case it resists such valuation in terms of some market value so that its worth is intrinsic. Any property is intrinsic to a thing just in case that property involves no essential reference to any other thing, which is to say that it is nonrelational. Each and every individual human possesses the property being human intrinsically. Kantian dignity is a moral value or worth that individual persons possess intrinsically as persons. Since it is a nonrelational property, its value is mind-independent, and thus not reducible to or derivative of the valuings of some agent or other. If persons have dignity, then they ought to be valued for their own sake even if, in fact, they are not. And for being nonrelational, dignity is not reducible to instrumental value.

So dignity constitutes the unconditional worth of its possessor. Kant’s principle prohibits treating persons simply as means to ends precisely because this amounts to treating a person as though his or her value is merely instrumental, or determined by their relation to something else. This is to treat a person as a thing. Slavery is an example in which a person is regarded quite literally as having a market value. Kant’s notion of dignity is a natural basis for according those natural, inherent, and imprescriptible rights denied by Bentham. What is it to have unconditional regard if it is not to value the person intrinsically? And to be told that one ought to value persons intrinsically would seem to imply that persons just are of intrinsic moral worth.

Personal dignity seems implicated indeed by the sorts of pre-theoretical moral beliefs to which we typically appeal in reflective equilibrium. Should we suppose whether the question of dignity depends on metaphysics? Are we entitled to believe that persons enjoy intrinsic value regardless of what worldview we take to be true? It would be surprising. For example, the belief that persons have dignity would seem to involve the belief that there are persons, so this is not a part of a worldview that would deny persons. Advaita Vedanta appears to deny the real existence of persons. On Theravada Buddhism, the question of whether there are such things as persons is at least problematic—there is only a bundle of nonpersonal constituents, not the sort of thing ascribed dignity.

The naturalist may face a similar problem. Can the existence of persons be accounted for on naturalism? Goetz and Taliaferro call it the “Astonishing Hypothesis” that naturalism could produce the likes of human beings. On “strict naturalism” nature is all that exists and nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. But persons as substantive selves that essentially possess a first-person point of view appear to lie, in principle, beyond the scope of third-person scientific explanation. For naturalists, explanations must explain consciousness by appeal to the unconscious, the personal by way of the nonpersonal, or the first person in third-person terms. Dennett thinks the first person needs to be left out of any final theory. Susan Blackmore has followed his advice, concluding there is no substantial or persistent self to be found in experience. Consciousness has been absent even in 20th century works bearing such promising titles as Consciousness Explained. [I seem to recall Plantinga suggesting the book’s title should have been “Consciousness Explained Away.”] Hume famously failed to find himself despite careful search, only an aggregate of perceptions. But the very practice of science is unintelligible unless persons exist and have observations and thoughts, and presumably observing and thinking are experiences. [Scott Smith hits this theme in his book In Search of Moral Knowledge.]

Owen Flanagan has said recently that we must “demythologize persons,” and by this he means that the Cartesian beliefs of the soul and of libertarian free will must be abandoned. C. S. Lewis once said if he was mistaken about his late wife, she was but a cloud of atoms he mistook for a person. Death would only reveal the vacuity that was already there. Dennett speaks of evolution having wired us to assume an “intentional stance,” which amounts to a predisposition to view certain other things in the world as intentional systems—agents with beliefs and desires. But this is of course misleading, on Dennett’s view, as would be a revised Kantian ethic. In light of the eliminability of teleological purposes on strict naturalism, it’s false to say that intentional systems are autonomous and thus have ends of their own. Neither is it clear that moral agency or autonomy may be preserved on a more relaxed version of naturalism. “Broad naturalism” or “minimal physicalism” describe varieties of physicalism that appeal to some form of supervenience of the mental on the physical. The aim is to allow room for the irreducibly mental within an extensively physical world—property dualism. Kim suggests this is wishful thinking.

Kim’s argument is “the supervenience/exclusion argument” for thinking that the irreducibility of the mental is at odds with the causal efficacy of the mental. Physicalists are committed to causal closure, where if any event has a sufficient cause c, then no event distinct from c can be a cause of the event (barring overdetermination). The result is epiphenomenalism. But this eliminates Kantian grounds and means of treating persons as ends-in-themselves. The latter suffers because the attitude of respect for a person or the law itself presupposes the sort of mental causation precluded on naturalism; the former is eclipsed by the mechanism of intentional systems. Autonomy presupposes teleology, and the latter has no purchase in the world described by naturalism, strict or broad.

