C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

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The cornerstone of the moral argument is the existence of an objective moral standard. If there really is a standard of right and wrong that holds true regardless of our opinions and emotions, then the moral argument has the ability to convince. However, apart from the existence of such an objective standard, moral arguments for God’s existence (and Christian theism) quickly lose their persuasive power and morality as a whole falls to the realm of subjective preference. Although I could say a fair amount about what the world would be like if morality really was a matter of preference (consider The Purge), the purpose of this article is to provide reasons for believing in objective morality (or “moral realism,” as philosophers call it).

Because of his continued focus on the objective nature of morality throughout his writings, and due to his unique ability to communicate and defend this concept in a clear and compelling manner, I will rely heavily on the thought of C. S. Lewis below. As I’ve read through a number of Lewis’s books, I’ve identified eight arguments he raises in favor of objective morality. Below is my attempt to list these eight arguments and offer a few thoughts of my own concerning each.

1)    Quarreling between two or more individuals.[1] When quarreling occurs, individuals assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong, of which each person is aware and one has broken. Why quarrel if no objective standard exists?

By definition, quarreling (or arguing) involves trying to show another person that he is in the wrong. And as Lewis indicates, there is no point in trying to do that unless there is some sort of agreement as to what right and wrong actually are, just like there is no sense in saying a football player has committed a foul if there is no agreement about the rules of football.[2]

2)    It’s obvious that an objective moral standard exists.[3] Throughout history, mankind has generally agreed that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.”[4] For example, it’s obvious (or self-evident) that torturing a child for fun is morally reprehensible.

As the father of two children, a daughter who is five and a son who is three, I have noticed that even my young children recognize that certain things are obviously right or wrong. For example, while watching a show like PJ Masks, my children can easily point out the good characters as well as the bad ones – even without my help. In short, the overwhelming obviousness that certain acts are clearly right or wrong indicates that an objective moral standard exists.

3)    Mistreatment.[5] One might say he does not believe in objective morality, however, the moment he is mistreated he will react as if such a standard exists. When one denies the existence of an objective standard of behavior, the moment he is mistreated, “he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6]

Sean McDowell relays an example of this when he shares a story involving J. P. Moreland taking the stereo of a University of Vermont student who denied the existence of objective morality in favor of moral relativism. As Moreland was sharing the gospel with the university student, the student responded by saying he (Moreland) couldn’t force his views on others because “everything is relative.” Following this claim, in an effort to reveal what the student really believed about moral issues, Moreland picked up the student’s stereo from his dorm room and began to walk down the hallway, when the student suddenly shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”[7]

Again, one might deny the existence of an objective standard of behavior through his words or actions, but he will always reveal what he really believes through his reactions when mistreated. (Note: Here at moralapologetics.com, we do not recommend you go around and mistreat others, as that wouldn’t be a moral way to do apologetics. See what I did there? Rather, we are simply bringing up the mistreatment issue as a way of exposing a deep flaw within moral relativism.)

4)    Measuring value systems.[8] When an individual states that one value system is better than another, or attempts to replace a particular value system with a better one, he assumes there is an objective standard of judgment. This objective standard of judgment, which is different from either value system, helps one conclude that one value system conforms more closely to the moral standard than another. Without some sort of objective measuring stick for value systems, there is no way to conclude that civilized morality, where humans treat one another with dignity and respect, is better than savage morality, where humans brutally murder others, even within their own tribe at times, for various reasons.

 

To illustrate this point, Lewis says, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head,’ how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”[9] In the same way, if there is no objective moral standard, then there is no sense in saying that any one value system has ever been morally good or morally bad, or morally superior or inferior to other value systems.

5)    Attempting to improve morally.[10] Certainly, countless individuals attempt to improve themselves morally on a daily basis. No sane person wakes up and declares, “My goal is to become more immoral today!”[11] If there is no absolute standard of good which exists, then talk of moral improvement is nonsensical and actual moral progress is impossible. If no ultimate standard of right and wrong exists, then one might change his actions, but he can never improve his morality.

If there is hope of moral improvement, then there must be some sort of absolute standard of good that exists above and outside the process of improvement. In other words, there must be a target for humans to aim their moral efforts at and also a ruler by which to measure moral progress. Without an objective moral standard of behavior, then “[t]here is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’ – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”[12] 

6)    Reasoning over moral issues.[13] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no objective standard, then reasoning over moral issues is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t like that”). In short, a world where morality is a matter of preference makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations over issues like adultery, sexuality, abortion, immigration, drugs, bullying, stealing, and so on.

7)    Feeling a sense of obligation over moral matters.[14] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and feels obligated to follow. Virtually all humans would agree that one ought to try to save the life of a drowning child and that one ought not kill innocent people for sheer entertainment. It is also perfectly intelligible to believe that humans are morally obligated to possess (or acquire) traits such as compassion, mercifulness, generosity, and courage.[15]

8)    Making excuses for not behaving appropriately.[16] If one does not believe in an objective standard of behavior, then why should he become anxious to make excuses for how he behaved in a given circumstance? Why doesn’t he just go on with his life without defending himself? After all, a man doesn’t have to defend himself if there is no standard for him to fall short of or altogether break. Lewis maintains, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[17]

Although the eight reasons provided above do not cover all of the reasons for believing in objective morality, it is a starting point nonetheless. If any of the reasons above for believing in objective morality are valid, then the moral argument for God’s existence (and Christian theism) has the ability to get off the ground. In fact, if there are any good reasons (in this article or beyond it) for believing in an objective moral standard, then I think God’s existence becomes the best possible explanation for morality since such a standard at the least requires a transcendent, good, and personal source – which sounds a lot like the God of Christian theism.

 

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean McDowell, Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006), 45-46.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 43, 73. Also see Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13-14.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[11] Even if someone’s goal is to become more immoral, he still needs an objective standard to measure the level of his badness.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 54.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 10.

[15] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[16] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8.

[17] Ibid.

Mailbag: Does Christianity Fail as a Moral Guide?

Editor’s note: This reply is part of a longer conversation. The first part may be found here. Here Randy replies to Heath’s latest comment:

Moral Apologetics: Thank you kindly for your lengthy response and interest. I admit I am somewhat flattered by this. You wrote a long reply here and I read through it several times. But in the end I found it unpersuasive. The original premise “If humanity’s deep and unshakeable moral intuitions are correct, the “Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response.”

The rational observer would first question the premise that humanity has ever held “deep and unshakeable” moralities. The historical record just doesn’t support this. I hope that sometime in the future we will have such deep, unshakeable morals. But clearly we do not.

Christian theology, in my opinion, has been an abject failure as a moral guide. I find it impossible to believe that a world filled with evil is the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. I find Christianity to be among the greatest enemies of morality, first by setting up factitious excellencies— belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies not connected to the good of humankind. These are accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues.

And then there is the problem of a redeemer. In this unseemly dogma, the son of god suffered and “died” for our “sins.”

Vicarious virtue. If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.

Hello Heath,

I have read your response to the answer Jonathan gave and thought I would chime in!

The original premise is an if-then conditional, meaning that someone can affirm it even if the antecedent (the “if” part) is false; one should really only reject the premise if you think the moral intuitions are correct but that people shouldn’t embrace Christian theism in response (or, rather, are not rational in doing so). This means that questioning whether there is such a morality isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the truth of the original premise.


It seems your argument against objective morality is that history doesn’t support this, and we “clearly” do not have them. Perhaps you have misunderstood the original claim. The original claim is simply that the common human experience is that there is some X such that X is good, and there is some Y such that Y is evil, and so on. The claim is not that we all share the same content of those moral beliefs (as that is what is historically false). In fact, it seems you implicitly recognize there is a perception of evil and good when you later claim the world is “filled with evil”—how could it be filled with something that so clearly does not exist? The original claim is that if our intuitions are correct, then Christian theism is the way to go—and our intuitions are that some things are really good and some really evil. Even if we’re mistaken about the implications—the content—it doesn’t follow that we’re mistaken about the reality of the categories at all. In fact, if we reject the categories of good and evil, then an interesting result is that we’ve never made any moral progress: it makes no moral difference whether we have African-Americans as slaves or not; it makes no moral difference whether we bully homosexuals for fun or not. The (morally horrible) list goes on.

The next claim is that Christianity has failed as a moral guide. That is, Christianity has failed to tell us the correct ways to live. You list the problem of evil, but this isn’t directly relevant to this claim of Christianity being a moral guide (it could turn out that someone who is deeply evil or hypocritical could nonetheless give you great moral advice). Within this same claim, you mention that “belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies” are “not connected to the good of human kind.” But why think this? It seems you suggest these are “substitutes for genuine virtues.” But Heath, remember, your view commits you to saying there are no virtues! But in any case, we can amend the claim to saying that if there were virtues, the ones that Christianity would espouse are replaced by creeds, feelings, and ceremonies. But the mere fact that Christianity embraces creeds, feelings, and ceremonies doesn’t entail that they replace any virtues whatsoever! In fact, there is a long and rich tradition, both intellectual and existential, of virtue ethics and living the right kind of Christian life. I’m afraid you may be taking late 20th and early 21st-century stereotypes of Western Christianity and applying them to the entire foundations of the church.

But let us also not forget that these kinds of activities do not at all seem to be divorced from the good of human kind. Consider the creeds: the creeds encapsulate essential Christian doctrine, and reinforce common but perhaps non-essential doctrines. From these creeds and their entailments and associated doctrines, we commit to believe and practice the idea that all are made in the image of God, that Jesus came to live among us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice for humans, that we should be involved in caring for the poor (see much of the Old Testament and James 1), and that we ought to live in community with others’ needs placed before our own (Philippians 2:4). Next, let us consider “devotional feelings.” It’s not perfectly clear to me what is meant here, but I suspect the idea of reading one’s Bible and praying—perhaps even having an emotional experience while doing so—is in view. If so, I can assure you that many people have had their attitudes and conduct changed by these habitual activities. Given that none of us is a social island, becoming a virtuous person does in fact connect to the good of all. Although I am not sure what ceremonies you reference, I can say that participating in ecclesiastical activities is designed to bring us closer to each other (and hence our communities) and closer to our God. This brings us to the last point: if Christianity is true, then God is the highest good (and its source). Being involved with and close to him is the highest good, and will in turn precipitate the highest goods if we do so.

I’d like to return to the problem of evil. Your formulation is apparently that, given omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the world should not be “filled” with evil. I take “filled with evil” to mean something like “there is a large amount and high degree of evil in the world.” One of the common responses to this is called a “free-will defense.” People have freedom, and they sometimes (often!) exercise it for evil instead of the good. Omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible, and forcing someone to freely do something certainly qualifies. If a loving relationship requires freedom to enter it (as I and many others think it does), then what this means is that God typically allows free choices to be made, and God cannot force a free decision (since this isn’t a thing to be done, and omnipotence entails the ability to do all things). The result is the world we have. But the good news is we aren’t left with such a world: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the “down payment” ensuring that one day the evils of the world will be rectified. One day, God will make everything right: this is referred to as redemption and restoration. Christian theology provides for the restoration of all that had once gone wrong, and redemption for those who have wronged each other and God; how beautiful is that?

This leads us to what you have called “the problem of a redeemer.” You have stated that “If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.” True enough. But the basis of that forgiveness is Christ’s paying the penalty for sins. So perhaps you mean if Christ pays the penalty for sins but I sin against another human (by, say, stealing her wallet), this doesn’t give her back her money. True enough again! All sins are ultimately against God (in other words, stealing the wallet is against the woman, but also against God). The penalty for sin is separation from God; the remedy is life through the Son of God. The sin is paid for by Christ; if a person does not accept, they endure separation from God. Suppose you do not accept and are separated by God. Justice is served since you are “serving your sentence.” Suppose you do accept, and restore her wallet. Justice is served, since Jesus died in your place and he had lived a perfect life on the Christian story; further, the woman has her wallet. Suppose you are unable to restore her wallet. The good news is that this affects your justice in no way; Christ’s perfect sacrifice is still perfect. What about her? She’s in the same boat—she can accept or reject Christ. If she accepts him, the effects of being with God forever far outweigh anything that can happen in this life. If she rejects him, it will be due to sins that she will be separated from God (for example, the sin of understanding and yet rejecting Jesus).

So, to recap, we’ve seen there isn’t a reason against accepting that we have the sense that there are objective categories of good and evil, that Christianity does contribute to the good of human kind, the problem of evil has a reasonable response dealing with creaturely freedom and the expected restoration of all things, and that salvation is offered through the perfect sacrifice of the God-man, Christ Jesus. I hope this at least points you in the right direction, and if you are interested, I’d love to talk more!

Randy

Mailbag: Does the Moral Argument Have a Fatal Flaw?

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In December, we shared a post on Facebook about The Morals of the Story, a book written by two of our editors, David and Marybeth Baggett. Along with the post, we included this snippet from a review of the book:

"If humanity’s deep and unshakable moral intuitions are correct, then The Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response."

In response to this idea, Heath writes,

 The point being that "objective morality points to the existence of god.” Which god, might I ask? Well, of course the Christian god. Who else? Why not Allah, or Shiva, or Quetzacoatyl? These are all gods too. And if objective morality points to god, objectively it points to ALL gods equally. Objective morality. Can there even be such a thing? I think all morality is subjective, not objective. It would be nice if moralities were indeed objective, but since we've decided to tie morality to religion we must necessarily reject objectivity. Example: A large group of profoundly fervent jungle tribesmen find it moral to hack the hearts out of living men, women and children to appease their gods. That is moral to them. Another group believes that 2000 years ago a god sacrificed himself to himself so that the believers can be forgiven for all time. That is moral, to them. A different group of people use reason to construct morals. Morals based on enlightened self-interest. Obviously they would reject the morals of both previously mentioned groups. These are atheists, and only without religious bias can morals begin to be objective.

Reply,

Hi Heath,

Thank you for your comment and you raise a couple of important objections to a moral argument for the truth of Christianity. Of course, your post is brief and one would not expect arguments to be fully developed in the context of social media, so I will try to spell out how I think you intend the argument to go. I take it that you have two concerns about the claim that if human moral intuitions are correct, then this suggests that Christian theism is correct.

First, even if humans generally and accurately apprehend moral truths, and even if this is best explained by theism, it is not at all clear how this would be best explained by Christian theism. If morality requires some form of supernaturalism, then many supernatural explanations of morality are available and it is not immediately obvious why the Christian explanation should fare any better than, say, the Hindu explanation. If there are moral truths that need supernatural explanation, then that is evidence that applies equally well to all supernatural accounts.

Second, you suggest that morality is not objective and, therefore, there are no moral truths with which Christians can build their moral case for Christian theism. The hypothetical story about the origin of moral beliefs is meant to motivate this conclusion that moral realism is not correct. Later, in another comment, you add this: “Different cultures have different morals. Hence the subjective nature of it all. I don't get why you presume a standard morality to be everywhere. That is a pipe dream. Not a reality.” In that case, the whole project of The Morals of the Story rests on the mistake of thinking moral realism (the view that there are objective moral realities) obtains. Since the project assumes something true that is false, it must be fatally flawed.

Let me take the second objection first. There are two kinds of reply I want to make here. First, I want to say something about why we should think moral realism is a justified belief. Second, I want to consider whether we have any good reason to think it is not.

Geoff Sayre-McCord, a philosopher teaching at the University of North Carolina, claims that “moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side.”[1] The reason that Sayre-McCord might say that moral realism has this advantage is that we simply find ourselves believing in moral realism and we find ourselves having a high degree of confidence in these beliefs.[2] It seems obvious to most people that there are at least some moral facts.

For example, for most it seems obviously true that the Holocaust was factually, objectively, morally wrong. It seems equally as obvious that torturing children for fun would be wrong in all the same ways. This, of course, is not anything like a decisive argument that moral realism is correct, but it should provide some reason to think we are justified in believing that moral realism is correct.

After all, we take all kinds of seemings as good justification for belief. It seems to me that there are other minds and that I am not a brain in a vat. It seems to me there is a table over there and that I am drinking coffee. These seemings are adequate grounds for having a justified belief that these things are so. If my three-year-old son looks out the window and sees a tree, it seems to him that there is a tree out there, and he forms the belief “There is a tree out there.” Few would say that this belief is not justified until he has more evidence; the seeming itself is sufficient.

