Video: David Horner "Feelin' Groovy? God and the Pursuit of Happiness"

In this talk delivered at a Biola Chapel service, Dr. David Horner explains that, despite what some might think, God wants everyone to be happy. Of course, the kind of happiness God offers is not equivalent with what we often take to be happiness. If you're interested in a fun, but enlightening, explanation of how the Christian life and happiness come together, Dr. Horner's message is well worth watching!  


Photo: "Green" by Beshef.  CC License. 

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

By David Baggett  Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

Adams opts for the view that the good provides the proper framework for thinking about the right, and not the other way around. But he thinks the right, and categories closely related to it, have a distinctive and important role in ethics.  The good has a conceptual priority over its opposite that the right does not have. Goodness is not to be understood in terms of badness. But right is to be understood in relation to wrong. If something is not wrong to do, it’s right in the weak sense of being permissible; if something is wrong not to do, it’s right in the strong sense of moral obligation.

The obligatory, we may say, is what we have to do. It’s at least conceptually possible there are good actions to perform that aren’t obligatory—this is the category of supererogation—and this is one way the concept of the obligatory marks off a potentially smaller territory than that of the good. Behavior may be bad without violating an obligation, but what is wrong must always be bad. That is because anything we can plausibly regard as moral obligation must be grounded in a relation to something of real value; this is a point that will engage much of Adams’s attention in his discussion of obligation.

Kant embraced “rigorism,” the idea that no action is good in some ways but bad in others—this was a function of his view that nothing is good independently of its relation to morally ordered will. In Adams’s framework, though, in which the goodness of finite things consists in fragmentary and multidimensional resemblance to a supreme Good, it’s to be expected that actions will sometimes be partly good and partly bad.

In Adams’s view, the most important difference between the right, or obligation, and the good, is that right and wrong, as matters of obligation, must be understood in relation to a social context, broadly understood, but that is not true of all the types of good with which we are concerned.

Adams’s main project in this chapter is to argue that facts of obligation are constituted by broadly social requirements. In a later chapter he argues that those that have full moral validity are aptly understood as constituted by divine commands, and thus by requirements arising in a social system in which God is the leading participant.

Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation: Adams quotes Mill’s effort to capture a truth of meaning: there’s a connection between the semantics and metaphysics of morals—and regarding obligations, the idea semantically is that part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms is that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. A person ought to be punished in some way or other for failing to discharge a duty, if not by opinion, then by the reproaches of his own conscience.

It’s not that the nature of moral obligation is given by the meanings of the words, such as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘obligation’. What we understand if we understand what those words mean in the relevant contexts is rather a complex role that moral obligation plays in a scheme of things. Understanding the semantics of obligation leaves metaphysical questions open, regarding the reality and nature of obligations. We can understand the role of obligations and still ask if there’s really something that is suited to fill this role. And if so, what is the best candidate?

Not all uses of ‘ought’ express a moral requirement. Sometimes it expresses a moral opinion alone. What must be true, on broadly semantical grounds, of anything that is to count as moral requirement or moral obligation is that we should care about complying with it. Anything that really is a moral obligation should be treated with a certain seriousness. If we shrug it off with a “Who cares about that?” we are not really treating it as a moral obligation. It is part of the semantically indicated role of moral obligation that it is something one should take seriously and care about. And it’s important that it be something one can be motivated to comply with, and something such as to ground reasons for compliance.

If an act is morally wrong, then in the absence of sufficient excuse, it is appropriate for the agent to be blamed, by others and by himself. To say of one he would be to blame is to say that it would be rational for him to feel guilty and for others to resent him, Gibbard says, who understands blame in terms of feelings of guilt and resentment. Adams agrees that such feelings are importantly typical of blame, but blaming need not be emotional. But blame in some form is appropriate when an agent is fully responsible for a wrong action.

Adams asserts that it’s part of the roles of obligation and wrongness that fulfillment of obligation and opposition to wrong actions should be publicly inculcated.

