Urban Legends of the Old Testament: God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.


Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]


By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).



God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).





Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.



Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.




[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/


[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).


[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.


[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.


[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.


[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”


[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.


[10] Ibid.

Moral Objectivity & Universality


Moral Objectivity & Universality Is moral universality necessary to show moral objectivity? Is it sufficient?

Before we can answer those questions, we have to explain what we mean by these words. Moral objectivity contrasts with moral subjectivity, which relativizes moral truth to individuals, cultures, or subcultures. Moral objectivity is the contrasting (indeed, contradictory) idea that that some moral truths apply to everyone irrespective of their preferences, wishes, beliefs, etc.

Moral universality features an important ambiguity. It might mean, first, (a moral claim) believed by everyone. Or it might mean, second, (a moral claim) applicable to or authoritative for everyone. This is a crucial distinction to draw. Let’s call the first sense of universality Ub, and the second Ua.

Is moral universality necessary for moral objectivity? This is the same question as asking if the following conditional is true: If moral objectivity obtains, is morality universal? But then we have to ask this for both senses of moral universality. Let “MO” stand for “moral objectivity.”

The questions, symbolically expressed, then look like this:

(1) Is “MO --> Ub” true? an

(2) Is “MO --> Ua” true?

First, consider (1). If Ub is necessary for MO, then MO would be sufficient to show Ub. But it isn’t. The fact that something is an objective moral truth isn’t enough to imply that everyone believes it. So the answer to (1) is no.

What about (2)? Is Ua necessary for MO? It would seem so. If something is an objective moral truth, it’s applicable to everyone (capable of understanding it, at least). Moral objectivity is sufficient to show universality in this sense, and (equivalently) Ua is logically necessary for MO.

Now let’s go the other way and ask if universality is sufficient for moral objectivity. Again, we have to disambiguate between the two kinds of universality, so there are two questions here:

(3) Is “Ub --> MO” true? and

(4) Is “Ua --> MO” true?

In terms of (3), the mere fact that some moral claim is universally believed is not enough to show that it’s an objective moral truth. Everyone might turn out to be wrong, after all, perhaps systematically deluded. So the answer to (3) is no. But suppose we consider it in the form of an argument:

(5) Ub

(6) So, MO

This is not an entailment, for the same reason it’s false to claim that Ub implies MO. Nevertheless, as a less-than-deductive inference, it’s not necessarily bad. The universality (or near universality) of a moral belief can, in certain cases, provide reasons to think the belief in question is an objective moral truth. We see an analogous example or parity in reasoning in, say, science, when we take widespread agreement on a matter to have for its best explanation its convergence on an objective truth. Still, though, nothing like an entailment relation obtains, obviously enough.

What about (4)? Does universal moral applicability imply moral objectivity? It would plausibly seem so. If a moral truth applies authoritatively to everyone, that’s practically the definition of an objective, morally binding truth. (4) is true.

If this is right, then Ub is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral objectivity, although universality or near universality of belief may (if certain conditions are met) provide some evidence for an objective moral truth.

But Ua is both necessary and sufficient for moral objectivity. This would mean that universality, in this sense, obtains just in case moral objectivity obtains.

Another way of putting that last claim is that universality—in the sense of universal authority or applicability—is true if and only if moral objectivity is true. In other words, both of these claims are true: Ua is true if moral objectivity is true, and Ua is true only if moral objectivity is true.

Represented symbolically, they would look like this, respectively:

MO --> Ua, and Ua --> MO.

Such universality, along with moral objectivity, mutually imply one another, which can be expressed with a biconditional like this:

Ua <----> MO.

John Hare’s God’s Command 4.3.2, “Moral Properties”

Anti-realism about moral value is a thesis not about judgment, but about the moral or evaluative properties that are picked out in such judgment. The thesis is that these properties are not metaphysically real. Hare guesses that Foot’s sympathies were with the metaphysical realist. This is certainly true of Hursthouse, whose view is closest to McDowell’s account of moral realism. R. M. Hare (RMH) was, as Blackburn puts it, a “quietist” on the issue of moral properties, holding that no real issue can be built around this kind of objectivity of moral value. He was agnostic on whether there are “real” evaluative properties, but he was not explicitly anti-realist. So the interpreter of RMH who thinks the metaphysical question about the objective reality of these properties does make sense is in the same position as the interpreter of Foot who shares that view. We have to speculate about what our authors would have said if they had thought this was a good question.

Hare suggests Foot’s sympathies would have lain with metaphysical realism, but that RMH’s sympathies would not. RMH consistently held that the truth conditions of moral statements are given by the criteria adopted by the speaker. He would have probably claimed a question about real properties picked out by moral judgments was confused. He would have probably, if pressed, denied there are such real properties, which is why he’s so consistently misunderstood.

Hare’s own view on these matters is what he calls “prescriptive realism.” He agrees with RMH about motivation but disagrees with what RMH would have probably said about moral realism. Judgment internalism is a thesis about moral or evaluative judgment, and realism is about moral or evaluative properties, and there is no reason why we should not say that there are indeed these properties. But when we make judgments about them, we not only claim that they exist, but express an attitude of emotion, desire, or will. If we do this, we will be both expressivist and realist, in the sense that they are there whether the relevant attitudes are there in the person making the judgment or not.

Why should we want to be realist about the properties? Hare thinks our evaluative language suggests an ontological commitment. Any full causal explanation of the events of Hitler’s life, for example, requires reference to his moral depravity. Before embracing error theory, we would need to be shown there’s some persuasive metaphysical principle that rules out the reality of moral and evaluative properties. For a theist in particular it is going to be hard to find such a principle. The point of prescriptive realism, though, is that, even if we concede the reality of the moral and evaluative properties, we do not have to deny the insight of the expressivists about one of the central functions of moral and evaluative judgment, namely, the function of allowing us to coordinate our lives together by expressing in these judgments our commitment to live a certain way.

What’s important for present purposes is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. Even if we allow, with the realists, that there are evaluative properties independent of our judgment about them, the case still has to be made by a deductivist that there is an implicative relation (independent of a decision of principle) between natural facts and moral goodness. Even if RMH were to agree on the realism, he could still disagree on the claim about implication.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2, “What is a Divine Command?” Section 2.3.1: Six Implications of Our Being Commanded by God

This discussion is taken from Barth’s discussion in Church Dogmatics III/4. From the premise that God gives commands, we can learn, first, that we and God are different; we are not, that is to say, part of God. This is because commands are not addressed to oneself, except in an extended sense in which one is treating oneself as another.

Second, commands are given to responders of a certain kind; those who can obey. This is explained in the four points that follow, called subsequently “the four Barthian constraints.” One, the commands are given to centers of agency, to responders whose obedience consists in acting and living in a certain way. These are individuals, though we can speak in an extended sense about the agency of collectives. This point about the nature of the responders is one Ockham relies on in his discussion of the question of whether God can command us not to love God. His view is that the command to love God, though its content is possible in itself, is pragmatically incoherent (a practical consideration) because it can’t be disobeyed; this is because to disobey it is already to love God. Recall that loving God entails obedience. See Ockham, Quodliberal Questions III.14. A content can be non-contradictory in itself, but contradictory as commanded. A content can also be non-contradictory as commanded, but contradictory as commanded by God. See Lucan Freppert’s The Basis of Morality according to William Ockham, who argues that this view is different from that of Scotus discussed in ch. 1.

Two, commands are to centers of agency whose obedience consists in changing how things are, or in resisting change. So they are in time, since, as Aristotle says, time is either change itself or the measure of change. They have to persist, in order to be obedient, through the hearing of the command to the obeying of it. Three, commands are given to free beings, in the sense of beings who are not under external causation in their obedience. Four, the responder has to be part of a language community. Commands are standardly addressed to the responder in language, and language is a communal enterprise.

So we and God are different is the first implication of our being commanded by God; the four Barthian constraints are the next four. All of those have been points about human beings. The sixth point is about God:

If God gives us commands, and the function of commanding as a speech act is to change the world through the agency of the responder to whom the command is addressed, and if the command is an expression of the desire that the world change in this way, then we can attribute something like desires (in the broad sense) to God. More usually, theologians would say God has a will. Again, that we have a God who commands is distinctive of the Abrahamic faiths, and distinguishes them from, for example, Aristotle’s religion. Since God’s creation is also a command, it’s reasonable to say that command is the characteristic fashion by which, in the Abrahamic faiths, God relates to us, either by creating or by telling us how to live inside creation. Behind this difference with Aristotle is an even more significant one. God is not, for Aristotle, in a personal relationship with us, but the Abrahamic faiths make our relation to God personal, and mediate that relation by God’s command to us.

It’s true that God’s will and God’s command can diverge, as in the famous case of Abraham and his son. When they do, are we bound (according to DCT) by God’s will or by God’s command? We should hold ourselves bound by the command, taking it as an expression of God’s will, but this assumption can, in certain cases, be overridden by another command.

Image: By Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42826104

The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma

In general, Divine Command Theory (DCT) says that “If God commands X, then X is a moral obligation for us.” I will limit my discussion of DCT to moral obligations and prohibitions, which are used synonymously with rightness and wrongness. These are deontic properties which is distinct from goodness, which is axiological. For example, something can be good to do, such as becoming a lifeguard to save lives, but we do not have a moral obligation to do so. So I will use DCT as a theory of rightness that presupposes a theory of the good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) is often raised against DCT. For example, in the case of rape Walter Sinnott-Armstrong asks, “Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.” In short, the ED says:


(1) God has no reasons for His commands,


(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

Embracing (1) leads to objections such as God’s commands being arbitrary which makes morality arbitrary. Furthermore, this means that God’s commands could possibly be what we consider abhorrent, such as commanding that we ought to torture babies solely for fun resulting in a moral obligation to do so. Any objection to this that says God has reasons is a move away from (1).

Embracing (2), shows that actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, making God at most an epistemic authority who is just conveying His perfect moral knowledge to us. However DCT proponents want God’s commands to explain moral obligations instead.

From the ED, I think a third option is clear, which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

God just needs good reasons to make an act morally obligatory. An act itself does not have the property of being morally obligatory prior to God’s command, but can have other relevant properties, such as being morally good or even “non-moral considerations ultimately based in God’s nature.” God’s commanding however adds certain properties that make the act obligatory. To use an analogy, let us think of other obligations. Consider a legal obligation not to smoke in a certain area when implemented by law. For the obligation to arise, there must be good reasons behind why it is implemented by law. Yet those reasons by themselves are not sufficient to give us legal obligations unless it is actually implemented by law. Hence a legal obligation arises because it is implemented by the law and there are good reasons for it being implemented. Likewise, DCT proponents say that a moral obligation arises because it is commanded by God and God has good reasons to command it.

One objection to (3) is based on a principle that moral properties strongly supervene on non-moral properties necessarily. Matthew Jordan says, “The doctrine of global moral supervenience, the uncontroversial thesis that any two possible worlds that are identical in all non-moral respects must be identical in all moral respects, implies that moral truths – at least the most fundamental ones – are metaphysically necessary.” So moral obligations are in some way determined and fixed by their non-moral properties. How exactly does moral supervenience amount to an objection to (3) exactly?

In “An Essay on Divine Authority”, Mark C. Murphy argues that DCT “must be false, for it, in conjunction with a very weak and plausible claim about God's freedom in commanding, entails that the moral does not supervene on the non-moral.” To show this, he argues that according to voluntaristic versions of DCT, where God is free to choose what to command, there can be two possible worlds exactly the same in their natural features, but God gives different commands and thus we have different moral obligations in two possible worlds that have the same natural features. This seems to violate the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral, since two worlds with the same natural features should have the same moral obligations.

How may a proponent of a voluntaristic version of DCT reply? C. Stephen Evans points out that for the theist, non-moral properties can include both natural and supernatural properties. Supernatural properties are “properties possessed because what has the properties has a certain kind of relation to God,” such as “being commanded by God”, “being preferred by God,” or “being pleasing to God” or “being conducive to a better relation to God.” If an act is commanded by God, then it will have the further properties mentioned, such as “being conducive to a better relation to God” which is a non-moral property. These non-moral properties may even be linked to natural properties such as “being conducive to the agent’s happiness.” If a relationship with God is conducive to our happiness, and such a relationship requires that we follow what He commands, then the property of “being commanded by God” would be one that could alter the moral status of an act, especially for those who think that the moral status of an act is linked to whether the act is conducive to an agent’s happiness. Hence on DCT, it is both natural and supernatural properties that make up non-moral properties which moral properties supervene on. If so, then there can be two worlds alike in all their natural properties but differ in their supernatural properties, and hence moral properties can be different as it supervenes on both. So moral supervenience along with God’s freedom does not amount to an objection against (3).


Bibliography Evans, C. Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jordan, Matthew Carey. "“Theism, Naturalism, and Meta-Ethics”." Philosophy Compass 8, 2013, 373-380.

Miller, Christian B. “Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Murphy, Mark C. An Essay on Divine Authority. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality”, in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, edited by Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King, 101-115. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

By Norto Mendez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31962968

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part II



In comparing the three proposed biblical principles of ethics with Kantian ethics, it is evident that both Kant and the biblical principles attempt to achieve many of the same objectives despite having different foundations to ground morality. Kant’s ethic, however, proves to be less plausible when his justification for objective morality, his requirements for moral worth, and his argument that humans possess inherent value are compared with a biblical view of ethics.

Kant departs from the first biblical principle by grounding objective morality in the “good will” that is produced by reason in every rational creature. In accord with the Enlightenment ideals of human autonomy and reason, humans can legislate morality apart from God. Assessing the philosophical merit of Kantian ethics versus the biblical ethic on this point deserves careful attention because both views stand or fall with the ability that their intrinsic “good” has to ground objective morality.

The classic problem that confronts any moral system that claims some absolute standard as the ground of objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. This dilemma, which goes back to the time of Plato, questions whether God’s commands could really determine what is good (or “pious”). The dilemma is stated: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”[1]

Both horns of the dilemma are a challenge to any proposed absolute standard of goodness. For any purported standard of objective morality, one can ask whether that standard merely recognizes goodness (i.e., goodness is external to the standard) or whether that standard determines goodness arbitrarily. Consider first whether the biblical ethic is able to defend that the Christian God is plausibly the ground of objective morality in the face of this challenge. It will not do for objective morality to be arbitrary (if good is merely what God says), and God cannot ground objective morality if there is a standard of morality outside of God (if God simply affirms what is independently good). Fortunately for biblical ethics, there is a third alternative—God Himself is the “Good.” The third alternative is that “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value.”[2] So God is the Good. God’s will and essentially holy nature are fused such that God only wills that which consistently flows from His nature. God is not an arbitrary “stopping point” for morality’s foundation, as there are “principled reasons to think that God’s existence is necessary and that God functions as the very ground of being.” If God is the “primordial good of unsurpassable value,” then goodness is anchored in an unchanging, personal, and necessarily perfect source.[3] It is reasonable that the ground of objective morality would have these properties; morality seems to be essentially bound up with personhood, and anything that would ground objective morality would have to be unchanging and beyond human opinion.

Although the biblical grounding of objective morality in God’s holy nature appears to survive the Euthyphro dilemma, Kant’s “good will” does not fare as well. Kant may seem to split the horns of the dilemma by claiming that the good will is intrinsically and necessarily good. The problem, however, is that there is no reason why the good will must be good “without qualification” in the way Kant says it is. Louis Pojman raises the problem that the good will itself—the rational faculty that recognizes the CI as the supreme moral principle—could potentially be “put to bad uses.” Although the good will seems to be a good, Pojman insightfully recognizes that it is “not obvious” that the good will is necessarily good or that it is “the only inherently good thing” since a “misguided do-gooder” could act in accordance with what he believes is good and yet carry out what most of us regard as bad actions. Perhaps the good will is a “necessary condition to any morally good action,” but it does not seem to be sufficient.[4]

Ultimately, for Kant, the good will is intimately tied to the principle that it produces—the CI and its requirement of universalizability. The problem is that universalizability is unable to stand as the ultimate moral criterion. For one thing, Kant does not adequately specify parameters for the characteristics of a maxim that is appropriate to universalize as moral law. Aside from the limitation that a maxim must not violate the Principle of Ends, Kant “provides no guide for determining what features must be included in the maxim.” This leaves open the door for morally problematic actions “to be based on a maxim that a person would universalize.”[5] Also, it is highly dubious that reason necessarily produces the same conclusions in all rational beings. For example, one could justifiably will to universalize the maxim that “one should always tell the truth no matter what consequence might come about as a result.” Indeed, Kant believed that reason demands the acceptance of this maxim. Yet many would argue that reason demands the acceptance of the maxim that “one should tell the truth unless doing so would harm others.” It is unclear which maxim is necessitated by reason, and both positions have defenders. This example also highlights the difficulty the CI has in handling moral conflicts.[6]

If, however, God’s unchanging and necessarily good character is the intrinsic “Good,” then there is no concern about disagreements among rational human persons as to what should be universalized—that is, what is good. Only God, out of His necessarily holy nature, stands as the ontological ground of goodness, and conflicting human beliefs are irrelevant to the existence of objective morality. With biblical ethics, the existence of moral values and duties (moral ontology) does not depend upon the conclusions we reach as we try to know what these moral values and duties are (moral epistemology). What happens when two maxims that appear to be legitimately justifiable according to our best human reason disagree with each other? If objective morality is rooted in God, then such a situation is irrelevant to moral ontology.