 Of course, for all we know, we could be brains in vats or everyone around us could be mindless zombies that act exactly as if they had minds, but epistemologists generally agree that the mere possibility that these states of affairs could be actual should not worry us very much. Justification doesn’t require certainty.

However, justified beliefs can have their justification defeated. One might have good reasons to think that we are brains in vats, for example. Perhaps, like Neo from The Matrix, one could somehow become aware that reality as they experience it is a mere simulation. In that case, the belief that I am not a brain in a vat would no longer be justified.

My suggestion is that our moral intuitions are kinds of seemings analogous to the other kinds I have mentioned and that there are prima facie grounds for counting our moral intuitions as justified beliefs. Just as our experience of empirical realities can justify our belief in the external world or other minds, likewise our moral experience can offer us initial justification for at least certain of our less negotiable moral convictions. If one does not experience these moral intuitions, then, clearly, he could not be justified in believing in moral realism on this basis. Or, if he has sufficiently strong defeaters, he could no longer consider his belief justified, unless he defeats the defeaters. My view is that moral intuitions provide a prima facie reason for thinking that moral realism obtains.

If that is claim, then the next thing we will want to consider is whether there are any defeaters for moral intuitions. You offer one such possible defeater: the reality of moral disagreement. But it is not true that disagreement entails or even implies that a belief is false or that there is no truth to the matter. The history of science provides ample evidence of this. People disagreed with the heliocentric model of the solar system, but this did not imply that the proposition “The earth revolves around the sun” is neither objectively true nor false. Today, the flat earth movement is growing alarmingly and unfortunately fast. As a result, there is disagreement about whether the earth there is a flat disc or a globe. But this does not imply that, therefore, the truth of the proposition “The earth is not a disc” is merely a matter of subjective preference or opinion. If some proposition is objectively true then, by definition, whether people agree that it is true or not is not relevant to its status as a true proposition. So, I do not consider the argument from moral disagreement to be a defeater for the justification of our beliefs about moral realism. And so, if I am correct, then I continue to be justified in thinking that moral intuitions generate true moral beliefs.

If our belief in moral realism is justified, then we still have the remaining question of how the truth of these beliefs is best explained by Christian theism. You argue that the evidence is explained equally well by any religious perspective. But this simply is not the case. Some religions may not make any attempt to explain moral facts; they may say that ethics are ultimately illusory, as is the case in various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. One central doctrine of some forms of Buddhism is annata or “no self” doctrine. This is the view that the perception of ourselves and others as moral agents is an error. We simply do not exist as persons. Perhaps we could preserve some form of moral realism on this view, but it would not accommodate what most take to be the obvious moral facts, even by most people living in contexts where the no-self doctrine is promoted. There is a reason why the Buddha needed to achieve enlightenment in order to discover the truth; his doctrines are directly at odds with our most basic beliefs about ourselves and the only way to overcome them is through rigorous practice.  Further, at least some religions are intrinsically bad explanations for anything. Scientology seems obviously and inherently less likely to be a good explanation for any phenomena it might be summoned to explain.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, readily and naturally explains how many of our most deeply held moral beliefs are true. Suppose we think that human beings have dignity and value. The Christian worldview claims that ultimate reality is constituted by a being who is tri-personal. This being is the locus and ground of all value. It is natural to think that when we find the infinite good of the personal God mirrored in finite things, there we would find dignity and value. Many religions simply do not make the same claim about the nature of reality and the good. Polytheistic religions cannot claim the same thing without contradiction. The Christian worldview further confirms the value of human beings by telling us that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and, most dramatically, in the incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being himself. God thought it worthwhile to condescend to becoming a human being in order that he might redeem humankind.

So, in Christian theology and revelation, we find our moral intuitions about the value of human beings easily and logically explained. That is just one example, but there are many others.[3] I think this is enough to show that it is just not the case that all religions are equally equipped explain how our moral beliefs can be true. What objective morality can help do is adjudicate between conflicting accounts and help us decide the best explanation. Not every theology is equally well equipped to provide a good explanation of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation—from moral duties to moral freedom, from moral values to the dignity of people, from moral knowledge to an account of evil, from moral regret to moral transformation to moral rationality. This is much of what The Morals of the Story tries to explore and explicate, while respecting the mental freedom of those who remain unconvinced by the argument. Of course here in this short post I can’t make the full case; not even a whole book can. Philosophy is difficult, and takes a serious investment of time.

Heath, you have given us some important objections to consider and I hope that I have at least provided you with some idea of how a Christian might answer them, though I am also sure I have not convinced you to change your mind. We don’t even have the tip of the iceberg here! Maybe we have the tip of the tip and that is all. Still, I think you can at least see how one might argue that belief in moral realism is justified and how, at least possibly and perhaps somewhat plausibly, Christian theism may well be the best explanation of the truth of those moral beliefs.

If you are interested in exploring how Christians think about morality and how it might be evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism, The Morals of the Story is a good place to start. If you are interested in something a bit more rigorous and technical, you might try Good God or God and Cosmos. Baggett and Walls are wrapping up a new book on the history of the moral argument, which you might find of interest as well when it gets published eventually.

Thanks again for your comment,

Jonathan Pruitt

Managing Editor


[1] Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., accessed December 20, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/.

[2] According to a survey of professional philosophers, most believe in moral realism.

[3]For another, fuller perspective, you might see Baggett’s Seven Reasons Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity. If you are interested in how Christianity better explains our moral intuitions about love, you might be interested in this discussion I had with Brian Scalise.

I offer an explanation of how Christianity in particular best explains how we have moral knowledge elsewhere.

Mailbag: Some Questions on Satan, Free Will, and the Nature of Evil

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A colleague passed this question along from a student:

 

Hello, throughout my life I have always sought ought the guidance and insight of pastors of my churches and the Christian teachers at my schools. I base my religious view on history, faith, reason, and observation. I weigh most heavily on reason and try to figure out specific things that test my faith. Through this reasoning I have grown closer to the Lord. I have formed multiple questions that aren’t usually told in Christian school or churches, but questions that beckon my mind and soul. A lot of the question I have my personal answer to (and some are difficult to truly know the answer to until I can ask the Lord face to face in heaven), but I thoroughly enjoy asking other people their thoughts so that I may get insight on what they believe and possibly adapt my own view to fit what makes the most logical sense by means of a Christian standpoint. So, with all of that said, I have a question for you… 

The Lord created all things, but Satan is able to distort such things and taint them. So, if God created everything, why did he allow evil to be even a thing? God gave humans and angels the ability of freewill so that we are not mindless drones who blindly love Him; because true love has to be voluntary. But why did He even create evil to be an alternative? He could have allowed for freewill without evil being an option. Why create sadness and pain? Sin and torment? Anger and distortion? It is a bit difficult to explain, especially since humans aren’t fully able to understand a world without all of this stuff, so the meat of the question can get lost In the folly of my ability to explain. But why would God create such evil and bad things? Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option. Satan is unable to create matter. No one can. Only God can. Matter cannot be created; it can only be reformed and repurposed. So, that means Satan tainted life and caused sin to be defined as a tainted version of something God created (in a paraphrased sense), so then how come sin was even able to be created? Why is something being tainted an ability that God gave us? Again, it is hard for the human mind to understand in this fixed plane of existence, but what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? Why would God allow for such pain? Such with Job, who did everything unto the Lord. God allowed Satan to destroy his life to test if he would still love the Lord. Why would God need any more assurance that Job loved him? Why would He allow his people to be subject to such pain and sorrow? Sure, Job got stuff in the end, but nothing could replace certain things that he lost. That is like a father allowing a bully to beat up his kid just to see if the kid would still love his father (even though he knew that his dad told the bully to beat up his son). So why is such distortion and sin and pain and sorrow and evil even a possibility? Freewill can still be existent without evil. Why would God find it necessary to create such things?

 

Here's my reply:

 

 

Thanks so much for passing along your student’s intelligent and thoughtful questions. I’m happy to try my hand at addressing some of them—addressing, more than answering. Some of the questions, to my thinking, don’t lend themselves to easy answers at all. At best we can list some clues and hints, not necessarily anything systematic that can tie it all up in a bow. We continue to see through a glass darkly, and coming to terms with our epistemic limitations is a good thing. We should certainly use the minds God’s given us, but at the same time epistemic humility is a virtue, and acting like we know more than we do is a mistake and ultimately dishonoring to God. All of that to say: these are hard questions and don’t lend themselves to quick, pat answers, by any stretch of the imagination.

 

The way your student is seeking guidance and insight from pastors and teachers is a good practice. There’s wisdom in an abundance of counselors. At the same time, he may have contributions of his own to add to the conversation. As members of the church, we all have a part to play, and who knows? Perhaps some of these burdens on his heart correspond to directions God’s laying on him for his own ultimate vocation. Each of us is instructed to seek wisdom, and the older we get, the more we have to balance our expectations about answers that others can provide with what God may be teaching us. God may want to speak through this student, who may one day become a great teacher himself.

 

As a philosopher, I’m a big fan of “reason” too. There’s nothing wrong with asking hard questions, nor with using the steam of general revelation and clear thinking to make progress in answering them. Often the very practice of asking and working hard to answer questions is itself a quite formative process, the culmination of which has for its most important result not just an answer, but the wisdom that comes from the struggle. I’m also aware, as a philosopher, of reason’s limitations. We don’t always get all the answers we want. The problem of evil, the topic of discussion here, is notorious for leaving us less than completely satisfied. The simple fact is that there are mysteries here, and though we can do our best to untangle knots, mysteries will remain. Sometimes we need to trust God and his goodness despite not finding all the answers we might want. We’re promised all the answers eventually, but not always within timetables of our invention. I think this is especially true with existential aspects of suffering. God promises to give us strength to get through, and to be with us through whatever we might be called to endure…but he doesn’t offer specific reasons for every trial we might have to go through, and expecting otherwise is bound to disappoint. Folks who claim to know all those specifics often strike me as inordinately presumptuous and overly confident in their own analyses.

 

Okay, then, Satan—yes, the Bible has a lot to say about Satan. On connections between Satan and the problem of evil, a new book is forthcoming on the topic by John Peckham. I wrote a blurb for it; it’s well worth the read. The book’s called Theodicy of Love, and it at least partially treats some of the questions your student raises. Now, why did God allow evil to be a thing? How we ask a question is revealing. For evil to be a thing, it sounds like some “reification” is going on. It may well be a thing in some sense, but not a substance or material object or anything like that, but a certain heart orientation. And I suspect that’s what it is. Suffering is nonmorally bad, but gratuitously inflicting needless suffering is morally bad, even evil. Immanuel Kant had this insight that nonmoral badness has to do with consequences, but evil is a distinctively moral category of the heart.

 

Now, I rather like the appeal to free will your student mentions (not that this is all that needs to be discussed in this context, but it’s a good place to begin), but he wants to suggest that, though free will might be necessary for genuine love relationships (which seems right to me), God perhaps didn’t need to “create evil” as its alternative. But though this is certainly an intriguing suggestion, it’s not clear to me that this was an actual possibility. Not to love as we ought, particularly not to love God as we ought, introduces sin into the world. It’s not clear we can have the ability to resist God and avoid evil; this may well be the very essence of evil at its root. If so, evil wasn’t created by God, but rather its possibility was introduced when God conferred freedom on us. God’s not, at least on my theology, the author of sin. Perhaps he would be on certain models of meticulous providence, but I don’t buy that theology. So the idea that God could have allowed for free will without evil being an option is not obvious to me, and I suspect it’s somewhat contrary to the standard Christian theology on this matter. 

 

Next, why create sadness and pain? These are examples of what I think are nonmoral bads. One fairly standard sort of reply is that these were introduced into the world because of rebellion against God. Why sin and torment? Sin, again, was introduced by human willfulness against God’s best for us. Torment? Sin intrinsically leads to torment, in one sense, because it goes against the grain of the universe; it’s not how we were meant to live, and it invariably detracts from our happiness, and the more entrenched we get into it the more tormented we become. Anger and distortion? Well, anger isn’t necessarily a morally bad thing; Jesus experienced righteous anger. Anger isn’t sin, or else we wouldn’t be told in our anger not to sin. In a perfect world, though, anger will be banished. But we’re not in a perfect world, but a fallen one that God’s in the process of redeeming. I could go and discuss distortion along similar lines, but the point is this: Why did God allow any of these things? (I wouldn’t say “create” as that’s misleading; at the least if we use that language it requires very careful unpacking.) Why allow them? Presumably because he knew that ultimately through his redemptive plan he could use our failings to produce more complex goods not otherwise possible, or something like that. Looking at the world at this moment is just a snapshot of something fully in motion toward a particular glorious end, if Christianity is true. It’s not yet the world as God intended it to be, but it will be when redemption has had its full effect.

 

“Why would God create such evil and bad things?” He made valuable agents whose existence introduced their possibility, is the way I’d put it. “Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option.” I doubt it; not to love God is indeed evil; God is worthy of our worship. Again, the claim put forth is not at all intuitively clear to me, and stands in variance with Christian teaching. The idea that Satan twisted something in creation into what it wasn’t intended to be is right; this is very much the Augustinian account of evil. The student then asks why sin was even able to be created? Why did God give us the ability to taint his creation? Perhaps that question addresses, once more, the value of free will. If such freedom entails the freedom to resist God, then that may well entail this tainting ability. We don’t have to talk about Satan in this regard; we have this ability as well, and why? Well, perhaps the ability to love God requires freedom that entails such distortion capacity. It’s not clear this isn’t the case, at least to me. Your student may simply disagree; fair enough. But on that matter perhaps we’d just end up disagreeing. But what bolsters my conviction is that the sort of requisite robust freedom we need has big implications, among which is that sin is really, really bad—a violation of our telos, a disordering of creation, a subverting of God’s intentions, and all the rest.

 

I’m not trying to offer a definitive response to every question here, but just offer my first spit balling sort of ad hoc reply.

 

Next, what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? That’s what philosophers call a counterfactual, but more than that, it may well be a counteressential—an impossible scenario. What would be worse than sin? It’s not clear anything is. Sufficient are the actual sufferings of this world and the next; I’m not sure it’s a good idea to launch into a defense of counterfactual, perhaps even counteressential sufferings.

 

In terms of Job, I think there’s a lot to say about that book beyond that God did it to see if Job still loved God. I’d suggest reading some really good commentaries on Job. There are profound insights in the book. Reducing it to whether Job would still love God leaves way too much out. Just one example: In Job we see a minor theme of the OT that becomes a major, if not THE major theme of the NT: the redeeming value of innocent suffering.

 

And so my final point is just that: in the NT we see the clearest picture both of suffering and God’s use of it for redemptive purposes. None of this discussion can get off the ground, from a Christian vantage point, apart from the wondrous mystery of the cross of Christ, where God didn’t merely watch us suffer, but came and suffered himself, indeed took our suffering on himself. And we’re told that those who trust him may suffer for a little while here, but in the life to come there will be such glory it will make the sufferings of this world, as horrific as they can be, pale into insignificance by comparison. That’s a lovely promise to hold onto.

 

Again, pain and suffering are tough topics. Personally I think they raise the most difficult questions we face as Christians. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other worldview nearly as equipped as Christianity to offer us hope rather than despair in the face of sufferings.

 

Thanks for the chance to reflect. I hope your student keeps thinking and that God blesses his efforts!

 

Best,

djb

Mailbag: Concerns about the Nature of Moral Obligations

Original context

Jason writes:

Jonathan,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I am very tempted to follow the inquiry into the nature of rationality. I would suggest, for example, that the rational constraint that we should act in our self-interest must be understood as a pro tanto constraint. That is, pro tanto I ought to act in accordance with my self-interest. There are circumstances in which it would not be irrational to act in violation of my self-interest (e.g., when sacrificing my life to save the lives of others). I am also very interested in pursuing the distinction between a minimal conception of rationality and a more robust conception of reason-responsiveness. However, let me set such worries aside for now and focus on the substance of my criticism of DCT and your response to that criticism.

