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

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

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

Read More

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

"Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: "Good Samaritan"  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: Interpretations of Buddhist Ethics (Part 4 of 5)


Interpretations of Buddhist Ethics

Utilitarian or Virtue Ethic

There are two primary interpretations of Buddhist ethics: utilitarian and virtue.[1] Keown is quick to point out that Buddhist ethics will not fit neatly into any one category in Western ethics. However, Buddhist scholars see many benefits to interpreting Buddhist ethics in Western categories. Western ethics provides a highly developed vocabulary and conceptual framework that was never developed in Buddhism. Because of this, there is a strong tendency to identify Buddhism in terms of Western ethical theories, even if there is not complete congruence.

It is relatively uncontroversial that Buddhist ethics is teleological, at least to a certain point. While scholars agree that Buddhist ethics is aimed at the goal of nirvana, what is controversial is whether the means to that goal are morally good. One of the key issues in this debate concerns the nature of nirvana. Those holding a utilitarian view understand nirvana in a straightforward way: it is the desired end in light of the circumstances. It is a place of peace and rest, an escape from suffering. Those holding the virtue view believe that nirvana is similar to the eudaimonia of Aristotle and that it constitutes the telos of man.

The Utilitarian Interpretation

The ethics of utilitarianism, broadly speaking, could be summed up like this: "Good actions are those actions that are instrumental to pleasure; evil actions are those actions that destroy pleasure." If the means to nirvana are merely instrumental, then Buddhist ethics is a kind of utilitarian ethic, where the “good exists in pleasure" and the means to that good are not important.[2] Only the consequences count in terms of moral evaluation. Good and evil only exist relative to the predefined goal. While utilitarian kinds of ethical systems are objective in the sense that they provide objective criteria for evaluating good and evil, these systems are not objective in the ultimate sense, meaning that utilitarian systems are not able to give an objective account of what is ultimately good or valuable. Generally, the end is decided based on what the community already counts as valuable or good in itself.[3] As such, utilitarian forms of ethics are, at some point, transcended. They require a prior account of what is valuable or morally praiseworthy so that the goal selected is not arbitrary. This is exactly the condition in which many scholars have found the teaching of the Buddha.

One proponent of this view was Winston L. King, who held that Buddhism "aims at goals which completely transcend the ethical and always places its ethics in that transcendent context."[4]  The Dali Lama himself seems to share the instrumental view. For example, he seems to suggest that an act like stealing is not wrong in itself, but wrong because of the resulting consequences: “As a result of stealing, one will lack material wealth.”[5] Those holding this view take the Buddha’s classifications of the criteria within the Path, wisdom (panna), the virtues (sila), and concentration (samadhi), in a straightforward way. The virtues of the Path (right speech, right action, and right livelihood) are said to be made possible with wisdom (right view and right intention). By having wisdom and virtue, the monk is able then participate in the

“higher” order goods of the Path, the development of concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) that leads to nirvana.[6]

If ethical practice is merely the means by which one overcomes the suffering of this world, then, at the moment suffering is overcome, the practice of the virtues is obsolete.  In the sutta entitled “What is Purpose?” the Buddha explicitly addresses the reason for practicing the virtues:

Thus in this way, Ananda, skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, freedom from remorse as their reward. Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward. Joy has rapture as its purpose, rapture as its reward. Rapture has serenity as its purpose, serenity as its reward. Serenity has pleasure as its purpose, pleasure as its reward. Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward. Concentration has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its purpose, knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its reward. Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward. Disenchantment has dispassion as its purpose, dispassion as its reward. Dispassion has knowledge & vision of release as its purpose, knowledge & vision of release as its reward. In this way, Ananda, skillful virtues lead step-by-step to the consummation of arahantship.[7]

In this text, the Buddha never mentions that the purpose of practicing the virtues relates to an inherent value in doing so. Instead, the virtues are practiced because they “lead step-by-step to the consummation of arahantship,” which is nirvana. Once nirvana is achieved, then there would no longer be a purpose in practicing the virtues: "The highest life seems to be a complete escape from, or transcendence from, the ethical sphere."[8] Having achieved nirvana, terms like “moral” and “non-moral” no longer have any meaning.[9] The Reverend Saddhatissa also held this view, as he explained when outlining his two guidelines for understanding Buddhist ethics: “In the first place, according to Buddhist and other Indian thought, the highest state is one that lies beyond good and evil. In the second place, according to Buddhism there is no break between the moral teaching and that which pertains to the ideal state.”[10]

Given the instrumental nature of the virtues, they cannot be ultimately good: the “virtues are not sufficient in themselves. On the one hand, to be virtuous is not the ultimate goal of life… If there is any goal, it is freedom.”[11] They are described in a simile taught by the Buddha himself, like a raft that is to be abandoned once one has crossed the river:  “for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”[12] They are only valuable insofar as they enable one to reach the goal of the ethical pursuit, nirvana.

The Virtue Interpretation

The outline of Buddhist virtue

Besides the utilitarian interpretation, the other major view is that “the virtue ethics tradition is the Western tradition most congenial to the assumptions and insights of Buddhist ethics.”[13]  Virtue ethics is also aimed at a goal, the good for man, which is objectively the best and most proper pursuit of mankind.  Good actions, or virtuous actions, are good because they correspond to and participate in the good for man.[14] Keown suggests that a utility view is a mere caricature and that a proper understanding of Buddhism will show that the Buddha has much more in common with Aristotle than John Stuart Mill.

While there are several scholars who interpret Buddhism as a virtue ethic, Damien Keown’s work is regarded as the most developed. Most other accounts of Buddhist virtue take him as foundational.[15] Keown suggests that there are four points of convergence between Buddhist ethics and Aristotelian virtue ethics: the goal of ethics, the general psychology of each system, the particular psychology of moral choices, and the desire for the good.[16] Essentially, Keown is making two kinds of claims: (1) reality has certain moral properties (2) human beings, as agents within a moral reality, possesses a certain moral psychology. Since Keown’s discussion of moral psychology is primarily concerned with categories unique to Aristotle that are not directly relevant to this thesis and given his own statement that “the discipline of ethics only requires that one individual can be distinguished from another… to pursue the issue of ultimate ontological constitution of individual natures in this context is to confuse ethics with metaphysics,” only his first contention will be examined here.[17]

Key to (1) is the claim that nirvana is intrinsically and essentially good so that it serves as the good for man in a way similar to eudaimonia in Aristotle’s thought:

Nirvana is the good, and rightness is predicated of acts and intentions to the extent which they participate in nirvanic goodness. The right and the good in Buddhism are inseparably intertwined. If an action does not display nirvanic qualities, then it cannot be right in terms of Buddhist ethics whatever other characteristics (such as consequences) it might have.[18]

Keown takes it as being self-evidently true that nirvana constitutes the good for man: “Whatever else nirvana is, it is indisputably the summum bonum of Buddhism.” [19] Keown strongly emphasizes the difference between nirvana in this life and nirvana after death and narrows his discussion to accommodate only nirvana in this life.[20] In general, those holding to a virtue view of Buddhism draw some important limitations to their interpretations.[21]

Another key feature of Buddhism as a virtue ethic is the relationship of nirvana to the practices that the Buddha taught. While other interpreters of Buddhism, like King and Saddhista, understand the Buddha as teaching that the Eightfold Path reveals a hierarchal structure of practices, with moral virtue as merely the first step and meant to be discarded once it is mastered, the proponent of the virtue view disagrees. Instead, all practices taught by the Buddha are meant to be understood as equally important. If moral virtue is placed first on the list, it is not because it is a  merely a stepping stone to more advanced practice, it is because moral virtue constitutes what is foundational for other practices so that to cease practicing the virtues is to fail at all other practices. Moral virtue is both a means to then end of Buddhist practice and the foundation of it.

Moral practice exists on the same continuum as nirvana so that nirvana is not a transcendent, amoral state, but moral practices participate in and constitute nirvana. As Keown says, "In both Aristotelian and Buddhist ethics, an action is right because it embodies a virtue which corresponds with and 'participates' in the goal of human perfection."[22] Even though he disagrees with the virtue interpretation, Kalupahana nevertheless agrees with Keown on this point: “Ultimate freedom [nirvana] is above the world, like the lotus that rises above the water without being severed from its root in the water.”[23] Moral practice is not merely a means because moral practice constitutes the good for man, nirvana. 

Further, the means of attaining nirvana is inherently good because “it is the only way to secure the utility sought. But for consequentialist views of morality like utilitarianism, no means can have inherent value.”[24]This is an important distinction because, according to virtue ethics for an act to be considered virtuous, it must both be good in itself, regardless of the consequences, and participate in the final good.

A Critique of Buddhist Virtue

The point of this critique will be to test for the criteria established for virtue in the first chapter: any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue view of ethics must have an explanation of teleology in the world and the narrative unity of a human life.

The Problem of Teleology

G. E. Moore claimed that one cannot move from observations about the world to conclusions about what constitutes the good.[25] Empiricism cannot be the foundation of a moral theory. Those guilty of this have committed the naturalistic fallacy, which is to “conflate the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’”[26] However, a virtue view of Buddhism seems to make precisely this move.

The Buddha was one the world’s finest empiricists. In fact the Buddha’s teachings are entirely based on his observations and experience. It was a result of his observations about reality that he formulated his Four Noble Truths–truths which were confirmed through his own experience and the experience of his disciples: “Monks, I have known two qualities through experience: discontent with regard to skillful qualities and unrelenting exertion. . . From this heedfulness of mine was attained Awakening. From this heedfulness of mine was attained the unexcelled freedom from bondage.[27]

The challenge that Keown and other virtue ethicists face here is the challenge of understanding the Buddha’s empiricism as teaching robust metaphysical concepts like eudaimonia and intrinsic goodness. In other words, they want to understand the Buddha as arriving at an “ought” from an “is.” Keown suggests that nirvana is sufficiently similar to Aristotle’s eudaimonia so that nirvana can be said to serve as the human good just as Aristotle’s eudaimonia does.[28] To make his point, he describes eudaimonia as being “desired for its own sake; everything else that is desired is desired for the sake of it; it is never chosen for the sake of anything else.”[29] He concludes that the same criteria can be applied to nirvana so that nirvana constitutes the good for man just as eudaimonia does. According to Keown, the fact that nirvana is desirable explains its role as the good for man.