Adams argues these constraints on the nature of moral obligation seem to be built into the meaning of the discourse of moral obligation, and thus broadly analytic. But some theories ignore them. For example, utilitarians have sometimes tried to sever the link between obligation and sanctions.

Parfit seems to imply that requiring moral theories to satisfy the publicity condition (it must be a theory that everyone ought to accept, and publicly acknowledge to each other) commits one to some sort of subjectivism or antirealism, but Adams thinks this surely wrong, saying that to affirm a principle of conduct, while denying that it ought in general to be inculcated, if it is applicable to people in general, is not to affirm it as a principle of moral obligation.

Adams thinks it’s also a mistake to collapse the notion of the morally obligatory into the notion of what we have most reason (from a moral point of view) to do. Nagel does this when characterizing impersonal or agent-neutral reasons for action becoming “demands of impersonal morality” without any argument for the transition. There’s nothing in this that represents the full force of moral requirement or obligation, for there is a large difference between doing something irrational and doing something morally wrong. The concept of moral obligation is not there just to tell us about balances of moral reasons, but rather to express something more urgent.


Chapter 6, John Hare’s Moral Gap, “Reducing the Demand”

By David Baggett  Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

This chapter is focused on the other strategy to close the moral gap: reducing the moral demand. Namely, Hare will concentrate on attempts to claim that impartiality is not always required in moral judgment. These attempts can be seen as driving a wedge between two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative. Impartiality is a construal of the first formulation—of universal law. Hare uses “universalism” for this construal of the moral demand and the insistence that all moral judgments must be impartial in this sense. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is that we must always treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, as an end in itself, and never merely as a means.

Kant thought these two formulations were formulations of the same supreme principle of reality. But in this chapter, Hare will consider the possibility that we may be able to treat another person as an end in herself without being impartial in the sense required by the first formulation. Hare will explore the thought that we can make the ends of another person our ends not because she is a center of rational agency, but because she is related to us in some special way. If we allow this, have we reduced the moral demand? Hare will argue no.

Hare will consider objections to universalism in ethics made by feminists. He will distinguish four objections, claiming they are valid against some types of universalism, but not against the sort of universalism he will define. Then Hare will give a fifth objection that he claims to be valid against universalism as defined. If the objection is valid, we should accept the ‘particularist’ thesis that not all moral judgments are universalizable, but, nevertheless, this doesn’t after all reduce the moral demand.

The first objection is that moral judgments must often be specific, whereas the universalist requires them to be general. He cites Gilligan and Noddings here. Gilligan demurs from Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy by pointing to another equally valuable kind of moral thinking she dubs “care” thinking, where the rival claims are weighed not in the abstract, in terms of the relative priority of the principles behind them, but rather in the particular. She says this kind of thinking tends towards “the reconstruction of the dilemma in its contextual particularity.” Noddings says that if we care, what we do depends not on rules or a prior determination of what is fair or equitable, but on a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for. An ethic of caring, she says, won’t embody a set of universalizable moral judgments.

But Hare wants to make two distinctions here. First: between general and specific, and second: between universal and particular. A principle is universal if it is stated in purely universal terms, without singular reference. It’s particular if it’s not. A situation can be described in universal terms and still be described in minute and completely specific detail, though. There can also be general particular judgments, like the claim that all Americans are morally good. The distinction between specific and general is, unlike that between universal and particular, one of degree. In order to count as general a principle must abstract from some of the detail of the situation to which it prescribes.

Now contextual particularity, as Gilligan and Noddings describe it, seems to be a matter of specificity, of detail. But a maxim can be universal and yet concrete, in the sense of mentioning (in universal terms) anything that distinguishes this situation from any other. In this first objection there is, then, a valid point against any account of the moral demand that fails to acknowledge the need for sensitive moral perception of the relevant details in particular situations. It may be that the required sensitivity is not, itself, a rational capacity, in Kant’s sense. But we don’t yet have a valid objection against universalism as Hare’s defined it.