If I understand correctly, you are saying that in the absence of divine commands there are moral reasons to engage in actions, but there are no moral obligations. I take your point that on the commonly defended modern versions of DCT (including that defended by Baggett and Walls), DCT is a theory of rightness and wrongness (or, more generally, deontic moral value). The substance of my criticism is that I am offering a counterexample; that is, I am claiming that I can describe a situation in which (a) there are no divine commands, (b) a person faces a choice between two options, (A) and (C), and (c) the person is morally obligated to choose (A) over (C) [or, more carefully, actions (A) and (C) have deontic value, (A) has positive deontic value, (C) has negative deontic value, that we morally ought to perform (A) and that it is morally wrong to perform (C)].

In my original comment, I did not robustly describe options (A) and (C), I merely stipulated some of their properties. Let me put more flesh on the bones of my argument: Suppose the following: I am hiking in a desert region and I come across a young child who is languishing in the heat in obvious distress. She is dehydrated and delirious and does not respond to questions. In such an example, I face two options: (A) Give the child water and food, escort her to safety, and make sure that she receives the medical attention she needs; (C) Ignore the child and complete my hike.

On DCT, (A) (which we can call RENDER AID) has moral value and there are moral reasons to choose it, which reasons are independent of God's commands. Presumably also, on DCT, (C) (IGNORE) has moral value (negative value, i.e., badness) and there are reasons to refrain from choosing it. In my original comment, I asked whether, on DCT, the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands. If it is, then, I think we can conclude the following:

(1) There are strong reasons to choose (A) RENDER AID and these reasons and the strength of these reasons is independent of God's commands.

(2) These reasons are so strong as to be overriding. That is, they tend to override other reasons that might be present. So, if I have self-interested reasons to complete my hike, these reasons are overridden by the strength of the reasons to render aid.

(3) Option (C) IGNORE is extremely bad. It is much worse than, for example, failing to notify a cashier that he has undercharged you for your groceries.

(4) The reasons that I have to render aid concern the welfare of a conscious person.

(5) The child, in virtue of being a person, has a special moral status, which status endows her with the capacity to make legitimate demands of other persons.

Given (1) - (5), it would be wrong to suggest that RENDER AID is merely supererogatory. The reasons are overriding and concern the welfare of a conscious person. RENDER AID has deontic status, it is the thing that, all things considered, I ought to do. Thus, I am morally obligated to choose to RENDER AID and that if I choose IGNORE, then I have done something wrong.

So, I am saying that RENDER AID is not merely (minimally) rational. (And it is probably not in my self-interest to help the child.) The reasons in support of RENDER AID are not mere rationality constraints. Now compare the (divine command independent) reasons to choose RENDER AID with the reasons to tell a cashier that he has slightly undercharged you (say by 25 cents). The reasons to choose RENDER AID are much more significant than the reasons to inform the cashier of his small error. We should be able to capture this difference in language; our language should be responsive to this difference. And, when we search for a way of describing the difference, what we come up with is that RENDER AID is morally obligatory. Informing the cashier of his error might be a good thing to do, but it is not morally obligatory. If I fail to help the child in the desert, I have done something seriously wrong, I have failed to discharge a moral obligation. But, on the view you are defending, I am not morally obligated to render aid to the girl unless I am commanded to by God.

So, the upshot is that if we grant, as you appeared prepared to do, that (i) there are moral reasons, independent of God's commands, to engage in actions, (ii) that such reasons have differing strengths, where the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands, and (iii) some such reasons concern the welfare of persons, then there are moral obligations independent of God's commands. The claim that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded is not tenable.

I apologize for the lengthy response. I hope that you find it interesting and worth your time. Like you, I think this topic is deeply important and very interesting, so I am strongly inclined to take advantage of opportunities to fruitfully discuss these issues. Thanks again.

 

Hi Jason,

Thank you for another substantive reply.

I take it that your central claim is this: we can have morally overriding reasons to act without appeal to God’s commands. When we have overriding moral reasons to act, then we have a moral obligation to act. We can see a likely case of this when we imagine that we encounter a little girl stranded on a hiking trail. It seems that, given just natural facts about the situation, we would be morally obligated to act.

A further, but not central, point is that rendering aid to the girl would likely not be in my self-interest, so there are reasons to act distinct from self-interested reasons. Specifically, the right sort of moral reasons in the right amount can generate a reason to act.

Let’s first say something about self-interest and the connection to morality before moving on to address the heart of your reply. It seems to me that there is a real problem if self-interest and morality come apart so that there can be cases where what is right to do is not in my interest to do. This is a worry shared by thinkers like Kant and Sidgwick (perhaps Aristotle as well). If it is not in my interest to be moral, then we cannot hope to make full rational sense of morality (Baggett and Walls, Good God, 13). This is Sidgwick’s problem of “dualism of practical reason.” And in order to solve this problem, Kant thought that we needed to believe that God exists as a “postulate of practical reason.” Hare explains that Kant thought of God as having three roles: the legislative, executive, and judicial (Hare, God and Morality, Kindle location 1740). In his judicial role, God ensures that happiness and holiness ultimately cohere. In this way, it is always in my interest, ultimately, to be moral, and the rational stability of morality is preserved.

Perhaps one could say that morality can be fully rational and yet not always be in our self-interest, which is the view I think you take here. I am not sure that is so. We can always ask, “Why be moral?” Why should I care about moral reasons to act if, in the end, acting is not in my interest? Of course, we find ourselves caring about moral reasons but if we suppose, counterfactually, that we do not care about moral reasons, then it is difficult to show why we should act without some circularity without appeal to self-interest.

I should care because it is right to care; that is one likely answer. And that answer could be translated as “I should be moral because I should be moral,” which is circular. The best answer, as far as I can tell, to the question, “Why be moral?” is that being moral is in our interest. Such an answer avoids the circularity problem and preserves the rationality of morality.

I think this point about practical reason helps illustrate some of my concern with the account of moral obligations you have offered. We, of course, share the perspective that rendering aid is morally obligatory, but we disagree about the explanatory account of that fact.

If I am understanding your view correctly, if we have enough good reasons to act, then those good reasons constitute a moral obligation in at least some cases. But I am not sure why that would be. Certainly, there is an intuitive appeal to the scenario you have laid out. When we encounter the girl on the trail, all morally healthy people would recognize their duty to act. Further, I think it is correct that we recognize this duty without asking ourselves whether God has commanded us to render aid in such cases (though he has with great clarity in the parable of the Good Samaritan). But, and not that this is contrary to your claim, I think it is equally true that we do not asses the state of affairs and add up the moral reasons and then decide we are morally obligated. In such cases, morally healthy people just see that they are so obligated. In fact most of the reasons to act that we are likely to adduce come from our sense of its being a duty already.

So I think we can ask two questions. (1) Why do we have the experience of feeling obligated in such cases, and (2) assuming we are really obligated, what is the explanation of the obligation?

If we assume some conjunction of naturalism and evolution, then in response to 1, we could say that our feelings of obligation are explained by their evolutionary advantage. A species is more likely to thrive when we perform acts of altruism, so our biology has programmed us to have such feelings. And the Christian could say that such intuitions are explained by sharing, to some degree, God’s moral vision. We care about the girl because God cares about the girl and he made us in his image.

The response to (2) has a wide array of options on both naturalism and Christianity. I think your reply gives a good illustration of a possible naturalist reply, but of course, there are many others. Christians may give natural law, virtue ethical, divine command theory, or yet other replies. But the DCT view is this: we are obliged to help if and only if (and because) God has so commanded. (Why we should think of obligations as divine commands is important and perhaps that would be worth exploring in another post. But I will set that aside for now and point readers to Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods).

This view does not entail that moral reasons and moral obligations are alien to one another. God will often command some act because it’s a good thing to do. God’s commands, contra the radical theological voluntarists, are not capricious. Since we are made in God’s image, we naturally find ourselves thinking that we are obligated to render aid when morally good reasons abound, even if we do not psychologically appeal to God’s command in the moment.

Your challenge is powerful precisely because we find ourselves believing so easily and naturally that we are obligated to render aid. Certainly, if we already think that moral reasons are good reasons for acting, then it will be natural to think that whenever we find sufficient moral reasons, then we will find ourselves believing we are obligated. One might even define “ought” in a colloquial sort of way to mean “having good moral reasons to do something,” but how do we solve the ontological problem of moral obligations? What’s easily lost here is the fact that there are subtle ways to domesticate the notion of moral obligations, losing in the process what Evans calls the “Anscombe intuition” about moral obligations.

Let us suppose, again counterfactually, the God has not commanded us to render aid in a scenario like you have described. In this case, we would have morally good reasons to help the girl and it would be bad if we chose not to help. It’s good to save the life of the girl, to provide relief of the family, safeguard future contributions she will make to society, and so on. The bad would be the negation of all these things, and the cost of her death, emotionally and otherwise. In this context, perhaps it is fair to characterize your view this way: When we have the right kind and quality of morally good reasons to act, and refraining from acting would result in tremendous badness, then we are obliged to act.

Put this way, it seems to be a kind of consequentialism. When the good outweighs the bad, then we have a moral obligation. Of course, there are serious problems with consequentialist theories, like the in-principle denial of human rights and the limited power of our moral calculus, of which I am sure you are aware. We could imagine, if we are in the time traveling mood, that we have encountered Hitler’s mother when she was a little girl. If we balance the scales now, it turns out leaving her to die will result in more good than bad.

That said, I do not think you intend to offer a consequentialist theory, and please correct me if I am wrong. But if it is not consequentialist, and it is deontological, then it would seem to follow on a theory like Kant’s that we should eschew the sort of counting up of good and bad and perform our duty, come what may. Even if the result was very bad, I would still be obligated to perform my duty on a deontic system. Thus, Option (C) IGNORE, would not be prohibited because it has bad results. If you mean that the act itself is bad, and I would agree, then I am still not sure how that would be relevant for an account of moral obligations. Some acts which are bad in themselves can be morally obligatory. For example, sometimes disciplining a child requires us to do something bad, like deprive the child of something he enjoys. Depriving a child does seem like, in isolation, a bad thing. But parents are so obligated. Or, perhaps, killing enemy combatants in a just war is a bad, but morally obligatory thing. This tension between moral goodness/badness and moral rightness/wrongness serves to motivate this problem of how we move from one category to the other.

Again, I take it that you think that having a certain quality and quantity of moral reasons creates a moral obligation. The concern I have here comes from the distinction between moral rightness and moral goodness. These are different kinds of entities and having some of one does not generate the other. How would such a transmutation occur? On the other hand, if we say that God is the good, commands what is good, and these commands are moral obligations, then we preserve the distinction and have a plausible explanatory account, without the risk of watering down what’s meant by moral obligations.

 

Interview with David Baggett

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

What is moral apologetics and how does it impact the average person?

When I say moral apologetics, I’m referring to various versions of the moral argument. It’s doing apologetics—a rational defense of the faith—using the resources of ethics and moral truth. Of course the phrase “moral apologetics” can also simply be used to express the idea of doing apologetics in a moral way—respectfully, politely, kindly—and I think that’s a good idea too. Particularly if one wants to offer a moral argument for God’s existence, it ought to be done morally. Otherwise it’s like cheating on an ethics test—which would be more than a little ironic.

Moral considerations in favor of theism generally or Christianity particularly come in lots of forms. Formal arguments are just one way; but other ways include casual conversations, a sense of conviction over sin, the need for forgiveness, recognition of the dignity and value and equality of people, the primacy of love. I’d hazard to guess that the sorts of considerations central to most people coming to faith are moral ones. C. S. Lewis gave a version of the moral argument in Book I of Mere Christianity, in which he said that the existence of an objective moral standard and the way we all invariably fall short of it are the two most central concepts in coming to understand the universe. By the way he also first gave that chapter as a radio address in England during World War II—you don’t get much more practical than that. Lewis also wrote that until we recognize that we’ve fallen short of the moral law, we have little sense of any need for forgiveness and salvation, so the considerations of morality can function well not just to point people to God, but to the need for the gospel. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, when asked, has said that the moral argument is likely the best argument on offer from natural theology. Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when asked, has admitted that when he has debates on various college campuses, the moral argument tends to be the most effective one.

So when we actually give a moral argument for God or Christianity, the basic idea is that we start with foundational moral realities of which most all of us are readily aware, and then we try to make the case that theism can explain these realities better than can the alternatives—like atheism or various secular efforts.

The average person likely doesn’t think about the argument in its formal versions very much, but there’s something deeply intuitive about recognizing moral truth when we see it and allowing it to point us beyond ourselves—and perhaps even all the way to God. There’s something about axiomatic moral truths that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the human condition. Where did these moral standards come from? It’s not just a matter of what a society happens to dub morality, because societies can be wrong, just as individuals are. There’s an objective standard out there; what does that say about the world we live in? Moral apologists tend to think it says quite a bit.

What’s the history of moral apologetics?

The history of the moral argument is rich indeed. The first really big name associated with the moral argument is Immanuel Kant, who gave a few different versions of it. Before him, you can find precursors of the moral argument or aspects of it in numerous thinkers—from Plato to Aquinas, Descartes to Reid, Pascal to Locke, Pascal to Berkeley. It was Kant, though, who put it together in a systematic way. He saw the reality of the moral law, its authority, our inability to meet the law on our own resources alone, the need for an account of the full rationality of morality. Since him, in the English speaking world, nearly every luminary in the field of moral apologetics has had something to say about Kant. Agree or disagree, we can’t responsibly ignore him. In the 1800s and into the early 1900 several dozen major European thinkers devoted considerable thought to the evidential force of morality where God’s concerned. John Henry Newman is an example, a famous evangelical-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic. A big aspect of his moral argument is the role of conscience as a faculty that puts us in touch with the deliverances of the moral law. Other major thinkers subsequent to Newman were A. E. Taylor, William Sorley, Hastings Rashdall, and lots of others. A number of these gave whole Gifford lectures and wrote whole books on the topic. Of course in the mid-1900s Lewis popularized the argument in Mere Christianity, and since then, in the United States, there’s been a veritable explosion of interest in the moral argument in which a number of top-notch philosophers have devoted to it their considerable analytic skills. Jerry Walls and I are putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling this fertile history.

What’s the nature of your work in moral apologetics?

When I was in graduate school I decided to write my dissertation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which arose in an early Socratic dialogue: Is something moral because God commands it, or vice versa. (At least that’s a common contemporary version.) It struck me as interesting because it related to this matter of God and ethics and whether there’s a connection between them. It’s thought by many to pose an intractable objection to theistic ethics. I didn’t agree, but wanted to figure out what I thought about it. After doing that work it freed me up to extend the argument all the way to the moral argument. If we can defend a strong account of the dependence of morality on God, while effectively critiquing secular ethics and basing the whole thing on moral truths that most everyone agrees on, we have the ingredients for an effective moral apologetic.

So in my work I tend to focus on moral facts like objective moral values and duties, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality, and argues that these realities are better explained by theism than by atheism. It’s interesting and important work, endlessly fascinating to me. Take moral duties, for example. What is it about the world that can account for their existence—these binding, prescriptive, authoritative moral duties that impose obligations on us irrespective of whether we want them to or not, or whether we have any intention of obeying them or not. What does their existence say about the nature of reality? Or take the essential dignity and value of people. What accounts for such a thing? What does such a moral fact have to teach us about the nature of ultimate reality? In books like Good God, God and Cosmos, and The Morals of the Story, those are the kinds of issues we spend time exploring.

Why have you developed an interest in writing about Mr. Rogers?

That might seem a bit odd, right? But I actually see it as integrally related to moral apologetics. I grew up watching him, of course, like most of us did, and always loved the guy. But the recent documentary got me more interested in finding out about his life. There was much I didn’t know—that he was an ordained minister, personal friends with Henri Nouwen, a graduate of seminary, someone with a vibrant spiritual life. The documentary does a remarkably good job talking about his life and ministry—and he really did see his television work as ministry, though nothing ever heavy handed. Watching his story is deeply moving; most leave the theater in tears. I’ve seen the documentary three times already and it deeply touches me every time. Bullied as a kid, he went on a lifelong quest to see the good in others, even if it was hard to see. He was a wonderful man, and as I thought about it I realized that in his quiet, gentle, loving way he was embodying the sorts of principles I talk about when I do moral apologetics. He didn’t give an argument, or paint people into corners, but he lived its truths, and in the process demonstrated their power. St. Francis said, "Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words." We as evangelicals can underestimate the power of a life lived well to communicate important truths and inculcate in others a hunger to know God. Mr. Rogers did this, day in and day out; he was a prayer warrior, someone who took spiritual formation seriously, someone who saw his work in television as a calling and ministry. He saw himself on a mission to protect kids and their innocence, to let them know they’re loved, that they’re special and unique. He saw the absolute primacy of love. His whole life was a moral apologetic.