We appear to have two irreducibly different kinds of things with different sets of properties. Conscious states, for example, defy description in terms of the spatial and compositional properties that are essential to accounts of physical states and processes. Kim even suggests qualia resist functional reduction.

Ultimately, consciousness is either eliminated altogether, reduced to the physical, or held to be emergent and irreducible. Eliminativism is implausible; reductionist accounts seem bound to fail; and emergentism introduces a pluralist ontology and thus a departure from naturalism.

The insistence that conscious and autonomous persons could be engineered from Big Bang debris is easy to see as a function of an entrenched antisupernaturalism combined with the commonsense recognition that there is consciousness and that it sometimes plays a causal role. We know the world contains persons; what we don’t know is how this could be the case if naturalism were true.

But how does the personal come from the nonpersonal and the intrinsically valuable from the valueless? On naturalism, it’s hard to see why any special and intrinsic value should be assigned to the species as a whole, much less to each and every individual specimen.

Kant claimed to find the ground of personal dignity within himself. Contemplation of the starry heavens above made him feel insignificant, but reflection on the moral law within has the opposite effect, infinitely elevating his worth. That infinite worth is thus secured by our autonomy as moral agents capable of understanding and acting on moral principle. Moral agency is what we might call a dignity-conferring property. But this requires that morality itself must be of intrinsic rather than instrumental value. Kant said both human persons and the moral law itself have dignity. Genuine respect for persons requires respect for the law. My respecting you calls for my acting for the sake of certain direct duties to you. Has the naturalist sufficient reason for supposing that morality itself enjoys the sort of dignity that Kant ascribes to it? Elsewhere Linville has already argued no; on evolutionary naturalism, human morality has emerged as an evolutionary device; a strategy aimed at reproductive fitness. One might as well argue for human dignity by appeal to the opposable thumb or to featherless bipedalism.

Michael Martin has recently suggested ideal observer theory as the foundation for personal dignity. It’s how an ideal observer would react that determines the morality of an act. Copan has questioned the ontology of such a view held by a naturalist. Recall that a property is intrinsic only if, among other things, it is nonrelational and mind-independent. On the face of it, it’s hard to see why Martin supposes that sense can be made of Kim has the property of intrinsic value by analyzing it in terms of the feelings of anyone nonidentical to, or, for that matter, identical to Kim. If the property is intrinsic, then it is identical to or supervenient on something true of Kim’s intrinsic nature. And about what does the ideal observer have feelings of approval in the case of intrinsic value? The ideal observer theory faces a Euthyphro problem. Does the ideal observer value Kim intrinsically because Kim is intrinsically valuable, or is she intrinsically valuable because the ideal observer values her intrinsically? First option is to abandon ideal observer theory. In terms of the other option, why assume the ideal observer would value Kim intrinsically unless she actually is intrinsically valuable? Shafer-Landau has critiqued ideal observer theory along similar lines. So no, if there’s to be an account of dignity, it must be rooted in the metaphysics of personhood.

Kai Nielsen thinks that no special account of persons is required in order to make sense of the requirements of justice. He insists that the religious apologist needs to show, but has not shown, that respect-for-persons can only be supported on religious grounds. [Note: this isn’t true if the argument is abductive; it only need be shown that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism.] Nielsen proposes that Kantian respect may be drawn out of Hobbesian egoism. But what of the powerfully placed egoist who needn’t fear repercussions for treating people poorly? Nielsen acknowledges there may be no egoist rationale for respecting others in such a case. But this makes the values a façade, if it’s just a matter of subscription—in that case, it’s just conditional, hypothetical, not categorical. So Nielsen’s earlier claim that certain moral beliefs are “bedrock” is misleading, and in a later book he suggests that moral realism is a myth. So Nielsen’s project assures us we can have ethics without God but then it doesn’t deliver. And again, Hobbesian egoism makes sense of direct duties only to oneself.

Photo: "Christ Healing the Blind Man" by  Eustache Le Sueur. Public Domain. 

Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part I

In his well-regarded essay “The Moral Argument” Mark Linville offers two variants of the moral argument. The second is called “an argument from personal dignity,” and it’s this argument that I wish to lay out here in broad outline in order to give a wider range of readers exposure to it. I will do so in three parts; this is the first.