In addition to providing a better foundation for objective moral values, having a biblical ground of ethics can adequately justify moral duties while the Kantian ground of ethics cannot. Since biblical ethics grounds objective morality in God, God’s commands are justifiably our moral duties because they are derived from His essentially holy nature.[7] Biblical ethics is able to sustain itself as a truly deontological ethical system. On the other hand, although Kant would deny it, significant voices have charged that Kant’s good will is unable to produce true moral duties without appealing to a more subjective consequentialist justification for them. The famous utilitarian ethicist John Stuart Mill, for example, claims that the CI does not avoid seemingly “immoral” actions on purely logical grounds; rather, he says Kant merely shows “that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”[8] Mill has a valid point. Some seemingly immoral maxims do not lead to any obvious contradiction if universalized, though we can see that the consequences of universalizing it would be morally bad and may produce a negative result. For example, consider the maxim that “two consenting adults who are not already in a committed relationship should always have sex with each other if they desire to do so.” The universal acceptance of this maxim would not in any way lead to a logical contradiction that would undermine the very practice of the maxim, and it is not obvious that the Principle of Ends is being violated since both individuals are consenting and may well have a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the other person; however, one can reasonably will that this maxim should not be universalized because of the consequences it would have. Such promiscuity is known to carry a heavy emotional weight for those who engage in it, and it also raises the likelihood of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Such behavior also makes it more difficult to form meaningful committed relationships, which one can reasonably argue have significant value. In fact, there are actually “Kantian consequentialists,” such as R. M. Hare[9] and David Cummiskey. Cummiskey argues that Kant’s ethical system “is consistent with and supports a consequentialist normative principle” even though Kant sought a fully deontological ethic.[10] If that is the case, then it is hard to see how Kant’s good will allows for objective moral duties; however, because God Himself is the necessary “Good” and His nature produces moral truth that is essential and binding upon us, moral duties transcend humans, and their existence does not depend upon our own assessment of what actions will probably produce “good” consequences. It is not clear that Kant’s CI is able to account for the full range of objective duties that are binding on us and that it can do this without recourse to subjective human considerations of consequences.

Moreover, the authority and bindingness of moral duties seems to be much stronger and more plausible if the source of these duties is a person rather than something impersonal, such as “reason.” Merely “acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Moral obligation carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.”[11] When we fall short of our moral duties, we sense that we are guilty in a sense that goes beyond simply violating a principle of reason. Locating the source of moral authority in an essentially holy personal God better explains the objective guilt that seems to accompany violating one’s moral duty. In view of all these considerations, the biblical ethical principle that the standard and basis of all goodness is found in God is quite plausible, and this fact is highlighted by the apparent problems that Kant’s system has in establishing the good will as the one intrinsic good that grounds objective morality.

Moving to the second principle of biblical ethics, Kant’s insight in agreeing with the biblical principle that moral worth depends on our motives as well as our actions has been noted; however, Kant’s view of moral worth proves to be too narrow when compared to the biblical assessment of moral worth. As Joseph Kotva points out, Kantian ethics and all ethical theories that are based strictly upon “rules or duty” are at a disadvantage in accounting for the biblical recognition that the moral life is more than rules. Kant fails to see that life is a “race” that requires ongoing character development. While Scripture goes beyond virtue ethics, it captures its insights. We are constantly to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” as we model ourselves after Jesus (Heb 12:1-2). Paul emphasizes the need to develop such virtues as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), and he exhorts others to grow in character by following his example as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). While Christian ethics certainly has a strong deontological component, Kotva rightly points out the biblical emphasis on developing virtues and constantly struggling for moral growth in order to become a person of greater character.[12]

The key shortfall of Kant’s view of moral worth is that he does not credit moral worth to a person who grows in character such that she no longer does an action out of rational duty but out of modified and improved inclination. We have seen that Kant is clear that there can be no moral worth involved when an agent is “so sympathetically constituted” that she performs kind acts out of the pure joy of doing them rather than a sense of duty.[13] While biblical ethics would applaud someone of such character who enjoys doing virtuous things, Kant does not recognize such a person as morally praiseworthy. He thus fails to capture the value of moral growth and the fact that one should strive both to “will and act” according to what is good (Phil 2:13). While feeling joy from doing what is good should not be our sole moral motivation, “normal healthy human considerations of self-interest are a perfectly legitimate part of moral motivation.”[14]

Therefore, although Kant is certainly right that duties such as the command to love others should be done regardless of inclination, loving others is something that we ought to work towards wanting to do so that the duty does not have to be against inclination. Finding joy in doing what is good is a mark of moral development and personal character, and the Bible more completely captures this. Such character is exemplified in Jesus, who, though He dreaded it, even found joy in sacrificing Himself on the cross for others (Heb 12:2).

Finally, Kant’s ethic falls short of the third biblical ethical principle in terms of justifying the idea that humans possess value. We have seen that Kant attempts to ground the intrinsic value of humanity in our rationality. Kant argues that pure reason forces us to the conclusion that humans must have value because nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing. In contrast, biblical ethics holds that humans have value in virtue of being made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). Human value is based on “the relationship for which we were created” rather than because of any “distinguishing characteristic” that is found in human capabilities.[15] This is attractive; for if human value is rooted in a capacity like reason or rationality, then how can the value of babies or the brain damaged be upheld?[16] The reason that the biblical justification for the value of humans is superior to Kant’s follows from the earlier point that God is a far more credible “stopping point” for objective morality than the good will.

If God truly is the ultimate “Good,” then perhaps human rationality is an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good. Rather than agreeing with Kant that the “rational nature” of humans is itself sufficient for regarding humans as “ends in themselves,”[17] it may be that rationality functions as an instrumental good in so far as it allows us to have a relationship with the one true source of ultimate value—God Himself. If that is the case, then Kant is correct in valuing rationality but wrong in thinking that it has intrinsic value.

Beyond the automatic implications that locating objective morality in God has for human value, careful consideration of the question of human value by itself reveals that humans, if they are to justify having truly objective value, must justify their value by appealing to something outside of themselves. If humans consider themselves intrinsically valuable merely because they value themselves, then how can David Hume’s is-ought problem be avoided? Just because it is the case that humans tend to ascribe value to their own lives and the lives of other people does not mean that we necessarily ought to do so.

Finally, there is a sort of argument from contingency that points to God as the proper justification for human value and dignity. Kant and many others have claimed that we are the sort of beings who have intrinsic value.[18] But even if Kant were right that our rationality provides a basis for intrinsic human value, this would not negate the fact that God is necessary for us to have value because “relationality and intrinsicality are neither at odds nor mutually exclusive.”[19] If there is no possible world in which beings like us could exist apart from God, then there is no reason in principle why our value could not come from both our relationship to God as well the intrinsic qualities God has given us. Paul Copan argues that morality and value are “necessarily connected” with personhood. Since an essential attribute of God is that He exists necessarily and is the ontological ground of all other persons, morality and value would be impossible without God.[20] Using this logic, it is plausible that the source of intrinsic value can only be found in a necessarily existing person. Thus, in response to Kant’s view that the mere possession of rationality endows all rational creatures with intrinsic value, one must ask on what basis humans persons exist to have rationality. God, if He does exist as Kant himself believed, is the only reason that there is rationality. Even if it were true, as Kant claims, that rationality brings about value, God is the source of rationality. Ultimately, in view of these considerations, the biblical justification for human value appears more plausible and legitimate than Kant’s justification.




The three biblical principles of ethics proposed in this paper appear to be eminently plausible when held up to philosophical scrutiny. Because Kant, without grounding morality in God, sought to achieve many of the same goals that these biblical principles accomplish, Kantian ethics serves as an instructive litmus test of the plausibility of biblical ethics. Morality must be objective and universal if it is to avoid the total collapse that relativism ensures. Kant is undoubtedly correct in recognizing this. Furthermore, we have seen that objective morality—to be truly objective—must have a plausible absolute standard of intrinsic value and goodness that grounds it. Biblical ethics provides a philosophically justifiable basis for accomplishing this by identifying God as that source. In contrast, Kant is unable to legitimize the “good will” as being “good without qualification” and able to produce moral principles and binding duties that are defensibly objective and have an ontological basis that is fully independent of humanity. Biblical ethics also legitimizes the attractive conviction that humans really do have intrinsic value. Kant is right to recognize the truth that humans are “objects of respect” and should be “treated as ends,” but he is unable to objectively ground this apparent truth in a justifiable source. God Himself is the ultimate standard of goodness and value, and it is only by way of our relationship with God that we, as creatures made in God’s image, can have intimate connection to the ultimate source of value and can ourselves be endowed with objective value.




Sources Cited:

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

Copan, Paul.  “A Moral Argument.”  In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview.  Edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Craig, William Lane.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.  3rd ed.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Cummiskey, David.  Kantian Consequentialism.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Driver, Julia.  Ethics: The Fundamentals.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Gert, Bernard.  Morality: Its Nature and Justification.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Grenz, Stanley.  The Moral Quest.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Hare, John E.  The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication.  2nd ed.  Translated by F. Max Müller.  London: Macmillan, 1907.

--------.  Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

--------.  “What is Enlightenment?”  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Kotva, Joseph J.  The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S.  Mere Christianity.  San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001.

Mill, John Stuart.  Utilitarianism.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906.

Moreland, J. P., and William Lane Craig.  Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003.

Plato.  “Euthyphro.”  In The Trial and Death of Socrates.  3rd ed.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

--------.  Plato’s Republic.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

Pojman, Louis.  Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong.  6th ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Porter, Burton Frederick.  The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics.  3rd ed.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Smith, R. Scott.  In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Tiffany, Evan.  “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?”  Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 524-546.

Wielenberg, Erik.  Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Additional Sources:

Craig, William Lane.  “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality.”  Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5175 (accessed February 12, 2016).

Kant, Immanuel.  “Critique of Practical Reason.”  In Great Books of the Western World.  Vol. 42.  Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.  Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

McElreath, Scott.  “The Inadequacy of Kant’s View of Moral Worth.”  Philosophical Writings, 19-20 (Spring/Summer 2002): 23-42.

Ritchie, Angus.  From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of Our Ethical Commitments.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.



  1. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 11.

  1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 491.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.

  1. Pojman, Discovering Right and Wrong, 127.

  1. Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 306.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 167.

  1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 182.

  1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 5.

  2. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap, 18-19. Hare notes that R. M. Hare is a Kantian who believes he is consistent with Kant in applying act-utilitarianism to Kant’s CI to determine whether an act should be universalized.

  1. David Cummiskey, Kantian Consequentialism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 176. This quote is in the context of showing a limitation of Erik Wielenberg’s secular approach to ethics, but this particular criticism applies to Kantian ethics as well.

  2. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 156.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 14. Kant believed happiness must result from moral living for us to press on in the moral life, but our motivation to be moral must be duty and not happiness. See Hare, The Moral Gap, 76-78.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 266.

  1. Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 217.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 117.

  1. Kant, Foundations, 46.

  1. Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83-84. Wielenberg, a secular moral realist, contends that rooting human value in God devalues the intrinsic human value that common sense tells us we have.

  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.

  1. Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument,” in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 113.

Grounding Ethics in God: Why God's nature determines morality

Photo by  Faye Cornish  on  Unsplash

The classic apologetic argument from morality is that if God doesn't exist then objective moral truth doesn't exist. It's often assumed in this argument that somehow God's existence explains morality in a way that atheism cannot. However, this argument mostly focuses on why atheism cannot explain morality, rather than how it is that Christian theology offers a more compelling explanation.

What's more the classic Christian response to the Euthyphro argument is to say that the "good"  is that which is like God's nature and character (and because God is unchanging what is good will not change). But how is it that God's character provides the moral foundation for what is good?

I want to suggest that it is the theology of man made in the image of God that not only grounds morality, but also underpins our response to the Euthyphro dilemma. Because we are made in the image of God not only do we have reason to be moral, but what is moral is also that which is like God. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

In Genesis God decides "let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness"[1]. The traditional understanding of the image of God has been the one filtered through a Greek mindset. A concept which focuses on the abstract and tries to locate what it means to be made in God's image in terms of some property of existence. However, in the last century there has been much study into the concept of the image of God in its original Hebraic context. The Hebraic understanding of man made in the image of God gives a much more functional, and in many ways fuller, understanding of what it means to be human.

Genesis 1 tells the story of God building a temple (the creation of the Earth).[2] It is in the context of this story, and the wider context of the Ancient Near East, that we have to understand what the Bible means in saying we are created in the image of God. Ancient temples would contain "images" of the god for whom the temple was built. Images of gods in temples, or kings in foreign lands, were "viewed as representatives of the deity or king".[3] Kings in Egypt and Assyria were also considered "images" of their gods; meaning that they were ones who "acted on behalf of, and by, the consent of the divine."[4] Middleton points out that typically it was only the king who bore the image of a god, and the concept of all of humanity being made in the image of a god was incredibly counter cultural at the time.[5]

As people created in God's image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God's character, when we act as God would act: according to his character.

The image of God in Western Theology has often been thought of in terms of a mirror reflecting God's likeness back to himself, however a more apt description might be that of an angled mirror reflecting God's likeness to the world itself. The hebraic concept of the image of God tells us that God puts mankind on the Earth as his representatives, that the purpose of man is to show the likeness of God to the world and to live in relationship with him. Obviously we are not successful at this and most of the time we do not accurately reflect God's likeness, which is why  most theologians talk of the image of God in us being "marred". The consequence of this, though, is that the closer we come to representing God the closer we come to fulfilling our purpose on this Earth.

As people created in God's image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God's character, when we act as God would act: according to his character. Most meta-ethical theories hold that what is moral is in some way or another what is best for us either individually or communally (either because of the actions themselves or the effects of those actions). So we can see that because we best fulfill our purpose when we reflect God then what it is to be moral is to be act most like God's character. God's character is revealed to us supremely in the person of Jesus: as Wilkinson puts it "Jesus is the decisive norm for both divinity and humanity."[6] If we want to know how best to live as humans we need to look at God, and particularly his actions in Jesus.

This argument serves to do two things. Firstly, we have a simple reply to the so called "dilemma" posed by Euthyphro. Is something good because God commands it or does he command it because it is good. The answer is neither, the good is that which agrees with God's character. And because God's character is unchanging, what is good will also not change, and neither could God ever command anything that is evil.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that we as people are made in the image of God gives us a grounding for morality that atheism cannot. The traditional moral apologetic argument shows us that atheism cannot account for normative morality. However, we can do better than that. Not only can we say that atheism cannot account for morality, but we can show that Christianity can give us a solid foundation for morality. Furthermore, because we are made in the image of God we are living most authentically as humans when we reflect God's character. And here we have a concrete link between what is moral and the character of God. If Christianity is true then not only is there a foundation for morality but we have a clear indication of what it is to be moral in the person of Jesus. What's more Jesus not only shows us what it is to be moral, but by his Spirit he promises to help us in making us more like God. Although God's image in us has been marred Jesus's actions on the cross make a way for that image to be restored in us.


[1] Genesis 1:26 NIV

[2] Walton, John, "The Lost World of Genesis One", IVP USA, 2009 Morschauser, Scott, "Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei", Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 - p.2-3

[3] Wilkinson, David, "The Message of Creation", Inter Varsity Press, 2002 - p.36

[4] Morschauser, Scott, "Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei", Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 - p.2

[5] Middleton, Richard, "The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1", Brazos Press, 2005 - p.100

[6] Wilkinson, David, "The Message of Creation", Inter Varsity Press, 2002 - p.37

Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Moral Realist, Either

Editor's note: This essay comes from Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and Development edited by Mark Linville and David Werther. 