However, the fact that eudaimonia is desirable is only part of the reason why Aristotle saw it as constituting the good for man. According to Aristotle, the first and most important claim about the good for man was not a claim about its desirability, but teleology: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.” Given this teleology, Aristotle continues his argument: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.”[30] Aristotle’s argument rests on a metaphysical reality: human beings, like all other things, have a particular end or function. There is, in fact, a telos for all things. Given this fact, Aristotle uses observation about desires and their objects to arrive at eudaimonia as the appropriate goal for man. Keown does not have a means of explaining a telos prior to defining nirvana as the good for man.  The result is that Keown works backward, making observations about reality and then formulating metaphysical truths. Sallie King explains the problem:

There seem to be two non-reducible foundations of morality: (1) natural law, the Dhamma (conditionality); and (2) an empathetic, caring, compassionate response to the suffering of sentient beings; empathy, caring, compassion, fully manifest in Buddhas, are implicit in the whole enterprise of Buddhism. The first foundation, the claim that conditionality and interdependence universally characterize samsara, Buddhist thought extensively strives to demonstrate (though, of course, whether or not it succeeds is a separate issue). The second, the perception that suffering is bad, Buddhism assumes, but few would probably want to challenge this assumption. It is the second foundation—the assumption that suffering is a problem and the caring response to that problem—that takes us from is to ought, from metaphysics to ethics.[31]

Aristotle is making a distinction between eudaimonia and what is ontologically good that Keown does not. While equating nirvana with eudaimonia Keown argues that “Nirvana is the good, and rightness is predicated of acts and intentions to the extent which they participate in nirvanic goodness. The right and the good in Buddhism are inseparably intertwined.”[32] However, “Aristotle identifies eudaimonia with the highest human good of human flourishing, but not with the moral domain of the good.”[33]  What Keown conflates, Aristotle keeps separate and by doing so, Aristotle avoids committing the naturalistic fallacy. What Keown needs to avoid this trap is to provide an explanation of nirvana as the good for man and the pursuit of nirvana as being morally his telos. He must provide a metaphysical account of both the existence of a moral domain and human teleology prior to formulating his ethical framework.

Another problem faced by a virtue view of Buddhism is an interpretive one. The Buddha described reality as it is and made recommendations about changing aspects of that reality in light of the circumstances. However, to understand the Buddha as introducing metaphysical concepts like “the good for man” in the Aristotelian sense seems to be more the result of idealization and eisegesis than an honest reading of his teachings. In one famous example, the Buddha is questioned by one of his disciples regarding the nature of the soul, the universe, and nirvana. The disciple wanted a statement by the Buddha on each of these subjects, but the Buddha responded by reminding his questioner that he has left such statements undeclared on purpose. They are undeclared because they “are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undeclared by me.[34]

The Buddha explains what he has declared and why:

And what is declared by me? 'This is stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the origination of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, selfawakening, Unbinding. That's why they are declared by me.[35]

Given these statements by the Buddha, it seems like an anachronism to read concepts like teleology and “the good for man” into his teaching. However, Keown suggests this is not the case.

Providing man with a telos might solve the is/ought problem since possessing a telos means having a certain purpose, direction, and design. However, the telos brings up other difficult metaphysical questions. In particular, if a person has a function, design, or purpose, such a claim seems to presuppose a personal agent that can bestow such qualities. However, Buddhism does not allow for such an agent or any other means of accounting for teleology in human beings. Further, it seems completely foreign to Buddhism to suggest that there is a “good for man” in the Aristotelian sense. Without an adequate account of teleology present, the virtue view of Buddhism fails the first criterion established in chapter one. This leaves the criteria of the narrative unity of the human life.

The Problem of Unity

The concept of the self is critical to any account of ethics. This is a point that even Buddhist scholars appreciate. For example, Jones beings the New Social Face of Buddhism by asking, “What is the self?” and “Who am I?” to which he responds, “These are the questions around which the whole argument of this book revolves.”[36] In virtue ethics, the nature of the self is even more important since it is an agent centered ethic: “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[37] However, Keown seems unwilling to define and engage the nature of the self in his argument for Buddhist virtue. He limits the scope of his argument to nirvana in this life[38] and then adds that “I do not address directly the problem of the apparent albescence of a moral subject in the light of the no-self (annata) doctrine. It seems to me that Buddhism provides sufficient criteria for personal identity to allow the identification of subjects within the moral nexus.”[39]

This seems like a strange omission give the importance of the conception of self to most other forms of ethics.  Why would Keown put such a crucial issue aside? One clue comes from the suggestion of Whitehill, who himself takes a virtue view of Buddhism. Whitehill calls Keown a “revisionist.”[40] Whitehill himself does not seem particularly interested in understanding historical Buddhism in its context, but rather as a means for expanding Western ethical “horizons.” [41] Perhaps Keown is motivated by reasons other than understanding the Buddha in his own context. Given the discussion of the no-self doctrine earlier, there is apparently no possibility for understanding a human life as a unified whole.  All language regarding the self is mere convention, not referring to any substantive “person.”

Buddhist scholars who are willing to comment on the nature of the self paint a picture that is not compatible with MacIntyre’s requirement of narrative unity. Persons are only “persons” in terms of convention and not substance. They are a collection of parts, loosely associated with previous arrangements of other parts. This leads Siderits to conclude that, in light of the Buddhist no-self doctrine, “I should continue to identify with the past and future stages of this causal series. But I should not do so as the hero of the story that is my life.”[42] But it is just such an identification that is necessary according to MacIntyre. As a result, Buddhism fails the second criteria for a virtue ethic: the narrative unity of a single human life.



[1] Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

[2] Julia Driver, “The History of Utilitarianism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University), par 3.

[3] 114

Goodman, Consequences, 23.

[4] 115  King, In the Hope of Nibbana,  4.

[5] 116

Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho and Donald S. Lopez, The Way to Freedom: Core Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism (India: Indus, 1996), 100.

[6] David J Kalupahana, Ethics in Early Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaiì Press, 1995), 93.


[7] Kimattha Sutta: What is the Purpose? trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[8] 119  King, In Hope of Nibbana, 30.


[9] Harvey, Introduction, 44.

[10] Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics, 4.

[11] Kalupahana, Ethics, 72.

[12] 123 The Middle Length Discourses, 229.

[13] 124

James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[14] Rosalind Hursthouse, "Virtue Ethics," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2010), par. 6.

[15] Whitehill, “Buddhism,” 18.

[16] 127

Keown, Nature, 195-222.

[17] 128  Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid., 177.

[19] Ibid.,199.

[20] Ibid., 19.

[21] For example, Whitehill limits his interpretation by suggesting that his virtue interpretation is only for the sake of building bridges between Eastern and Western ethics, and not necessarily an attempt to offer a straightforward rendering of Buddhist ethics.

[22] Keown, Nature, 50.

[23] Kalupahana, Ethics, 86.

[24] 135 Damien Keown, “Karma, Character, and Consequentialism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24 (1996), 346.

[25] 136  Michael Ridge, “Moral Non-Naturalism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2010), par. 9.

[26] Christopher Ives, “Deploying the Dharma: Reflections on the Methodology of Constructive Buddhist Ethics.,” The Journal of Buddhist Ethics 15 (2008): 25.

[27] 138  Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[28] 139  Keown, Nature, 197.

[29] 140  Ibid.,199.

[30] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics.

[31] Sallie B. King, “From Is to Ought: Natural Law in in Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Prayudh Payutto,” Journal of Religious Ethics 30, no. 2 (2002): 284.

[32] 143  Keown, Nature, 199.

[33] 144 Abraham Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness in the Pali Nikayas and the Nature of Buddhist Ethics,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 11 (2004): 129.

[34] 145 Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ken Jones, The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action (Boston: Wisdom, 2003), 2.

[37] 148  R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[38] 149  This move seems arbitrary and unsupported by the Buddha’s early teachings. The Buddha did not draw

a sharp distinction between nirvana in this life and nirvana without remainder. However, Keown’s distinction is so great that he divorces his ethic from the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nirvana without remainder. Why would he want to do this? The answer seems to be, as argued later, that Keown is revising Buddhist teaching to be compatible with a virtue ethic.

[39] 150  Keown, Nature, 19.

[40] Whitehill, “Buddhism,” 19.

[41] 152  Ibid., 17. “My purpose in this chapter is to speculate about the optimal, future development of Buddhism

in the West.”

[42] Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor's note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 


“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

[su_dropcap]T[/su_dropcap]he injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.[su_pullquote]This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.[/su_pullquote]

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

[su_dropcap]J[/su_dropcap]ustice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

[su_dropcap]S[/su_dropcap]elma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

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.



Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 2


In my last post, I looked at Plato’s Republic and the standard he set for a truly objective moral foundation, one that can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism. In particular, I highlighted four items that he asserted were necessary: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. For Plato, if any of these items is missing, nihilism wins. I also argued that, while Plato’s understanding of the requirements for a foundation for ethics was correct, his details for them were not. Instead, classical theism (in general) and Judeo-Christian theology (in particular) can provide a solid foundation for morality, hopefully in a way that Plato would have appreciated. In this post, I’ll take a look at how Judeo-Christian theism meets Plato’s four requirements for a truly objective morality.

1) God - The Transcendent Standard

In significant strands of Judeo-Christian thought, God is the Good. Like Plato’s Form of the Good, God is the ontological source of everything else. Goodness is established in His character and grounded in His immutable nature. Being loving is good because it is God’s unchanging nature to love. Grace, mercy, honesty, and patience are all good because they are eternal character traits of God. The Christian Platonic theistic ethicist who has made this case most powerfully in recent decades is, of course, Robert Adams, in his seminal Finite and Infinite Goods.

Unlike Plato’s Form, however, the Judeo-Christian God is a rational, personal agent; God is the type of substance that can actually bear moral qualities. This fact overcomes a major problem with Plato’s system: how can things that appear to be characteristics or qualities actually be substances? John Rist explains this aptly:

God and God’s nature, Platonically understood, are the successors of the evaluative Forms and of the Good itself, and not merely are they successors, but they indicate metaphysical progress, for goodness looks like a quality, though Plato, as Aristotle realized, needs his forms to be substances. Unless goodness is substantiated in and as some sort of “good thing,” it appears to be an ungrounded quality, and hence incapable of doing the philosophical work for which it was proposed.[1]

Augustine ties the conceptual worlds of Plato and Judeo-Christian theism together nicely:

There is, accordingly, a good which alone is simple and, therefore, which alone is unchangeable—and this is God. This good has created all goods.[2]

There’s another theoretical advantage here. If there is such a thing as “the Good,” God’s being the Good makes sense of “the Good” being good, morally and metaphysically, unlike any merely abstract object—causally inert, impersonal, and unable to be good. “God is good,” then, obtains, both as an “is of predication” and “is of identity.” Another way to put it is in terms of the de re / de dicto distinction. “God is good” obtains both de dicto (the proposition is necessarily true in virtue of the requirements of the office of Deity) and de re (God himself is good—necessarily, essentially, perfectly).