What are some of the ways Mr. Rogers connects with your work on the moral argument?

He took seriously the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. It wasn’t a coincidence his show was “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He saw that love of God is inextricably tied to love of neighbor. He aimed to be a helper, someone who made the world better in big ways and small, a repairer of creation. He took friendship seriously, investing his time and money and energy in cultivating them with great care. He challenged us all to make goodness attractive—nothing Pollyannaish, but real, actual goodness—and he modeled what doing that looks like. Believers and unbelievers alike look at his life and can see there was something special about him; they can see the love of Christ within him. He didn’t just talk about the primacy of love; he showed us what making love the priority actually looks like.

Part of what drew me to him was that, though he was all about the same principles we talk about in moral apologetics—taking our responsibilities seriously, protecting the innocent, preserving human dignity, making people feel loved, loving your neighbor—he did it in a way that wasn’t heavy handed or off putting, but eminently attractive. Having done a lot of thinking about the theology and theory behind all of this, I’m deeply inspired to see it play out in flesh and blood in a life like his. So I’m aiming to get a trade press contract to write a book about him—particularly about the influences on him like Henri Nouwen, like the child development expert he studied with, Margaret McFarland, and his favorite seminary professor, William Orr.

How do you teach your students to view pop culture through the lens of moral apologetics and why is this important?

Truth can be found in all sorts of places. We just need to cultivate the eyes to see it. I consider it providential that after grad school I was able to get involved with my friend Bill Irwin’s series on philosophy and popular culture. It was a brilliant idea to use the medium of popular culture to talk about important issues in philosophy that arise in fun and unexpected ways in our music and movies and television shows, and its staying power demonstrates what a smart idea it is. In a sense we can do the same with apologetics, including moral apologetics, and see all around us all sorts of important truths that point us to God. My wife just wrote a piece on the television show “The Man in the High Castle.” There’s nothing specifically Christian about the show, which is an adaption of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but implicitly in the story is a strong moral lesson that we need a moral anchor that mere people or even whole societies alone can’t provide, moral truths that go beyond political power or mere expediency. Whether it’s “The Man in the High Castle,” Harry Potter, or Mr. Rogers, apologists can tap into pop culture in all sorts of ways to build bridges and generate important conversations.

 

More Than Mere Morality

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

By David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett

Connecting God and ethics nowadays often invites amusement at best, disdain at worst. “Religious nones” are on the increase, yet society seems to be holding together tolerably well. Add to that the number of stories about religiously affiliated folks behaving badly, and for many, it’s just not clear what the purpose of throwing God into the moral equation is. Perhaps nothing more than an authoritarian party-pooper whose rules are inscrutable, and a life spent following them, bleak. Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the posterchild for such a posture—religious, affable, yet perpetually clueless. “I don't drink or dance or swear, I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” 

It’s commonplace today to think morality is on better footing without religion’s involvement, which usually just taints and ruins it. All manner of human strife, critics declare, stems from faith convictions—the Crusades, religious persecution throughout history, and contemporary terrorism and unrest in the Middle East. And the Judeo-Christian deity is no better, so the argument goes. After all, Richard Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

As we said, moral apologists are facing a bit of a publicity crisis these days. Still Dawkins’s bluster helps us understand why moral considerations are now often taken as evidence against God’s goodness or existence, as in the classical problem of evil. Moral arguments in favor of God’s existence—even though they’ve been advanced by thinkers as notable as Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and C. S. Lewis—usually tend to push listeners beyond believability, sometimes even beyond civility. “I don’t need God to be moral!” comes the retort. To suggest otherwise is on par with accusations of offensive body odor or, even worse, forcing the premature cancellation of Firefly. What kind of monster do you think I am?

Duly admonished, most proponents of the moral argument walk back their claims, profusely apologizing and distancing themselves from any implication that unbelievers can’t uphold fine values and sport strong characters. Yes, yes, they say, we appreciate Mulder’s devotion to Scully, thoroughly irreligious as it is. And they dial back their claims, set aside questions of conversion, and start with common ground, exploring the best explanation of moral agency or rights, duties or knowledge. Such care and judiciousness is admirable. It’s also effective in building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers, and heaven knows the more bridges constructed in these divided times the better.

Nevertheless, despite the provocations associated with the claim, it is difficult to blithely accept that we can somehow achieve radical moral transformation of our own devices. A quick glance at human history or literature removes any lingering doubts to the contrary. Maybe there’s something to this God/morality connection, at least something worth thinking a bit about rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is an idea we find compelling ourselves—that anything like realistic hope for moral perfection is possible only if God makes it happen. In fact, we lay out such a case for readers, along with a number of other considerations for the moral argument, in our recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God.

Once everyone’s hackles are down, cooler heads will often acknowledge that, true enough, this world is a mess, and not even Dr. Horrible can save us. Consensus is that something does have to give. We have heard this sentiment expressed in Sarah Silverman’s recent plea for a better world after her friend Louis CK confessed to abusive mistreatment of women; we heard it in victim statement after victim statement in the sentencing trial of convicted child molester Larry Nassar. In light of these horrific wrongs, we can see that the cursory and superficial manner in which morality is often treated in this era of soundbites and social media is just not cutting it. The very issue of moral transformation is often overshadowed by a rather shortsighted and watered-down account of what morality is all about. It’s not simply conventions and negotiations to ensure we get along; it’s not merely knowing and avoiding social taboos and staying in the public’s good graces. It’s much deeper than that, more solid and foundational to reality itself. It features traditional and authoritative obligations with attendant guilt for wrongdoing; it’s a call to a life of virtue with talk of a coming reckoning and promise of forgiveness for sins. To think about it otherwise is to domesticate it beyond recognition.

Take an analogy. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other. A Tylenol might give relief for a few hours, but only a root canal will eradicate the underlying problem. Rather than seeking the cure we need for our moral disease, it’s tempting instead to alleviate a few symptoms, settle for a few incremental improvements along the way, thank our lucky stars for a modicum of palliative therapy, and deny we’re really that sick after all. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography provides a memorable example of just this approach. As a young man, he once set himself to the formidable task of attaining moral perfection. He outlined his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into; however, unsurprisingly, this strategy failed to achieve its ambitious goals: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.” Having failed to reach his lofty aims, Franklin settled instead for the mere appearance of virtue.

As John Hare deftly explains in his important work The Moral Gap, without divine assistance to bridge the chasm between our ethical obligations and capabilities, we find few options other than exaggerating our capacities, lowering the demand, or forging secular substitutes. But as Kant and Lewis have pointed out, and as we so acutely recognize, that approach—psychologically appeasing as it might be—cannot rescue us from our moral dilemma, obligated to a standard that, try as we might, we cannot meet, called to a sublime vocation of which we’re unworthy. At least on our own finite and meager resources.

Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellec­tually resisted fact. Babylon Bee put a humorous twist on this serious subject with the story of a 29-year-old mom who believed that people are basically good—at least until her daughter grew up a little. “Now that Charlotte is two—hoo boy. That innate depravity is shining through with the brightness of a thousand suns…. She’s like a Category 5 hurricane with a cute face.”

Lewis said that there are two facts that are well-nigh undeniable: the existence of moral truths, and that we invariably fall short of them. Lewis thought these two truths provide the most important clue to understand this world in which we live. They constitute our diagnosis; God’s overtures of love offering forgiveness and transformation is the prescription. The life that awaits us, Lewis proclaims, is about so much more than implementing a moral regiment or diluting the standard: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up.” God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. We are to be remade—a glorious prospect indeed. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”

Human Value and the Abductive Moral Argument (Part 1)

Baggett and Walls make a powerful abductive case for theism in Good God by arguing from four different categories of moral facts: ontological, epistemic, practical, and rational.[1]  Their thesis is that the existence of God best explains the objective reality of both the good and the right, how we can have genuine moral knowledge, how we can be fully morally transformed, and why morality and happiness ultimately harmonize. Throughout the book, there are intimations of how the Christian God best explains these facts, but I think we could add one additional fact to Baggett and Walls’s list and make a successful and compelling argument for Christian theism.

Here is the moral fact I have in mind: It is good to be human (call this “HF” for the “human fact”). Baggett and Walls agree that this is a moral fact. My aim is to explore what would happen if we put this moral fact explicitly in the list of facts to be explained.[2] Before we consider how the addition of this moral fact might affect Baggett and Walls’s argument, it will help to make three preliminary points. First, one might want to know my reasons for contending that HF is a fact. Second, some explication of the meaning of HF is required. Third, we will want to know whether we really are human, otherwise HF will be irrelevant for us.

Baggett and Walls do not give specific criteria for determining what is a moral fact and what is not. This is not surprising since they take the moral facts in question to be obvious to any moral realist, following Lewis and his discussion of the Tao in Mere Christianity.[3] One may recall Lewis’s parable of the stolen corner seat on the train.[4] We all would sense that we had been wronged morally should some thief swipe our comfortable seat in a moment of inattention. Some moral realities (like the wrongness of stealing) present themselves to us in this immediate and obvious way. Others, like the need for moral rationality and transformation, are thought by Kant to be necessary to practical reason.[5] Does HF follow the pattern set for moral facts given by Baggett and Walls? That depends on what is meant by HF.

The two key terms of HF are good and human. By good, I do not mean some extrinsic or instrumental good, as if being human were merely a way to obtain something else that is what’s actually intrinsically valuable. Rather, I have the sense of good presupposed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “that at which all things aim.”[6] Goodness in this sense describes something that is desirable for its own sake; this why Aristotle so closely identified goodness with happiness. Of course, Aristotle did not think of happiness solely as “feeling good.” Rather, happiness is a form of excellence, where excellence is understood as harmony between a thing’s nature and its accidental properties.[7] A person is happy when she lives according to her nature, with both good character and good fortune. This way of life deserves the title of “happiness” because this is the highest form of life possible for a human being, and, as such, produces the most robust kind of satisfaction possible.

But what about the second term in HF, human? Aristotle’s definition of human is well-known: a rational animal. But Aristotle also thinks of human beings as meant for the specific form of life in the Greek polis.  Humans as rational animals flourish in the prosperous city-state. The philosophers in such cities experience the best form of life since they are able to realize maximally the rational and animal elements. A life of contemplation is the highest good because it realizes “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] Even though Aristotle makes this connection of the human good to the divine he does not, as his teacher Plato did, begin to suggest that embodied human life was something that ought to be transcended. Aristotle would likely see any attempt to transcend the form of life marked out by “rational animal” as an abandonment of one’s humanity and essence, a denial of one’s own nature. That would be supremely irrational, not least because the loss of essential properties would entail that the thing ceases to exist. Aristotle’s reticence to advocate for transcendence and his connection of the human good with the divine further suggests that Aristotle thought of humanity itself as intrinsically valuable.[9] The proper end of man corresponds with the highest reality, the divine.

It is not my intention to commend all of Aristotle’s view, but only to explicate what is meant by HF and to provide some reassurance by appeal to an esteemed figure like Aristotle that such a view has some prima facie credibility. Many have rejected Aristotle’s ethics because of some of the epistemological difficulties of discovering the human good through Aristotle’s proto-scientific method and because of the rich teleology it requires.[10] All that we need for the argument to go through is the more modest claim of HF.

However, the assumption that we are essentially human is contested by materialists and naturalists. They will deny that the term human marks out any real, metaphysical category. David Hull, discussing the implications of materialism, says, “If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did.”[11] Significantly, Hull's conclusion only follows from the conjunction of Darwinism and materialism/naturalism for theists might say that evolution is merely as means through which God brings about metaphysically actual and distinct categories of species. A number of Christians, including John Hare and C.S. Lewis, have thought evolution and Christianity to be compatible. However, one might further contest that certain Eastern religions, like some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, teach that our humanity is ultimately illusory. This illusion is very powerful and much of religious practice is devoted overcoming it. For example, a central teaching of the Buddha is the “no-self” doctrine, which is the view that persons, and therefore human beings, are ultimately illusory. It was only through an ecstatic religious experience that the Buddha was able to realize this doctrine; nirvana is partially constituted by the transcendence of this illusion.[12]

Despite this concern, I think it is obvious for most people that we are human. The belief is intuitive and widespread, like the belief in genuine moral obligations; although this is a defeasible justification, it’s not evidence that should be categorically discounted from the outset. 

We might further support the obviousness that we are human by pointing out how much of public moral discourse depends upon this assumption. For example, those in favor of harboring refugees will often appeal to the humanity of the refugees. Anne C. Richard, former assistant secretary of state, advocates that “in all cases, people should be treated humanely,” which is, of course, the exhortation to treat humans as if they really were humans.[13] We often use the phrase “human rights,” with the implicit belief that humans have rights because they are human. Further, the fact that the illusion of our humanity can only be overcome by the Buddha’s initial and exceptional experience is further evidence of just how obvious this belief is. It is only when one visits a philosophy (or religion) class that he can be talked out of thinking he is a human being.[14] 

On the assumption that we are essentially human, that being an excellent human constitutes the highest form of life possible would follow necessarily by practical reason. It would be a contradiction to act in a way contrary to our own natures; we cannot rationally pursue the impossible end of becoming what we cannot be. The only rational course of action is to pursue a life consistent with our telos. I take it that this piece of reasoning is uncontroversial. It must be a form of excellence to live as humans, if that is what we essentially are. 

Still, there could be an objection like this. We know that artifacts can be made with a bad purpose. A cheater makes a pair of weighted dice for the purpose of cheating. The excellence of these dice is bound up in a bad purpose. Why think that human beings do not also have equally bad teleology?  In this case, there is a disconnect between what’s good for man and the good; being an excellent human entails being bad in some other sense.

I suspect there cannot be a clean reply to this objection (without presupposing theism) in the same way there cannot be a clean reply to other forms of radical skepticism, because this objection implies that our most deeply held beliefs about what is good for us are ultimately incorrect. It is akin to the familiar “brain in a vat” problem. We could, for all we know, have some ultimately bad purpose in the same way that we could, for all we know, be brains in vats. The mere fact that this is a possibility should not concern us.

What we find every in culture is the implicit or explicit acknowledgment of the intrinsic goodness of being human. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we encounter the character of Data. Data is an android and decisively not human, yet he desires to be as human as possible. The crew does not discourage Data from this pursuit. Quite the opposite. They encourage Data to continue his quest to become more human, despite the tremendous difficulty and risk it poses. Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan, is similarly commended for embracing his humanity. Possibly, the often-quoted line from Carl Sagan that we are all stardust betrays an implicit belief in the goodness of being human. Sagan does not say that we are all dirt or dung, which is equally as true from his perspective. He says instead that we are stardust. We are made of something majestic, powerful, something valuable.

Of course, in culture we also find many examples of implicit denials of the intrinsic goodness of being human. The trans-humanist movement declares just by its label that humanity is something to be transcended. Nick Bostrom, a transhumanist philosopher, says, “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution.”[15] But often the trans-humanists’ desire is not really to cease being human, but to free ourselves from perceived human defects. Bostrom himself says among the goals of transhumanism are the “radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.”[16] But the elimination of disease and the enhancement of human capacities is not transcendence from humanity in any sense. It is transcendence of human defect. There is no reason to think that a life free of disease and death would entail the loss of humanity. It may be, as the Bible suggests, the true intention for human life. Ironically, I think that trans-humanists often articulate, without being aware of it, the desire to be a fully realized human being. Perhaps this is further evidence of the basicality and universality of the belief in the intrinsic goodness of being human.