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. –Hastings Rashdall, 1907

Bertrand Russell was not a Christian, and he bothered to tell us, in some detail, why he was not. At the time of the writing of “Why I Am Not a Christian,” his moral philosophy was a variety of emotivism. But this was not always so. At fifty, Bertrand Russell reflected upon the early days of his philosophical career and wrote, “When the generation to which I belong were young, Moore persuaded us all that there is an absolute good.” Indeed, for a period of nearly a decade, Russell defended a robust version of moral realism. His 1902 essay, “A Free Man’s Worship” touts a human vision of the Platonic Good as the one saving grace in a world where all human aspiration and accomplishment is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” Through our knowledge of the Good we may retain our dignity and find meaning despite the “omnipotence of death” and the utter indifference of the cosmos to all that we hold dear.

Just a few years later Russell published his Philosophical Essays (1910), which originally included “A Free Man’s Worship” as well as his essay, “The Elements of Ethics.” The latter offers an account of moral philosophy that is taken, with little alteration, straight from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica. Russell maintains that goodness is the fundamental moral concept and resists analysis into other terms, moral or non-moral. And moral properties resist identification with properties of any other order. Further, they are “impersonal” or objective: if a thing is good, then it is such that “on its own account it ought to exist.” Hence, “the object of ethics, by its own account, is to discover true propositions about virtuous and vicious conduct, and … these are just as much a part of truth as true propositions about oxygen or the multiplication table.”

Russell appealed to intuition.

In the case of ethics, we must ask why such and such actions ought to be performed, and continue our backward inquiry for reasons until we reach the kind of propositions of which proof is impossible, because it is so simple or so obvious that nothing more fundamental can be found from which to deduce it.

Thus, this “backward inquiry” arrives at “premises which we know though we cannot prove them,” and these become the starting ground for moral reflection. Moral beliefs ultimately receive their sanction through “immediate,” i.e., non-inferential, judgments. The final court of appeal is to “ethical judgments with which almost everyone would agree.” In short, the younger Russell was a stark raving moral realist.

But in the years between the publications of Philosophical Essays and Mysticism and Logic (1918), Russell’s confidence in the objectivity of morality had begun to erode. The latter collection included “A Free Man’s Worship,” but “The Elements of Ethics” was omitted. In the preface to that collection, and in reference to his views in “A Free Man’s Worship,” he confessed, “I feel less convinced than I did then of the objectivity of good and evil.” By the time of the 1929 edition, his abandonment of moral realism was complete: “I no longer regard good and evil as objective entities wholly independent of human desires….” He added, “It was Santayana who first led me to disbelieve in the objectivity of good and evil by his criticism of my then views in his ‘Winds of Doctrine.’”

George Santayana thus seems to have argued Russell back out of the moral realism of which Moore had earlier persuaded him. To my knowledge, Russell never bothered to elaborate on the specifics of Santayana’s arguments that he found compelling. There is some speculation on this. Harry Ruja, for instance, suggests that Russell’s moral realism was but a short-lived and halfhearted interlude between periods when he embraced varieties of anti-realism. According to Ruja, it took little more than a nudge to dislodge Russell from a view that he never found all that compelling. And the brutalities of war may have played a role. Be all of that as it may, our chief interest here is in Santayana’s arguments themselves and not whatever propensities caused Russell to change his mind. Are any of them any good?

Moral Faith in an Accidental Universe

Santayana’s criticisms of Russell’s “hypostatic ethics” are many. Some are specific counters to particular Russellian arguments. Two of his arguments are much grander in scale. On the one hand, Santayana argues that the requirements of moral realism per se are incoherent. In fact, he offers a number of arguments that seem to foreshadow those that would be marshaled in defense of non-cognitivism in the following decades. Space does not permit discussion of these interesting arguments. And a century of space-time is filled with discussions of similar arguments.

My chief interest is with Santayana’s second argument, which I believe has received but scant attention. According to Santayana, the conjunction of Russell’s moral philosophy with his naturalist metaphysics forms an unstable compound and thus lacks cohesion. In fact, Santayana thinks the combination is reduced to absurdity. Harry Ruja thinks this is Santayana’s “most telling criticism,” and I quite agree.

On the one hand, Russell’s moral philosophy implies, “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.” Russell’s language echoes that of Moore, who was concerned to show that some things “are worth having purely for their own sakes.” In Principia Ethica, Moore had argued against Sidgwick that some values—beauty in particular—obtain even if forever unappreciated by any conscious mind. Moore’s thought experiments using his method of “absolute isolation” were designed to discern what sorts of things are of intrinsic value. Generally, things have intrinsic value just in case “if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we should yet judge their existence to be good.”

On the other hand, given Russell’s naturalism, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.” In the very essay in which Russell found solace in the human vision of the Platonic Good, he asserts that “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.” But in such an accidental world it would be marvelous indeed were the very things that ought to exist should have come to be. It would be as though among the verities a special premium had forever been placed upon something—featherless bipeds, say—to the exclusion of all other possible forms (feathered monopods?), and, despite the countless possibilities and, because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris. The cosmic lottery seems not only to have turned up Moore’s beautiful world, but also a Fink-Nottle to gush over it: “People who say it isn’t a beautiful world don’t know what they are talking about”

Moral Scepticism and Animal Faith

Further, if human hopes and fears, loves and beliefs are, as Russell affirmed, “but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” it would be especially surprising to learn that, by fortuitous circumstance, and with no direction or influence from any heaven above, the emergent human conscience, to which Russell appeals, is a reliable indicator of eternal moral truth. Indeed, Russell observes a bit later in “A Free Man’s Worship” that it is a “strange mystery” that nature, “omnipotent but blind” should, in her “secular hurrying,” have “brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.”

At this, G. Dawes Hicks wrote in his 1911 review of Philosophical Essays,

Strange mystery indeed! But why should we be called upon in the name of science  complacently to admit such occult and incredible mysteries? The alleged miracles of former days were at least ascribed to a cause that could conceivably have wrought them.

The trouble with Russell’s overall position is that he has latched upon one set of possible values to the exclusion of the rest, and has done so by appeal to “intuition,” but he lacks any sort of background account, in the form of a supporting metaphysic, that would warrant his taking “felt values” as any indication of moral truth. As Santayana puts the point in Platonism and the Spiritual Life,

The distinction between true goods and false goods can never be established by  ignorant feeling or by conscience not backed by a dogmatic view of the facts: for felt values, taken absolutely and regarded as unconditioned, are all equally genuine in their excellence, and equally momentary in their existence.

If Russell thought that there are immediate judgments, “which we know though we cannot prove them,” Santayana replied, in effect, that their very immediacy is grounds for thinking that they do not constitute knowledge. Russell maintains that moral properties are mind-independent, and endeavors to justify his assertion by appeal to moral consensus, or something near enough. At this, Santayana complains,

Mr. Russell … thinks he triumphs when he feels that the prejudices of his readers will  agree with his own; as if the constitutional unanimity of all human animals, supposing it existed, could tend to show that the good they agreed to recognise was independent of their constitution.

Russell finds sympathy for his intuitions, not because they are self-evident, but because his reader is “the right sort of man.” And even if the sympathy were found to be universal, this would only demonstrate that his readers were members of the right sort of species.

Taking certain considered moral beliefs for granted, Russell proceeds in a forward direction to the construction of a moral philosophy. After all, one cannot reasonably demand that such intuitions themselves be inferred from yet more primitive moral beliefs. But, according to Santayana, Russell’s vision is “monocular” where a “binocular” perspective is required.

The ethical attitude doubtless has no ethical ground, but that fact does not prevent it   from having a natural ground; and the observer of the animate creation need not have much difficulty in seeing what that natural ground is. Mr. Russell, however, refuses to look also in that direction.

Russell spoke of a “backward inquiry” that terminates when and only when one has run out of grounds of a moral nature, but, Santayana thinks, the sequence continues into natural, physical and even animal grounds that reveal the conditioned nature of Russell’s would-be ethical axioms. Though Santayana agrees with Russell that “the good is predicated categorically by conscience,” a “glance back over our shoulder” will reveal that conscience itself is conditioned and has its basis “in the physical order of things.” Hence, “Ethics should be controlled by a physics that perceives the material ground and the relative status of whatever is moral.”

Given the implications of Russell’s “naturalist philosophy,” it is “no marvel that the good should attract the world where the good, by definition, is whatever the world is aiming at.” Nor is it any marvel that the dictates of human conscience should share such a trajectory. “Felt values reconcile the animal and moral side of our nature to their own contingency.” They arise out of “a substantial harmony between our interests and our circumstances.” When that harmony is achieved, there is a propensity to hypostasize the resulting “home values” into “a cosmic system especially planned to guarantee them,” and Russell’s very philosophy is just the outworking of this propensity. Russell’s good is but “natural laws, zoological species, and human ideals that have been projected into the empyrean.” Where Russell envisions the human intellect attracted by, and ascending to, a fixed and eternal Good, Santayana sees the vision of contingent and relative goods emerging in consciousness as the product of actual natures placed in actual circumstances.

Thus “good” and “bad” are understood in reference to “constitutional interests”: “The good is relative to actual natures and simply their latent ideal, actual or realized, is essential to its being truly a good.” Though the life of an oyster may not be the good life for anyone capable of reading philosophy, it suits the oyster. And while the human constitution and human society may set a premium upon the ideal of a “universal sympathy,” “the tigers cannot regard it as such, for it would suppress the tragic good called ferocity, which makes, in their eyes, the chief glory of the universe.” Either way, ethical absolutism is but a “mental grimace of passion” and thus “refutes itself by what it is.” “Human morality … is but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.” The outcome of Moore’s thought experiments or Russell’s poll regarding “ethical judgments with which almost every one would agree” are predictable given the fact that they employ “an imagination which is exclusively human.”

Darwin’s Descent of Man cannot have been far from Santayana’s elbow as he wrote. According to Darwin, human morality is ultimately rooted in a set of social instincts that conferred fitness upon our remote ancestors given the circumstances of the evolutionary landscape. Some behaviors (feeding one’s babies, fleeing from large predators) are adaptive, and others (feeding one’s babies to large predators) are not. Any predisposition or prompting that increases the probability of the adaptive behavior will thus also be adaptive. The circumstances of early hominid evolution were such that various forms of altruistic behavior were fitness conferring. For instance, members of a cooperative and cohesive group tended to have greater reproductive success, since the group itself would tend to fare better than competing, discordant groups.

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.

Assuming that the spirits of patriotism, sympathy and so forth are heritable, the predisposition for such behaviors will be passed from patriotic parent to obedient offspring.

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. According to Darwin, conscience is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.

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.

Santayana may be right in thinking that ferocity is the chief glory of the universe for the tiger, but your average tiger is not given to reflection on the matter. Were he graced with intellect alongside his ferocity, he might be found guilty of hypostasizing ferocity in just the way that Russell has projected his own ideals. Were he to employ Moore’s method of absolute isolation the results would be radically different, dominated, as he is, with an imagination that is exclusively tigrine. He might think Russell eloquent on the topic of oysters, but only because he is the right sort of cat. Tigrine morality is, after all, nothing but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.

Russell’s vision is monocular, then, in that he takes the deliverances of conscience as his point of departure but fails to consider the conditioned nature of conscience itself. He assumes that the moral sense is truth-aimed, with objective moral truth as its object, when, in fact, “moral truth” proves simply to be whatever it is that human conscience projects. If there is indeed anything “inevitable” about the “hygienic bias” that is human morality, it is only a hypothetical necessity, conditioned upon a radically contingent set of circumstances. Had the theater in which human evolution has played out been different in any of countless ways, either we might never have been among the cast at all, or we might have played an entirely different role. There may be some “forced moves” through evolutionary design space, as Daniel Dennett has observed. But if there are such inevitable engineering solutions, the set of predispositions out of which human morality has emerged, according to Darwin, seems not to be among them. Consider what I’ll call “Darwinian Counterfactuals.”

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. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

This “inward monitor” that is the source of moral belief thus appears to be fitness aimed in that it directs the creature towards whatever behaviors are adaptive given the contingent circumstances in which it has been placed. But—and this is Santayana’s central point—there is no reason to suppose a connection between a conscientious belief’s being adaptive and its corresponding to whatever is eternally inscribed in the moral heavens. To paraphrase Santayana, natural selection is blind to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.

Metaphysical Underpinnings

Russell has divorced the realms of nature and morality and, in a way reminiscent of Mark Twain’s quip about naked people, has left morality with little or no influence in the world. He manages, with Moore’s help, to disentangle values from natural facts, but then sends morality to “fly into the abyss at a tangent,” leaving the earth in moral darkness. The result is an “impotent dogmatism on high.” Russell’s trouble, at bottom, is that he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates; his good is not a power.”

According to Santayana, Russell and Moore erred by isolating one element of Platonic morality—the hypostasis of the Good—to the exclusion of two others that are essential to its overall cohesion: the “political” and the “theological.” By the former, Santayana has in mind a theory of human nature holding that human happiness is to be achieved only in the appropriate relation to the good. He develops this idea more fully in Platonism and the Spiritual Life.

Life … has been kindled and is alone sustained by the influence of pre-existing  celestial models. It is by imitating these models in some measure that we exist at all, and only in imitating, loving, and contemplating them that we can ever be happy. They are our good.

The “theological” element constitutes the metaphysical underpinning for the conviction that something or someone is actively working all things together for the good. On such a scheme, that something just so happens to be the Good itself. Indeed, Santayana thinks that a conception of the good as an influential power is the “sole category” that would justify Russell’s hypostasis of the good.

The whole Platonic and Christian scheme, in making the good independent of private  will and opinion, by no means makes it independent of the direction of nature in general and of human nature in particular. For all things have been created with an innate predisposition towards the creative good and are capable of finding happiness in nothing else. Obligation, in this system, remains internal and vital. Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.

This Platonic hypostasis without the underlying metaphysic and theory of human nature is merely “half-hearted.” It is a Platonism “stultified and eviscerated.” Russell, like a number of “modern moralists” attempted to retain much of the substance of such an account of morality “without its dogmatic justification.”

Thus, on both classical Platonism and Christian theism, “The Platonic ideas, the Christian God, or the Christ of devout Christians may be conceived to be the causes of their temporal manifestations in matter or in the souls of men.” As Robert Adams has put it in a work that appeals to a theistic and Platonist framework for ethics,

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.

However, there is no place for such teleology on Russell’s naturalistic philosophy. Russell’s morality seems to Santayana a “ghost of Calvinism,” except that the deity has “lost his creative and punitive functions.”

Santayana thus seems to have thought that moral realism is tenable only within the scaffolds of a theistic metaphysics. Given what Russell affirms in his “Free Man’s Worship,” one is left with an undercutting naturalistic explanation for the human propensity to form moral beliefs. Even if Russell’s heaven of ideas exists, we cannot know it, for the simple fact that the only apparent evidence for supposing that it does—our considered moral beliefs—is given an explanation on naturalism that in no way requires the truth of such beliefs. The more plausible view,  Santayana thinks, sees morality as relative to the personal or constitutional beliefs of creatures. If Moore thought that “good” was like “yellow” in being indefinable. Santayana adds that both are secondary qualities as well.

Ethical Naturalism Redux

Charles Pidgen notes that even after Russell came to abandon Moore’s moral realism “… he continued to believe that if judgments about good and bad are to be objectively true, non-natural properties of goodness and badness are required to make them true. It is just that he ceased to believe that there are any such properties.” In the century that has followed, Moore’s refutation of ethical naturalism has come to be widely rejected, probably for good reason.

Moore assumed that the identity of any two properties entails the synonymy of the terms by which they are designated. Given this assumption, he could argue that pleasure is not the good on the grounds that “X is N ” (where N is any natural or descriptive property) and “X is good” obviously do not mean the same thing, as is demonstrated by the Open Question Argument.

We have splendid reason for rejecting the claim that identity entails synonymy. Gold just is that element with the atomic number 79. But the meaning of “gold” was fixed long before talk of the atomic structure of this metal. And it is surely an open question for one to ask, “I know thar is an element of the atomic number 79 in them thar hills. But is thar gold?” John’s disciples surely knew that John baptized with water, and could have explained the difference between water baptism and, say, baptism in fish oil. But if any of John’s contemporaries knew that water just is H2O, they seem to have kept it to themselves. The discovery would have to wait another 1700 years. And once the discovery was made, the headline, “Water is H2O!” was informative in a way that “Water is water!” would not have been.