2) God as The Good – A Recognizable Standard

The famous dilemma in Euthyphro—Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?—was no dilemma for Plato; for him, the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[3] Likewise, the Good was loved by the gods because they recognized that it is good.  For Plato, if you could see the Good directly you would immediately recognize its goodness:

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything.[4]

In Judeo-Christian theology, the same is true for God: If we could see Him as He is, we would immediately recognize his goodness. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Isaiah:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him…and one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

From Isaiah, we see the biblical perspective that rational creatures in God’s presence immediately recognize (and constantly proclaim) that He is good (which is one aspect of being holy). Along with this rational response, we also see emotional responses: the unfallen angels adore and worship God for His goodness and fallen man immediately realizes that he fails to meet this perfect standard of goodness.

This is not to say that God’s goodness will always be easily reconcilable with our clearest moral intuitions. Old Testament conquest narratives, for example, can be difficult on occasion to square with such intuitions. But difficulty is not the same as impossibility, and even the difficulty may not be as bad as many think, as Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan have argued persuasively in Did God Really Command Genocide? (chapters of which are summarized, one per Monday, on this site).


3) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Knowledge

For Plato, man, as rational animal, had the right faculties to know the Good (at least theoretically). Through recollection, right opinion, or through the hard work of philosophy, man has the ability to seek and comprehend the Good. In the Judeo-Christian world, it is the Imago Dei (image of God) that gives men and women the power to know God/the Good: God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27) The image of God in man provides the foundation for us to be rational agents.

Interestingly, both Plato and Judeo-Christian theism agree that while mankind has the ability to know God/the Good, this knowledge is generally limited and corrupted. For Plato, the process of the rebirth of the soul into a new body makes one forget what one has learned in the spiritual realm. This knowledge must be reconstructed via recollection, or right opinion must be converted to true knowledge via philosophy. As we can discern from the training Plato required for the guardians in The Republic,[5] this is an arduous task that requires proper conditioning and training from a very young age.

In Judeo-Christian theology, the fall of man has left him with rational faculties through which he can know God, but, by default, that knowledge is superficial and subject to corruption. Humankind can increase its knowledge of God both through general revelation[6] and special revelation (the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, in Judaism, and the Old and New Testaments for Christianity). While God can only be known in detail through special revelation, general revelation is enough to provide mankind with a rudimentary knowledge of God and of morality.[7] For both Plato and the Judeo-Christian theist, knowledge of The Good is possible, but it requires effort both rationally and emotionally to acquire and apply.


4) The Image of God - The Foundation for Moral Ability

For Plato, the tripartite nature of the soul gives humans the ability to be moral (or immoral) agents. The head (rational element) allows people to know the right thing to do and the chest (spirited element/will) provides the power to do what is right. If these two are aligned in a just fashion, then people can and will act in a moral way. If however, the belly (bodily desires) becomes the guiding source for the chest instead of the head, then men will act in carnal and unjust ways.

In Judeo-Christian theology, it is the Imago Dei and God’s grace that impart the ability for us to be moral agents as well as rational agents. Through reason, man has the ability to know the good. Through the will, with God’s assistance, man has the (theoretical)[8] ability to do the good. God’s transformative grace can enable us not just to live morally, but to become new creatures, to be inwardly transformed, and ultimately to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ. If God commands us to do something, He will give us the grace, if we avail ourselves of it, to obey the command. Clement of Alexandria helps us to connect all of these concepts together:

Further, Plato the philosopher says that the end is twofold: that which is communicable, and exists first in the ideal forms themselves, which he also calls “the good”; and that which partakes of it, and receives its likeness from it, as is the case in the men who appropriate virtue and true philosophy.[9]



Plato was an amazing philosopher, and he had a deep understanding of the requirements for a truly objective morality; however, the details of his view on how these might actually be fulfilled were flawed. Classical theism provides a foundation for objective morality that arguably meets Plato’s four criteria in a way that would have both felt familiar to him, while also serving as a needed corrective on certain key issues his worldview was not able to address. Judeo-Christian ethics rests on a foundation that is transcendent, recognizably good, knowable, and that humans, with God’s assistance, can obey. This is obviously just a sketch of such an argument, but if it works, classical theism can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism in a way that other systems, especially naturalistic ones, cannot.

But, given this foundation, why should people be moral? In the next posts I’ll look at Platonic moral motivation and its corollaries in classical theism.

Part 3


[1] John Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality, p. 38.

[2] St. Augustine, The City of God, Chapter X.

[3] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[4] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 517c.

[5] If you are not familiar with The Republic, Plato spends a great deal of time talking about what type of education is required for the guardians and philosopher kings. This starts in their early youth as they are conditioned to love the right kinds of things and continues for decades with training in music, gymnastics, mathematics, and other subjects. Without this extensive and arduous training it is doubtful that one can come to know the good in the necessary way. This helps us see that the ultimate Good includes but is not exhausted by the Moral Good.

[6] See Romans 1:18-20.

[7] As discussed in the first post in this series and fortified here, Plato is an excellent source for seeing how much man can determine about God and morality solely from general revelation.

[8] Precisely how much ability mankind has is obviously a matter of debate. In the Judeo-Christian world there is a range of opinions on how much moral ability humans actually have. I think that most would agree, however, that most people in a certain circumstance can choose to either do or refrain from doing particular moral acts based upon their moral knowledge. Editor's Note: This site is firmly committed to the view that God’s grace is operative in all (prevenient grace in the case of unbelievers), that such grace is resistible, and that such grace is needed to do good. We affirm total depravity, but reject unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book II, Chapter XXII.

Image: "Plato, Bibliotheca Universitatis" by Attila Brunner - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG#/media/File:Plato,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG

Equality, Human Value, and the Image of God

Photo by  Ian Chen  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”


These timeless words penned by the Founding Fathers declare a simple, yet profound moral maxim: All humans are equally valuable and ought to be treated as such. This has come to be known as the Principle of Equality (or Equal Treatment).

Almost all societies throughout history have accepted this truth and lived by it. Jeremy Bentham pointed out that any ethical system must begin with the presupposition that “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” We share a strong intuition that all human persons ought to be treated equally, prima facie. Interestingly enough, the pro-slavery South accepted and lived by the Principle of Equality. Even modern-day racists might accept the Principle of Equality as the most basic moral maxim.[1] A racist, however, will seek to redefine the term “human” or “person” to exclude a group of people that he deems unworthy of rights or value. Hence, the racist can happily affirm that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally, and yet disagree on who to include in the category of “people.”

Most rational people today will recognize that racism is wrong—it is evil. However, the problem arises when we seek to ground the Principle of Equality. Why is it that all people are equal? Why is it that all people are born with unalienable rights? Why is it that all people are inherently valuable as ends in and of themselves? In other words, what makes the Principle of Equality really true rather than merely a clever and effective tool to keep society in check?

As it turns out, answering this question is not as easy as it might seem. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[2] Our task is to figure out some common property or set of properties that all human beings share that can bear the weight of substantiating the intrinsic value of the human person. Some potential candidates for grounding human worth and equality might be rationality, intellect, or our capacity for moral reflection and deliberation. Peter Singer argues that all three of these fail. With regard to rationality and intellect, “we can have no absolute guarantee that these abilities and capacities really are evenly distributed evenly, without regard to race or sex, among human beings.”[3] In other words, it's implausible that all humans have the same intellectual capacity; many people are born with severe mental handicaps. Does their diminished ability to function make them less human? Of course not. Does their inability make them less valuable? Of course not. Singer goes on to say, “it is quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of facts.”[4] The facts of human intellectual ability, moral capacity, strength, and the like cannot serve as the basis for human value for two reasons:

  1. These abilities are not evenly distributed among all people. Some people are strong, some are weak. Some people are bright, others are not.

  2. It is not clear what it is about these properties that makes them the grounds for inherent human worth. There is nothing in the human capacity for rational reflection that explicitly bespeaks the intrinsic worth of every human being and can serve as its ontological grounds.

Singer finally concludes his argument with a profound point and a concession, “There is no compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged equality among human beings: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”[5] Singer looks at the different attempts to ground human worth and finds them all lacking. He concedes that there is no description of humanity that justifies or substantiates the principle of equality, and yet we still ought to treat humans as if we are all equal. For Singer, the Principle of Equality has no basis in reality, but it is a useful fiction and we should still aim to live by it.

The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos.

Singer's candid concession is honest and laudable, for on his naturalistic position, there is no such property or set of properties that seems likely to bear the weight of Singer's challenge. What could serve as the foundation for intrinsic human value? It is at this point that the theist has the advantage. The theist can take any number of viable approaches in answering this question. The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos. Every person from the weakest to the strongest—from the least-known to the best-known—has this property. We carry the Image of God. The theist can also ground human value in God's intentions for humanity. God has created human beings with certain ends in mind so that any disruption of those intentions is a disruption of the way God made humans and intended for us to interact. These two options, moreover, are not mutually exclusive by any means. Theists can happily affirm both of these options in answering Singer's challenge. God, as both our Source and End, having created us and imbued us with our telos, provides the robust ontological foundation for intrinsic human worth and moral standing. These approaches take the burden off various human capacities; even when human beings suffer handicaps or lack certain faculties, their ontological status has not diminished one iota. On this view, God has created all people as inherently valuable. All people regardless of race, sex, age, ability to function, sexual orientation, or location are ends in and of themselves—priceless, precious, and loved by God.

While the naturalist can see the need for grounding the Principle of Equality, the theist can offer a viable set of solutions. A Principle of Equality that hangs suspended in mid-air is both ineffective and dangerous. A robust understanding of what ties us all together and validates the notion that all humans are intrinsically valuable is vitally important, now more than ever. It would seem that theism offers a fuller account of the descriptive and prescriptive components of the Principle of Equality than does naturalism.

For further reading on this important issue, including a systematic critique of various secular efforts to ground moral standing and intrinsic human worth, see Mark Linville’s “Moral Argument” available online here:



[1]    James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2015), p. 79-80

[2]    Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p. 77

[3]    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975), p. 4

[4]    Singer, p. 4

[5]    Singer, p. 5


Image:"Scaffolding & First Amendment Of The Constitution Of The United States Of America, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (Washington, DC)" by takomabibelot. CC License. 

A Couple of Reasons to Think Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations

Here is a moral fact: It is wrong to torture babies for fun. (Let T stand for “torture babies for fun.”)