Of course, there is a difference between believing that P and P obtaining. However, for certain common ever-present beliefs, like the belief in the existence of the external world and other minds, one can assume, along with Thomas Reid and Richard Swinburne, that what seems to be the case is the case, unless we have the right sort of defeaters. Therefore, if it seems to us that being human is good, then that is grounds for thinking it is so, unless we encounter defeaters.[17]

All that has been argued so far is just that HF is worthy of being called a moral fact. I think have made the case that it plausibly is a moral fact and we are now ready to consider how Christianity in particular is the best explanation of that moral fact, which is what I’ll do in the next installment. 

Notes:

[1] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, 1 edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 113.

[2] Given the limits of space, this can only be exploratory.

[3] David Baggett and Jerry L Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 9.

[4] C. S Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2016), 18.

[5] For an extended discussion of this, see chapter 3 of John E. Hare, God and Morality: A Philosophical History (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

[6] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (OUP Oxford, 2009), 3.

[7] I do not take this to be in tension with the conception of goodness presented in Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods. Certainly, prima facie, this view seems too immanent to describe the transcendent, Platonic view that Adams proposes. But as I point out later, Aristotle himself did not think that the human good was the only sort of good or even that the human good does not some participate in the good. Cf. Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 183.

[9] There are inconsistences in Aristotle’s view on this. In Politics, he describes slaves as sub-human, “living tools.” Though such views are abhorrent, it would not negate the fact that being human is intrinsically good.

[10] For a discussion of some of the epistemological concerns, see chapter 4 of John E. Hare, God’s Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). The concerns about teleology are not raised by Hare, but are ubiquitous in the literature due to the infamous fact-value distinction.

[11] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (Suny Press, 1989), 73.

[12] Here is a sample of the Buddha’s teaching on this: “There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.”  Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.01.irel.html.

[13] Anne C. Richard, “Opinion | Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018, sec. Opinion, accessed June 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/trump-immigration-refugees.html.

[14] Perhaps the same is true for other moral facts like moral obligations. We must also remember that the target of this argument is not moral anti-realists, but moral realists, who would be much more comfortable with admitting metaphysical categories, like human, into their ontology.

[15] Nick Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 37, no. 4 (2003): 493.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Though some might say that there are strong candidates for defeaters of HF, my own view is that there are not. What specifically would be the argument that we either (1) are not human or (2) that being human is not good? Reductions of these sort usually presuppose that such reductions are required and then seek to find coherent ways of performing the reduction. (1) and (2) would be the conclusion of an argument and not the motivation for an argument.

On The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma: A Reply to Real Atheology

Photo by  Brendan Church  on  Unsplash

 

In a previous post, I argued that the Euthypro Dilemma (ED) was a false dilemma against Divine Command Theory (DCT).

The ED I am concerned with can be summarized as saying:

Either

(1) God has no reasons for His commands,

or

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

I proposed a third option 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.

Recently Real Atheology posted a reply on Facebook as follows:

First, I don’t think this is actually a genuine third option- it’s merely a modified second horn (that morality is independent of God). By admitting that God has reasons for not issuing certain commands, Choo is admitting that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. He is admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should, ought, or must not command us to perform those actions. If these reasons are sufficient to obligate God from not commanding certain actions, then they are sufficient to obligate us from not performing those same actions. What matters morally would still be independent of God. So all Choo does in his (3) is add a divine legislature and enforcer to the concept of wrongness. In fact, he only ever argues for his (3) by way of analogy to finite legislatures and the laws they enforce. He’s right to point out that morality constrains our legal system. Laws can be morally unjust after all. And laws can also incentivize people to conform to moral norms. A defender of a Euthyphro objection could concede all of this, but the point would still remain that reasons are what make it the case that some acts should not be willed either by human agents or divine agents. These reasons may not be sufficient for a divine legislature and enforcer, but that’s no objection, because reasons also aren’t sufficient for finite legislatures and enforcers. It can only constrain them. Finite legislatures and the demands of a divine commander are both constrained by the logical space of reasons (to borrow Wilfred Sellars term). What matters morally is part of the space of reasons and not the will of a being in the causal order. That is the lesson of the Euthyphro.

I’d recommend thinking of the Euthyphro dilemma differently. Either,

(a) Reasons are more fundamental than God’s will (and nature).

or

(b) God’s will (and nature) is more fundamental than reasons.

If (a) is true, then reasons constrain what God could will. His commands would not be arbitrary, because he could justify all of his commands with those more fundamental reasons. This would imply that morality is independent of God. If reasons are sufficient to obligate God not to issue certain commands, then those same reasons are sufficient to obligate us not to perform those same actions. Morality would be an autonomous (or self-directed) decision process.

But if (b) is true, then God’s will determines what reasons there are. There would be no justification for God’s commands on this view. They will always have to face a charge of arbitrariness, because there is no further reasons which justify God’s will. Morality would be about an unqualified claim on our obedience to divine commands. It would not be about reasons for action and autonomous decision-making.

Notice that adding a divine legislature and enforcer to (a) does not give us a genuine third option distinct from (a) and (b) either. It’s just something further added on. This is the difference between the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness and the command-implying sense of moral wrongness. If the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness is sufficient to constrain or obligate the command-implying sense of moral wrongness, then the command-implying sense of moral wrongness is superfluous. This is because the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness would also constrain and obligate what actions we should, ought, or must perform or not perform.

 

Reply:

First, I am in no way admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should not command us to perform those actions. To do so would be to say that God has moral obligations. As far as I can see, I have not stated this anywhere and this does not follow from anything I previously wrote. Given that most DCT proponents are motivated by the idea that obligations must come from an obligator, I think that most DCT proponents are committed to saying that God does not have moral obligations. If the opponent of DCT asserts that the facts of an act must constitute an obligation for God not to command it, then the opponent is just asserting that the major motivation for DCT is false. If so, the problem is with DCT’s motivation, not the ED.

Now, I do think that God, being loving, kind, good (and so forth), would not command certain actions. Take for example the act of torturing babies for fun. Given the badness of such an act, a loving God would not command it to be done. This claim differs from saying ‘given the badness of such an act, a loving God should not command it to be done.’

One might worry that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. Here are three short replies. First, some DCT proponents such as Robert Adams and William Lane Craig argue that God is the Good. If God’s commands are constrained by reasons based on goodness and God is the Good, then there is nothing independent of God which constrains God’s will after all. So this is not a problem for DCT proponents who hold such a theory of goodness. Second, even if one drops Adams’ theory of goodness, it is not true that something independent of God’s will can by itself constrain God’s will. Based on what I said last paragraph, what constrains God’s will is partly explained by God’s character and partly explained by the badness of the act. So part of what explains God’s will is His character, not solely the features of the act alone. Something independent of God only plays a partial role in constraining God’s will. Lastly, the notion of constraining needs to be explained in order to pose a problem. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act make it wrong for God to command the act, then I agree this would be problematic. But as I said above, the DCT proponent is not committed to this. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act determines what God would not command, then it is not clear why this is problematic. One might however think that if the features of an act determine God’s commands, and God’s commands determine our moral obligations, then it is the features of an act alone that is sufficient to determine our moral obligations. This however is wrong. If X because of Y, and Y because of Z, it does not follow that X solely because of Z. All that follows is that X because of Y and Z.  

To end off, I would again appeal to an analogy. Suppose that there is a political authority (be it a single person or a government) which is legitimate (justified by whatever theory of political authority you hold to). Now, one might hold political authority command theory (PACT) which states that if a legitimate political theory issues commands (or institutes laws) and has good reasons for those commands, then those commands would result in our legal obligations.

Now imagine one raises the ED against PACT:

Either

(1) The political authority has no reasons for His commands,

or

(2) The political authority has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations.

The defender of PACT can well affirm a third option:

(3) The political authority has reasons for its commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations without its commands.

For example, the political authority may have good reasons to command people not to smoke in a certain area and to smoke in another area. This creates our legal obligation to smoke only at the designated areas. But independent of the political authority’s commanding, the good reasons alone are not sufficient to create such a legal obligation. Now also suppose, there are things that the political authority would not command as the authority is wise, loving, etc. With this, we have a close analogy to DCT. I take it that most would not think the ED is a good objection to PACT. As far as we think that the ED is not problematic for PACT, I think the same can be said for DCT. If any ED style objection is to be raised against DCT, then it should also be a good objection against PACT.

 

 

Mailbag: Can God Have Moral Reasons for Divine Commands?

Jason writes:

"He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it"

A point of clarification: You seem to be saying that there are actions such that, prior to God's commands, there are moral reasons to perform them and that (at least for such an action) God's commanding that we perform the action gives us additional moral reasons to perform it. Is this a correct interpretation of your view? If this is correct, then an immediate consequence is that God's commands do not generate or constitute the moral reasons that exist prior to God's commands. Presumably, this also entails that God's commands do not generate or constitute the strength of these prior reasons.

Assuming that I understand your view correctly, I have additional questions: Suppose A is an action such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform it. What is the nature of A's deontic status at this point (that is, prior to God's command)? Since, on your view, DCT is a theory of deontic value, presumably the answer is that A has no deontic status. So, on your view A is neither obligatory nor wrong prior to God's command. Is this right?

Suppose now that there are two actions, A and B, such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform each of them. Suppose that the reasons to perform A are much stronger than the reasons to perform B. Don't we want to say that A has a different moral status than B? Suppose we are faced with a decision between A and B. Don't we want to say that A is the action that we should perform? Given that it is the action that (at least in the context of a choice between A and B) we should perform, don't we want to say that A has a different deontic status than B?

Suppose now that I face a choice between A and C. A is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to perform it; and C is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to refrain from performing it. What we want to say about such a situation is that I ought to perform A and I ought to refrain from performing C. Indeed, we want to say that, if I perform C rather than A, I will have done something wrong. But, if this is correct, C has deontic value; it is morally wrong and its moral wrongness is dependent only on the existence and strength of reasons that count against performing C (and in favor of A), which reasons exist prior to God's commands. So, how can it be that God's commands make an action have its deontic value?

 

Hi Jason,

Thanks for your comment and question!

I’m not Dr. Baggett, but I think I can suggest some ways one might respond to the criticisms you raise.

One thing to keep in mind is the good/right distinction. Divine command theory (DCT) is usually presented by its advocates as a theory of moral rightness (moral obligations, in particular) and not a theory of moral goodness. DCT says that moral rightness is constituted (or caused or, in Hare’s case, prescribed) by divine commands. On each account, if God commands that P, then we have a moral obligation to P. Of course this is one among other theistic ethical accounts of moral obligations.

If something like DCT holds, then we can have moral reasons to act that are not themselves morally obligatory reasons. In other words, an action could be good to do, but not morally obligatory. For example, perhaps it is good for me to spend all my money building wells in drought-stricken areas. But that is not morally obligatory, at least because there are equally good other causes that I could support, like, say, bringing an end to human trafficking. In God’s case, we can say that he has moral reasons to give a command; it is consistent with moral goodness. But that does not presume a theory of moral rightness.

One issue in the discussion of moral obligations, I think, is that we use the term “ought” in different ways. There’s a rational use of “ought” and a moral use of “ought.” Rationally speaking, I ought to do what is in my self-interest. I ought to pursue my self-interest on pain of irrationality. Arguably, it is always irrational to do some act that is not in my interest. And this is precisely the sort of insight that undergirds many ethical theories, like utilitarianism and social contract theory. I ought to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number because, if everyone follows that rule, then it will ultimately result in the most good for everyone, including myself, or so the story goes.

However, it seems that there is another sense of “ought” that is not captured by appeal to rationality in general or self-interest in particular. Phenomenologically, we can spot a difference in ourselves in the case of adding 2 and 2 to make 5 and when we have morally wronged another person. And, it seems to me, that many of our moral choices, psychologically, do not make any reference at all to rationality. When I think about the wrongness of murder, I do not remind myself (at least not at first) of how such an act would not be in my interests. Rather, I have the sense that such an act would be wrong no matter how my interests factor into the equation. There’s a certain gravity, weight, and transcendence with such prohibitions that, at least by my lights, resist the reduction to the merely rational ought.

So, I could have moral reasons for performing some act A over act B, without God’s command in place. Any supererogatory act will, de facto, come with good moral reasons to do that act, but it will not be morally obligatory. But the divine command theorist will say that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded. Doing some act because it is good is a moral reason to act; however, it is not sufficient to ground moral obligations.

Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument (Part 2)

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by Stephen S. Jordan

Mankind’s Inability to Keep the Objective Moral Law

            Lewis’s first point acknowledges the existence of an objective moral law; his second point is this: “None of us are really keeping [it].”[1] These two concepts are so deeply ingrained within his version of the moral argument that he claims:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.[2]

Much has already been said about the first concept –“they know the Law of Nature [sic]”; the rest of this section will deal with the second – “they break it.” His second point is not a judgmental one that only applies to others; he is “quite willing to admit that he belongs among the moral lawbreakers.”[3] In fact, he admits “. . .that this year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behaviour [sic] we expect from other people.”[4]

Lewis claims what is obvious to any rational human being: no one perfectly adheres to the objective moral law. In fact, one of the “most natural thing[s] in the world [is] to recognize that human beings are imperfect and fall short of moral ideals.”[5] Lewis observes that moral failure, or “falling short,” elicits a sense of guilt in all humans,[6] moments when,

…all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them.[7]

 

Guilt serves as a trigger that alerts one to his own failure to do what ought to have been done in a particular situation.[8] Psychologists define it as “moral transgression in which people believe that their action (or inaction) contributed to negative outcomes.”[9] Guilt “has long been considered the most essential emotion in the development of the affective and cognitive structures of both conscience and moral behavior.”[10] Even “the atheist feels guilt (accompanied by dread) when he recollects his violation of the moral law. Even he can feel the law’s inexorable demands.”[11]

            If there is an objective moral law and it is clear that all men fail to adhere to its demands, it seems odd that one would experience guilt before such an abstract, impersonal moral code. Rules and principles do not elicit feelings of guilt and shame within individuals; only persons are responsible for this. Does this indicate that there is One behind the objective moral law that is more like a Person than anything else? According to John Henry Newman, “Inanimate things [such as rules and principles] cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear…”[12] Along the same lines, A. E. Taylor states, “When we feel as we ought to feel about the evil in ourselves, we cannot help recognizing that our position is not so much that of someone who has broken a wise and salutary regulation, as of one who has insulted or proved false to a person of supreme excellence, entitled to wholehearted devotion.”[13] If there is indeed a Person behind the objective moral law, then transgression of this law is ultimately an offense directed against the One to whom all persons are responsible.

            At this point, Lewis notes, “. . . after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power – it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.”[14] Lewis refers to the One behind the Law as “a Power”; it certainly seems that such a being also has to be “a Person” – considering the guilt and shame that individuals experience when they transgress the objective moral law.

            Mankind’s inability to adhere to the moral law is ultimately transgression against the Person behind the law; this is a frightening position for mankind to find himself in. As Lewis says, “He is our only possibly ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.”[15] Is there any way out of this predicament? The only way out for man is if the divine Person decides to provide a way of rescue. Guilt can only be alleviated by a person; in this case, it can only be cured if the divine Person, the One who has been wronged, God himself, chooses to forgive.[16] Matter, nature, a divine mind or Power, an impersonal force, or some other conception of the divine, cannot forgive; “Only a Person can forgive.”[17]

Although there may be several theistic religions that set forth the notion of a personal God,[18] Christianity stands alone as being able to provide an adequate ground for such a God. Throughout Scripture, God is active. He makes the decision to create (Gen. 1:1), walks in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8), experiences emotions (Is. 61:8), converses with human beings (Job 38-41), loves (Jn. 3:16), displays compassion (Mt. 9:36), judges (Jas. 4:12), disciplines (Deut. 8:5), and performs a host of other person-like acts. In addition to these examples, there are two fundamental reasons why Christianity is unique in its conception of God as a Person: 1) the Trinity; and 2) the Incarnation.[19] These two doctrines are unique to Christianity; the former demonstrates that God has always been personal (consider the interrelationships of the three Persons within the Triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), whereas the latter reveals that God is an actual Person (Jesus Christ is God “manifested in the flesh”; 1 Tim. 3:16).