This, along with a number of other considerations, has reopened the possibility that some variety of ethical naturalism may be true after all. The ethical naturalist will maintain either that moral properties are identical to natural properties, or that they are constituted of and thus supervene upon them. If this is so, one may affirm the identity of the moral with the natural without being committed to the claim that there is synonymy of meaning. “Hitler was depraved” might be true in virtue of some set of wholly descriptive properties that he possessed. These might include his low regard for the value of human life, his monomania, his will to power and his anti-Semitism. I suppose that one may sensibly say, “I know the man thinks nothing of killing people, hates people simply because of their ethnicity, and wants to force the entire world to its knees, but is he depraved?” But this no more stands in the way of supposing that some such set of natural properties constitutes depravity than open questions about water suggest the possibility that the lakes are filled with anything other than H2O.

The ethical naturalist does not posit the “abhorred dualism” of the Platonist, and so there seems little risk of the moral flying “off into the abyss” and little need for a demiurge to ensure that it does not. Moral properties are home grown and terrestrial according to this view, being constituted of garden variety facts discoverable through ordinary means. If justice just is equitable treatment under certain circumstances, then coming to believe that a given arrangement is just would seem to be no more problematic or mysterious than coming to believe that it is equitable and that those circumstances obtain. Does ethical naturalism thus survive the arguments of both Moore and Santayana that, in their turns, convinced Russell? I think not. With a bit of fine-tuning, Santayana’s arguments—or at least an insight central to them—are equally effective against ethical naturalism.

Darwinian Counterfactuals

That “look over the shoulder” that Santayana recommends reveals that the direction that the human moral sense has taken is determined by factors apparently oblivious to the notion of moral truth, even if there were such a thing. The mechanisms responsible for the production of human moral beliefs are fitness-aimed, and, unless we’ve some reason to suppose a connection between their being fitness-aimed and their being true, such beliefs would seem to be unwarranted.

Sharon Street has recently advanced an argument that capitalizes upon these features of the Darwinian account. The core of her paper is her “Darwinian Dilemma” that she poses to “value realists.” Our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also truth-aimed? Either there is a fitness-truth relation or there is not. If there is not, and if we suppose that evolution has shaped our basic evaluative attitudes, then moral skepticism is in order. If there is a relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the “tracking” relation), or we have the moral beliefs that we have simply because of the fitness that they conferred (the “adaptive link” account).

But the adaptive link account suggests some variety of non-realism, such as the constructivism that Street endorses. The realist requires the tracking account in order to provide an account of warranted moral belief. Here, fitness follows mind-independent moral truths. But the tracking account is just implausible from a scientific standpoint, which is important given the fact that ethical naturalists are keen on assimilating their theory within an overall scientific approach. While there is a clear and parsimonious adaptive link explanation of why humans have come to care for their offspring—namely, that the resulting behavior tends toward DNA-preservation—the tracking account must add that basic paternal instincts were favored because it is independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Why not just say that our ancestors who had a propensity to care for their offspring tended to act on that propensity and thus left more offspring—particularly when we witness such propensities among non-human animals? Do dolphin mothers care for their daughters because they ought to do so?

A consideration of Darwinian Counterfactuals helps to strengthen the point. If, as Darwin supposed, human conscience might have been radically different had the circumstances been different, this strongly suggests that conscience goes whither fitness goest. And it is hard to see just how the ethical naturalist should assess such counterfactuals. Masked boobies, for instance seem wired for siblicide. A female will typically lay two eggs. The first to hatch frequently kills its smaller and weaker sibling, often with an assist from the parent. On the one hand, two eggs are better than one for insurance purposes. But one hatchling is better than two, as the probability that either will survive is decreased if both remain. And so the diminished reproductive value that results from the death of one offspring is outweighed by the advantage that is had in the increased likelihood of the survival of the elder sibling. Siblicidal behavior is thus selected for its reproductive advantage.

So consider “Booby World” —that possible world in which the conditions of reproductive fitness in the evolution of humans (or creatures of similar intelligence) were the same as those of boobies. Here, Cain kills Abel and is met with approval, and his mark is a badge of honor. Here, booby people regard siblicide and infanticide as “sacred duties,” as Darwin puts it. Such moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also true? Is killing certain of one’s offspring in fact obligatory and even meritorious in Booby World?

It is clear how Santayana would answer. These are moral duties in the only sense in which there are duties in any world. “Obligations … presuppose a physical and social organism with immanent spontaneous interests which may impose those obligations.” But, “As the spirit is no respecter of persons, so it is no respecter of worlds.” His “spirituality” involves the full recognition and embrace of the contingency of existence and of whatever values are discovered in the world in which we happen to find ourselves. He describes “spirit” as a “disenchanting and re-enchanting faculty … of seeing this world in its simple truth.” Disenchantment is a matter of deconstructing absolutist morality and whatever dogmas have been erected for its support. Re-enchantment occurs when one sees things as they are in their contingent and relative nature, but fully values them as one’s own. Thus, he can write, “What folly to suppose that ecstasy could be abolished by recognizing the true sources of ecstacy!” Sugar is no less sweet, nor does salt lose its savor, once we realize that those qualities are not “objective” but depend, in part, upon our own constitution. We do not thereby unweave the rainbow. And so, “spirit has no reason for dwelling on other possible worlds.”

Would any of them be less contingent than this one, or nearer to the heart of Infinite Being? And would not any of them, whatever its character, lead the spirit inexorably there? To master the actual is the best way of transcending it.

His first question is rhetorical. No possible world is closer to the heart of “Infinite Being,” because it “includes all worlds.” And spirit would be led “inexorably” to embrace whatever values it discovered in those counterfactual circumstances. “Good” and “evil” are world-relative. All such values are world-bound. It is thus “provincial” and a kind of “animal arrogance” to exalt the values that obtain in this world to the exclusion of those that might have been. Our cosmos has turned up one set of “ambient values” which we hold dear as our own. But when in Booby World, do as the boobies do.

This is not the sort of answer that we should expect from the ethical naturalist, who wishes to affirm that moral facts or properties are mind-independent. According to the ethical naturalist, moral properties are either identical to or at least supervene upon natural properties. Consider supervenience, the weaker of the two claims. On a standard account, any two things that are indiscernible with respect to their natural properties N are also indiscernible with respect to their moral properties M. And this is usually seen as metaphysically necessary so that if there is any world W in which X has N then, for every world W*, if X has N in W*, then X has M in W*. It follows that if Hitler is depraved in virtue of the set of non-moral properties mentioned above, then there is no possible world in which anyone has precisely that set but is not depraved. And if it was wrong for Cain to kill Abel, then that wrongness is in virtue of certain natural properties of the act.

Suppose that the natural properties and circumstances involved in Booby Abel’s slaying are identical to those that were instanced and obtained when Cain killed Abel, but for the fact that in that world the act enjoys the approbation of both conscience and consensus. If moral properties supervene upon natural properties, then, presumably, we should conclude that Booby Abel’s slaying is murder, despite it’s being hailed as a sacred duty in that world.

But if the human moral sense, with its verdict regarding siblicide, is in place ultimately because it was adaptive given actual but contingent circumstances, why suppose that it has any legitimate authority where those circumstances do not obtain and it is not adaptive? Santayana compares such universal judgments to “…the German lady who said that Englishmen called a certain object bread, and Frenchmen called it pain, but that it really was Brod.” They seem to be instances of what Judith Thomson has called metaphysical imperialism. To illustrate, in seeking the reference of “good” as used in “this is a good hammer,” Thomson suggests that the natural property that best serves here is “being such as to facilitate hammering nails in in manners that conduce to satisfying the wants people typically hammer nails in to satisfy.”

She opts for this property as opposed to the more determinate properties of “being well-balanced, strong, with an easily graspable handle, and so on” Even though we may find that this familiar set of properties coextends with those that “conduce to satisfying the wants that people typically hammer nails in to satisfy,” there are all sorts of “odd possible worlds” in which people typically have quite different wants for which deviant hammers come in handy. There are worlds in which “large slabs of granite” do the best job in this regard. And so we are metaphysical imperialists if we presume to impose our nail-hammering wants upon the counterfactual carpenters of those worlds.

Thomson thus fixes upon a property that is less determinate than those that characterize hammers of earthly goodness: it is good insofar as it answers to wants or is useful. Let’s say, then, that usefulness is the natural property upon which the evaluative property, being good supervenes. And the usefulness of the hammer supervenes, in turn, upon those more determinate features that fit this or that hammer to its purpose. Since the uses vary from world to world, so may the particular features that render hammers useful—and thus good—vary.

Should the ethical naturalist follow her lead in the case of siblicide in that Darwinian world we are imagining? Sure, in both worlds, the victim was a fully sentient person with a desire to live, ends of his own, and no intention of bringing harm to his killer. But perhaps the actual supervenience base for such acts is less determinate than such a set of properties. Might this permit one to say that the acts of both worlds are right?

In fact, as we have set things up, both familial love in the actual world, and siblicide in the counterfactual world, are adaptive from the standpoint of reproductive fitness, just as Estwing hammers and chunks of granite are both useful, despite sharp differences between the features that render them useful. Perhaps, then, the sacredness of infanticide is in virtue of the fact that it is conducive to fitness, so that truth tracks fitness, so to speak. A perhaps seeming advantage of this suggestion is that we have now been afforded a guaranteed link between fitness and truth. What reason have we for thinking that moral beliefs that are adaptive are also true? Why, because being adaptive is the very thing that makes them true! But this seems an overly convenient way of replying to Street’s Darwinian Dilemma; it does so by conflating the “adaptive-link” and “tracking” accounts. And it calls to mind Santayana’s quip about the good being, by definition, “whatever the world is aiming at.” All archers are equally good marksmen when the mark is determined by where the arrow happens to fall. But where this is the case, there can be no such thing as a poor marksman. Nor can any be better or best. And then one is left to wonder whether it is meaningful to call any of them “good.” Santayana’s tongue-in-cheek remark was offered in the service of his view that the good is not objective at all, but, rather projective. But on the suggestion that we are presently considering, this proves to be a distinction without a difference. Edward Wilson and Michael Ruse once suggested that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.” But now we know that, by definition, genes never fob.

One might suppose that what is needed is an appeal to natures. Thus, actual human nature being what it is, familial affection and reciprocal kindness commend themselves as virtues. But in the sorts of worlds that Darwin imagines, the creaturely natures are different, and so it is no surprise that virtue and duty should assume quite different forms. Since Darwin is imagining beings with natures different from our own, the fact that those counterfactual moralities come out so different has no bearing upon the objectivity of our own.

Now, assuredly, there are possible worlds in which natural differences are sufficient for various sorts of acts to differ with respect to their moral properties from the same acts performed in our neck of the logical woods. Here, it is a fairly serious matter to shoot off a person’s head. But it might amount to little more than an annoying prank in those worlds where heads are quickly regrown. But we are imagining counterfactual heads that do not grow back, and counterfactual owners of heads who wish very much to retain their titles. If the appeal to differences in “natures” amounts merely to the observation that, here, we think it wrong to kill babies, but there, they do not, what is this if not just to rephrase the suggestion above regarding fitness? We should allow that this difference in the moral sense is sufficient by itself for sorting justified from unjustified homicide only if we think that killing in the actual world is permissible so long as the killer can sleep nights and no one else, save the victim, seems to mind.

Perhaps there is some other natural, subvenient property that is common to both earth and all such Darwinian worlds and is that in virtue of which the various acts described have the property of moral rightness. Presumably, this would be some natural property that is common to both equitable and inequitable social arrangements and to both the nurturing and the strangling of babies. There are, of course, such common natural properties. Random acts of kindness and random acts of violence share the property of being an act. But this will hardly serve as a plausible right-making property of acts. (The Decalogue might have been reduced to one precept: Thou shalt do something.) Presumably, we seek something a little more determinate, but not so determinate as to exclude counterfactually evolved moralities. But whatever we settle upon, the natural properties upon which justice and injustice or depravity and saintliness supervene are not equity or inequity, cruelty or kindness, but something that serves as the genus for these seemingly opposed species of moral properties.

One unhappy result here is that those more determinate natural properties that are favored by reflective equilibrium would prove to be merely accidental and coextensive features of morality. If there is some natural property N that is common to both equitable and inequitable bargaining outcomes, and upon which justice supervenes, then N, and not equity, defines the essence of justice. This would appear to be the metaethical equivalent of the suggestion that water is whatever fills a world’s oceans, so that earthly H2O and Twin-Earthly XYZ both qualify as water. But then being H2O is not the essence of the stuff that we call “water.” One might thus offer a functionalist account of moral properties. Perhaps, for instance, “justice” picks out whatever natural properties tend toward societal stability. We happen to live in a world in which equity has this effect. But there are worlds in which inequity does the trick. In addition to signaling a significant departure from the sort of account that ethical naturalists appear typically offer, such a move would seem a precarious footing for any robust account of moral realism. It is, in fact, a recipe for relativism.

It is hard to see how a metaphysical naturalist after the order of Russell can afford to reject a Darwinian reckoning of human morality. 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. Early ancestors who lacked the impulse to care for their offspring or to cooperate with their fellows would, like the celibate Shakers, have left few to claim them as ancestors.

And it is hard to see how ethical naturalism can be reconciled in any plausible way with the contingency of human morality as implied by a standard Darwinian reckoning of things as understood within the framework of metaphysical naturalism. Whether the claim is that moral properties are identical and reducible to natural properties, or that they are constituted by and supervene upon them, the relation should be fixed across worlds in order to anchor the realist element. In fact, on a standard account, moral terms function in much the same way as natural kind terms in that they rigidly designate natural properties and thus track those identical properties across worlds. But it seems that this will either end up asserting an unwarranted form of metaphysical imperialism, or it will require the identification of some natural property (or set of properties) that is common to and right-making across widely divergent Darwinian worlds. Among other things, one might wonder how such a property could seriously be set forth as one empirically discerned or as playing the sort of explanatory role that is claimed for moral properties on ethical naturalism.

In principle, as a Platonist of sorts, Russell could avoid the charge of metaphysical imperialism. If the Good exists, then there is a fixed, transcendent standard in virtue of which we may evaluate the moral beliefs and practices of our own world as well as those of others. But, as we have seen, neither Russell nor naturalists in general have reason to believe that we have epistemic access to the Good even if it does exist. The ethical naturalist may avoid the charge either by allowing, for instance, that familial love and siblicide are equally right, or by offering some account as to why the human moral sense succeeds in acquiring moral truth where the booby moral sense fails. But in the absence of the sort of teleology that is precluded on naturalism, such an account seems not to be forthcoming. And the suggestion that there is some natural property that is common to all of the possible moralities countenanced on the Darwinian scheme is just implausible. Thus, the trouble that we have been documenting arises not out of neither ethical non-naturalism nor ethical naturalism per se, but from the attempt to combine any variety of moral realism with metaphysical naturalism. Given the metaphysics of at least Russell’s brand of naturalism, one lacks the “dogmatic justification” required in order to suppose that the “felt values” with which moral reflection begins constitute knowledge. The point is similar to one raised by Norman Daniels in his discussion of reflective equilibrium. Before one may proceed with confidence, one requires “ 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” (Daniels 1979, p. 265). Russell, like any metaphysical naturalist, lacks such a story because he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates.”

Epilogue: Lotze’s Dictum

I am inclined to think that Santayana’s argument succeeds in showing that Russell’s Moorean moral philosophy is unwarranted given his worldview. As Harry Ruja puts it,

In his eagerness to establish the good's objectivity, Russell has separated values from  man and man's will so emphatically that there is no way to reunite them. He may proclaim "ought to exist" as often as he wishes, but if no one is moved to take on the role of the demiurge, the eternal and potential ideals will remain remote from depraved reality.

But Santayana viewed the positing of some such “demiurge”—or, more generally, a “dogmatic justification” for this moral vision, in the form of the requisite metaphysics—as nothing more than a “gratuitous fiction” that can hardly be taken seriously by any modern critic. The only reasonable position, he thought, was a conjunction of naturalism and some sort of moral skepticism.

In the same year that Santayana published Winds, W.R. Sorley delivered the first of his Gifford Lectures. There, Sorley defended and developed what he termed, “Lotze’s Dictum,” after the 19th century German philosopher Rudolph Hermann Lotze: “The true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics.” Sorley observed that “the traditional order of procedure”—business as usual in metaphysics—was to construct an interpretation of reality—a worldview—that drew exclusively upon non-moral considerations, such as the deliverances of the sciences. Not until the task of worldview construction was complete did one “go on to draw out the ethical consequences of the view that had been reached.” Sorley thought it likely that such a method would result in an artificially truncated worldview, and that moral ideas would be given short shrift. And the exclusion of our moral experience was simply arbitrary. “If we take experience as a whole, and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.”