But in what sense is it wrong to T? One answer, and a quite popular one, is that T’ing is wrong because it is irrational to do so. Why it is irrational can be explained a several different ways. One option is the egoist option. It is wrong to T because it is not in my self-interest to do so. It may not be in my self-interest because if I T, others might torture me back or otherwise degrade me in retaliation for my T’ing. The idea here is that it is in my self-interest to live in a world where people don’t torture each other for fun, so, in order to bring about that world, I ought to act in a way consistent with the world I want to bring about. Or perhaps we could say it is irrational to T because it is inherently degrading to myself. I destroy my own soul if I go around T’ing and that is not good for me so it is irrational for me to do so.

We might also say that it is wrong to T because it lowers the aggregate human happiness. Since living in a society where, on the whole, there is more happiness than less, I should not T because it is better to live in a more happy society than a less happy one. Or possibly it is wrong to T because there is an implicit social contract being broken when I T. By virtue of living in a society, I implicitly agree to follow certain norms and T’ing counts as a violation of those norms.

Notice that the theories I listed above all cash out the wrongness of T’ing in terms of bringing about an undesirable result. It is wrong because it will result in states of affairs that are not desirable.  Surely, this cannot be the full explanation of why it is wrong to T because, presumably, it would be wrong to T regardless of the consequences. Natural law provides one way to say it is wrong to T, whether the consequences are desirable or not (and it is worth pointing out that on many of the initially suggested options, counterexamples can be constructed in which T’ing would produce desirable results and therefore our belief that it is wrong to T would be undermined).

One way to say more is to appeal to a natural law account of human rights. The idea here would be that human beings, by virtue of being human beings, have certain rights that are owed to them. T’ing would be wrong because it would be a violation of the baby’s rights that obtain by virtue of the baby being human. This is a better explanation than the ones given above because it makes the wrongness of T’ing more than instrumentally wrong.

Now, consider what naturalism might say about how it is that humans have the rights presupposed to exist on a natural law view. Remember that that naturalist is committed to the idea that everything is composed of only matter and is determined by natural laws.  How could norms of action be generated from mere matter and physics? Rights and the associated norms seem like an odd fit on naturalism. Perhaps the naturalist would appeal to Kant here. Kant thought that moral duties obtain because of the dignity of human beings as rational agents. If humans are rational agents, then we ought to never treat them merely as a means and always as ends. However, Kant himself was no naturalist. And the appeal to Kant here by the naturalist is question begging because the naturalist still has not provided an account of how such properties as “dignity” obtain in a naturalistic universe.

But suppose that we grant that if humans really are rational agents, then we ought to treat them as ends and never merely as means. But consider what must be true of humans in order for them to be rational agents. Obviously, they must at least be rational and an agent. Being rational would seem to require that humans act for good reasons. Here the naturalist faces a problem because human action can be fully explained in third person, physical terms. We don’t think machines act for reasons; we think they act because of physical causes. Some naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, think that acting for reasons and being determined are not incompatible. Possibly he is right. But there is another problem. If humans are agents, this would seem to require libertarian free will. If humans are genuine agents, they must at least be understood as being the cause of their own actions (in contrast to the cause of their actions being fully explained in third-person, mechanistic ways). Again, naturalism will have trouble with explaining how humans could be agents in a naturalistic world. So Kant is no help to the naturalists here.

On the other hand, consider how such rights might obtain in a theistic universe where humans are souls resembling God. Here it seems natural to think that divine image bearers would possess essential, natural rights. If we think about Kant’s view of duty and his categorical imperative, we say that plausibly, being a rational agent just is being a divine image-bearer. And so theists can appeal to Kantian ethics as a possible way to ground the wrongness of T.

However, I suspect there is yet more to say about the wrongness of T. There is a kind of authority to the wrongness of T that cannot be fully explicated just in facts about human persons and their nature. Rather, it seems that if I were to T, I would be in violation of moral obligations that obtain not just as a result of degrading human beings. And we can see how this might be so by paying careful attention to what humans actually are, oddly enough.

Suppose of the sake of the argument that humans really are created in God’s image. This provides a ready explanation for how it is humans have rational agency  and why degrading them would be wrong, for sure. However, if humans are the creation of God, then a violation of their rights is not merely a violation of their dignity as humans, but also a violation of God’s intentions for them as humans. When God created humans, he intended for them not be tortured for fun. That is built into human nature, but not reducible to it.  That is to say that two kinds of violations occur: a violation against the human victim and a violation against God himself by virtue of his intentions towards humans. In this way, we actually defy God himself (by defying his intentions) in T’ing.

Now consider the gravity of these two offences taken together. When T’ing, a person not only violates another human person, but a Divine Person. A person who is ultimately valuable, completely good, holy, and maximally authoritative. That is, the breaking of moral obligations constitutes a defiance of God himself. This means that moral obligations, while serious enough understood just in natural law terms, takes on an exponentially greater seriousness when we consider that we have also violated God himself.

I think this view provides a good explanation of the phenomenology and reality of guilt. When we violate a moral obligation, the guilt we feel seems to extend beyond “feeling guilty for violating a human person.” And to be sure, that considered in itself should create a tremendous amount of guilt. But feelings of guilt often extend beyond that. We have not just harmed a person, but we have gone against the grain of Reality itself. When we do what we are morally obligated not to do, we do not just feel out of sorts with the person, but we are in contention with reality itself. Now, how could we make sense of this phenomenon? It does not seem to make sense that we have failed the universe understood naturalistically; rather the better explanation of this feeling of guilt is that we have failed a Person. That is to say, in addition to feeling guilty about violating  the victim, we also feel guilty about violating the intentions of God himself and this better explains the experience of guilt.

Therefore, theism better explains how it is that humans could have natural rights and the full gravity of the wrongness of T’ing than does naturalism. And if theism more successfully explains these things, human rights and the guilt of failing a Person, it also better explains the reality of moral obligations, since both human rights and moral guilt for failing a person entail moral obligations.

Naturalism, Christianity, and the Best Explanation of Moral Goodness

Photo by  Jordan Steranka  on  Unsplash

In this essay I suggest that Christian theism better explains the existence of moral goodness than does naturalism. But what is goodness? One way to answer this question is by ostension.  We can point to things that are good as examples. If we asked a child, “What is water?” she would not likely respond, “It is a molecule composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Instead, she might answer by pointing to the stuff that comes from the sink.  In the same way, we might not know what the essential nature of goodness is, but we can readily identify a wide array of things that are good. For example, most would agree that being healthy is good, the beauty of the Grand Canyon is good, having a trusted friend is good, and that William Wilberforce’s abolitionism is good. But if we ask the further question, “What is the nature of goodness?” then we are faced with a deeper challenge. Socrates was notorious for pushing his interlocutors for essential meanings rather than definitions by ostension, and it didn’t win him many popularity contests.

One way to respond is by giving an account of instrumental goods. A thing is good if it has instrumental value. These are features of a thing that allow for some goal to be achieved. If, for example, I am learning chess, it would be good to study the play of Garry Kasparov. In this case, we might understand “good” to mean “whatever conduces to a given goal.” One way naturalists might be tempted to cash out the essential nature of goodness is in instrumental terms. We could, for example, read Philippa Foot’s teleological, nonconsequential view this way. Human virtues are just those things that conduce toward her preferred end of human thriving as a species. Or, on egoism, it is good to do whatever is in my self-interest. But, of course, instrumental goods exist in obviously bad places, too. The rounding up of the Jews was instrumentally good in Hitler’s plan for their extermination. What this suggests is that while instrumental goodness may get us some way toward understanding the essential nature of goodness, it cannot possibly be the whole story. And mere instrumentality does not explain how to make sense of a wide range of other things that are obviously good.

Clearly, what we are after here is something much more robust than mere instrumentality. We want to understand goodness as intrinsic and not merely extrinsic value.  Let us try again to get at the essential nature of goodness by ostension. What can we point to as an uncontroversial and obvious case of goodness? A good candidate here is humanity itself. The intrinsic value and worth of human beings is often assumed as the starting place of many ethical theories. So, if being human is good, how can we make sense of this claim? This view will have to accord with what we think humans actually are.

Consider, for example, the naturalist view of human persons. Naturalism usually utilizes what might be called “atomistic” metaphysics. That is to say, everything that exists is explainable in terms of the periodic table plus physical laws. All that exists is the material world. Further, matter does not possess any powers that cannot be captured in scientific, physicalistic terms. It follows, then, that humans too are composed of atoms and are governed by the physical laws. If this is true, then we cannot talk about human nature as some additional metaphysical category that obtains simply because there are collections of atoms arranged in a human-shape and that behave in human ways. Generating this kind of nature is not explainable in terms of the powers of physical things. Therefore, on naturalism, humans are piles of atoms arranged human-wise. And when I say “piles,” I do not mean it to be a caricature or a derogatory way of capturing the naturalist view. Rather, I think that is just the honest way to put it. If it seems degrading or silly, the problem lies with the naturalist and his metaphysics that commit him to such a view.

Given this picture of human beings, in what sense can we say that it is good to be human or that humans posses intrinsic value and worth? This will be hard for the naturalist to answer for a couple of reasons. In the first place, he must explain such strange categories as “value,” “worth,” and “dignity” in materialistic, scientific terms. But what combination of atoms conjoined with what set of physical laws will allow us to explicate such notions? In what sense can piles have intrinsic value? This seems like an exceptionally hard question to answer. On the other hand, it will be difficult to even meaningfully distinguish between humans and other physical objects. What can the naturalist point to as the relevant difference between, say, a human pile and a rock pile? This is, of course, a dramatic example. And it is a strong accusation to make to say naturalists cannot provide some relevant difference. But consider what the famous and brilliant popularizers of naturalism, Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say when trying to capture the wonder of humanity. They point out the rather startling fact that humans are composed of star dust. Humans are made of the same stuff that makes the stars. On the surface, that has an aesthetic appeal, certainly. However, the rock pile is composed of the same stuff. Should this lead us the same wonder and awe of rock piles? Presumably not.

One way the naturalist would likely object here and say that humans are better than rock piles because humans have minds and rock piles do not. But if the naturalist that raises this objection is a thorough going materialist, then this objection will not get him any traction. This is because, presumably, by pointing to the fact that humans have minds, the naturalist wants to indicate some obvious and relevant difference between humans and rock piles. And there is an obvious difference indeed. The trouble is, however that this obvious and qualitative difference cannot be captured using the periodic table plus the physical laws. This is why philosophers of mind committed to materialism often try to reduce, identify, or functionalize mental phenomena to the physical. For example, naturalist and philosopher of mind, Paul Churchland says, “the human species and all its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. Like all but the simplest organisms, we have a nervous system… We are notable only in that our nervous system is more complex and powerful than those of our fellow creatures. Our inner nature differs from that of simpler creatures in degree, but not in kind.”[1] In this case, if naturalist like Churchland were to say, “Well humans are better than rocks because they have minds” he would be committing a mistake given the truth of his own view. There just is no such thing as the mental understood as a unique kind of property or substance distinct from the physical. Rather, there is only a physical nervous system; the periodic table plus the laws of physics. Human piles may in some ways be more complex than rock piles, but mere complexity does not somehow generate intrinsic value.