Now for a second objection: that caring requires taking on the perspective of the other person. Care must be a response to what a particular person actually needs or wants or what will serve a particular relationship. People must be perceived as having access to others in their own terms. As far as Hare can see, this objection doesn’t work against universalism as he’s defined it. To determine whether another person’s maxim passes the test of the categorical imperative requires an understanding of that maxim in the other person’s own terms. This may not be entirely possible to do, but universalism doesn’t preclude such considerations. Perhaps a version of universalism is susceptible to this challenge, but not to the version Hare’s laid out.

A third objection: universalism is not sensitive to the existence of divergent personal ideals. A moral particularity thesis allows certain individuating and defining features of an agent’s life to matter what they do in some cases in a way that is not universally generalizable. She has in mind that different people have different views about what is morally most important. Morality does not require the same responses from those facing the same sorts of situation. Margaret Walker pushes this line.

But is this inconsistent with universalism as Hare’s defined it? The key is what’s meant by the phrase “universally generalizable.” Walker seems to want to allow the moral agent discretion, but only within certain limits. Hare thinks this sounds right: an account of morality should not countenance any and every view about what is morally important. But this leaves us with a theory of moral permissions which apply to everybody and an area within these permissions which is discretionary. As far as Hare can see, this isn’t inconsistent with universalism. Kant himself distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. The only sort of universalism susceptible to criticism here is one that would say there’s one right answer to every question about what a person should do in a situation of a certain sort, where the situation was defined independently of the person’s own aspirations—not a plausible view.

Now Hare mentions a fourth objection, from the tension between universalism and close personal relations. McFall claims that universalism is incompatible with friendship and love. Friendship often requires unconditional commitments. These are identity-conferring, in the sense that they determine what counts for an agent as a reason for acting and they are not themselves justified by reference to other commitments. But this is inconsistent with impartiality, says McFall.

But Kant observes in The Doctrine of Virtue that it is no violation of impartiality to spend more time with the people we care about, or to look after them in circumstances or in ways in which we would not look after others. There is a version of universalism vulnerable: it might be said there’s not enough time to meet the commitments of friendship and to meet the moral demand of service to strangers. Hare thinks a distinction is needed between levels—like his dad’s between intuitive and critical moral thinking.

Next Hare wants to defend the thesis that there are moral judgments that are not universalizable—there are moral judgments from which singular terms are not eliminable. He calls moral judgments of this type “particular moral judgments.” He is going to discuss judgments that prescribe action, even though there are equally important moral judgments that do this only indirectly. He thinks it helpful to see particular moral judgments as intermediate between prudence and universalizable morality. They are like prudence in that they do not eliminate singular reference. But at the same time, note that what I prescribe for myself in prudence is standardly specified in universal terms, or at least can be. Particular moral judgments are like judgments of prudence in both these ways. They contain ineliminable singular reference, in this case to some other particular person as well as to myself, and what they prescribe I should do for that person is specifiable in universal terms. I ought, let’s say, go and visit my friend because he’s feeling wretched. And this gives me a reason, this time a moral reason, for my action. But particular moral judgments are also like universalizable morality, for they override self-interest in the interest of another person. They are, though not in Kant’s sense, treating another person as an end in himself.

At this point Hare distinguishes four positions within a prescriptive judgment, to see how universalization relates differently to them. The first two are the position of “addressee,” the person to whom the judgment is addressed, and the position of “agent,” the person whose action is being prescribed. These aren’t always the same. Third, there is the position of the “recipient,” the person to whom the action is to be done. Finally, there is the position of the “action,” which is what the speaker judges should or should not be done by this agent to this recipient. Now, it’s usual to think that universalizability has to be a feature of the terms in all four positions at once, but this is not so. It’s possible to replace a term with purely universal terms at some positions in a judgment but not others. Hare thinks the Ten Commandments are a case where the terms in the addressee and the agent positions are not universalizable. On the other hand, the term in the action position is already universal. The people of Israel are not to commit adultery at any time or in any place. Or take the greatest commandment, which features for the term in the recipient position something (God) not universalizable; the command isn’t prescribing that the believer should love anyone who is the same as God in universally specifiable respects.