I do not know about those “modern critics” who were Santayana’s contemporaries, but now a century later Sorley’s suggestion may enjoy enhanced plausibility. It is widely recognized that we must approach each and every field of knowledge, including the sciences, with some fund of beliefs that we just happen to have. Since all theorizing has these same humble origins, how can one non-arbitrarily single out a particular domain of beliefs for suspicion? To use an example from recent discussions, a scientist’s belief that a proton has just passed through a cloud chamber might be explained (away) merely by appeal to her background beliefs and theoretical commitments. For example, her theory has it that the appearance of a vapor trail is evidence of proton activity, and so, of course, when she sees, or believes that she sees, a vapor trail, she forms the belief in the proton. But here we are required to be realists about protons only if we have assumed that the scientist’s theory is “roughly correct.” But, again, why extend this courtesy in these cases while being decidedly discourteous in the case of morality? Certain of my moral beliefs seem to have a greater degree of epistemic security than any of the various empiricist principles that would cast doubt upon them. Why reject the moral beliefs for the sake of such principles unless there is a splendid reason for doing so?

Given Santayana’s metaphysics, moral properties turn out to be metaphysically queer. But, then, so is the phenomenological property of redness, which some philosophers do not admit, and the rest do admit, but also admit that they cannot explain it. Chesterton said that he took pleasure in the fact that the rhinoceros does exist, though it looks as though it does not. There is redness and there are rhinos, and if my philosophy does not admit them, then perhaps it is time to get a new philosophy. Might the same thing go for rightness?

Photo: "Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell" by Bassano Ltd. CC License. From National Portrait Gallery

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

The role that our moral discourse marks out for obligation obviously has other features besides its relation to guilt. One of them is that obligations constitute reasons for doing that which one is obliged to do, and reasons for refraining from doing that which it would be wrong to do. One problem about the nature of obligation is to understand how it grounds reasons for actions.

As a nonconsequentialist Adams is skeptical that obligations are always happily attuned to the value of expected results. We think we may be obliged to tell the truth and to keep promises even when we do not expect the consequences to be good, and when we have no idea what the consequences will be. What would motivate us to do such a thing?

Adams, in accord with Rawls (and more recently Evans), argues that the idea the conscientious agent has good enough reason for her action simply in the fact that it’s the right thing to do seems too abstract. If we are to see the fact of having an obligation as itself a reason for action, we need a richer, less abstract understanding of the nature of obligation, in which we might find something to motivate us. According to social theories of the nature of obligation, having an obligation to do something consists in being required (in a certain way, under certain circumstances or conditions), by another person or a group of persons, to do it. So one reason or motive for complying with a social requirement is that we fear punishment or retaliation for noncompliance. What other motives does this account open up?

An alternative suggestion Adams wishes to pursue is that valuing one’s social bonds gives one, under certain conditions, a reason to do what is required of one by one’s associates or one’s community (and thus to fulfill obligations, understood as social requirements). The reason Adams has in mind is not one that arises from a desire to obtain or maintain a relationship, but rather that I value the relationship in which I see myself as actually having, and my complying is an expression of my valuing and respecting the relationship. This is a motivational pattern in which I act primarily out of a valuing of the relationship, rather than with the obtaining or maintaining of the relationship as an end.

A morally valid obligation obviously will not be constituted by just any demand sponsored by a system of social relationships that one in fact values. Some such demands have no moral force, and some social systems are downright evil. A moral conception of obligation must have resources for moral criticism of social systems and their demands. But Adams thinks there’s a premoral conception of obligation in which we can see social facts as constituting obligations independently of our moral evaluation of those facts.

It will be particularly important if we believe (as Adams thinks is plausible) that the actions of commanding, demanding, and requiring can’t be understood or identified apart from their tendency to create obligations. This is to avoid circularity. A premoral conception of obligation, on the other hand, identifies a kind of sociological fact, closely connected with such linguistic (and social) events as commanding, which can be used in explaining the nature of moral facts of obligation. So Adams claims.

There are cases of commands and presumed obligations that aren’t genuinely moral cases of obligation. Yet the people in question have the concepts of command and obligation that serve them effectively in describing their social system and living within it, and that we could use as anthropologists to describe the system. To be sure, we who do have a conception and practice of moral critique of our social systems wish to distinguish such cases as institutional or official cases rather than bona fide cases of obligation and duty, but Adams thinks the fact remains that much of our understanding of social and linguistic systems depends on our grasp of premoral conceptions of obligation.

To say a conception of obligation is premoral is of course not to say that it is totally nonnormative. Most of the persons within the social system in question still need to regard the indicated obligations as providing reasons for compliance. A conception of moral obligation, however, will insist on better reasons for complying. It will impose a certain kind of critique of reasons for complying.

Adams will next try to show that a system of human social requirements can go some distance toward meeting this requirement although, in the end, he believes the moral pressure not to make an idol of any human society pushes us toward a transcendent source of the moral demand. Several aspects of the relational situation are important to the quality of our reasons for complying with social requirements, and are relevant to the possibility of such requirements constituting moral obligation.

  1. Morally good reasons will not arise from just any social bond that one in fact values, but only from one that is rightly valued—that is, from one that is really good. How much reason one has to comply with the demands of other people will depend in no small part on the value of one’s relationship with them. If the relationship is with a community, the individual’s attitude toward the community and her participation in it make a difference to the value of the relationship. But the community’s attitude toward the individual is at least as important. Where community prevails, rather than alienation, the sense of belonging is not to be sharply distinguished from the inclination to comply with the reasonable requirements of the community. A “community” is a group of people who live their lives to some extent—possibly a very limited extent—in common. To see myself as “belonging” to a community is to see the institution or other members of the group as “having something to say about” how I live and act—perhaps not about every department of my life, and only to a reasonable extent about any department of it, but it is part of the terms of the relationship that their demands on certain subjects are expected to have some weight with me. And valuing such a relationship implies some willingness to submit to reasonable demands of the community—as an expression of one’s sense that one does belong and one’s endorsement of the relationship.

  2. Our reasons for complying with demands may also be affected by our evaluation of the personal characteristics of those who make them. Normally we have more reason to comply with the requests and demands of the knowledgeable, wise, or saintly.

  3. How much reason one has to comply with a demand depends not only on the excellence of its source and of the relationship or system of relationships in which the demand arises, but also on how good the demand is. Is the demand good and the sanctions implied in the demand appropriate? It also involves evaluation of the relational history of the demand itself. Does the making of the demand affect the relational situation for the better or for the worse? And what’s the wider social significance of the demand? It is particularly important that the demand, and the social system of which it forms a part, should be good in ways that fall under the heading of fairness.

  4. An objection might be that if we have the values of actions and demands, we don’t need the actual social requirements to explain the nature of moral obligation. But Adams thinks this is mistaken, because it matters that the demand is actually made. It is a question here of what good demands other persons do in fact make of me, not just of what good demands they could make. It’s fashionable in ethical theory to treat moral reasons and moral obligations as depending on judgments about what an ideal community or authority would demand under certain counterfactual conditions. But Adams is skeptical. First, he doubts that the relevant counterfactuals are true, partly because they seem to be about free responses that are never actually made. Secondly, he doesn’t think he cares much about whether these counterfactual conditionals are true because they’re motivationally weak. By contrast, actual demands made on us in relationships that we value are undeniably real and motivationally strong. The actual making of the demand is important, not only to the strength, but also to the character, of the motive. Not every good reason for doing something makes it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it. Having even the best reasons to do something doesn’t amount to having an obligation to do it. But the perception that something is demanded of me by other people, in a relationship that I value, does help to make it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it.

Social requirement theory can explain the connection with guilt, which is a main ground of obligation, and the reason-giving force of obligations—big advantages of the theory . Another test it passes pertains to its answers to what in fact is obligatory. It needn’t entirely agree with our pretheoretical opinions; a theory has for one of its purposes the task to challenge some of those opinions. But a theory can be quickly rejected if most of the obligations it assigns to us are to perform actions that have always been regarded by most people as wrong. There is a limit to how far pretheoretical opinion can be revised without changing the subject entirely. This poses no problem for social requirement theory.

Given that the role of moral obligation is partly determined by the obligations we actually believe in, it seems also to be part of the role of moral obligation to be recognized. Rightness should turn out to be a property that not only belongs to the most important types of action that are thought to be right, but also plays a part (perhaps a causal part) in their coming to be recognized as right; similarly for wrongness. This too comports with social requirement theory, for on any plausible moral sociology, actual social requirements play a large role in our coming to hold beliefs about moral obligation, and Adams thinks it plausible to suppose that our belief formation is sensitive to the values of relationships and demands that should play a part in a social requirement theory.

Adams admits such a theory is on weaker ground when it comes to objectivity as a feature of the role of moral obligation. I may wrongly think I have an obligation that I do not have. We’re not inclined to censure Huckleberry Finn for acting contrary to his erring conscience in not turning in a runaway slave. The question that arises at this point for a social theory of the nature of moral obligation is whether it is too subjectivist. Does it make it too easy for a society to get rid of its obligations by changing its demands? On social requirement theory developed so far, a society would be able to eliminate obligations by just not making certain demands, and that seems out of keeping with the role of moral obligation.

This isn’t just a disturbing theory. Moral reformers have taught us that there have been situations in which none of the existing human communities demanded as much as they should have, and things that were morally required were not actually demanded by any community, or perhaps even by any human individual in the situation. In this way actual human social requirements fail to cover the whole territory of moral obligation.

Where demands are made, they sometimes conflict, both as between different social groups and within a single society. Often, both sets of demands and relationships can manifest some degree of goodness, but a flawed goodness.

These are all reasons for thinking, as most moralists have, that actual human social requirements are simply not good enough to constitute the basis of moral obligation. More could be said, but for theists it’s somewhat unnatural to confine ourselves to that apparatus, since a more powerful theistic adaptation of the social requirement theory is available.


Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

In this section of the chapter, Adams emphasizes that moral obligation can’t be understood apart from its relation to guilt. If I voluntarily fail to do what I am morally obligated to do, I am guilty. I may appropriately be blamed by others for my omission, and ought normally to reproach myself for it, in some degree. Perhaps I may incur some just punishment for it.

The presence of obligation in a moral system divides actions into three classes which can be distinguished precisely in terms of guilt. If an action is morally wrong, one is guilty if one does it. An action that is morally optional can be either done or omitted without guilt. But if an action is morally required, or obligatory, one is guilty if one omits it. Examining the nature of guilt will help us understand how moral obligation depends for its role on a broadly social system of relationships.

The word ‘guilt’ is not properly the name of a feeling, but of an objective moral condition that may rightly be recognized by others even if it is not recognized by the guilty person. Feelings of guilt, though, may reasonably be taken as a source of understanding of the objective fact of guilt to which they point. We do not have the concept of guilt merely to signify in a general way the state of having done something wrong.

It is true that one is not guilty, however unfortunate the outcome, for anything that was not in some way wrong. But there are two other typical features of wrong action that are responsible for much of the human significance of guilt. One is harm that one has caused by one’s (wrong) action. It is wrong to drive carelessly, and no less wrong when one’s lucky enough to avoid an accident, but the burden of guilt one incurs is surely heavier when one’s carelessness causes the death of another person than when no damage is done. (Harm caused to other people is not a feature of all guilt, however. One can be guilty for a violation of other people’s rights that in fact harmed no one.)

A more pervasive feature of guilt is alienation from other people, or (at a minimum) a strain on one’s relations with others. If I am guilty, I am out of harmony with other people. This feature is central to the role of guilt in human life. It is connected with such practices as punishing and apologizing. And it makes intelligible the fact that guilt can be (at least largely) removed by forgiveness. The idea that guilt consists largely in an alienation produced by the wrong is supported by the fact that the ending of the alienation ends the guilt.

This should not surprise us if we reflect on the way in which we acquired the concept, and the sense, of guilt. In our first experience of guilt its principal significance was an action or attitude of ours that ruptured or strained our relationship with a parent. There did not have to be a failure of benevolence or a violation of a rule; perhaps we were even too young to understand rules. It was enough that something we did or expressed offended the parent, and seemed to threaten the relationship. This is the original context in which the obligation family of moral concepts and sentiments arose. We do not begin with a set of moral principles but with a relationship, actual in part and in part desired, which is immensely valued for its own sake. Everything that attacks or opposes that relationship seems to us bad.

This starkly simple mentality is premoral—we need to go on and learn to distinguish between cases when we’re actually guilty and when we’re not. In grasping such a distinction we must learn to make some critical judgments about the moral validity of the demands that people make on us. Nevertheless, Adams believes it isn’t childish, but perceptive and correct, to persist in regarding obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt as consisting largely in alienation from those who have (appropriately) required of us what did not do.

Some moralists hold that in the highest stages of the moral life (perhaps not reached by many adults) the center of moral motivation is transplanted from the messy soil of concrete relationships to the pure realm of moral principles; and a corresponding development is envisaged for the sense of guilt.

It is certainly possible to come to value—even to love—an ethical principle for its own sake, and this provides a motive for conforming to it; but this way of relating to ethical principles has more to do with ideals than with obligations. To love truthfulness is one thing; to feel that one has to tell the truth is something else. Similarly, failing to act on a principle one loves seems, as such, more an occasion of shame than of guilt. Merely violating a principle, without alienating anyone, is likely more a reason to feel ashamed or degraded than a reason to feel guilty. It’s also significant that insofar as my reaction arises from my personally valuing a principle, it may not matter very much whether the principle is moral or aesthetic or intellectual. But aesthetic “guilt” doesn’t make much sense. Guilt is not necessarily worse than degradation, but they are different. And a main point of difference between them is that, in typical cases, guilt involves alienation from someone else who required or expected of us what we were obligated to do and have not done, or who has been harmed by what we have done and might reasonably have required of us not to do it. (This is of course not to deny that shame often accompanies the complex reaction to things of which we judge ourselves to be guilty.)


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. 

Battle of the Angi

Angus Ritchie versus Angus Menuge. They both have awesome accents, and they’re both brilliant Christian philosophers. But they take interestingly different positions on the question of moral knowledge for naturalists. Let me briefly explain why, then lay out a third possibility that relies a little on both. Any way you slice it, naturalism loses.

Angus Ritchie is the author of From Morality to Metaphysics. In that book, he affirms that moral knowledge is possible, even for naturalists. Knowledge, he assumes, requires justification, good reasons to consider the propositions in question to be true. Justification for moral claims comes, he thinks (roughly following David Enoch), from their “deliberative indispensability.” We can’t help but assume certain moral assumptions as reliable in the inevitable process of our moral deliberations. Ritchie resonates with the approach of those employing a method of reflective equilibrium by which we take our moral starting points not as infallible, but as innocent until proven guilty. So Ritchie doesn’t infer that on naturalism there is a lack of justification for moral convictions; to the contrary, he affirms that moral beliefs, on naturalism, at least on occasion, are adequately justified. Perhaps he would even think, then, that on naturalism there is moral knowledge. If we construe of knowledge claims as justified true beliefs, it would seem likely that Ritchie would affirm moral knowledge on naturalism.

The problem for naturalistic moral ethics, as Ritchie sees it, is not a lack of moral knowledge, but lack of an explanation for how we can have knowledge. In light of the limited resources at their disposal as naturalists, what they can’t provide is an explanation for how moral knowledge is possible. On the assumption that the naturalists in question embrace a sufficiently robust moral ontology, their doing so introduces an explanatory gap between those truths and what they can explain about our ability as human beings to grasp those truths. Their naturalism is epistemically deficient when it comes to morality—not in virtue of naturalism entailing a lack of moral knowledge, but rather in terms of a naturalistic explanation of such knowledge. He writes, “We must not confuse an anti-sceptical [sic] argument which justifies the trust we place in our faculties with one which explains their accuracy.”

Angus Menuge, in contrast, after identifying prima facie reasons to be skeptical of naturalism explaining objective moral truth, distinguishes between two sorts of evolutionary ethics (EE). Strong EE dictates that moral ontology itself would be different had evolution played out differently. If, for example, we had been raised to kill our brothers and sisters or children, then such behaviors would have been morally right. Weak EE, in contrast, says it’s only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees. Let’s set aside Strong EE as it holds no realistic hope of sustaining objective moral facts. Let’s direct our attention to Weak EE instead.

Menuge suggests that Weak EE faces an intractable epistemic challenge. It gives us no grounds to think our moral beliefs are true. For they would be formed for reasons potentially quite unrelated to their truth. To make his point, he uses an example of looking at what turns out to be a broken clock, unknown to you. It reads 7 p.m., and suppose that it’s indeed, by sheer coincidence, 7 p.m. No knowledge results, though, since your reason for thinking it’s 7 o’clock has nothing to do with its actually being 7 o’clock.