Now perhaps the naturalist will want to say that despite the fact that humans are piles, they are still somehow special. I am open to hearing that case, but I suspect that the naturalist will have trouble giving an adequate explanation for how it is that humans, if they are complex material piles, are intrinsically valuable and worthy of dignity and respect. It seems to me that if the naturalist wants to explain human dignity and remain an atheist, he will at least need to abandon reductive materialism and opt for something like Nagel’s panpsychism or Wielenberg’s moral Platonism (and here he will face a new set of difficulties).

To put the problem more precisely: on naturalism, there can nothing in principle different between human piles and rock piles. They are both composed of matter and they both operate only and always according to physical laws. When one group of humans considers themselves intrinsically better than another just because of their biological make-up, we call those people racists. On naturalism, thinking human piles are better than other piles smacks of a kind of “matter-ism” and those who hold such views are “matter-ists.” So, if we want to avoid being matter-ists and we want a meaningful way to explain human value and dignity we must look elsewhere.

Consider in contrast to the naturalist position, the theistic one. Instead of positing matter and physical laws as fundamental, theists propose that God is fundamental. Classical theists hold that not only is God the ground of all things, He is also maximally great. That is, He possesses all great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. God, then, is understood to be maximally and intrinsically valuable. Further, theists reject the physicalist metaphysics of naturalism. Instead, they say that spirit is fundamental because God is spirit. Matter exists contingently as the product of God’s free choice to create a material world. In light of this, we need not explain all things in term of matter and physics. We have other resources to appeal to, namely theists can say that possibly some things are composed of spirit.

Now let us turn our attention to the theistic view of human persons. In pondering this question, we might talk Alvin Plantinga’s advice. Plantinga suggests that Christian philosophers who want to understand what kind of things human persons fundamentally are should turn their thoughts to God because

God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.

In light of Plantinga’s insight, let us consider how humans might have intrinsic value. For one, humans, being in God’s image, bear a resemblance to Him. If God is intrinsically valuable, then humans too, insofar as they resemble God, also have intrinsic value. This may seem like too easy an answer to give and that could raise suspicion. But notice why the answer is easy. Contrary to the naturalists, theists hold that essential to the fundamental nature of reality is maximal intrinsic value. Value is right at the center of the world so it is not hard to say how value in general comes about. Value exists as a necessary and essential part of Reality. Further, the Christian view, based on the opening chapter of Genesis, is that humans are imagers of God – they bear a resemblance to God. The easy move to explain human value on Christian theism is due to the richness of the theistic world. This is not a fault, but a strength.

But there is more to say. Earlier, I said that naturalists face a “matter-ist” problem. That is, they cannot provide a meaningful difference between human piles and rock piles. This is not the case on theism. Humans are not piles on theism. Instead, humans are souls. Being a soul means being, fundamentally, an immaterial person imbued with the powers of volition, creativity, and the like. It also means bearing essentially a resemblance to God, who is the premier Person. God is spirit and so are humans, although humans have physical bodies in addition to being souls. It is our souls that ground the resemblance to God, not our physical parts. In this way, humans possess a relevant difference from rock piles. Rock piles have no soul and therefore do not resemble God. It really is better to be human than rocks on theism.

Christian theism, then, provides a better explanation of the reality of the intrinsic value of human beings in particular and moral goodness in general than does naturalism.


[1] Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, MIT Press 1990, 21.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism

"Emptiness in Decay" by H. Adam. CC License. 

"Emptiness in Decay" by H. Adam. CC License. 

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate.  In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away.  We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology.   I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism.  And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away.  Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false.  I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

A Darwinian Genealogy of Morals

According to the Darwinian account, given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—i.e., the circumstances of survival—certain behaviors are adaptive.  And so, any propensity for such behaviors will also be adaptive.  Such explains the flight instinct in the pronghorn, the spawning instinct in the cutthroat salmon and my instinctual aversion to insulting Harley riders in biker bars.  Insofar as such propensities are genetic (at least the first two examples would seem to qualify here), they are heritable and thus likely to be passed down to offspring.

Imagine, for example, a time in the early history of hominids when the circumstances of survival prompted an early patriot (and kite-flying inventor, perhaps) to advise, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all be torn apart by ravenous wolves.”  Insofar as such cooperation depends upon heritable dispositions of group members, those dispositions will confer fitness.

Darwin speaks of “social instincts” that are at the root of our moral behavior.

These include a desire for the approbation of our fellow humans and a fear of censure. They also include a general sympathy for others.  He explains,

In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities  which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.[1]

A favored “complex manner” of the origin of such feelings involves an appeal to two varieties of altruism: kin altruism is directed at family members—chiefly one’s offspring—and reciprocal altruism is directed at non-family members and even to strangers.  The former is an other-regarding attitude and behavior—particularly concerning one’s own children, but extending in descending degrees to other family members—that does not seek any returns.  The advantage, of course, is in the reproductive success.  The sense of parental duty that is possessed by, say, a female sea turtle ensures only that she lay her eggs somewhere above the high tide mark.  From there, her relatively self-sufficient offspring are quite on their own against daunting odds —something like a one in ten thousand chance of reaching maturity.  Those odds are offset by the sheer numbers of hatchlings so that a fraction manage to survive the elements and elude myriads of predators.

Such a numbers strategy would hardly work for the human species, given the utter helplessness of the human infant.  Babies tend to suffer an inelegant fate if left untended.  The probability that a human infant will die if left to its own resources at, say, just above the high tide mark, is a perfect 1.  And those same odds would prevail for each of ten thousand similarly abandoned babies.  (Word would spread quickly in the wild: “Hey, free babies!”)  Human parents possessed of no more parental instinct than sea turtles would find that their line came to an abrupt end.  Thus, a strong sense of love and concern is adaptive and heritable, and has the same function—a means to reproductive success—among humans that hatchling self-sufficiency and sheer numbers have among turtles.

Reciprocal altruism, on the other hand, is rooted in a tit-for-tat arrangement that ultimately confers greater reproductive fitness on all parties involved.  Consider, for instance, the symbiotic relationship that exists between grouper and cleaner shrimp.  Though the shrimp would certainly make a nice snack for a hungry grouper and is busily flossing the fish’s teeth from the inside, the benefit of long-term hygiene (Whiter teeth! Fresher breath!) outweighs that of short-term nourishment, and so the fish is programmed to pass on the prawn. The shrimp, of course, benefits from a delectable meal of the gunk otherwise responsible for halitosis in grouper.

Similarly, there is benefit to be gained from cooperative and altruistic behavior among humans.  For example, Darwin observes,

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.[2]

And membership in such a victorious tribe has its advantages.  To attempt a metaphor, when a baseball team functions like a well-oiled machine, say, with a Tinker, Evers and Chance infield, the likelihood that all of the members will sport World Series rings is increased.

Thus, the human moral sense—conscience—is rooted in a set of social instincts that were adaptive given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape.  Of course, there is more to the moral sense than the instincts that Darwin had in mind.  All social animals are possessed of such instincts, but not all are plausibly thought of as moral agents.[3]  According to Darwin, conscience emerges out of a sort of “recipe.”  It is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.  He writes,

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.[4]

Wolves in a pack know their place in the social hierarchy.  A lower ranked wolf feels compelled to give way to the alpha male.  Were he endowed with the intellectual powers that Darwin had in mind, then, presumably his “moral sense” would tell him that obeisance is his moral duty.  He would regard it as a moral fact that, like it or not, alpha interests trump beta or omega interests.  And our grouper, if graced with rational and moral autonomy, might reason, “It would be wicked of me to bite down on my little buddy here after all he has done for me!”

Of course, such a “recipe” is precisely what we find in the human species, according to Darwin.  We experience a strong pre-reflective pull in the direction of certain behaviors, such as the care for our children or the returning of kindness for kindness, and, on reflection, we conclude that these are our moral duties.

Evolutionary Naturalism and Moral Knowledge

It is not clear that the resulting account of the origin and nature of human morality does full justice to its subject.  For one thing, it is hard to see why anyone who accepts it is warranted in accepting moral realism—the view that there are objective, mind-independent moral facts that we sometimes get right in our moral beliefs.  For it would appear that the human moral sense and the moral beliefs that arise from it  are ultimately the result of natural selection, and their value is thus found in the adaptive behavior that they encourage.  But then it seems that the processes responsible for our having the moral beliefs that we do are ultimately fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed.   This is to say that, in such a case, the best explanation for our having the moral beliefs that we do makes no essential reference to their being true.

If we have the moral beliefs we do because of the fitness conferred by the resulting behavior, then it appears that we would have had those beliefs whether or not they were true.  Some writers have taken this to imply that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate.”[5]  This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.  A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis.  This is because that story makes no essential reference to any such alleged facts.   Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.  But if our moral beliefs are unwarranted, then there can be no such thing as moral knowledge.  And this amounts to moral skepticism.

If the argument developed here succeeds, its significance is in its implications for the naturalist, who maintains that reality is exhausted by the kinds of things that may, in principle, be the study of the empirical sciences.  For the naturalist’s wagon is hitched to the Darwinian star.  Richard Dawkins was recently seen sporting a T-shirt that read, “Evolution: The Greatest Show on Earth, The Only Game in Town.”  Perhaps Dawkins’ shirt reflects his more careful comment elsewhere that, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[6]  Before Darwin, the inference to Paley’s Watchmaker seemed natural, if not inevitable, given a world filled with things “that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[7] Naturalism without Darwinism is a worldview at a loss for explanation.  Further, to appeal to natural selection to explain libidos and incisors, but to withhold such an explanation for human moral psychology is an untenable position.  Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success.[8]   But if naturalism is committed to Darwinism, and Darwinism implies moral skepticism, then naturalism is committed to moral skepticism.

Darwinism and Normativity

In The Descent of Man, Darwin asks, “Why should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”[9]  His subsequent answer is that the stronger of two conflicting impulses wins out.  Thus, the otherwise timid mother will, without hesitation, run the greatest risks to save her child from danger because the maternal instinct trumps the instinct for self-preservation.  And the timid man, who stands on the shore wringing his hands while allowing even his own child to drown out of fear for his own life, heeds the instinct for self-preservation.[10]

What Darwin never asks—and thus never answers—is why a man ought, in fact, to obey the one rather than the other.  The best that he offers here is the observation that if instinct A is stronger than B, then one will obey A.  What he does not and, I suggest, cannot say is that one ought to obey A, or that one ought to feel the force of A over B.  That is, whereas Darwin may be able to answer the factual question that he does ask— why people believe and behave as they do—this does nothing to answer the normative question of how one ought to behave or of what sets of instincts and feelings one ought to cultivate in order to be virtuous.  It is, of course, one thing to explain why people believe and behave as they do; it is quite another to say whether their beliefs are true (or at least warranted) and their behaviors right.  As it stands, it appears that Darwin has precious little of moral import to say to the timid man.