Just as people can be devoted to certain moral ends for a variety of different reasons, different people can offer different rationales for the wrongness of an action, or even an account for why such a thing isn’t wrong at all, even something so bad as torturing children. Take Mary Anne Warren, for example. She argues that all and only persons have rights, and since fetuses aren’t persons, they have no rights. So abortion only involves rights of the mother. What, then, of infants? They too don’t display the faculties or capacities Warren thinks are constitutive of personhood, so now we have an argument for infanticide too. She acknowledges this, but doesn’t infer infanticide is morally okay, since the practice could impoverish the lives of others who would benefit from the infants. But nonetheless, she thinks, we have no direct duties toward the infants themselves. If infants do not have rights at all, then not only do they not have a right not to be killed, but neither do they have a right not to be tortured. It may not be allowed on occasion owing to the effects on actual persons, but there’s no direct duty owed the infant. They are afforded no moral standing, in and of themselves.

But surely this is unsatisfactory. If bayonetting babies for fun is morally wrong, the wrongness must be explained chiefly in terms of what is done to the baby. Similarly, Mary Midgley’s objection to G. R. Grice’s contract theory critiqued Grice’s implication that animals, young children, and the mentally impaired have no natural right due to their nonparticipation in the contract out of which rights arise.

A moral theory needs to do justice to our deep-seated moral convictions, but it must also offer a satisfactory account of those implications. We should consider carefully judgments about what qualifies as an acceptable explanation. Another lesson to be gathered is that the considered judgments in question appear to call for our according moral standing to individuals. Linville understands S has moral standing to mean S is the appropriate object of direct moral duties. Generally, in the case of harms brought to persons, we have, Linville thinks, an implausible explanation if it is reducible to the form: A’s harming B is wrong solely because A’s harming B affects C.

Take egoism. If the egoist concludes that rape is wrong, then he can only conclude this because he has determined that it wrongs the rapist. Rape is wrong, if wrong at all, because it violates a direct duty owed the victim. Egoism satisfies the criterion that a theory must countenance the moral standing of individuals; the trouble is that the only individual who enjoys such standing is the agent. So we have but to add the clause, in addition to the agent.

Next, take utilitarianism. First, allow me to sum up 8 points against (secular) utilitarianism made by Paul Copan, as it nicely sets the stage for Linville’s analysis: 1) Utilitarians make a correct ethical point, namely, that consequences matter in our ethical analysis, but he also points out that they are not all that matter. 2) How can we measure the well-being of society without considering the well-being of individuals? This shows the failure of utilitarians to accord proper emphasis on intrinsic value. 3) Humans have intrinsic value—in favor of the utilitarian view of humans that’s counterintuitive and false. 4) Because of their essence or nature as God-bearers, humans have dignity and worth. Utilitarians emphasize function over essence or nature. 5) Utilitarians ignore motives and focus only on consequences. 6) Voluntary heroic acts (that aren’t duties) become duties or obligations, on utilitarianism. In other words, there’s no room for supererogation (acts praiseworthy to perform but not blameworthy for not performing). 7) Utilitarianism tends to eliminate the natural importance of family loyalties and deep friendships in favor of a level playing field for all humanity. (See I Timothy 5:8.) 8) Utilitarianism is obviously discriminatory against the helpless.

Now for Linville’s analysis of utilitarianism, especially on the question of moral standing: Utilitarianism certainly looks beyond a concern for the good of the agent. The principle of utility tells us that right actions are those that have good consequences for the community. But how are “good” and “community” to be understood? Classical utilitarians are hedonists, so pleasure is viewed as of intrinsic value, the only thing (along with freedom from pain) desirable as an end (in itself). Other, nonhedonistic theories of value could be plugged in here—like human flourishing or the meeting of interests.

What is meant by “community”? Usually “humanity.” But Peter Singer has suggested all and only sentient creatures. So utilitarians can differ regarding the scope of the moral community. Linville then points out a natural mistake: assuming the utilitarians identify the scope of the moral community with those who have moral standing. For utilitarians do not accord moral standing to individual members of the moral community.

Jeremy Bentham, a famous proponent of utilitarianism, famously said that the notion of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.” His subject was the Declaration of Rights published by the French National Assembly in 1791, which affirmed “natural and imprescriptible rights.” In particular, Bentham challenges the notion of natural and imprescriptible rights, thought to exist “anterior” to the establishment of government. There are no such things as natural rights. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense on stilts.”