The good news that Christianity offers is that God, the “one lawgiver” (Jas. 4:12) who stands behind the objective moral law, the Person who has been transgressed, has decided to offer divine forgiveness to those who choose to accept it (1 Jn. 1:9).[20] Additionally, Christianity provides hope of moral improvement, and even radical transformation, through the indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:6).[21] Some think that time cancels sin and will ultimately alleviate guilt, but, as Lewis suggests: “[M]ere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Jesus Christ.”[22] Only when one admits his guilt, repents of his sin, and turns to the Person and Work of Christ can he receive God’s divine forgiveness and experience moral transformation – which are the two things that he most desperately needs in light of his moral predicament.       

 

Conclusion

            Lewis’s moral argument, in a broad sense, as evidenced in this essay, begins with eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with the obvious fact that mankind is unable to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with a discussion of how the Christian God is the only One who is able to account for these realities. The latter half of the essay, an emphasis has been placed on the nature of guilt, which is an objective reality for all who have transgressed the moral law. Because guilt is not elicited by rules and principles, but rather by persons, and since humans experience guilt when failing to adhere to the moral law, the One behind the moral law must be more like a Person than anything else. Finally, the moral predicament that Lewis highlights in his argument – “they know the Law of nature” and “they break it” – is ultimately remedied through God’s offer of divine forgiveness and promise to morally transform all who admit their guilt, repent of their sin, and turn to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

 

Notes: 

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 124.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7.

[5] Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, 127.

[6] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 11.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] What if one does not feel guilty when he really is? Or, what if one feels guilty when he is actually innocent? According to David Baggett, “Guilt it is thought, properly attaches to morality in a way it doesn’t to breaking the laws of logic. We don’t feel guilty, and shouldn’t, for making a logical mistake. Maybe we feel silly or even embarrassed, but not guilty. The feeling of guilt, though it can be absent on occasions when we’re still actually guilty and present on occasions when we’re not (which is enough to show these things aren’t identical), more typically points to a real state of guilt.” David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 176.

[9] David A. Cole, Julia W. Felton, and Carlos Tilghman-Osborne, “Definition and Measurement of Guilt: Implications for Clinical Research and Practice,” Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 30 (July 2010): 536-546.

[10] Francesca Gino, Ata Jami, and Maryam Kouchaki, “The Burden of Guilt: Heavy Backpacks, Light Snacks, and Enhanced Morality,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 143, no. 1 (2013): 414-424.

[11] H. P. Owen, The Moral Argument for Christian Theism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1965), 118.

[12] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1874), 109.

[13] A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London, England: MacMillan and Co., 1951), 207.

[14] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 31.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Why the need for divine forgiveness? David and Marybeth Baggett provide a helpful response to this question: “As Newman and others in the history of moral apologetics could see, though, there is a limit to how much human relationships can explain. Sometimes guilt doesn’t seem to be connected to any particular human person. At other times the wronged person is no longer around to confer forgiveness. On yet other occasions the wrong seems to be so grievous that no human being likely has the authority to offer forgiveness. In all of these cases, it becomes more plausible to think that forgiveness by God himself is necessary.” David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett, The  Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 180.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] For example, consider the following discussion found in Clement Webb, God and Personality (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1918). Judaism: “But it would be absurd to deny that a religion has a personal God which has ever taken as its ideal the great Lawgiver to whom his God ‘spake face to face as a man speaketh unto his friend’” (86). See also Exodus 33:11. Islam: Anthropomorphic language is used of the God of Islam. “But it would seem that the tendency of that teaching is to reduce the personal relations which can exist between man and God to the lowest terms, to those, namely, which may exist between a slave and a master of absolutely unlimited power. Still this is a personal relation, and on the whole it would seem best to describe the God of Mohammedanism as a personal God” (86-87). Eastern religions: “If we may say that the God of much Indian worship is not what we should usually call a ‘personal God,’ we must take care not to imply by this that the Indian’s religion is not his personal concern, for nothing could be less true. Moreover, the important and widely prevalent type of Indian piety known as bhakti is admitted to be devotional faith in a personal God: while Buddhism, which originally perhaps acknowledged neither God nor soul, has produced in the worship of Amitabha, the ‘Buddha of the Boundless Light,’ the ‘Lord of the Western Paradise,’ a form of piety which has seemed to some scholars too similar to the Christian to have originated except under Christian influence” (88).

[19] Human knowledge of the Trinity and the Incarnation is solely understood by way of divine revelation. Humans know what they know about God because God has revealed himself to them. Divine revelation is made possible through communication, which is a personal task that is carried out by persons. According to Carl Henry, “[D]ivine revelation is Christianity’s basic epistemological axiom, from which all doctrines of the Christian religion are derived…” God’s decision to reveal himself to humanity indicates that he is intrinsically personal, which only further serves to reinforce the argument that Christianity provides the best possible explanation for a personal God. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority Volume 1: God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976), 213.

[20] An interesting discussion on forgiveness can be found in C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 177-183. Another discussion on forgiveness is located in Lewis, Mere Christianity, 115-120.

[21] Christianity not only speaks of the possibility of radical transformation, it provides countless examples of it throughout history (e.g., the disciples, the apostle Paul, early church leaders, Augustine, Saint Patrick, and John Newton). See Baggett and Baggett, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, 193.

[22] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 55.

Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument

by Stephen S. Jordan

Introduction

Countless philosophers and theologians throughout history have postulated arguments in favor of a divine being. There are four kinds of classical arguments that have attempted to establish the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, and the moral argument. The origins of the cosmological and teleological arguments can be traced to the ancient world, the ontological argument dates to the medieval time period, but the moral argument is a relative newcomer as it has modern ancestry.[1] Although the moral argument emerged onto the philosophical scene largely through the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the eighteenth century, it was C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) who popularized the argument more than anyone else in the past two centuries.[2]

Lewis’s moral argument is detailed primarily in Book 1 of Mere Christianity; however, portions of Lewis’s moral argument are found in his other writings as well. Therefore, this essay will pull from a broad Lewisian corpus in an attempt to present a more robust picture of his moral argument, which begins with reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with mankind’s inability to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with the necessity of a divine being (of a particular sort) in order to account for these realities.[3]

The Existence of an Objective Moral Law

            In Book 1 of Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the existence of objective morality is obvious (or self-evident) for at least four reasons. First, when two or more individuals quarrel, they assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong of which each person is aware of and one has broken. For example, when one says, “That’s my seat, I was there first!” or “Why should you shove in first?” he is not merely stating that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him, but rather that there is “some kind of standard of behaviour [sic] which he expects the other man to know about.”[4] At this point, oftentimes the other man will provide reasons for why he did not go against the standard or he will provide excuses for breaking it. Such a response is an acknowledgement that a moral standard exists; an individual would not try to provide reasons or give excuses if he thought no such standard existed. Second, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that “the human idea of decent behaviour [sic] was obvious to every one [sic].”[5] This does not mean “that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind [sic] or have no ear for a tune.”[6] Writing during wartime, Lewis provides an example to drive his point home: “What was the sense in saying the enemy was in the wrong unless Right [sic] is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour [sic] of their hair.”[7] Third, mistreatment reveals what an individual really believes about morality. To validate this claim, Lewis states, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong [sic], you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[8] Although some deny the existence of objective morality through their actions, they always affirm it through their reactions. When an individual is mistreated, he will usually react as if an objective standard of proper treatment does, in fact, exist. Fourth, making an excuse for a mistake is providing a sufficient reason (in one’s mind) for breaking a standard of behavior. As Lewis says, “If we do not believe in decent behaviour [sic], why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[9] He continues by adding, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[10]

            Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis constructs a case for the existence of objective values such as love, justice, and courage.[11] Lewis states that there are three possible responses for one to consider regarding objective values: 1) reject their existence; 2) replace them; or 3) accept them. One, if objective values are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If values are subjective, then values as a whole become a matter of preference. Furthermore, if objective values are rejected, then rules/laws are no longer possible or binding upon humans because every rule/law has a value behind it.[12] Next, to attempt to refute a value system and replace it with a new one is self-contradictory. According to Lewis, “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.”[13] Furthermore, to attempt to replace a value system with another one is to assume that there is something awry with the present system, which can only be realized if an objective standard of judgment exists in the first place.[14] This leaves one viable option: accept the reality of objective moral values.

Lewis indicates in his essay entitled, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, that an objective moral standard must exist in order to allow for moral improvement. He claims,

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming” – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”[15]

 

According to Lewis, talk of moral improvement is nonsensical if there is no “absolute standard of good” that exists. If no such standard existed, one might change his morality, but he could never improve his morality.

            In Miracles, before actually discussing the possibility of miraculous events, Lewis argues for the existence of God by utilizing the moral argument and the argument from reason.[16] There are times when these two arguments overlap. For example, “Besides reasoning about matters of fact, men also make moral judgements – ‘I ought to do this’ – ‘I ought not do that’ – ‘This is good’ – ‘That is evil.’”[17] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed that there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no such standard, then moral reasoning is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t prefer that”).[18] Simply stated, if there is no objective moral law, then everything becomes a matter of preference.

            Within the introductory chapter of The Problem of Pain, Lewis presents what he calls the “strands or elements” found within “all developed religion.”[19] The second strand that is noted involves mankind’s sense of a moral code. According to Lewis, “All the human beings that history has heard of acknowledge some kind of morality; that is, they feel towards certain proposed actions the experiences expressed by the words, ‘I ought’ or ‘I ought not.’”[20] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and is obligated to follow. If such a moral code did not exist, then the words “ought” and “ought not” would mean little more than “I prefer” and “I do not prefer.”

            In sum, Lewis provides at least eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality. One, when two or more individuals quarrel, it is assumed that an objective standard of right and wrong exists.[21] Two, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that an objective standard of decent behavior is obvious to all people.[22] Three, mistreatment reveals what one really believes about morality.[23] An individual might deny the existence of an objective standard, but as soon as he is mistreated, he will respond as if such a standard exists (“That’s not fair!”). Four, when a person makes an excuse for a mistake on his part, he essentially provides a sufficient reason (in his mind) for breaking an objective standard of behavior.[24] Five, if objective moral values (such as love, compassion, etc.) are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If this happens, then values become a matter of preference. Additionally, if an individual attempts to replace one value system with another, he must assume that an objective standard of judgment exists to help him determine that one value system is superior to another.[25] Six, an objective moral standard must exist in order to foster the possibility of moral improvement.[26] Seven, when individuals reason over moral issues, the existence of objective morality is assumed.[27] Eight, the words “ought” and “ought not” imply that an objective standard of behavior exists that mankind is obligated to follow.[28]

(Part 2 coming next week) 

Notes: 

[1] The cosmological argument can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. Although traces of the teleological argument appeared in the writings of Socrates (Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.4.4ff), Plato (Phaedo), and Philo (Works of Philo 3.182, 183.33), it came to fruition later in the middle ages (the last of Aquinas’ “Five Ways”) and modern world (Paley’s Natural Theology). The ontological argument was first formed by Anselm in the medieval time period, although he was not responsible for naming it. Implicit fragments of the moral argument can be found in Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, but its emergence onto the philosophical scene did not take place until Kant utilized it in the eighteenth century.

[2] To be fair, there are numerous “heavy hitters” in the field of moral apologetics between Kant and Lewis, such as: John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), William Sorley (1855-1935), Hastings Rashdall (1858-1935), Clement Webb (1865-1954), and A. E. Taylor (1869-1945). Lewis “popularized” the moral argument, in the sense that he made it appealing to a wider audience, but he would not have been able to do so without these men who came before him.

[3] Lewis’s argument is not a strict, deductive proof for God’s existence. Rather, Lewis provides an argument that is rationally persuasive in the sense that the existence of a divine being (of a particular sort) is the best explanation for the available evidence. See David Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, ed. Gregory Bassham (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 121.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[5] Ibid., 5. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.                              

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Values are the “why” behind rules/laws, whereas rules/laws are the “what.” For example, there are laws against murder because human life is intrinsically valuable.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[14] Lewis expounds upon this in Mere Christianity when he suggests the following: “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others...The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality [sic], admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right [sic], independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Right [sic] than others.” Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[15] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[16] He does this because if God exists, then miracles are at least possible. In his words, “Human Reason and Morality have been mentioned not as instances of Miracle (at least, not of the kind of Miracle you wanted to hear about) but as proofs of the Supernatural: not in order to show that Nature ever is invaded but that there is a possible invader.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 68.

[17] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[18] Naturalism largely fails to account for this. Lewis explains: “If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.” Lewis, Miracles, 60.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 5.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[26] Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, 3-4.

[27] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[28] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 10.

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, “Summary” (Final Chapter)

Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Here Hare wants to offer a brief summary of the theory of the book as a whole, an outline of the main points of the theory. The book is designed to defend the thesis that what makes something morally obligatory for us is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong for us is that God prohibits it. Hare thinks the fact that divine command is so central to all three Abrahamic traditions, and that so many of the same problems arise in all three about the relation between divine command and human reason, should be taken as confirmation.

God is taken in this book to be the supreme good, manifested in three ways. First, God is the creator of all that exists other than God, and God maintains it and is present to it once created. Second, God gives us revelation, and for the purposes of this book the primary revelation is of the divine will for our willing, which God gives us in command. Finally, God redeems us, by bringing us to that union with God that is our proper end. These three functions (creation, revelation, and redemption) can be expressed in terms of a threefold sovereign role that God has over the created order, by analogy with human sovereignty. God has legislative, executive, and judicial functions. God makes and promulgates the law by command; God runs the universe and sustains its order; and God judges us and punishes and saves us.

Human beings are created as rational animals through the processes of evolution. We have the purpose of a kind of loving union with God that’s available only to rational animals. Each of us has, however, not merely the purpose common to the whole species, but a particular purpose (unique to the individual) of a kind of love of God particular to that individual. Our destination is a realm in which all these individual kinds of love are conjoined. We all have the same basic value because we all have a call from God of this unique kind. We are individual centers of agency, in time, free, and language users, features that put constraints on what we should take to be a divine command. From these constraints, we can deduce a presumption against taking anything to be a divine command that requires breaching these constraints. We’re born with a predisposition to respond to the command, but a propensity to put our own happiness above the command. We are in that way a mixture, but the predisposition is essential to us, and the propensity is not.

Our power to accept or reject the command is made possible only by God’s sustaining power, and God in the second decree brings all things to good. The relation between our freedom and God’s power is that we are like a lake and God’s power is like the flow in that lake from a hidden spring.

Moral obligation can be both universal and particular. It’s universal when it has all human beings in the scope of the subjects who are commanded to act and the scope of the beneficiaries or victims of that action. Commands are a species of prescription, and we can distinguish five types of divine prescriptions: precepts, prohibitions, permissions, counsels, and directly effective commands. God has objective authority over all human beings, whether they recognize it or not, because God’s commands give all human beings rightful reason to comply, given God’s threefold sovereign role already described. The reasons are rightful because God’s commands make obligatory the good things that God prescribes, all of which take us to our proper end by the path God has selected for us, and our obedience is an expression of our love for God, which is good in itself and our end.

There are at least five objections to Hare’s thesis. One is that it produces an infinite regress. But the principle that God is to be loved is known from its terms: we know that if something is God, it’s to be loved, but to love God is to obey God, and so we can know from its terms the principle that God is to be obeyed.

A second objection is that the thesis makes morality arbitrary. Could not just anything be obligatory if God were to command it? The solution to this worry is that there is a distinction between the good and the obligatory. The thesis of Hare’s book is that God’s command makes something obligatory. When a person judges that a thing is good, she expresses an attraction to it and says that it deserves to attract her. There is a prescriptivist or expressivist side to this and a realist side. The prescriptivist side is that the evaluative judgment expresses some state of desire or emotion or will. The realist side is that there is some value property that she claims belongs to the thing, in virtue of which her state of desire or emotion or will is appropriate. The goodness might reside in resemblance to God. It might also reside in the union with God that is the human destination, or what leads to this union, or what manifests God by displaying God’s presence. If God is supremely good, union with God must also be good as an end, and so must the path to this end be good as a means. God commands only what is consistent with this destination, and thus the command is not arbitrary in the contemporary sense, in which what is arbitrary ignores some consideration that is relevant to a decision.