One could, I suppose, reply on Darwinian grounds that the father who lacks a strong paternal instinct is abnormal, lacking traits that are almost universally distributed throughout the species and are, perhaps, even kind-defining.[11]  Darwin refers to the man who is utterly bereft of the social instincts as an “unnatural monster.”  Doesn’t this observation lend itself to a normative evaluation of behaviors?  Who wants to be a monster, after all?  But it is not at all clear that this can give us what is needed.  After all, departure from a statistical average is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the average adult’s IQ is around 100, Stephen Hawking is something of a freak.  And, presumably, the first hominids to use tools (Hawking’s direct ancestors, perhaps?) or to express themselves in propositions were unique in their day.[12]   Indeed, the Gandhis and Mother Theresas of the world are certainly abnormal—enough that one evolutionary naturalist refers to them as “variations”—yet we tend to like having them around.

I suppose that the evolutionary naturalist could go on to observe that, not only do we notice that the timid father is different in that his parental instinct was not sufficient to prompt him to rescue his child, but it is a difference that naturally elicits negative moral emotions.  We disapprove of him and think him blameworthy.  Indeed, perhaps the man later experiences some negative moral emotions himself, such as   “remorse, repentance, regret, or shame.”[13]  According to Darwin, the sense of guilt is the natural experience of anyone who spurns the prompting of any of the more enduring social instincts, and it bears some similarity to the physical or mental suffering that results from the frustration of any instinct of any creature.  Darwin considers the suffering of the caged migratory bird that will bloody itself against the wires of the cage when the migratory instinct is at its height.  Indeed, he considers that conflict between the migratory and maternal instincts in the swallow, which gives in to the former and abandons her young in the nest.  He speculates,

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.[14]

Like the moral sense in general, guilt is the yield of a sort of recipe: one part spurned instinct to one part “great mental activity” that permits remembrance and remorse.  And so, when our timid man’s own personal danger and fear is past so that the strength of his selfish instinct has receded, the scorned paternal instinct will have its revenge.  Also, because we are social animals, we are endowed with sympathies that make us yearn for the approbation of our fellows and fear their censure.  The cowardly father is thus likely in for a long bout of insomnia.  Further, Darwin may explain that the experience of remorse may result in a resolve for the future, with the further result that the paternal instinct is bolstered and stands a greater chance of being the dominant of two conflicting instincts.  Thus, “Conscience looks backwards, and serves as a guide for the future.”[15]

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation.  There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law.  The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of secondorder propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself).  Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,16one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character.  And, assuming that there is [16]anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import.  Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience.  What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import?  “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.”  Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality.  Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.”  He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.”  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.[17]

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge.  He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?”  For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?”  The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.[18]

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter.  Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives.  Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not.  More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.”  As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative.  But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature.  But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology.  Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not.  If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly.  If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.”  And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

A Naturalist Rejoinder

A familiar objection to my line of argument is that it assumes what is almost certainly false: that all significant and widely observed human behavior is genetically determined as the result of natural selection.  Daniel Dennett refers to this assumption as “greedy reductionism.” Dennett observes that all tribesmen everywhere throw their spears pointy-end first, but we should not suppose that there is a “pointy-end first gene.”[19] The explanation rather resides in the “non-stupidity” of the tribesmen.  And when C.S. Lewis’s character, Ransom, was at first surprised to discover that boats on Malacandra (Mars) were very similar to earthly boats, he caught himself with the question, “What else could a boat be like?’” (The astute Lewis reader might also have noticed that Malacandran hunters throw their spears pointy-end first, despite being genetically unrelated to humans, just as Dennett might have predicted.)  Some ideas are just better than others and, assuming a minimal degree of intelligence, perhaps we have been equipped to discover and implement them.

One might thus insist that perhaps all that evolution has done for us is to equip us with the basic capacities for intelligent decision-making and problem-solving, and the enterprise that is human morality is the product of human rationality; not the mere outworking of some genetic program.  If the process that has led to our having the moral beliefs we do has involved conscious rational reflection, then we have reason for optimism regarding our facility for tracking truth.  We have no more cause for moral skepticism than we do, say, mathematical skepticism.

The same greedy reductionism might be thought to plague my argument that

Darwinian accounts of human morality are merely descriptive.  I have said above that, “unless we import normative considerations from some other source,” we are left with a merely descriptive rather than a normative account.  My critic may insist here that we do bring in normative considerations from elsewhere, namely, from moral theory.  If there are true moral principles that yield moral directives and values, then, regardless of how one does feel and behave, it will remain the case that he ought to behave in a certain way.

For example, should it prove true that humans have a natural propensity for xenophobia as a part of their evolutionary heritage, we might nevertheless conclude that, say, a respect-for-persons principle requires that they overcome such fear and potential mistreatment of strangers.  The mere fact that people have a propensity for a behavior does not entail that it is justified.

I plead not guilty to the charge of greedy reductionism.  The argument in no way supposes that well-formed moral beliefs are somehow programmed by our DNA.  Richard Joyce considers the belief, “I ought to reciprocate by picking up Mary at the airport.”[20]  He then asks, “What does natural selection know of Mary or airports?”  Or consider a mother’s belief, “I ought to ensure that my child gets plenty of fruits and vegetables.”  There is, of course, no imperative regarding the dietary needs of toddlers that may be read off of the DNA.  One might as well suppose that there is a genetically programmed human tendency directed specifically at popping bubble wrap.

But Darwin’s account certainly does imply that the basic predisposition for repaying kindness with kindness or for caring for one’s offspring is programmed, and that such programs run as they do because of the reproductive fitness that is—or was for our remote ancestors—achieved by the resulting behaviors.

Philosopher Mary Midgley speaks of instincts as “programs with a gap.”[21]  Consider, for instance, the migratory instinct of the sandhill crane.  The basic drive to follow the sun south every winter is genetically programmed.  But there is a “gap” that allows for variations in the itinerary.  Midgley notes that the more intelligent the species is the wider is the gap so that room is available for deliberation and rational reflection.  Less psychologically complex creatures may be strictly determined in their behavior by their genetic hardwiring.  As P.G. Wodehouse’s newt-loving character, Gussie Fink-Nottle explains to Bertie Wooster, “Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semicircle.”[22]  Assuming Gussie’s description is accurate, we may also safely assume that newt courting behavior, unlike that observed in aristocratic British bachelors, is genetically choreographed.   In humans, the “gap” allows for countless ideas and beliefs that clearly are the products of culture rather than biology.

Still, the basic programming itself is, on Darwin’s scheme, determined by our genetic makeup, and, therefore, so is the range of rational options in that “gap” of deliberation.  Given the perennial problem of tribal warfare, early tribesmen reasoned that thrown spears are far more effective than thrown bananas.  But had humans evolved to be non-aggressive herbivores, spears might have been, well, pointless.   Had the course of human evolution been such that human infants, like baby sea turtles, were self-reliant, the human maternal instinct might never have evolved as a means to the end of reproductive fitness.    Indeed, Darwin thought that, had the circumstances for reproductive fitness been different, then the deliverances of conscience might have been radically different.

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.[23]

As it happens, we weren’t “reared” after the manner of hive-bees, and so we have widespread and strong beliefs about the sanctity of human life and its implications for how we should treat our siblings and our offspring.

But this strongly suggests that we would have had whatever beliefs were ultimately fitness-producing given the circumstances of survival.  Given the background belief of naturalism there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the very parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs.  One might be able to make a case for thinking that having true beliefs about, say, the predatory behaviors of tigers would, when combined with the an understandable desire not to be eaten, be fitness-producing.  But the account would be far from straightforward in the case of moral beliefs.[24]   And so the Darwinian explanation undercuts whatever reason the naturalist might have had for thinking that any of our moral beliefs are true.  The result is moral skepticism.

If our pre-theoretical moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories that we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process.  How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true?  What methodology is available to us?

By way of answer, consider the following “chicken-and-egg” question.  Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping?  In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle?  Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief?  Pretty clearly, it is the latter.  We just find ourselves with certain beliefs of a moral nature, and actually appeal to them as touchstones when we engage in conscious moral reflection.  Indeed, if we were to conclude that some philosopher’s proposed moral principle would, if true, imply the moral correctness of recreational baby-stomping, then we might say, “So much the worse for that proposed principle.”  As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”[25] This methodology, which begins with deep-seated, pre-reflective moral beliefs and then moves to moral principles that are implicated by them, is sometimes called reflective equilibrium.[26]

Presumably, reflective equilibrium, employed by bee-like philosophers in those worlds envisioned by Darwin, would settle upon moral principles that implied the rightness of such things as siblicide and infanticide.  Thus, the deliverances of the moral theories endorsed in such worlds are but the byproducts of the evolved psychologies in such worlds.  But, again, this suggests that our pre-theoretical convictions are largely due to whatever selection pressures happened to be in place in our world.   If this is so, then the deliverances of those moral theories that we endorse, to which we might appeal in order to introduce normative considerations, are, in the final analysis, byproducts of our evolved psychology.  The account, as it stands, thus never takes us beyond merely descriptive human psychology.

A Theistic Alternative

The worry, then, is that our efforts at moral reflection are compromised by features of our constitution that are in place for purposes other than the acquisition of truth.  As philosopher Sharon Street puts it,

If the fund of evaluative judgments with which human reflection began was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence . . . then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter are always just a subset of the former.[27]

In order to inspire confidence in those initial evaluative judgments of which Street speaks, the moral realist owes us some account of their origin that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth.  What we need is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated.  And so our question is, What reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed?  What we seek is what Norman Daniels calls “a little story that gets told about why we should pay homage ultimately to those [considered] judgments and indirectly to the principles that systematize them.”[28]

It is just here that the theist may oblige us in a way that the naturalist may not.  Robert Adams, for example, has suggested that things bear the moral properties that they do—good or bad—insofar as they resemble or fail to resemble God.  He goes on to offer the makings of a theistic “genealogy of morals.”