Menuge writes, “Unfortunately for Weak EE, if it is true, then we are in a precisely similar situation regarding our moral beliefs. For on that view, natural history is causally relevant to our moral beliefs, but does not account for moral reality. So if we had been raised like hive bees we would think fratricide and infanticide were right even if they were not. And, it could be that we think fratricide and infanticide are wrong (because we were not raised like hive bees) even though they are right. But now suppose that our belief that fratricide and infanticide are wrong happens to be true. Still, it is not knowledge, because what made us believe this has nothing to do with why our belief is true.”

Whereas Ritchie seems to affirm the consistency of naturalism and moral knowledge, Menuge denies it. Both think that naturalism faces intractable challenges to account for moral knowledge. Whereas Menuge thinks naturalism is simply inconsistent with moral knowledge (at least in the case cited), Ritchie thinks naturalism is consistent with it, but deficient in explaining how such knowledge is possible.

On the assumption that Menuge, like J. P. Moreland and Scott Smith, is denying that naturalism is consistent with objective moral knowledge claims by taking naturalism to be a rebutting defeater of moral knowledge, perhaps the reason for his doing so is that he is skeptical that naturalism is consistent with moral justification. When he writes that “Weak EE gives us no grounds to think our moral beliefs are true,” it sounds as if he’s denying that moral justification is consistent with Weak EE. He acknowledges the possibility of moral truth claims, but thinks that on naturalism we would believe in them only accidentally—like the person who forms a true belief on the basis of seeing a faulty clock. If Menuge’s suggestion is that, in either case, it’s the requirement of justification that goes unsatisfied, then Menuge and Ritchie part company. Ritchie would be affirming the possibility of moral justification and knowledge on naturalism, whereas Menuge would be denying both, despite that they agree that naturalism is in trouble here.

And there is yet a third way naturalism makes mischief, which we can see by splitting the difference. Suppose that Ritchie is right that naturalism is consistent with moral justification, but that Menuge is right that moral knowledge is precluded by naturalism. This confluence of conditions would yield yet another possibility: something like a Gettier Moral Counterexample. For on naturalism we could have a justified true moral belief, but not moral knowledge. Think again of the clock case, which, incidentally, is much like Bertrand Russell’s prescient Gettier-like counterexample predating Gettier. Suppose the clock in question is a clock that, in your experience, has always been reliable in the past. You look up and see the time, form the belief that’s the right time, and suppose indeed it is. But unknown to you, the clock is broken. So you arguably have a justified true belief, but presumably not knowledge. Might there be something analogous for naturalism and moral knowledge? Justified true moral belief without knowledge? Perhaps.

Why think moral knowledge would be precluded, despite the justified true belief? For this reason: just as in the clock case, the reasons for the beliefs being true would be a coincidence. Even if this isn’t enough to preclude at least some form or measure of justification—a matter on which perhaps there’s legitimate room for rational disagreement—it is clearly enough to preclude knowledge. So even if we assume this is a naturalistic world in which objective moral truths obtain (a big assumption, but not my current target), and even if justified true moral beliefs obtain on naturalism, moral knowledge could well still be beyond our reach.

What we have seen here, then, are three different ways naturalism seems to face a challenge from the direction of moral knowledge. Naturalism (a) is consistent with moral knowledge but can’t explain it with its resources (if Ritchie is right); or (b) is inconsistent with moral justification and thus moral knowledge (if Menuge is right); or, even if it’s consistent with both moral realism and justified true belief, is nonetheless (c) inconsistent with  moral knowledge because of a Gettier-like moral counterexample. What naturalism seems confronted with is the charge of either failing to be consistent with moral knowledge or, even if it’s consistent with moral knowledge, explaining moral knowledge with the resources at its disposal.

The Battle of the Angi over moral knowledge inevitably results in another loss for naturalism.



Photo: "chess game" by L. West. CC License. 

5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

By Paul Rezkalla   The Moral Argument for the existence of God has enjoyed a long tradition of defense from theistic philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections from even some of the most brilliant minds. In its abductive form, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the moral facts about the universe. One popular formulation is as follows:

  1. Moral facts are best explained by God’s existence.

  2. Moral facts exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

Here are five of the most common objections to the argument and why, in my view, they are not insuperable.

 1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument is not about belief in God. Rather, the argument usually deals with grounding and substantiating objective morality. If God does not exist, then objective morality becomes much more difficult to explain. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! Religious leaders in the New Testament were among the biggest detractors and critics of Jesus. The issue of belief is not pertinent. The argument instead highlights the fact that there must be a sufficient basis for there to be objective morality. God, in light of the distinctive features of morality, can be argued to be their best explanation.

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We need not talk about absolute morality here. There is an important difference between absolute and objective. Absolutism requires that something will or must always be the case. For the record, such moral facts exist—like the inherent badness of torturing children for fun. But nothing so strong is called for here. Objectivity simply means (human) ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgment-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I need not argue that it is always the case that lying and killing are wrong; the moral argument I’m sketching does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities.

Suppose that some nation today decreed that every one of its brunette citizens would be tortured to death simply for being brunette; it would still be the case that it is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette.

The statement, “It is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette” is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.

3. "Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it." Well, many would suggest that the evidence for objective morality is ubiquitous. If by ‘evidence’ you mean incontrovertible proof beyond any shadow of doubt, such an evidential standard is simply unrealistic and beyond our ken for nearly everything except a few beliefs internal to our own heads. After all, how do you know with absolute certainty that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know with complete assurance that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, “I will not believe unless I have completely sure evidence for it” leaves you with solipsism, at best. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our sense experience of the external world. And we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we have good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove with utter certainty that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of age. Similarly we have no good noncircular evidence for the reliability of testimony or the reliability of induction, and these are just a few examples we could adduce. And yet we all believe that the external world and the past are real. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think it’s plausible to suggest by parity in reasoning that we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral experience. Unless we have good reason to distrust such experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

Despite how resistant we might be to accepting the truth of moral objectivity, no one really denies that there are some moral facts (except psychopaths and some sociopaths). Take the following scenario: In 1978 a fifteen year old girl was walking to her grandfather’s house when a man offered to give her a ride. She got in the car with him. He then kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly, hacked off her arms at the elbows with an axe, and left her to die. Although she survived, she was terrorized by this traumatic event. Her attacker served only eight years in prison and told her during the trial that one day he would be back to finish the job.

Now answer the following question: Was this act wrong?

If yes, you believe that there is at least one moral fact in the world.

If no, you face a fairly formidable burden of proof. There’s theoretical space for skepticism, but it’s hardly the obvious position to take.

4. "If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that most of us hold would suggest that “the elderly are valuable and must be taken care of,” is also accepted by these tribes, even though their construal of the nonmoral facts diverges from our own.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, and the like are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. The fact that we realize the difference in how certain cultures treat their women, children, and elderly and are outraged at immoral practices is evidence that we believe in objective morality. A man’s decision to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution is no mere cultural or traditional difference that we should respect, uphold, or praise, or even cultivate an attitude of impartiality toward; rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation simply because they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite their convictions to the contrary. Tim Keller summarizes this point succinctly:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths, any more than people disagreeing on a mathematical calculation negates an objectively right answer.

5. "But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites." For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument since it does not attack either premise of the argument. It’s of course an interesting issue regarding the moral character of the God of the Bible, and for those interested, this site recently posted a new book by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan; we encourage you to take a look. Beyond that, we can say this: by making a judgment on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework—an explanation that explains all that needs to be explained without changing the topic, watering down the categories, or reducing the significance of morality.

Watering Down the Categories

By  David Baggett I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York—and someone with whom I recently dialogued at the University at Buffalo—and Frans de Waal, author most recently of  The Bonobo and the Atheist  (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority. What is interesting about this trend is that the resulting picture is entirely consistent with the view of complete moral skeptics, even amoralists.

Take Joel Marks, for example, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven. A former Kantian ethicist, he has decided that the category of morality lacks an objective referent. He’s written a few books about it, but an op-ed in the  New York Times  encapsulated his view in succinct fashion. In brief, although he has retained his aversive feelings toward, say, animal suffering, he has grown altogether skeptical that his feelings point to moral reality. He still fights for a world more to his liking, but he has come to think that morality has precious little to do with it, because there is no such thing. Marks is an amoralist—a very nice fellow, from all accounts, but someone who has given morality up. Resonating with Marks are such naturalists as Sharon Street and Richard Joyce, who have insisted that an evolutionary development of our moral sense, on a naturalistic picture, gives us little reason to think that our moral beliefs and convictions correspond with moral truth. Rather they evolved to produce behaviors that conduced to reproductive advantage.

But then de Waal and Shook come along and insist, largely without argument, that, to the contrary, the success of evolutionary moral psychology to account for our feelings of empathy, altruism, and prosociality is not only consistent with morality, but sufficient to account for it. To project the appearance their argument works, though, they need to engage in some subtle sleight of hand, replacing categories of moral authority with moral instincts, categorical obligations with malleable rules, objective truths with shared beliefs. But in the debate about moral foundations, classical theism can account for the full range of moral truths in need of explanation, without watering them down or subtly replacing them with functional analyses—from intrinsic goodness to categorical oughtness to genuine moral agency. To the extent that our naturalist friends like de Waal and Shook appear to be retaining the thick language of morality to capture ideas thin enough that complete moral skeptics could endorse them, there appears something deeply confused at best or disingenuous at worst about their approach, fortifying my growing conviction that soon enough the real moral debate will feature classical theists on one side and moral anti-realists on the other.

Link: Glenn Peoples and Stephen Law on the Evil God Challenge

Over at Unbelievable?, there is a great discussion between Christian philosopher Glenn Peoples and  atheist philosopher Stephen Law on the "Evil God Challenge." The objection raised in the challenge is that we have as much evidence to believe in a good God as an evil one. Peoples responds with a moral argument. You can listen to the discussion here. Photo: "Angry Gods" by deanoakley. CC License. 

Missing the Point: Why Functional Accounts of Ethics are Consistent with Anti-Realism

This paper will make the case that attempts to explicate the concepts of ethics in essentially functional ways while retaining the traditional language and categories of morality is a mistake, confused at best, disingenuous at worst. The intention is not to take on all versions of naturalistic ethics, but just those that I am characterizing as functional in this delimited sense: secular analyses that cash out the significance of moral categories like moral freedom, responsibility, authority, intrinsic goods, categorical obligations, and objective truths with concepts distinctly thinner than such thick language connotes, concepts easily enough measureable, empirically analyzable, and consistent with naturalism and evolutionary moral psychology, but concepts, so I will argue, that simply do not capture what ordinary speakers tend to mean by moral discourse. I will begin with phenomenological reasons for this critique, and then move on to make a few metaphysical and epistemic points that bolster the analysis and that will enable me by the end to make a few remarks on moral motivation relevant to the matter of whether or not morality needs religion.

A word on that last point first. The notion that morality needs religion generally or God specifically might amount to the suggestion that without God there can be no objective morality, a premise that sounds quite a bit like one of the famous premises of William Lane Craig’s favored version of the moral argument for God’s existence: “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” I tend instead to favor an abductive variant of the moral argument, an inference to the best explanation, which begins with axiomatic moral facts, at least alleged ones, identifies a pool of explanation candidates, attempts to narrow the field by an application of principled criteria, and infers to the best explanation as the likely true explanation. Even if theism provides the best explanation of morality, however, best doesn’t mean only. So a successful abductive case does not provide warrant for so strong a claim as Craig’s that atheism implies the absence of moral values and duties.

Obviously it cannot be my intention to lay out the whole of this abductive argument, in part exactly because such an argument counsels patience. What is called for is that each individual explanation candidate, or at least each general approach, be carefully assessed to show how it stacks up to the theistic variant under consideration.[1] The only way anyone could try to level all the naturalistic explanations in one fell swoop is by offering quite general critiques of naturalism, some of which are quite powerful, but this is an attempt which often leaves more questions unanswered than answered. So my approach here is different: not to pretend to do anything so ambitious as that, but simply to scrutinize just one sort of version of naturalistic ethics, namely, these functional accounts of moral concepts and categories, paradigmatic examples including Frans de Waal’s take on moral obligations and John Shook’s analysis of moral truth.

An additional reason not to defend Craig’s more ambitious premise is that, if Anselmian theology is true, a world in which God does not exist is an intractably impossible world, for God’s existence is necessary—indeed, God is nothing less than the ground of being itself. So stipulating the features of such an atheistic world can on reflection seem just about as hopeful as identifying the features of a world in which twice two is five. But if we are going to give secularists the chance to construct a workable moral theory, we have to be willing to see them try to use the resources of this world alone in their efforts to build their case. If classical theists are right, and this indeed is a world that God created and inhabited with creatures made in his image, it would be unsurprising if naturalistic ethicists, using the resources of so remarkable a world, are able to make progress in moral theory; indeed it would be very surprising if they did not. Among the implications of this, in my estimation, is that secular and naturalistic ethicists seem well within their epistemic rights to show some tenacity in the matter when, as their efforts invariably will, they encounter challenges, as all moral efforts of explanations do. And the defender of theistic ethics as the better explanation than any and all naturalistic theories needs to take the work of secular ethicists with the utmost seriousness—but one at a time, which is my approach today.

Before beginning, allow me to say a word about moral phenomenology—construed as encompassing, among other things, both the logic, grammar, and semantics of morality on the one hand as well as the what-it-is-like features of moral experience on the other—which together give us excellent reasons to be open to the possibility of objective moral values and obligations. “Objective moral values and obligations” refer to moral values and duties that apply to rational human persons irrespective of whether they correspond with the felt desires or preferences of those persons. Such phenomenological deliverances are in principle defeasible, but if we take the logic and language of morality seriously, along with those features of moral phenomenology such as the felt requiredness or prohibitedness of certain actions, it is certainly no epistemic stretch to remain quite open to an objective morality.[2] In that case, though, what sort of objectivity is needed (1) to make substantial revision of our moral language unnecessary—to capture, in other words, at least the essential meaning of our inherited moral language to make its continuing use ingenuous—and (2) to warrant rational belief that our feelings of, say, moral obligation sufficiently correspond with actual obligations—in other words, that our sense of moral obligations reasonably tracks moral truth?

The Bonobo and the Atheist

Let us begin with the primatologist Frans de Waal’s recently published The Bonobo and the Atheist, subtitled “In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.”[3] De Waal’s preferred understanding of morality is bottom-up. Using a variety of examples, he argues that animal tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversions to inequity suggest that the operation of such moral building blocks in primates reveal that morality is not as much of a human innovation as we like to think. As evidence for his contentions, he points to instances of animal empathy, even bird empathy—and the fact that mammals give and want affection and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs. It is particularly the bonobos who show, especially in contrast with chimpanzees, that our lineage is marked not just by male dominance and xenophobia, but also by a love of harmony and sensitivity to others. He resists the depiction of animals as primarily vicious and self-centered; just like us, he writes, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. We have a psychological makeup, de Waal writes, that remains that of a social primate.

He thinks the weight of morality comes not from above, but from inside of us. In a Humean spirit he thinks reason to be but the slave of the passions; we start with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. To de Waal’s thinking, morality is created in day-to-day interaction, grounded in emotions, which often escape the neat categorizations of which science is fond. Such an approach to ethics comports, he argues, with what we know about how the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and with the way evolution produces behavior. He is hesitant to call apes or even bonobos moral creatures, but he definitely thinks what we call morality among human beings finds its origin in our evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, empathy, and altruism of other primates (traits that stand in contrast with a Hobbesian analysis of nature) is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things, build systems of justification, and generalize morality into a system of abstractions. But the book leaves a nagging question hanging: Hasn’t de Waal completely, albeit deftly, changed the subject? What he is referring to as “morality” does not seem to be any set of moral truths at all, but rather moral beliefs and practices. Although he identifies some necessary additions to animal behavior to arrive at “morality,” what he adds does not seem to be even nearly enough.

Consider moral obligations, which typically are thought to provide distinctive and authoritative reasons to perform an action or refrain from one. A moral obligation, particularly ultima facie ones among them, ought to be obeyed; it has authority, punch, clout, prescriptive power. In an effort to account for moral obligations, de Waal employs one of the following strategies: he either (1) eschews their importance, arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not try to explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations. His first strategy goes hand in hand with his effort to hint at the emaciated nature of moral motivation when all that is motivating a person is a sense of moral obligation. He rightly sees, contra Kant, that in some sense it is better to be motivated by higher moral impulses, like love. True enough, and nearly every virtue theorist would agree. This provides no liberation from the need to explain the existence of moral obligations themselves.