The third objection is this: If God commands only what is good, is God’s command redundant? Hare again makes a distinction: the moral law can’t be deduced from our nature, but it fits our nature exceedingly well. There are two kinds of deduction we should deny. It might be thought that we could fix the reference of ‘good’ by looking at what most people, most of the time, think is good. But this does not fit the fact that we could be, and in fact are, wrong much of the time in our evaluation. An examination of Greek ethics and its stress on the competitive goods illustrates this. The second kind of deduction we should avoid is the deduction of virtue from our human form of life, even though there is a goodness of organisms that can be deduced from their simply being alive. The human form of life does indeed put a constraint on what we should conceive our virtues to be, but a large part of our conception of virtue is constituted by our ideals. And these can’t be deduced from our form of life, unless we have already screened our description of this form of life through our ideals. The central reason for the failure of this deduction is the mixture in both our natural inclinations and our ideals between what deserves to attract us in this way and what does not so deserve. The danger of some kinds of natural law theory is that God disappears into creation, in the sense that, because we think we can get morality from our nature, we think we do not need a personal divine commander. But creation itself, including our created nature, is not yet sufficiently complete for us to deduce from it how we should live. Reason (in the sense of looking at our nature) can be thought of as a junior partner in determining our duties, and it’s indispensable in disputes between traditions. But its results are not sufficiently determinate to tell us how to live, and we need the revelation of divine command in addition.

A fourth objection is that we live in a pluralist society, and appealing to God’s commands is inappropriate for conduct in the public square in such a society. The reply to this objection is twofold. First, it is discriminatory against religious believers to require them to shed their most basic commitments in public dialogue. Second, there is not enough common ground between all the parties to public conversation so that we could get good policy by sticking to the lowest common denominator.

A fifth objection is that, even if God were to give us commands, we are too unreliable as receivers of them to make them the final arbiters of our moral decisions. Too many bad people have appealed to divine commands in justifying their actions. The question here pertains to what sort of access to the commands we have. One way to proceed is to work out a rational ethical decision procedure and then say simply that God commands us to follow it. But the Abrahamic faiths have additional resources in the content of the narratives they give us of God’s dealing with human beings, in the procedures they prescribe for checking with other members of the community, and in the phenomenology they describe as characteristic of the reception of divine command. They can say that direct divine commands present themselves with clarity and distinctness, external origination, familiarity, authority, and providential care.

Finally, we should deny another thesis found in some forms of natural law theory, the thesis of eudaemonism that we should choose everything for the sake of happiness. We need instead a dual structure of motivation, according to which happiness is properly one of our ends, but we are also to be moved by what is good in itself independently of our happiness. The notion of happiness is not just pleasure. It includes an ideal element, so that we would not count a person in a pleasure-machine as “really” happy. But it is self-indexed, in the sense that the agent pursues it as her own good, and this makes eudaemonism unacceptably self-regarding.

Various defenses of eudaemonism should be rejected, like this one: happiness includes sympathetic pleasures. This should be rejected because sympathetic pleasures are limited in a way that morality should want to transcend. A second defense is that reason brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. But the notion of reason here simply begs the question. A third defense is to propose that the interests of the whole of creation form a nested hierarchy, so that, if the agent correctly sees this order, she will see that her good is necessarily consistent with the good of the whole. But it’s not hard to think of cases of real conflict, or at least possible conflict, between interests, in which case the question arises of whether any self-indexed good should take the priority. Finally, we can revise the third defense so that the agent perfects herself by identifying with God who is self-transcending. But, if she thereby loses attachment to self-indexed goods, this revision becomes unacceptably self-neglecting. We need a dual structure of motivation. We should hold that happiness and morality are indeed conjoined, but not because of some necessity in the nature of happiness or in the nature of morality, but because of the free benevolence of the supersensible author of nature.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.5, “Transcending our Evolutionary Situation with God”

Photo by  Mahkeo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

The story at the beginning of this chapter was treated as a Kant-like translation from biblical theology into the language of contemporary (non-theological) anthropology, though it is still a story and not science. We can now go back and put God back into the story, and doing so helps make sense of the story. We can do this in three moments: the encounter, the command, and the punishment.

First of all, God meets our ancestors, though they were probably not monotheists. The story described this in terms of awe and joy. When we feel awe, we have a sense of something’s greatness, and this requires some standard of comparison. There are many kinds of greatness. Kant distinguishes, for example, between the mathematical sublime that responds to greatness in amount and the dynamic sublime that responds to greatness in power. Both kinds of greatness can make everything else seem small by comparison. It is probably impossible to specify a kind of greatness that is the object of all kinds of awe. But it’s plausibly something personal early on. We’re looking after all at agency detection. Such awe is something like reverence. It doesn’t go far enough to say one respects the Torah, and “respect” may also not be adequate as a translation of Kant’s Achtung, which is the feeling occasioned by the moral law that we “recognize as God’s command.”

Bringing in an encounter with God at this first moment explains how we might arrive at the silencing or subordinating of self-interest. Suppression is not the same as subordinating. It doesn’t mean that in the presence of what is good in itself we lose the affection for advantage, but its salience can be radically decreased. This produces a double-source account of motivation. The encounter with divinity might have been with something experienced as great, not merely terrifying but deeply attractive (in Otto’s terms of fascinans as well as tremendum).

The second moment at which God enters the story is the command. This command, in the story, is not connected in any intelligible way with nature. We are invited to think that God selects within the divine prerogative (arbitrium) the fruit as a test, and the test is to see whether the humans will try to usurp the divine function of establishing what is good and bad, or what is right and wrong. For present purposes, the significant feature of the command is that it is not deducible from our nature or from any nature, and it can therefore stand in for the whole series of divine commands that are within God’s arbitrium in the same way. The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response. But, if we generalize to all the divine commands for which we do not see the whole reason, we get some sense of how introducing God into the picture might help from an explanatory point of view.

The third moment is God’s punishment. In Genesis there is expulsion from the Garden, and the condemnation to wearisome work, pain in childbirth, and distorted sexual relations. Despite the punishment, there’s hope that continues, and an ongoing high moral demand. The theistic version of the story tells us that divine punishment doesn’t exclude divine love, and that God intervenes in our predicament to rescue us. The possibility of that redemption is already implicit in the original encounter, but is made explicit in the form of covenant. God goes on making initiatives towards us, and we go on refusing them. Redemption returns us to the argument from grace in Chapter 1.

It’s not surprising that the story fits the theistic explanation, because the original version had God as a central character. But to the extent that the translated version fits what actually happened to our ancestors, it is significant if a theistic explanation is coherent and helpful. Evolutionary psychology gives us an excellent background against which to see why bringing in God might give us a good explanation. There is a fit between what we need and what God’s presence, guidance, and assistance give to us.

Hare now goes back through the discussions of evolutionary psychology to see how our situation as evolved makes some independent guidance helpful. In terms of Greene, we need something both to include us, so that we can get beyond the tragedy of the commons, and to push us beyond the group, so that we do not end up with mere within-group altruism. The failures in psychological altruism that Kitcher posits as the origin of ethics infect both our intra-group and our inter-group lives, and we can see the preachments of the great religious traditions helping us with both. In Arnhart we see our devotion to the competitive goods such as wealth, power, and honor. We have seen Haidt’s claim that because of our evolutionary background we care more about reputation than about truth or sincerity, and that our reasoning is often better seen as an “inner lawyer” managing this reputation than an “inner scientist” trying to work out what is right to do. We have seen Greene’s claim that from an evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are designed for selecting rewarding behaviors.

We don’t have to accept all of these claims in order to conclude that even within the group our ability to care for others is fragile. Our list of failures could be expanded to include unrighteous anger, importunate lust, and craven fear. To make such a list is not “Calvinistic Sociobiology,” because it’s consistent with saying that we also have tendencies to the good, “better angels” of our nature, so that we end up a mixture. But we need something other than just an appeal to our nature to get us to follow the parts of the mixture that we should follow and not the parts we should not.

Now consider the preachments of the traditions. God is luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant, and the law of the Lord is cast in the same terms, giving light and cleansing us, to be rejoiced in, more than gold or honey. The Sermon on the Mount is full of commands that go inside the mind. The Qur’an says to give money to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, etc. In all these ways, the resources of religious traditions have responded to the problems within groups posed by our evolutionary heritage. The same is true of the second class of psychological-altruism failures between groups. For Greene, the tragedy of our between-group hostility can be overcome by utilitarianism, but he cuts this school off from its theological roots and the common ground they provide. A variety of commands takes the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths towards a universal morality. These faiths both include their adherents into a community, and then push them beyond it.

Does the picture of divine command, mixed natural capacity, and divine assistance actually work to produce morally better lives in those who accept it? There is some empirical evidence that the answer is “Yes.” Shared religious life binds people together. More importantly, Robert Putnam and David Campbell compared how religious and non-religious Americans behave in terms of giving money and time to charities and social organizations. The religious Americans gave more money not just to religious organizations but to the American Cancer Society, and they volunteered not just in church and synagogue and mosque but in civic associations across the board. They conclude, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

When we look at the great movements towards the recognition of human value over the last sixty years, we will often find a religious motivation. Hare is thinking of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, and the Lutherans in East Germany and the fall of the totalitarian state. Why is this? Hare suggests it’s because of the nature of the God they worship. It’s true that belonging to a community is very important, but the God of Abraham not only includes us in community but pushes us out beyond community, to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized who are the object of God’s care just as much as we are. God commands both the inclusion and the moving-out. And these do not need to be competing goals.

What Needs Explanation

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A critic of the moral argument for God’s existence might wish to make much of saying there’s something as unhelpful as unassailable in appealing to God as the explanation of any particular moral phenomenon (or any phenomena, for that matter). By definition “omnipotent,” God (at least in the Anselmian sense) can presumably do anything at all, including, presumably, providing the needed explanation of, say, moral obligations. God can do anything and everything, so God can “explain” morality, invoking his specter bring us no closer to any actual helpful explanation. Though unassailable in that way, such an effort of explanation by appeal to the divine is well-nigh worthless. So some critics argue.

Such critics’ resistance, thus construed, is understandable. In brief, the critics take the import of the moral argument to be exploiting the alleged strength of the explanans—that which is doing the explaining. Since an omnipotent God is the source, there’s no shortage in the presumed strength of such an explanation, but the critic rightly discerns there’s something illegitimate about so tidy an account.

However, we suspect that this critique involves a misunderstanding of at least some of these explanatory arguments. A moral case for God as the best explanation of various moral phenomena need not and should not focus, to begin with, on the explanans—God as explanation—so much as on the explanandum: that which is to be explained. In the case of morality, we offer a four-fold abductive case, starting with the moral facts of objective values and duties (and going on to include moral knowledge and what Kant called moral faith). Let’s zero in on objective moral duties for the moment to see how this works and how the concern of the critic can be addressed.

The case we want to build requires that the first step we take is a careful, attentive look at moral obligations using a variety of analyses. For example, by considering the nature of moral language, the logic of moral discourse, and the phenomenology of moral experience, we can glean insights into the nature of moral obligations. Among the salient features of moral obligations that we can identify is that they are unavoidably prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and, at least sometimes, categorical, not merely instrumental. Violations of moral obligations often, though not always, produce feelings of guilt, which are themselves often assumed (rightly or wrongly) to track an actual condition of moral guilt. Violating moral obligations also often, if detected, can strain relationships, causing estrangement and alienation. Harm can be done by shirking one’s perceived moral duties, and, where estrangement has taken place, offers of forgiveness can often heal the relational rifts.

Although all of these features—and others—tend to be important aspects of moral obligations, some of them don’t always obviously apply. If the neglect of a duty goes undetected, for example, it may not strain relationships; or someone may do something wrong but rationalize it in such a way or so often that it leads to no guilty feelings at all (though objective guilt remains a living possibility). A feature of moral obligations that seems perhaps less a contingent matter is what we’ll call their “authority.” It’s the idea that moral obligations, at least some of them, aren’t optional. They are more than mere suggestions. They possess clout, “oomph,” as Richard Joyce puts it (who himself is skeptical of their existence, but he’s at least conceptually clear on what he’s rejecting). This is much of what C. Stephen Evans is driving at when discussing the “Anscombe intuition” about moral duties. Authority is different from power. Someone or something with power can force or coerce your compliance; rightful authority deserves your obedience and allegiance.

The authority of morality, in particular, is something that cries out for explanation. If it’s taken seriously, as it arguably should be, it requires a robust explanation. To stop short of pursuing this inquiry is to ask at least one too few philosophical questions. If, however, someone were to offer a deflationary and distinctly reductionist account of moral obligations, suddenly the explanandum in question becomes sterile and feckless. The domestication of moral obligations understandably defangs the moral argument, but here a needed distinction is important. That critics might endorse a watered-down, instrumentalist account of moral obligations does indeed mean the moral argument won’t have purchase in their eyes, but this simply doesn’t so much as even suggest that the moral argument fails. For the critics may well be simply wrong to reduce the import of moral obligations in this way, and indeed arguably they are.

At the least it’s worth noting that theirs—the critics’—is the distinct, deliberate departure from the more classical usage of moral language and interpretation of moral experience. Echoes of the distinctive features of moral obligations echo all the way back to the dialogues of Socrates. The newcomer on the scene here is the reductionist, not the proponent of the binding authority of morality. What seems crystal clear is that it’s the reductionists’ account of moral obligations that’s congenitally unable to do justice to the aforementioned features of moral obligations classically construed, particularly their binding authority. This doesn’t mean the deflationary analyses are wrong, but it does at least minimally mean that they are the departure from the typical understanding of moral obligations.

For those who gravitate toward the more historical and classical understanding of moral obligations—replete with their rich moral phenomenology and prescriptive authority—such binding, categorical, and authoritative moral obligations make up the fertile, robust explananda in strong need of adequate, substantive explanation. The focus, at least for our abductive moral argument, doesn’t begin with the power of God as an explanation, but rather with that which is need of explanation. Moral obligations—which most all of us at moments seem able to apprehend—speak to us poignantly, not with a loud trumpet blast but with a quiet, confident, ineradicable authority.

The rights of children not to be abused are one of those perfect correlates (of binding duties) that tug at our hearts and flood our minds with illumination and conviction. Does anyone really think that the prohibition against such acts is merely instrumental? That children ought not be violated just because it will bring about the desired end? There’s nothing remotely contingent or merely instrumental in such obvious and axiomatic truths. The need to respect such rights is most plausibly seen as a categorical fact, an authoritative moral law, a binding duty. And that calls for an explanation adequate to the task. But before the abductive case can even get off the ground and the name of God invoked as a possible or plausible explanation, we need to see the need for the thick realities of morality to be robustly explained, rather than its desiccated caricature blithely explained away.  

 

Matt Dillahunty, David Baggett Discuss an Abductive Moral Argument

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On Thursday night, David Baggett and Matt Dillahunty held a live discussion on the abductive version of the moral argument. Many are familiar with the deductive form of the argument:

1. If there are objective moral values and duties, then God exists. 

2. There are objective moral values and duties. 

3. Therefore, God exists. 

The deductive version can be a powerful and effective argument for the existence of God, but Baggett and Walls suggest that there are some contexts where the abductive version has the advantage. In particular, the abductive argument requires substantive interaction with rival accounts of the moral facts. This means that the abductive argument will engage and invite engagement at a different level than the deductive argument. Abductive arguments aim to find the best explanation of certain facts from a range of hypotheses. This search for the "best explanation" encourages the atheist to offer her own explanation of the moral facts which can then be compared with the theistic explanation to determine which theory best fits the facts. This is the kind of moral argument presented in Baggett and Walls' Good God and God and Cosmos

In this discussion with Dillahunty and Baggett, a number of topics were covered. But one might divide the debate into two main sections: 1. An Exploration of Abduction and 2. Why Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations.