If we suppose that God directly or indirectly causes human beings to regard as excellent approximately those things that are Godlike in the relevant way, it follows that there is a causal and explanatory connection between facts of excellence and beliefs that we may regard as justified about excellence, and hence it is in general no accident that such beliefs are correct when they are.[29]

The theist is thus in a position to offer Daniels’ “little story” that would explain the general reliability of those evaluative 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.[30]  The moral law is “written upon the heart,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome.


A century ago, the philosopher Hastings Rashdall observed,

So long as he is content to assume the reality and authority of the moral consciousness, the Moral Philosopher can ignore Metaphysic; but if the reality of Morals or the validity of ethical truth be once brought into question, the attack can only be met by a thorough-going enquiry into the nature of Knowledge and of Reality.[31]

We have seen that both the evolutionary naturalist and the theist may be found saying that certain of our moral beliefs are by-products of the human constitution: we think as we do largely as a result of our programming.  Whether such beliefs are warranted would seem to depend upon who or what is responsible for the program.  And this calls for some account of the metaphysical underpinnings of those beliefs and the mechanisms responsible for them.  Are those mechanisms truth-aimed?  And are they in good working order?  The sort of account available to the evolutionary naturalist ends in moral skepticism.  The theist has a more promising story to tell.[32]


[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2004), 88.

[2] Darwin, Descent, 112.

[3] And, of course, though any two species of social animals have in common the fact that they are prompted by social instincts, the resulting behavior may vary widely.  It is not clear, for instance, which of the grazing Guernseys is the “alpha cow.” Wiener dogs seem not to come equipped with the obsessive herding instincts of border collies, and would likely endure derisive laughter from the sheep if they did.

[4] Darwin, Descent, 81.

[5] Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J.E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310-11.

[6] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton & Co., 1986), 6.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life,” Biology and Philosophy 18/5 (2003): 653-88.

[9] Darwin, Descent, 91.

[10] I cannot resist including a personal anecdote here.  I once rescued a young man from drowning in the Mississippi River.  After I swam out and pulled him to shore, his mother, who had watched helplessly from the beach,  explained that she would have saved him herself but she could not go into the water because her toe was infected.  She produced the sore toe.  I had to agree that it did look very sore.

[11] The Chinese philosopher Mencius seems to have maintained that the possession of at least the rudimentary “seeds” of the virtues (e.g., the feeling of commiseration is the seed of the virtue of jen —“human-heartedness”) are essential to humanity so that anyone lacking them would not be human.

[12] Consider Gary Larson’s cartoon depicting a group of cave men.  To the left is a small group huddled around a fire, roasting drumsticks by clenching them in their fists directly over the flames.  They are all very obviously in agony.  To the right is another fire with only one cook.  He has the meat roasting on a stick, and is seated at a comfortable distance.  A member of the group to the left has noticed this, and is saying, “Look what Og do!”

[13] Darwin, Descent, 94.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 95.

[16] So if the impulse either to save the child or one’s own hide is a first-order inclination, second-order inclinations would include feelings of, say, guilt or pride regarding the first-order propensities and resulting actions.

[17] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 486.

[20] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 180.

[21] See Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London: Routledge Press, 1979).

[22] Taken from P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (New York: Penguin, 2000), ch. 2.

[23] Darwin, Descent, 82.

[24] Here’s why.  This would imply, for instance, that human mothers are possessed of a powerful maternal instinct for the prior reason that it is true that they have a moral duty to care for their children.  But, given naturalism, the simpler explanation for the maternal instinct is just that it confers reproductive fitness.  Why think that moral facts have any role to play—particularly when we observe similar instinctual behavior in animals that are not plausibly thought of as moral agents?  Further, to what mechanism could the naturalist plausibly appeal to explain how reproductive fitness “tracks” moral truth?  For more on this, see Sharon Street’s excellent paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109-166.


[25] Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands,” in Christine Pierce and Donald VanDeVeer eds., People, Penguins and Plastic Trees (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1986), 157.

[26] Reflective equilibrium involves more than this one-way move from particular beliefs to general principles.  In actual practice, it begins with those pre-reflective beliefs, moves from there to systemizing principles, and then back to other particular beliefs that are entailed by the principles.  There is always a standing possibility that an entailed beliefs is incompatible with one or another of the beliefs with which one began.  In that case, adjustment and revision is called for.  The goal is to arrive at a set or system of principled beliefs that is internally consistent and plausible.

[27] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value. Philosophical Studies, 127 (2006), 125.

[28] Norman Daniels, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,” Journal of Philosophy 76/5 (1979): 265.

[29] Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.

[30] For the purposes of this argument, the appeal to “design” leaves open the question of whether the process responsible for the appearance of moral agents was evolutionary in nature.  Daniels’ “little story” requirement is satisfied whether the tale involves special creation or directed evolution.

[31] Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907), 192.

[32] As always, I wish to thank David Werther for his many helpful comments on and criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.



The Faustian Bargain of Fifty Shades of Gray

Editor's Note:  A longer version of this piece was originally published at The Federalist.

In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Illustration by  Harry Clarke  for Goethe's   Faust

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.

Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.

Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.

In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?


The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 2 of 2)

Photo by  Sebastian Unrau  on  Unsplash



Objections to Teleology

One of the main concerns is the role that teleology plays. According to Foot, individuals have a telos; they are meant for thriving as a member of a certain species. But it is unclear what this really could mean in a naturalistic world. To say something has a telos means it has a purpose essentially. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that insofar as a virtue ethic is teleological, it requires “at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”[1] Having a purpose, and having it essentially, means that a thing has a purpose by its very nature. One obvious way to say that teleology is both genuine and morally significant is to say that a thing was made by a person with certain intentions and purposes. An artist might design and paint a picture with the intention of bringing happiness (a moral good) to others. It is the artist’s intention that gives the painting moral significance. But the naturalist cannot say that humans are relevantly like paintings.  It does not make sense to say that nature “intended” an animal for something any more than it makes sense to say that a puddle of water was intended to fit in the hole it finds itself. This is because we normally think of teleological properties like being meant for X or being intended for Y as irreducibly mental properties. And the only thing we know that can have intentions or meanings is a mind. However, human beings are not the product of any mind, on naturalism, but of matter and the laws of physics. The same amount of intentional care that went into making puddles fit holes went into making us biologically fit for life; granted, there is more sophistication to the latter, but, on naturalism, the amount of intentional care is the same. That being the case, it stretches language beyond the breaking point to say that, on naturalism, we are intended or meant for anything.

Perhaps this objection can be turned back by means of clarification. What then does Foot mean when she says there is a way humans should be? To get that answer, we first have to know what she means by “human” and, second, what she means by “should.”

In responding, the naturalist faces an immediate difficulty. The naturalist cannot even say “there is a way humans are” without controversy because such a statement presupposes certain views about the nature of the category of species and thus what the term human actually means. Specifically, Foot argues that “human” is a real metaphysical category.[2]  Species in general must refer to real metaphysical categories if Foot’s system is going to work because it is by appeal to these categories that she can say what counts as specifying conditions. If the category of species were only fictional, contingently assigned to living things by human animals, then no meaningful norms can be grounded in them. So then, Foot needs there to be a genuine “human nature” to ground her theory. However, David Hull thinks naturalism cannot provide a way to account for this. Hull argues that in light of the impersonal, atomistic world of naturalism, there is no space for metaphysically robust concepts like “human nature.”[3] He says,

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of "natures" to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo Sapiens as a biological species. If Homo Sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one's claims about "human nature." Perhaps all people are "persons," share the same "personhood," etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin's theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate "Homo sapiens" from "human being," but the result is a much less plausible position.[4]

The upshot of this is that even having the term human refer to a class of things which share the same nature will not work on naturalism. Human only refers to a nominal way of grouping animals by their traits. However, by human Foot means a real metaphysical category. The trouble is that there is no way for naturalism to ground that meaning.

This also undermines Foot’s normative concept of “should.” To see why, let us consider what Foot means by the locution “should.” It is worth quoting her at length on this:

What, then, determines the truth of the teleological propositions…? We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be: the Aristotelian categoricals give the ‘how’ of what happens in the life cycle of that species. And all the truths about what this or that characteristic does, what its purpose or point is, and in suitable cases its function, must be related to this life cycle. The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young.[5]

Thus, by should Foot means individuals ought to exhibit the features which constitute the ideal for their species. But, the argument above has been that Foot can only consistently use species in a nominal way. Species do not really exist, on such a worldview; therefore, there is nothing to make teleological propositions true. From that it follows that there is no way a thing should be. All that naturalism allows for is descriptions of how things are. There is no such thing as a categorical moral “should.” (There are instrumental shoulds, presumably.)

Objections to Eudaimonia

But for the sake of the argument, let us grant Foot that humans have a telos so that there is a way a human should be and that moral evaluations follow from that. Still, what constitutes the ideal is a complete accident of physics. The ideal is further contingent on some arbitrary selection of a specific moment of time in human evolutionary history. What is ideal now could change in the future and it will change if Darwinism is correct. The result is that what is morally repugnant now may not be in the future. This is the view that Angus Ritchie calls “strong evolutionary ethics.”

The fact that the good is contingent on a species also leads to other puzzles. For example, if we suppose that Star Trek’s Borg were a real species, we could not disagree that their assimilation of other species was good for them as Borg, even if it were bad for us as humans.[6] Or, as Angus Ritchie has pointed out, the good for a cancer cell is in direct conflict with the good for a human. In cases of Borg and cancer, there are contradictory goods. And if the survival of cancer cells isn’t an intrinsically good thing, why is the survival of human beings, on this analysis? The fact that Foot distances herself from utilitarianism makes the challenge all the more pressing.

This at least seems like a problem. Intuitively, we think that the good is a trans-species thing. Part of the problem is that the term “good” is so slippery. In one sense, it is obvious and uncontroversial that if there is such a thing as Borg nature, then there is a good for Borg. But our intuitions about the moral good are such that this good cannot be totally determined by the way a species is. This good is supposed to be objective and necessary. It does not depend on anything, especially accidents of nature. So if the good for Borg or cancer is a real, moral good, it is because it stands in the proper relation to the moral good.  Foot thinks the intuitive problem is due to confusion about what we mean by “the good.”[7] According to her, goodness can only be determined by references to species; there is no good outside of that. However, the Borg and cancer puzzles show that there are real problems with identifying the good with the biology of a species.

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

Another problem with virtue in Foot’s theory arises from the conjunction of the role of the virtues and the implications of her naturalist ontology of human persons for human freedom. Aristotle says virtues are those practices that we “choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”[8] Virtues both lead to happiness and constitute it, but they are also intentional practices, chosen for good reasons.  Aristotle’s concept of the virtues presupposes a certain view of human persons, namely that they possess at least the power of rationality and volition.