His second strategy explains how primates, and especially human beings, experience a feeling or sense of moral obligations. But evolutionary explanations of a feeling of obligation or a tendency to use the language of moral obligation do nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves. If a sense of obligations and the language of obligations are enough, then moral obligations themselves need not exist at all. De Waal has not provided anything a moral anti-realist or even hardened amoralist cannot already provide, and he has instead fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated.

A thoroughly naturalistic effort to explain why we may well feel obligations or use the language of moral obligation seems eminently possible. Expunged of categorical oughtness, though, is what is left over enough to qualify as morality? Have we explained enough? Explanatory scope and power demand that all of the salient features of morality be explained, and explained well, by a theory before we dub the explanation a good one or the best. De Waal has simply left anything like categorical moral oughtness out of the picture without so much as an acknowledgement. Again, if he is content with an instrumental analysis of reasons to perform certain prosocial actions, then why use the language of morality at all? He is hard pressed to come up with anything more principled than an admission that traditional moral language carries with it more clout than prudential language. Meanwhile he continues to use the thick language of morality, moral obligations, and the like while simultaneously emptying the relevant concepts of those distinctive features of morality that imbue moral language with its presumed force and binding authority. His concepts are thin, while his language remains thick and rich. Moral anti-realists can just as effectively speak in terms of behaviors that comport with prevailing preferences or even nearly universal human emotions. What has de Waal added to the case that such moral skeptics are unable to affirm, and thus what reason is there to think that the functionalist account he has provided has given a naturalist any reason to abandon moral anti-realism, be it the amoralism and abolitionism of Joel Marks or the moral fictionalism of Richard Joyce?[4]

De Waal seems simultaneously underambitious and overambitious. He is underambitious in his characterization of morality, settling to cash prescriptivity out in terms of prevailing expectations rather than objective authority, settling for an account of a sense of obligations rather than obligations themselves, and for empathic behavior rather than empathic motivations. He is overambitious, at the same time, and for related reasons, in characterizing advanced nonhuman primates as engaging in normative judgments that serve as precursors to morality. While it undoubtedly seems true we can use the language of oughtness for advanced primates in predictive and instrumental senses, the evidence to suggest that they have anything like a sense of categorical oughtness is a case yet to be made.

Finally, just because naturalistic evolution can explain why we have some of the moral concepts we do, why we have a natural inclination to behave in certain prosocial or empathetic or altruistic ways, how does it follow that evolution has explained morality? To the contrary, naturalists need to take with great seriousness a challenge like that posed by Sharon Street or Richard Joyce: If evolution can explain why we have the moral concepts we do in a way that makes no reference to their truth, then what reasons do naturalists have to take morality seriously?[5] If reproductive advantage accounted for the selection of those behaviors that issued from moral convictions rather than the truth of those convictions, naturalistic evolution gives us reason to think our moral beliefs lack truth, most likely, lack justification, most certainly. Besides, don’t they have all they need when they point to certain behaviors that stir in most human beings strong feelings, positive or negative, and then letting nature run its course? Why the additional need to hold so tightly to distinctively moral language that carries bigger implications than they can explain?

So to reiterate: a moral realist needs to render substantial revision of our ordinary moral language unnecessary, and to provide an account that warrants rational belief that our feelings of, say, moral obligation sufficiently correspond with actual obligations. De Waal’s study, intriguing at points as it is and as enjoyable a read as it is, fails on both scores.


John Shook’s Ethics

Unlike de Waal, John Shook is trained in philosophy. I had the privilege of dialoguing with him recently at the University at Buffalo on God and ethics; the topic of the dialogue was “Right, Wrong, and God: What Best Explains Morality?” At the event he gave me his book entitled The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between), a Wiley-Blackwell publication from a few years ago. Philip Clayton says Shook’s book “lays out the questions, controversies, and schools of thought with amazing clarity, gradually building his case for a ‘staunchly naturalistic yet faithfully ethical humanism.’” When we turn to the pages of the book, however, and specifically his discussion of morality, we find little warrant for such a glowing commendation.

Shook’s naturalistic account of moral truth comes in the context of his response to a view he rejects, namely, that the truth of moral rules requires the existence of a supernatural reality to explain their truth. He offers his own analysis in terms of what naturalism proposes—as if all naturalists are on the same page, an obviously dubious assumption, but at any rate he writes, “According to naturalism, there are no absolute moral truths. But morality is not simply subjective, either; most of morality consists of culturally objective truths, and the rest is indeed subjective.”[6] He defines objectivity here in this way: “An objective moral truth is made true by the natural fact that a society of people share a common culture which includes that accepted truth among its social rules.”[7] Such objective truths, on his depiction, remain relative, but to societies, not to any individual person. “Because cultures make most moral truths true, these moral truths are only relatively true, even if some people within that culture actually believe that some moral truths are absolutely true.”[8] Shook affirms objectivity in this limited sense, but distinguishes it from absolutism, which is, as he puts it, objectivity plus infallibility, never possibly different or wrong. Shook thinks that, according to naturalism, there are no such infallible or unchangeable moral truths.

He adds that “Naturalistic accounts of morality presently emphasize the evolutionary origins of moral instincts and the cultural pressures guiding the moral development of humanity,” citing, among others, Richard Joyce’s 2006 book The Evolution of Morality.[9] Shook adds, “Like the capacity for other kinds of knowledge, the human capacity for moral feelings and knowledge is part of our species, but moral rules can take diverse complex forms across cultures.”[10]

Shook advances the case that culturally objective morality is objective because such morality is independent of whatever any individual person wishes morality to be; he cites as a good analogy a country’s laws. “Laws are valid because they are politically objective: the law is not whatever any person wants it to be.”[11] Culturally objective moral rules are never fixed, final, or perfect, moreover. “The people of a society can change their culture’s morality after ethical thinking. Individuals can disagree with a culture’s morality, of course, by appealing to a different morality or to a higher ethical standard,” such as an ethical ideal.[12] Although such ideals themselves are not absolute moral truths, the fact that there tends to be some convergence on certain moral truths in concentrated populations is no more surprising than the way that civilizations converged on a few principles of wise agriculture. The best explanation for such convergence, he additionally argues, is entirely naturalistic.

So Shook concludes that “since the theologian cannot provide any clear example of an actual absolute moral truth, and naturalism can explain why cultures have culturally objective moral truths, premise 1 of the argument from morality should not be accepted as true.”[13] What I propose to do is, first, discuss the issue of absolute moral truth, and, secondly, discuss the adequacy of Shook’s own functional account of morality.

By “objectivity” Shook means the opposite of “subjectivity,” so he considers himself qualified to use the phrase “objective moral truth” to refer to a reigning, widespread cultural moral conviction. He wishes to insist that what such objectivity rules out is assignment of primacy to personal whim when it comes to morality, but at the same time he is not suggesting that a particular culturally objective moral truth cannot be mistaken. There is a sense in which such a truth can be insufficiently enlightened or workable, and in time, owing to pressure exerted by individuals or groups within the society, such truths are liable to be replaced by other ones. What constitutes lack of enlightenment or workability has nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of morality. Rather, it is a matter of the extrinsic nature of morality. That is to say, moral truths are truths in virtue of fulfilling certain instrumental purposes—perhaps something along the lines of rules that serve to maximize social harmony or human flourishing.

“Objectivity” is multiply ambiguous, so Shook, having defined moral objectivity in the sense he does, may well be right that naturalism can account for “culturally objective moral truths” thus defined. The real tension has to do with whether his definition is preferable and justified, on the one hand, or misleading and unprincipled, on the other. Setting aside the charge of begging questions by his defining objectivity as he does, it is worth stressing that his particular way of using the term is, if not inappropriate, at least rather idiosyncratic. For someone who puts so much stock in avoiding the whim of personal preference when it comes to morality, he seems to have few qualms about privileging his highly personal definition of moral objectivity that, in truth, simply leaves behind most all of the connotations that people tend to associate with the term. One wonders why he continues to insist on using the phrase “objective truth” at all, when admitting that they can change, and one cannot help but conjecture that it is to project the impression of holding on more tightly to nonnegotiable moral convictions than his view actually allows. To treat moral objectivity in the sense he does, particularly while conjoining it with the category of truth, borders the disingenuous. For “culturally objective truths” on his view would be indistinct from “culturally objective beliefs.” But belief and truth are not the same, a point Shook readily concedes when it comes to whims of individual preference, and he even admits that some widespread cultural moral truths are or can be wrong. What is clear is that he is not talking about truth here at all, but simply belief. Beliefs can be false. Truths cannot. To borrow language because of its comforting implications and connotations without the ability to stand behind the language strikes me as an instance of bad faith.

If there are no objective moral truths, then the language of truth should be abandoned or treated as a useful fiction, not redefined or watered down to refer simply to beliefs while the language of truth is retained to project the impression that the account has more substance than it actually does. Now, Shook has done some work in pragmatism, and perhaps he wishes to depart from something like a correspondence theory of truth and opt instead for a pragmatist one. However American, there remains something deeply problematic about continuing to use “truth” language knowing it is likely that most people will interpret the locution along correspondence lines if in fact one means something very different.

On the issue of whether even pragmatists can rationally exclude considerations of correspondence altogether, consider this short passage from the great American pragmatist William James. When pressed on whether a belief in an existent could be rightly dubbed true if the entity in question did not exist, James wrote that the “pragmatist calls satisfactions indispensable for truth-building, but I have everywhere called them insufficient unless reality be also incidentally led to. If the reality assumed were canceled from the pragmatist’s universe of discourse, he would straightway give the name of falsehoods to the beliefs remaining, in spite of all their satisfactoriness. For him, as for his critic, there can be no truth if there is nothing to be true about. Ideas are so much flat psychological surface unless some mirrored matter gives them cognitive lustre.”[14]

Shook’s challenge to the advocate of moral apologetics is that she provide an example of an “absolute moral truth,” a universal, unchanging moral truth. So can the advocate of the moral argument adduce an example of a moral truth that is both objective in the more robust sense and necessarily true? It would certainly seem so. It is wrong for human beings, everywhere and for everyone, to rape women indiscriminately for the sake of providing a public spectacle. It is wrong for us, everywhere and for everyone, to torture children for the sheer fun and delight of it. In truth, the objectivity and necessity of such moral truths is so beyond debate that the burden here is on the person who would wish to posit the existence of an exception. Most naturalists still insist that they agree wholeheartedly, often adding indignantly, “And I don’t need God to tell me this.” Shook’s skepticism about necessary moral truths, in this sense, already shades in the direction of anti-realism in ethics. If someone is a moral anti-realist, or some sort of radical skeptic, then such a person, including Shook, should simply give up the language of objective moral truth. If someone is not willing to say that it is not possible that child torture for fun could become morally obligatory, such a person seems confused if he is unwilling to jettison language of moral objectivity. Equivocating on the language of objectivity is not enough. Perhaps the person should simply admit that he is a moral skeptic. For such a person to hold on to the language of morality is an expression of nostalgia, an example of Nietzsche’s prediction that atheists would take their time to come to terms with the radical implications of their view. It is a profoundly misguided maneuver to do what Sartre said atheists did too often: eliminate God from the equation and act like it is business as usual, when it is not.

In a discussion of what best explains morality, if a person cannot explain either that or why a moral truth like the wrongness of child torture for fun is necessarily and objectively wrong, then his worldview, or at least his particular variant of it, seems fatally flawed. It is lacking in explanatory scope and explanatory power. He needs to resort to ad hoc redefinitions of standard terms to avoid the unpalatable implications of his view. This is not a good explanation of morality. It is an evasion of what it is that needs explanation, and it is unprincipled.

Shook’s language of infallibility, absolutism, and eternality seems to be a thinly veiled effort to poison the well, as it were, to saddle believers in classically objective and authoritative morality with pejorative labels intended to repulse listeners and readers. But it does nothing to advance his case, “objectively” speaking. What is actually needed for the moral case is moral realism, the existence of objectively true moral principles that are binding, prescriptive, and authoritative across the board. The denial of such principles is tantamount to anti-realism. Shook is careful to avoid the charge of subjectivism in ethics, but the problem is worse than that. He is a skeptic, whether he realizes it or not, who cloaks his true identity with language designed to conceal it—from himself or others, it is unclear. In fact, more often than not, he uses language that obfuscates and misleads more than it illuminates and enlightens.[15]

A discussion of moral “rules” and watered-down moral “truths” has the actual effect of distracting the reader from aspects of morality that Shook is understandably lacking in resources to account for—such as the existence of genuine moral obligations. In an effort to explain morality, and particularly to best explain morality, all the major parts of morality need explanation. And most all of us are inclined to see as an ineliminable part of morality the existence of binding, prescriptive, authoritative obligations—which we morally ought to perform and are morally blameworthy for failing to do so. Even virtue ethicists who speak less in terms of obligation than character formation and the virtues still presumably think we ought to pursue a life of character, integrity, and virtue. Aristotle certainly did not seem to abandon the concept of moral obligations altogether, nor do most people; but moral obligations, if they exist, do not derive their authority from our taking a poll. If they exist, they obtain irrespective of our willingness to live by them or take them seriously—and this applies on both the level of the individual and culture. Torturing children for fun is something we have an obligation not to do, either individually or culturally, presumably. It is a moral fact, and what many would consider to be an ineliminable and nonnegotiable one at that.

So, like de Waal, Shook fails to satisfy either constraint imposed by moral language and phenomenology for a reasonably realist moral perspective; he equivocates on important moral categories like moral truth by talking about belief, avoids the language of moral obligations almost altogether, replaces moral authority with moral instincts; and, in the light of challenges to moral realism posed by the likes of Street, Marks, and Joyce, naturalists all, he says nothing at all. When pressed on this, he arrogates to the cause of naturalism the clarity of certain moral intuitions that all of us are able without any difficulty to apprehend, thereby conflating issues of epistemology and ontology. In truth he does nothing to account for moral obligations, moral authority, moral guilt, moral responsibility, or moral truth—all necessary ingredients that go into meaningful moral judgments. Nor does he so much as seem aware of the need to do so, attributing my dissatisfaction with his answers to my misguided quest for certainty. It is not certainty that is the goal, however, but rather explanatory sufficiency.


Final Thoughts

To sum up, we have seen, phenomenologically, that we have reason to take the possibility of moral realism seriously. But it would seem the concepts of morality need to be robust and thick enough to hold the weight of our moral experience and language, or else we should effect a revision in our use of language and our understanding of moral reality, for these are profoundly misleading if they are so radically nonveridical. Functional naturalistic accounts of morality from de Waal’s characterization of moral obligations as reducible to our sense of obligations to Shook’s equation of moral truth with widespread moral belief—and these are just the tip of the iceberg of such deflationary analyses that leave out the most interesting and important features of morality—fail to capture ideas rich enough to justify ongoing thick moral language. Their analyses are consistent with thoroughgoing moral anti-realism save for the nonfictional use of moral language, but it is just this that renders their language either confused or disingenuous. They appropriate with abandon the language while they, without explanation, jettison what is most interesting and instructive about morality. It is hard not to conjecture that fear of superstition has led to moral emaciation and desiccation; but the wild truth of morality is not so easily domesticated by such deflationary accounts.

Their biggest philosophical mistake, in my estimation, is an inference from the findings of evolutionary moral psychology to a weak version of moral realism, because this inference, rather than predicated on a reliable tracking mechanism, simply leaves out of the picture the need for any such tracking relation to be acknowledged, much less specified. My point could be taken as a specific application of a more general discursive strategy aimed at naturalism per se by the likes of Al Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, Vic Reppert, and others, notably the old Oxford don C. S. Lewis, to the effect that naturalism has a notoriously hard time accounting for such realities as cognition, deliberation, rationality, free will, consciousness, and the like.[16] I have intentionally delimited such a challenge to functional naturalisms with respect to morality in particular, where to my thinking the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its clout, its obligatoriness, intrinsic value—render these functional accounts doomed. Such deflationary analyses employing their thin concepts conjoined with traditional thick moral language obfuscate the fact that they by sleight-of-hand have simply bypassed the need to explain how it is our moral language tracks moral truth. Their thin concepts do justice neither to moral language nor moral experience, fail to correspond to the referents of ordinary moral language, and, finally, introduce a motivational problem that heretofore has gone unmentioned, and with this, after one penultimate point, I will finish because it bears most directly on the theme of this conference.