Bentham’s argument is with the notion of rights that are inherent and imprescriptible. Parsimony requires the rejection of both features. Whatever rights that exist do so because of circumstances of society—what is advantageous to society, that is, owing to the notion of utility.

Now, there may be moral grounds for granting civil rights. But whether rights are extended or abrogated will be determined by the circumstances of utility, and this is always with a view to the advantage of society. There can’t be “imprescriptible” rights precisely because a concern for social utility may call for their abrogation.

John Stuart Mill doesn’t really disagree with Bentham. Chapter five of Utilitarianism is Mill’s attempt to show that utility and justice embrace, despite the criticisms of the theory’s detractors. Mill identifies duties of justice with those “perfect duties” discussed by philosophers. These (unlike “imperfect duties”) involve the rights of individuals. So notions of justice and individual rights are inextricably bound. But why ought society protect such rights? Mill says he can give no other reason than general utility. Mill, like Bentham, maintains that the sole basis for according rights to individuals is the effect that doing so has upon the advantage to society.

Are Mill’s rights “imprescriptible”? By the end of the second chapter of this book of Mill’s, it’s clear that Mill is advancing a variety of rule utilitarianism. For example, he argues against lying even when it’s expedient because truth-telling more than anything honors that on which large-scale societal happiness most depends. For Mill, moral rules designed to safeguard our fundamental security or well-being derive their supreme importance and impose paramount obligations due to the weight of the goods that they protect as weighed on the scale of social utility. Inidividual “rights” are thus claims that people have to those goods, and, as we have seen, the claims themselves are sustained by that same concern for utility. So the notion of inherent or natural rights is just as fantastic by Mill’s reckoning as by Bentham’s.

A Kantian respect-for-persons ethic could prove to be a useful fiction on a utilitarian reckoning. But if Mill is to be believed, it is a fiction, useful or not, and it must be so precisely because of that utilitarian reckoning. Mill’s trying to answer the “problem of justice” objection. The worry is that there appears to be no necessary connection between an action’s maximizing utility and its being fair or just. It appears the consistent utilitarian would be in a position of justifying, say, slavery, rape, or torture of innocents.

Now, Linville is willing to grant that, perhaps, the Principle of Utility, rightly understood, has none of these “iniquitous consequences.” Nevertheless, Linville maintains that any and all versions of utilitarianism worthy of the name must fail to account for that portion of commonsense morality that we individuals have moral standing. Consider rape. Even if, on Mill’s view, it involves the violation of the victim’s rights and the individual is wronged or done an injustice, this is not sufficient for allowing that his view accords moral standing to individuals within the moral community. Why? The explanation for the wrongness of rape appeals to the “generally injurious” consequences for the community rather than the simple fact that the person who is the victim simply ought not to be treated in that manner. Mill, no more than Bentham, offers an account that permits the existence of inherent rights. If there’s a right not to be raped, it’s derivative and contingent on the circumstances of social utility.

While Mill employs language suggestive of direct duties to the holders of rights, we must not lose sight of the logic of the utilitarian analysis. To the question of why society ought to defend the rights of individuals, Mill’s answer was “social utility.” But this invites a further question: why should we concern ourselves over social utility? It is because of something beyond itself, or not? If not, the present argument succeeds: the utilitarian doesn’t act ultimately out of a regard for the moral standing of individuals. But if so, then utilitarian has something beyond utility in mind (something potentially quite laudable, like natural rights).

The John Adams whose name is affixed to a document asserting inalienable human rights might well be thought to have been motivated by a direct concern for innocent soldiers, Quakers, and witches, as their natural and imprescriptible rights were at stake. Contra utilitarianism. Bernard Williams notes that consequentialism attaches value ultimately to states of affairs. The point coincides with the “receptable problem” that Tom Regan has urged against utilitarianism. According to Regan, it’s not individuals that are valued by the utilitarian, but their mental states. Whether it’s pleasure, satisfaction of interests of individuals, where do persons fit into such a scheme? According to Regan, on utilitarianism persons are important because they are the vessels that are laden with this treasure.

The principal concern of utilitarianism is to maintain the greatest possible net pleasure or satisfaction. And this net pleasure is not for the sake of any individual persons. Rather, the reverse is true; any regard for the individual is ultimately out of a concern for increasing net utility. Utilitarianism fails to accord moral standing to individuals.


Photo: "Christ Healing the Blind Man" by  Eustache Le Sueur. Public Domain.