But is such a view at home in a naturalist worldview? Perhaps not. There have been serious challenges to the naturalist’s ability to have confidence in human reason. For example, Alvin Plantinga has powerfully argued that the conjunction of naturalism and atheistic evolution undermines the possibility that humans actually have reliable cognitive faculties. Evolution, after all, is not aimed at producing reliable ways of knowing, but only survival through replication. But there are also concerns about the naturalist account of volition or human freedom. Mark Linville and Angus Ritchie have given similar arguments more delimited to moral cognition in particular.

One view of human freedom is called libertarianism. On this view, a person has the power to choose between alternatives. If presented with the choice of eating either Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran for breakfast, Susan, by her choice, determines which cereal she will eat. The word determines is important here. The libertarian thinks that humans actually act upon the world; they are the ultimate cause of their own actions. (Source theorists assign primacy to this aspect of free choices—that the agent in question is the source of the action—rather than the ability to do otherwise; on occasion, such as after an individual has formed a good enough character, choosing not to help someone in need might become a practical impossibility, without the agent’s freedom being impaired; a source analysis would make good sense of this.) So if Susan chooses Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran (the only rational choice!), the cause of the choice is Susan herself. However, this view of human freedom is problematic for naturalists precisely because a libertarian free will is generally thought to require an immaterial soul.[9] John Searle says that “our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical [libertarian] freedom.”[10] And naturalist John Bishop admits, “Agent causal relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective.”[11]

Instead of thinking as humans as unified, immaterial souls, naturalists tend to hold that humans are (highly complex) collections of atoms and molecules. There is nothing special about the parts that make up humans. The laws of physics that operate in the world operate the same way on the parts a human body. This is why Daniel Dennett says, “according to naturalism, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth.”[12] Susan’s choice of Lucky Charms is determined by the physical interactions of the parts that make her up, and environemental factors functioning deterministically, and not by Susan herself—in the sense that would satisfy most source theorists. In fact, Dennett thinks that though most people imagine they have a libertarian free will, there is no “I” that steers a human; “the little man in the brain” is illusory.[13] Along these same lines, Sam Harris says, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”[14]

However, some naturalists think that despite the fact that our actions are determined by physical laws, human freedom still exists. The view that determinism and free will are consistent is called compatibilism. Usually “freedom” is not understood to mean “to exercise volition between two alternatives,” but “to do what one desires.” A free action is still caused, but in the right sort of way. Susan desired Lucky Charms and so she does what she desires to do, even if she could not have done otherwise except in a counterfactual sense. Or, as naturalist Sam Harris puts it, to say one could have done otherwise “is an empty affirmation.”[15]

Now let us return to what Aristotle said about the virtues. He said that a person will practice the virtues because they are judged to be good and to bring about a desired end. This works easily with a libertarian, common sense understanding of free will. But it is more difficult to say that a person practices the virtues because she thought it was a good idea on naturalism. She may indeed think it was a good idea to do, but such thinking plays no causal role in her action. Harris and Dennett think that we tell ourselves a fictional story about why we make the choices we do (I chose to exercise because I think it is good for me), but these are only stories, useful fictions. The real reason has only to do with brain chemistry. Other naturalists speak in terms of reasons as causes, and wish to retain room for what they dub genuine deliberation—but to my thinking this is rather difficult to square with the deterministic implications of a naturalistic world, at least at the macroscopic level. At any rate, onsider what it  means for a virtue ethic if naturalists like Dennett and Harris are right. It follows that persons cannot direct their lives toward a certain end. Instead, they are only directed by nature. Practicing the virtues may be a good thing to do, but we cannot be any more (or less) virtuous than nature has determined us to be. It is also difficult to see how a person could be held deeply culpable for failing to be virtuous or be deeply praised for being virtuous. After all, she could not have done anything besides what she in fact did. Ascriptions of praise and blame, at least intuitively, seem to require that a person could have done otherwise, at least most of the time. Deterrence and rehabilitation are categories that can be explicated on naturalism fairly well, but not anything like retributive justice or giving people their just desserts.

Such reflections do not show that a virtue ethic and naturalism are, in fact, incompatible. However, they raise questions about how comfortable the fit really is. If we want to be virtue ethicists and naturalists, we will have to lower our expectations about what counts as virtuous activity. It cannot be, as Aristotle said, an action chosen by an agent for good reasons that is both a means and end of human flourishing. (Indeed, most naturalists have already abandoned conceptions of formal and final causes so central to Aristotle’s paradigm.) Instead, we must incorporate the compatibilist idea that humans are determined by nature so that they could not do otherwise. Then virtue ethics becomes more about describing what happens to lead to happiness, rather than actually pursuing it. Ethics becomes predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive. This, to my thinking, seems a rather deflationary kind of ethic. If we want to retain Aristotle’s more robust ethic, we will likely have to adopt a worldview besides naturalism that better explains the role of the virtues.


Earlier I said that for a virtue ethic to be successful it must  explain three facts: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues. In light of the objections raised above, it seems that a virtue ethic requires a set of metaphysical commitments that naturalists do not have the resources to make. Therefore, the NVE is not well grounded. If you want to be an intellectually satisfied virtue ethicist, you should look for a more promising worldview than naturalism.


[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 69.

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

[3] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

[6]  Gary Watson expresses a similar objection: “An objective account of human nature would imply, perhaps, that a good human life must be social in character. This implication will disqualify the sociopath but not the Hell's Angel. The contrast is revealing, for we tend to regard the sociopath not as evil but as beyond the pale of morality. On the other hand, if we enrich our conception of sociality to exclude Hell's Angels, the worry is that this conception will no longer ground moral judgment but rather express it.” See Gary Watson, "On the Primacy of Character," in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 462-3.

[7] Foot, 36.

[8]Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7. W.D.  Ross translation.

[9] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imgao Dei. 44. There are other, non-theistic ways, of trying to explain how a human can have libertarian freedom. One possibility is pan-psyhcism. On this view, the universe itself has latent mental powers. When put in the right combination, minds occur. Another option is emgergentism. According this view, an entirely new substance emerges from certain physical arrangements. These theories, if true, might allow for libertarian freedom. But, it is not clear that either one deserves the title of “naturalism.” Both are also highly controversial, and for good reasons, such as their relatively obscurantist elements.

[10] John Searle as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 44.

[11] John Bishop as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 46.

[12] Daniel Clement Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991). 33.

[13] Daniel Clement Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 30.

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.

Podcast: Dr. Brian Scalise on the Theological Implications of Love in Islam and Christianity

Photo by  Ali Hegazy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Hegazy on Unsplash

In this week's episode, we hear from Dr. Brian Scalise.  Dr. Scalise's dissertation " involved analyzing trinitarian monotheism vis-a-vis unitary monotheism. This comparison looked specifically at Islam, Trinity, and human relationships." The subject of the discussion is the the theological implications for love in both Christianity and Islam. Specifically, we look at what follows from each religion's view of God. What does Allah's absolute oneness mean for love? And what does the Christian Trinity tell us about love?

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. 

Morality and The Recalcitrant Imago Dei

By Michael Austin  The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press, 2009) is a concise, deep, challenging, and wide-ranging critique of philosophical naturalism. In it, philosopher J.P. Moreland argues that there are several aspects of reality which naturalism is unable to account for, while theism can: consciousness, free will, rationality, morality, value, and a substantial human soul. The arguments are controversial and many will disagree, but I would urge anyone who has the time and inclination to read and think about this book, if you are interested in comparing the explanatory power of naturalism compared to theism with respect to these issues. If Moreland is right, and I think he is, theism has more explanatory power regarding many central aspects of human persons. I don't agree with everything in the book, of course, but the case is very well made.

Rather than summarizing the entire book, I will focus on the last chapter which is entitled "Naturalism, Objective Morality, Intrinsic Value and Human Persons." Moreland begins the chapter by noting three features of the moral order:

  1. objective, intrinsic value and an objective moral law;

  2. the reality of human moral action; and

  3. intrinsic value and human rights.

His claim is that these features of moral reality fit very well within a theistic worldview. By contrast, some naturalist philosophers believe that naturalism yields defeaters for these aspects of moral reality. Moreland alludes to naturalists John Bishop and Michael Ruse as examples of such philosophers. (As a side note, other philosophical naturalists, such as Erik Wielenberg, disagree, and contend that the foregoing can fit within a naturalistic metaphysical framework. But Moreland's points count against a naturalist view which seeks to accommodate such non-natural properties within its ontology if he's right that these features have better metaphysical fit within a theistic framework.)

Moreland offers an argument that the following features are defeaters for a naturalistic worldview. To fully appreciate and evaluate his argument of course requires reading the chapter in the book, but I'll give a quick summary of his points.

  1. The existence of objective moral value: If the universe starts with the Big Bang, and over its history we find the arrangement of microphysical entities into increasingly complex physical compounds, how does value arise? How can a naturalist, as a naturalist, embrace non-natural, objective values?

  2. The nature of the moral law: The moral order presents itself imperatively, that is, as something which commands action. The sense of guilt one feels for falling short of the moral law is best explained if a good God is the source or ultimate exemplification of that law. As Moreland puts it, "One cannot sense shame and guilt towards a Platonic form" (p. 147).

  3. The instantiation of morally relevant value properties: Even if a naturalist allows for the existence of some Platonic realm of the Forms, the naturalist has no explanation for why these universals were and are instantiated in the physical universe.

  4. The intersection of intrinsic value and human persons: How is it that human beings are able to do as morality requires, and that such obedience to the moral law also happens to contribute to human flourishing? Theism has an obvious answer to such questions related to human nature and the intentions and design of God, but it is not clear, and is far from obvious, how naturalism would account for this.

  5. Knowledge of intrinsic value and the moral law: Given that such values are not empirically detectable and cannot stand in physical causal relations with the brain, how is it that we could know such things? Evolutionary explanations fall short because of what is selected for in evolutionary processes on naturalistic versions of evolutionary theory.

  6. An adequate answer to the question, "Why should I be moral?": Both naturalists and theists can respond, "Because it is the moral thing to do." But beyond this, when thinking about the question outside of the moral point of view, the issue becomes why is it rational to adopt the moral point of view rather than an egoistic one? According to Moreland, this is a problem for the naturalist. But the theist can offer a variety of reasons to adopt the moral point of view--the moral law is true; it is an expression of the non-arbitrary character of a good, loving, wise, and just God; and we were designed to function properly when living a moral life.

The rest of the chapter includes a discussion of the value of human beings and human rights, which I'll leave to the interested reader to explore. The book is worth the price, and I highly recommend it for those inclined to do the work of reading and considering the arguments it contains.

Photo: "creation." by C. Kung. CC License.