Both de Waal and Shook largely think that something like Christian faith at its best reflects with a fair degree of accuracy solid ethical content, but that, to one degree or another, it is possible to disentangle the moral content from religious foundations and see it stand on its own feet. Shook is more sanguine than de Waal about expressing such confidence. This is relevant at least to mention at this juncture because here the operative issue pertains to moral content—inalienable rights if such there be, essential human equality, and so on—as well as our access to such content, which are at least intriguing to consider for a moment. Without belaboring it or claiming this to be my own considered view, it is worth noting, in contrast with our confident functionalists, Nietzsche’s diametrically opposite view of the matter from Twilight of the Idols. Speaking of, appropriately enough in this context, the English, here is what he had to say:

Christian morality is a command, its origin is transcendental. . . . it is true only on condition that God is truth—it stands or falls with the belief in God. If the English really believe that they know intuitively, and of their own accord, what is good and evil; if, therefore, they assert that they no longer need Christianity as a guarantee of morality, this in itself is simply the outcome of the dominion of Christian valuations, and a proof of the strength and profundity of this dominion. It only shows that the origin of English morality has been forgotten and that is exceedingly relative right to exist is no longer felt. For Englishmen morality is not yet a problem.[17]

The motivational problem, in a nutshell, is this: such functional analyses water down moral categories while exploiting the authority-laden language of morality. Embedded at the heart of such analyses are seeds of its destruction. For invariably rationality will declare that the sturdy foundations of morality necessary for providing adequate reason and motive to be moral and to take morality with the seriousness it deserves have been lost. That plenty of such naturalists—like de Waal and Shook—remain wonderful people eminently better, in my estimation, than their worldview and faithful in their commitment to humanistic impulses with which many of us heartily concur and resonate is not in dispute. The question is whether such naturalists can sustain their moral commitments by anything more than sheer dint of effort, force of will, or personal predilection. Morality’s authority goes beyond preference, biological dispositions, and nostalgic sentimentalism. That functional naturalists can choose to be committed humanists psychologically is of course possible; that there is any intrinsic, binding, authoritative moral reason for us all so to live and to love our neighbor as ourselves is not something such naturalists have the resources by which to assure us—particularly, it would seem, when the dictates of self-interest and morality are at radical odds or, more broadly, when a commitment to morality appears prohibitively costly. Nietzsche’s prediction will likely prove right that such sentimental naturalists will be slow to come to this realization. I lament this, though, less than when they so steadfastly refuse to consider the possibility of a better explanation of classical morality and its authority robustly construed—an explanation involving not only the myriad resources of this enchanted world that they love to study with such passionate zeal and meticulous detail, but also its Creator who imbued it with its meaning and significance and to whom it points for those willing to discern its signals of transcendence.


[1] My own operative theology is an Anselmian and classical picture of theism.

[2] Classic historical works in moral phenomenology include Wolfgang Kohler’s Place of Value in a World of Facts (New York: Liveright, 1938), and Maurice Mandelbaum’s Phenomenology of Moral Experience (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1955).

[3] Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (New York: Norton, 2013).

[4] Shook even adduces Joyce as a shining example of a naturalistic ethicist, inexplicably enough.

[5] Sharon Street (2006), “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies, 127: 109-66.

[6] Ibid. 112.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 113. See Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007). Also see Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). What makes Shook’s reference to Joyce so surprising is Shook’s apparent ignorance of the fact that Joyce is a moral anti-realist, or at least an agnostic on the question of whether there is objective moral truth.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 115.

[14] William James, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1909, 1975), 106.

[15] Here is another example of it. The universality of absolute morality that Shook eschews pertains to the issue of applying to all human moral agents, not just those in a particular culture or period of time. However, almost as soon as he broaches universality as a prerequisite for classically objective morality, he changes the topic to the issue of universal agreement, and he spends no small amount of time pointing out that we can find no such thing. Of course we cannot. That issue is not what is in dispute. If we asked people the world over to perform the calculation of multiplying two huge numbers, we would not find universal agreement on the answer to that question, either, but that does not give us cause for concern. Lack of universal agreement is completely unrelated to the issue of universal authority. Again, belief is one thing, and truth is another.

[16] See, for example,  throw in Nagel, along with mention of review essay

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, tr. Anthony M. Ludovici (New York: Barnes and Noble, (1888) 2008), 46-47.


Photo: "Day 7 | Off Target" By Rgmcfadden. CC License. 

Review of Angus Ritchie's From Morality to Metaphysics

From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments, by Angus Ritchie, Oxford University Press, 2012, 198 pages.

In this excellent and tightly argued book, Angus Ritchie offers a moral argument for theism, or at least a vital piece of a bigger argument to that effect. Theism, he argues cogently, explains the human capacity for moral cognition better than various secular rivals. For his pool of alternative candidates, he canvasses the field of meta-ethics. In this way he cuts to the heart of much of the contemporary ethical debate, and in so doing he highlights a serious and systemic problem facing secular positions that attempt to accommodate our pre-theoretical moral commitments. He also sketches a teleological and theistic alternative that he argues avoids such objections that prove intractable to the secular theories.

In my estimation Ritchie’s work is one of the more important books written in ethics in recent years. In terms of building a moral apologetic, it does three central tasks: it presses the distinction between justification and explanation of moral truths (a recurring and integrating motif of the book); it takes secular alternatives seriously enough to engage them with real seriousness (at sufficient length with arguments suitably generalizable); and spells out the theistic alternative (though a bit briefly, inviting others to extend the discussion). Despite its lamentable number of distracting typos that should have been fixed in editing, and its failure to discuss Railton, Joyce, or Parfit, I recommend this book with enthusiasm. I have every confidence it will be an important contributor to the resurgence of interest in moral arguments for God in both natural theology and popular apologetics.

Ritchie offers an inference to the best explanation (IBE); his argument is that classical theism better explains objective moral ontology and epistemology. His primary argument for the moral objectivism in need of explanation is its deliberative indispensability. Humans are committed to moral norms for much the same reason we believe norms underwrite practices indispensable to human thought and action in the arena of theoretical reasoning. It is impossible to engage in moral deliberation without taking oneself to be aiming at a normative truth that goes beyond personal preference or cultural custom.

Among the secular explanation candidates of moral cognition Ritchie considers are those provided by Blackburn, Gibbard, Korsgaard, and the early Scanlon, who argue that our fundamental moral convictions can be accommodated without objectivism; and those of Foot, Crisp, and the later Scanlon who seek to combine a fully objectivist account of moral norms with no purposive agent or force. What all of these secular accounts have in common is their systemic flaw. In the case of the less objectivist theories the concessions made to reductionism leave them unable to do justice to our most fundamental moral convictions; those that accommodate the pull of objectivism generate an ‘explanatory gap’. The book’s central contention is that all secular theories that do justice to our most fundamental moral convictions go on to generate an insoluble ‘explanatory gap’ that consists in their inability to answer the following question: How do human beings, developing in a physical universe which is not itself shaped by any purposive force, come to have the capacity to apprehend objective moral norms?

Secular (nonteleological) theories only escape the explanatory gap by failing to vindicate our pre-philosophical moral commitments. The gap arises when the following commitments are combined: (1) Robust moral objectivism, (2) secularism, and (3) the belief that humans, through the exercise of their normal belief-generating and belief-evaluating capacities, are able to apprehend the objective moral order. While secular theories can explain humans’ acquisition of moral sensibilities and practices of reasoning, this does not tell us why those practices and sensibilities have the property of tracking the truth.

Regarding cognitive capacities (perceptual, theoretical, practical), three questions can be asked about their genesis and justification: (1) What is the justification for our faith in their reliability? (2) What is the historical explanation of their development? And (3) what is theexplanation for their capacity for tracking truth? It is just because Ritchie takes the fundamental convictions that emerge from reflective equilibrium to be justified (to have non-accidental correlation with objective moral norms) that the third question arises. So Ritchie stresses the importance that we not confuse the demand for an explanation for the reliability of our moral beliefs with the demand for a justification of our trust in the human capacity to acquire and modify our moral beliefs in a way that tracks truth.

In terms of what sort of explanation is needed, what is most promising, he thinks, is a teleological form of explanation that explains a particular event or state of affairs by showing that it is either (1) part of the end-state which a system brings about or (2) part of the means by which a system brings about the end-state. To be an intelligible account, the teleological explanation will also have made it intelligible why the system yields the outcome and of the means by which the system is capable of generating those outcomes and why it tends to generate them.

Ritchie’s overall claim is that it is legitimate to raise questions of explanation with respect to the truth-tracking quality of humans’ moral faculties because we see in natural selection a way in which explanation can be answered for our truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning and with respect to the physical world. The ability to track truth is selectively advantageous in those cases (unless Plantinga is right, which should prove no comfort to naturalists). Natural selection is the obvious candidate for an explanation of the development within humans of truth-tracking capacities regarding fundamental principles of deduction, IBE, and induction. It is highly probable that we will be better able to survive if we can come to true beliefs. So natural selection offers a story of how humans come to have truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning; likewise for both physical perception and theoretical reasoning.

No such correlation is plausible in the moral case. On the account given by evolutionary biology, it is not the fact that moral beliefs are correct which leads to them being selected for. Rather, it is the fact that they are conducive to the flourishing of the collective. There is no guarantee that the qualities which lead to multiplication will have any other excellence about them. Any value system based on survival, replication, and pleasure alone is inadequate. If there is not a less obvious way in which moral valuations promote survival, replication, and pleasure, then they’re spandrels, lacking any direct connection with genetic survival and multiplication. Unless we have a wider teleological account, we have no reason to suppose that these valuations have any non-random connective with that moral order.

Beyond such a prima facie case, Ritchie turns to specific meta-ethical theories, beginning with quasi-realism (‘QR’). Gibbard respects what Blackburn calls the ‘realist-seeming grammar’ of practical deliberation, but they both seek to minimize its metaphysical implications. Both respond to an impulse to both reductionism and objectivism. They want to offer the best of both worlds while avoiding objections. Moral quasi-realism is designed to avoid the following kind of morally obnoxious counterfactuals:

(CF) If we approved of torturing the child it would be a good act,

while keeping the ontology to a minimum. In moral deliberations, we judge desires and the prevailing attitudes of our society by a standard which is independent of those desires and attitudes.

QR claims that (CF) should be read as a statement within ethics. They deny that it need be taken as a higher-order, metaethical assertion. When we consider counterfactuals, they insist, we cannot help but evaluate them from within our commitments. And as such, all decent people will obviously reject (CF). Blackburn insists that we have no conception of the nature of an independent order of reason. Ritchie disagrees, insisting that the existence of objective norms of theoretical reasoning shows that we do have a conception of what ‘an independent order of reason’ would be.

Ritchie thinks QR can answer various objections, but that it runs into difficulty when it has to account for the provisionality with which all human beings hold their ethical views. We simply do not regard moral truth as being fixed completely by our current views. In its efforts to accommodate such an objection, QR faces two challenges: tying morality too closely to current beliefs, precluding progress, or tying it to whatever we come to believe, thus introducing problematic counterfactuals.

The early Scanlon tried to accommodate the pull of reductionism by stressing rational procedures rather than an ontologically distinct moral reality, using the meta-ethics of Korsgaard.  Korsgaard says the procedural moral realist thinks there are correct answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them. Thus she tries to secure objectivity without ontological commitments. Ritchie responds that both Blackburn and Korsgaard locate moral value in a feature of the agent’s attitudes, but these only make sense as responses to an external order of value. Unlike Kant, Korsgaard says the way we choose between the different candidates for universalizable moral norms is an agent’s existential commitments. What, though, about someone who’s a member of the Mafiaso? In one sense this produces obligations, but Korsgaard says the Mafioso should, given sufficient reflection, come to see that obedience to the honor code is the wrong law to make for himself. Ritchie argues that agents’ valuations only have the wider implications her argument requires if they are understood as responses to an objective order of value. Korsgaard may disapprove of his existential choice, but it is hard to see why (on her account) the Mafiaso’s settled choice threatens his grip on himself as having any reason to do one thing rather than another, and with it his grip on himself as having any reason to live and act at all.

Later Scanlon moved toward a more objectivist position, describing himself as a ‘Reasons Fundamentalist’, contrasting the position with Korsgaard’s. Reasons Fundamentalism (RF) insists on the irreducible character of normativity. Scanlon has answered justification, but not of explanation of reliability. Once more, secular accounts fall foul of our most fundamental moral commitments, or in vindicating them they generate an explanatory gap.

Likewise Foot’s theory using ‘Aristotelian categoricals’ is trapped in this dilemma: we can define ‘good’ naturalistically, in which case it is reduced to that which enables the species to replicate and perhaps increase in complexity, but then what we call good we do not have good reason to promote. Or define ‘good’ to include evaluative judgments, but then we have gone far beyond anything those ‘Aristotelian categoricals’ could justify. To make this choice is to concede that the idea of ‘flourishing’ is itself heavily moralized, and there is no longer any sign of a purely biological story of natural normativity from which morality might emerge.

McDowell wants to defend moral realism. Instead of seeking to ground ethics in a non-moralized account of the natural world, McDowell urges Foot to acknowledge that ethical reasons are themselves part of any adequate account of nature. Ritchie insists, though, that there remains an explanatory question which McDowell is unwilling to answer, which is distinct from justificatory issues. Unless McDowell is urging a return to a fundamentally purposive account of the universe, the question of how we explain (rather than justify) the reliability of our belief-generating and belief-correcting processes will arise for him in a way it did not for Aristotle—who, incidentally, contrasted the natural not with the supernatural but the artificial.

Ritchie argues that theistic and teleological explanation is better than nomothetic explanation that is given in terms of causal laws. Natural selection has led to resistance of teleology. Natural selection can’t offer the explanation of our capacity for moral cognition, however, and nomothetic explanation is also unsuited to task. Teleological explanation accounts for an event or class of events by laws in terms of which an event’s occurring is held to be dependent on that event’s being required for some end. A paradigmatic teleological explanation involves a goal G of objective worth, the agent knows this to be so, the agent pursues G because of its value, and the agent has the power through X-ing to bring G about.

Theism explains the truth-tracking nature of human moral capacities by God’s understanding the value of such a state of affairs and intentionally bringing it about. Such an account avoids the explanatory gap, and the problems cited (raised by Rice and Hume) are far from intractable. A theistic explanation of the emergence of moral knowledge also need not conflict with a version of the theory of natural selection. All that the theist needs to add to the account given by evolutionary biology is the claim that the world is providentially ordered so that the interaction of the quasi-teleological process of natural selection and of the spandrel-like features it generates yield an outcome which enables human beings to apprehend that which is of objective value.

At this juncture the book left me slightly disappointed, but only because I had grown accustomed to seeing more. I could imagine a critic saying “God made it happen because he knew the value of its happening” does not so much explain as beg the question that God has or could. Although I might know that something happening in my head is making my hands type right now without my being able to explain that mechanism, the appeal to divine intentions to account for the truth-tracking ability of our moral faculties requires further analysis. It remains, in a sense, a promissory note and framework in need of fleshing out. If contemporary work on the moral argument is going to rival in quality the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, more articulation of theism’s epistemic narrative of moral cognition is essential—particularly to answer the challenge posed by Harman and Joyce. Joyce, for example, echoes the case that the success of evolutionary moral psychology provides a stiff challenge to naturalistic ethics by explaining the formation of our moral beliefs without reference to their truth. Unlike Ritchie, though, he adds that “if the naturalist cannot make her case, Harman’s challenge seems to make non-naturalism and supernaturalism obsolete. . . . if moral naturalism fails non-naturalism and supernaturalism are sunk. Thus non-naturalism and supernaturalism suffer most in this argumentative fray.”[1]Although it is not clear why Joyce insists on this, beyond an earlier reference to parsimony, what is clear is that positing the possibility and, even more so, plausibility of a teleological explanation rooted in divine intentionality—however hopeful such a move promises to safeguard what ordinary speakers believe about morality—remains in need of careful articulation and strong cumulative evidential support in this emerging dialectic.

Throughout his excellent book, Ritchie is at pains to stress that theism is the most satisfying explanation of the human capacity for moral cognition. Theism can explain it simply better than the rivals can. As such he’s been doing philosophy as an autonomous enterprise to show the power of apologetic argument. Our moral commitments pull us to a supernatural source for our knowledge of what is good and evil. Philosophy, he argues and demonstrates, has a significant part to play, in helping us respond to the important and legitimate worry that the faith journey may be an exercise in wish fulfillment rather than a response to a genuine reality. Philosophy can create the intellectual space for an encounter of the heart. Apologetic arguments can show that unless our thought is open to the supernatural there are a number of correlations which are, by its own lights, inexplicable. Such arguments remind us of our need for God; they call us to humility rather than hubris.








[1] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 210