Thank you to Capturing Christianity for hosting this discussion. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4.2, “Philip Kitcher”

 

Hare thinks Kitcher’s book The Ethical Project is ideally suited to the purposes of the present chapter. He argues for a pragmatist naturalism that is governed by the principle “No Spooks,” including God, but also a realm of values, faculties of ethical perception, and “pure practical reason” (in Kant’s phrase). Although Kitcher’s book isn’t an argument against God’s existence, he does briefly give two reasons for denying the existence of God. They are (first) that not all religions can be true because they contradict each other, and there is no core set of doctrines holding them all together, and (second) that the methods by which people reach religious belief are unreliable. Hare’s book has, in addition to pointing out overlaps between the Abrahamic faiths, defended a view of general revelation according to which all human beings get enough revelation of the divine nature to be without excuse if they reject God, even though they do not all have an innate sense of a single God.

In general, it doesn’t follow from the fact that some set of beliefs contains beliefs that contradict each other that they are all false, any more than disagreements across time about scientific claims show that all scientific claims are false. As to the claim about the unreliability of the methods by which humans reach their religious beliefs, Hare’s argued that the methods are natural to us, though not infallible. He’s also written about some of the ways internal to theology for correcting some of these beliefs. So we can’t settle the question of whether the communication with that divine being is reliable independently of a view about the existence of that being. In any case, the important question for the present chapter is not the truth of atheism but what follows for ethics from the assumption that God does not exist.

Kitcher starts from a distinction between different types of altruism. The most important for understanding the ethical project is “psychological altruism,” which differs from “biological altruism” and “behavioral altruism.” Psychological altruism involves the intention to promote what are taken to be the wishes or the interests of others. Kitcher suggests that ethics arises as a means of reducing psychological-altruism failure. In the kinds of groups that we can imagine our first human ancestors to have formed, it was crucial for survival to be able to trust each other not to defect from the various forms of cooperation that constituted their way of life.

One key step in this development is what Kitcher calls “normative guidance,” which is defined in terms of the ability to apprehend and obey commands. He makes the reception of supposed divine commands central to the development of ethics, even though he thinks there is no transcendent being to give such commands. He makes it clear that he thinks fear is the central original motivation, the fear of divine punishment. Unless there were sanctions for disobedience, fear could hardly be central to the initial capacity for normative guidance. This fear then gets internalized as conscience, and the commanding voice seems to come from within, initially and crudely as the expression of fears.

Hare notes a difficulty here. On the supposition that our original human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it’s important to notice that the hunter-gatherer societies that we know about do not, on the whole, have moralizing high gods. After various principled exclusions, out of over 1250 societies, 23 societies are left in the sample (among those early hunter-gatherers), and of these only one has “moralizing high gods,” the Yahgan or Yamana. Hare thinks this matters because it suggests that worship of the divine is much older than what the narrative about an “unseen enforcer” implies. The idea that humans invented gods in order to enforce the law has a long tradition behind it, but the anthropological evidence doesn’t support this. The societies that didn’t have moralizing high gods may have had “enforcers,” but equally some emotion other than fear of punishment may have been the primary emotion involved in their religion. Something like awe or respect or reverence is a good candidate. This would make ancient religion more continuous with our own. We would then need to ask what accounts for this phenomenon. An encounter with God is one explanation, though not the only one. What is remarkable in Kitcher’s account is the absence of any recognition, especially for educated people, of the human desire for the divine. It’s striking that a central desire of so many of the world people both educated and not, and both now and in our history, is here excluded.

Another reason for worrying about making fear of punishment central to religion is that this makes it contradictory to think, in Kant’s phrase, of “recognizing our duties as divine commands.” Kant gives an argument in the Groundwork that we can’t base our duties on fear of divine punishment. But this is quite different from respecting God as the head of the kingdom of ends, who can maintain the system in which good is rewarded and evil is punished. The moral agent needs the state to punish, but not because her moral motivation is fear of punishment. Rather, she values freedom, and values punishment as a “hindrance to the hindrances to freedom.” The moral agent is to aim at the highest good (union of virtue and happiness), and this requires the belief that the system by which virtue is consistent with happiness is in place and the apparent disproportion of virtue and happiness that we experience in this life is not final. Hare, then, wants to distinguish two different motivations. One is fear, because punishment can force the costs of free-riding above the costs of cooperation. The other (more satisfactory to the Kantian) is hope: a belief in punishment is part of a belief in a world morally governed. There is a difference between being motivated by a fear of divine punishment and being motivated by love of justice, which is a system that divine punishment maintains.

When Kitcher comes to consider concrete cases where ethical decision is influenced by religious faith, he is concerned to deny that these cases involve anything like ethical “insight.” He has two reasons for saying this in the case of Quaker John Woolman’s realization about the wrongness of slavery. One is that Woolman is reflecting on the New Testament and not directly on experience, and the other is that he doesn’t mention the name of the slave whose sale “afflicted” his mind. But neither reason is persuasive.

Having accepted that divine command theory may reflect a deep fact about cultural competition, Kitcher rejects it. He has four main objections. The first is Plato’s argument from the Euthyphro. The main problem here is that he has not considered the versions of divine command theory that navigate between the horns of Plato’s dilemma. Mackie had already seen how to do this, and there are excellent versions in Adams and Evans. A second objection is that we get an infinite regress if we ask, “Why should we obey a divine command?” Recall Scotus’s answer is that God is to be loved (and so obeyed) is knowable from its terms (and so does not require prior justification).

A third objection is from horrible commands such as the commands to kill Isaac or slaughter the Canaanites. Abraham’s situation is quite different from ours. He points to Wolterstorff’s claim that the stories might be fictional, and to Baggett and Walls’ discussion in Good God.  The fourth objection is that religion leads to hierarchy of an oppressive sort, and so undermines what Kitcher takes to be our initial situation of equality. But Hare argues that such a hierarchy can’t be essential to religion (for it wasn’t a feature of the religion of hunter-gatherers). Religion, just like any social phenomenon, can be used for violent and oppressive purposes, but also for peacefulness and inclusion. We can add that the corruption of the best is often the worst.

Kitcher’s answer to the normative question is that humans have throughout history had an ethical project whose method can be idealized in a certain way, and that we need to appreciate how central the ethical project is to human life. But the skeptic may ask why he should be bound by the rules emerging from this project. Why adopt any ethical tradition? Kitcher’s answer to the normative question belongs in the same family as Greene’s (“We can grasp the principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”) The ethical project is central to human life, as we observe it, but so is self-preference. Our nature as evolved is a mixture. That is exactly why we need ethics; we are best by psychological-altruism failure on all sides.

The most important point may be that Kitcher thinks that ruling out any false beliefs about the natural world means that any modification of ethical practice invoking the commands of an allegedly transcendent being would rightly be rejected and excluded from the outset. Religious conviction, which is to say most people’s conviction, does not even get into the conversation. But surely, Hare counters, what we need are the conditions for settling disagreements on these central concerns without assuming religious grounds don’t even make the threshold for conditional mutual engagement. Kitcher’s account of ethical method would be a great deal more plausible, and more consistent with his overall pragmatism, if he allowed that religious disagreements could be consistent with conditional mutual engagement in this way.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4, "Transcending our Evolutionary Situation without God"

This section attempts to bridge the gap between natural selection and moral obligation without bringing God into the picture. It looks at two figures: Joshua Greene and then Philip Kitcher.

8.4.1 “Joshua Greene”

Hare begins with Joshua Green’s book Moral Tribes. The governing metaphor of the book is that of two tragedies, which Greene calls the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of common-sense morality. The tragedy of the commons is a multi-person cooperation problem. Morality is thought to be given to us by evolution to solve such dilemmas by cooperating because we can trust each other to do so at least to some significant degree. Something like the Golden Rule facilitates cooperation, but why be committed to such a rule? Perhaps brotherly affection, or a tit-for-tat agreement. Or they may be friends, or care about reputation, or may fear the other’s built-in irrational desire for vengeance.

But also, we have at least a small amount of care for strangers and a readiness to help them “hard-wired” into us, and Greene claims that such “neighborliness” can be found in other primates and even in capuchin monkeys. The problem is that tribal loyalty and self-interest are stronger. For the first of these (tribal loyalty), Green quotes the anthropologist Donald Brown, whose survey of human cultural differences and similarities identified in group bias and ethnocentrism as universal. For the second (self-interest), he quotes studies on what he calls “biased fairness” in which our perception of reality and fairness is unconsciously distorted by self-interest.

The tragedy of common-sense morality, on the other hand, results from a higher-order dilemma. Imagine different tribes who’ve come to accept different moral pictures. What seems common sensical to one tribe isn’t to another. The point of this parable is that the situation of these tribes is our situation. What we need to find is a metamorality that can adjudicate conflict between us. Once we see the evolutionary forces that gave rise to morality we can “climb the ladder of evolution and then kick it away,” as Wittgenstein says about his method in the Tractatus. Greene argues that the unnatural metamorality we should end up with is utilitarianism. This is because utilitarianism trades only in the currency that is common to all the tribes, and that currency is happiness and its maximization.

The picture raises three questions, deriving from the three arguments in Chapter 1: the arguments from providence, grace, and justification. Consider them in reverse order. Why should I regard the conclusions of this metamorality as binding on me? This is Korsgaard’s so-called normative question. The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? The third question is how can I reasonably believe that moving to this metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way? This question focuses on the cost of the moral demand, construing it as Green does in a utilitarian way.

The first question asks for a justification. How can Greene justify the claim that we should live under his form of the moral demand? He rules out religion, but the exclusion is unfortunate, because it deprives him of resources for justification that he needs. It’s hard to find accurate figures, but one estimate is that, by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will belong, at the present rate of change, to one of the major religions. Surely we should be looking at the resources of those religions to see if they can help us with common currency.

It is significant here that Greene has distorted the history of utilitarianism by excising its religious roots. He says it was founded by Bentham and Mill, but he ignores Hutcheson, who first writes of the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers, and especially Paley, whose work preceded Bentham and indeed the success of whose book at Cambridge provoked Bentham to write his own version of the theory. The point is that utilitarianism starts with Christians, and works out the view that, as Butler puts it, benevolence, especially God’s benevolence, seems in the strictest sense to include in it all that is good and worthy. Bentham, but not Mill, is cutting himself off from the roots of his own theory. Indeed, the prizing of benevolence is common currency to all areas of the world in which the five major religions have established a significance presence.

What is Greene’s answer to the normative question? There are various question-begging answers. One is that strengthening our sympathies for distant strangers is the honest response, the enlightened response to world hunger. But the striking thing is that he does not squarely face this question. At one point he implies this: the love of what is good simply because it is good, which Scotus calls the affection for justice. But there is a problem here. There is another abstract principle behind nature’s working, namely, competitive self-replication. Nature is a mixture. We can’t generate a justification of the obligation to follow a universalistic moral demand just from the principles behind nature’s working because we need to know which principles to invoke.

The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? Here again Greene doesn’t provide an answer, and he concedes our brains weren’t designed to care deeply about the happiness of strangers. He thinks Hume’s right that reason is the slave, but he wants to allow more space than Haidt to reason. He wants reason to be able to transcend the emotions, which he regards as automatic processes that tell us what to do.

But if our reasoning process starts from emotional inputs as its premises, and this input is contaminated in the way Greene says it is, how is the processing supposed to give us pure utilitarian theory as its output for how we should live our lives? We are dealing here with a mysterious emergent property. But Hume’s a telling case here. He concedes that if we had a society in which those whom we exploited were not able to harm us because of their weakness, we would not be moved by any abstract principle of justice to end the exploitation, even if they resented it. We might hope to be moved by the calm passions of compassion and kindness, but the reach of our natural endowment of these is, as Greene acknowledges, significantly limited. What is supposed to get us to accept a higher standard?

What creates the problem here is the combination of optimism about the new metamorality with pessimism about the input processed by our reasoning. One solution is to be more optimistic about the sentiments. Frans de Waal has criticized the denigration within sociobiology of human moral capacity, and called this kind of denigration “Calvinist,” tracing the view back to Calvin’s picture of the total depravity of human beings. The roots of morality, he thinks, lie in empathy and reciprocity, and are already present in primate sociality. For de Waal, the philosophical defender of moral sentiments is again Hume, and the enemy is Kant. But de Waal is not consistent in what he says about religion. He concedes that there is no human culture without religion, though humans had social norms before they had our current major religions, and he says that, if we were able to excise religion from society, it is doubtful that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. This means that, ironically, in terms of the second question, at least sometimes he says we need religion (just as Kant does), even though he is not himself a religious person. It also means that our sentiments in the absence of religion are not sufficient to take us to a morally good life.

The third question asks how I can reasonably believe that moving to this utilitarian metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way. Something like an argument from providence can be found in both Mill and Sidgwick, Mill in Three Essays on Religion, and Sidgwick at the very end of Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick, though, doesn’t endorse the solution, though the problem it addresses is recognized as a real problem. A utilitarian needs to have something to say about how prudence (understood as the pursuit of one’s own happiness) is consistent with the moral demand (understood as the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number). Without an argument like this it is not clear how Greene can hold his utilitarian metamorality and the pursuing of individual happiness are consistent.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.4, “Paul Bloom”

This subsection is about a different kind of anti-realism, namely, anti-realism about God. It examines the question whether evolutionary psychology gives us any reason to doubt the existence of God. Since the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God is a presupposition of much of the literature Hare’s been considering, he thinks it’s worth discussing.

Bloom says that religion emerges as a by-product of certain highly structured systems that have evolved for understanding the social world. Another term sometimes used here is that religion is a “spandrel effect,” where the spandrel is the space (sometimes decorated) between the outer curve of an arch and the angle formed by the moldings enclosing it, so that the spandrel does not itself bear weight. Religion would be like the ability to understand calculus, not itself emerging because of adaptive claims, but made possible by faculties that did emerge in this way. Bloom says he’s trying to explain universal religious belief here, not those that vary from one culture to another, and not religious rituals.

There are two tendencies with which humans have evolved that are relevant here. The first is what Justin Barrett calls a “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD). Our tendency to find agency around us has no doubt arisen for survival reasons: “Better to guess that the sound in the bushes is an agent (such as a person or tiger) than assume it isn’t and become lunch.” The second tendency, less firmly established, is that we implicitly endorse a strong substance dualism of soul and body, of the kind defended by Plato and Descartes, and that this endorsement is a by-product of our possession of two distinct cognitive systems—one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities. These tendencies might produce a belief that there is a supernatural agent behind natural phenomena and that this agent like our own souls is spiritual and not bodily.

Hare considers what the theological implications would be of Bloom being right about these two side effects. We can generally explore why people form the beliefs they do without that settling the question whether the beliefs are true. But in this case, the origins of the belief would cast its truth into question. Not unlike Freud’s argument that it would be irrational to believe in something just because one desperately wanted for it to be true.

So what is the bearing on the rationality of religious belief of the claim that there is an explanation of such belief from the two side effects? We should ask what kind of psychological explanation would resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation, and whether the present explanation is one of these. It’s hard to give a general account, but perhaps this much is true. A psychological explanation of some phenomenon would resist such incorporation if it postulated a kind of causation of that phenomenon that would be inappropriate for God to employ. But there is no reason to think that it is inappropriate for God to use randomness, in the sense in which this is part of evolutionary theory. There is no reason to think that God would not allow us to acquire our basic cognitive capacities by random mutation plus natural selection.

So far this is a merely defensive maneuver. But perhaps more can be said. Following Justin Barrett’s work, we might suggest that the hypersensitive agency detection device is a form of access to religious belief that fits our nature well. In this book Hare has been arguing that the moral law, though it can’t be deduced from our nature, fits that nature well. Now we can suggest the same about our theistic belief acquisition. Barrett links the agency detection device with a set of subsystems designed to carry out particular tasks important for our survival. Concepts that are “minimally counter-intuitive” given the operation of these subsystems will seem plausible, and will be easily remembered and transmitted. This does not mean that these subsystems always yield true beliefs. We can’t deduce the truth of a belief from its deliverance by one of these subsystems. But these beliefs fit our nature, as constituted by these systems, exceedingly well.

For example, belief in a super-knowing god may be natural, helping account for children being “intuitive theists.” Barrett also suggests plausibly that the connection between God and moral concerns is intuitive as well. In other words, the theist can legitimately hold that God chooses means for our access to divine command that are not inappropriate but entirely fitting to our nature, the kind of means that we would expect creatures with cognitive subsystems like ours to use. Hare says we should conclude that at least from the evidence marshalled in the present section, there’s no demonstration that belief in God is irrational.