So what Hare’s claiming is that there is a claim of moral judgments that are like judgments of prudence in the following respect: they are judgments in which the terms in addressee and agent and recipient positions are not, but the term in the action position is, necessarily universalizable. Why does Hare insist particular moral judgments are moral? For Kant they are not moral, because they are not universalizable. Hare makes three points against him. First, he’s not speaking for the ethical tradition as a whole; Aristotle for example thought moral relations are always to members of this family or polis. Kant’s claim is a recent one. Second, particular moral judgments can exemplify what seems to Hare paradigmatic of morality, namely, regard for another person for his or her own sake. To put it this way makes it seem like the two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative can diverge, though the second isn’t being construed here as in Kant’s original formulation. Third, it’s characteristic of moral judgments that they give reasons for action that treat others as ends in themselves. Since the term in the action position is universal or at least universalizable, we can talk of particular moral judgments giving reasons for action.

A moral judgment requires more than universalizable terms in the action position; it also expresses care or regard for another person for his or her own sake. In Kant, this is done when I respect his practical rationality. In Aristotle, I do so when I love his nous. But it may not be possible to say what it is about a person I care about when I care for her for her own sake. Why care about a daughter’s distress? To say it’s because she’s my daughter may be right causally, but it isn’t right phenomenologically. We simply care for the person’s own sake.

Suppose a mother whose part of a cause is torn between staying with her daughter and contributing to the cause. There’s a conflict, and in principle the universalist analysis might suggest she should go to the meeting. But Hare wants to suggest that privileging the daughter may well be the right moral decision, despite that it’s not derivative in its moral value from justification at the critical level, as the universalist describes. Hare knows of no way to deny this except by begging the question in favor of the universalist.

Nonetheless Hare now makes three points against “extreme particularism” that denies we have obligations toward everyone. Noddings is an extreme particularist. Caring is only possible for an agent within a comparatively small group of people, so she rejects the notion of universal caring. Even if this is true, though, Hare says it doesn’t allow us to violate the rights of people who are outside the caring relationship. Not just negative duties, but positive duties apply; but Noddings denies universal caring. So for Hare’s three points: First, the institution of morality we are familiar with does include fully universalizable obligations. We use ought language in this way. Second, consequences of the disappearance of fully universalizable morality would be serious. Many feel like responding to needs of strangers is the human thing to do. Partiality is justified, but has limits. Unconstrained it can lead to a reduction of the number of people who can be adequately protected by partiality. Third, special relations, like those of friendship and family, are liable to certain kinds of internal corruption from the lack of the sense of justice. Dividing up morality into ‘care’ for the private and ‘justice’ for the public sphere damages both spheres. Relations within families or between friends need regulation by justice of an impartial kind. Take a mother who cares for her children and family so much she neglects herself. Or a mother who neglects to teach her child not to expect privileged treatment.

Hare thinks particular moral obligations don’t lessen moral obligations overall. Hare doesn’t think particular and universal requirements tend to conflict very much in any significant way. Particular moral obligations don’t do away with perfect duties, just adds new ones. Part of the difficulty nowadays, exacerbating the perceived tension between the universal and particular, is that the world has shrunk and we’re more aware of needs around the world, without intermediate social arrangements between family and large-scale bureaucracies of government or national church. But we can still belong to communities that make organized outreach to the needy more possible and workable. The Bible would seem to counsel to do so.


Podcast: Emily Heady on the Connection between Literature, Ethics, and the Christian Worldview

Podcast with Emily Heady On this week's episode, we discuss the connection between literature, ethics, and the Christian worldview with Dr. Emily Heady. Dr. Heady explains what role morality and the imago Dei play in the reading and composition of literature. She also helps us understand the relationship between reading and human flourishing.





Emily Heady

Emily Walker Heady is Dean of the College of General Studies and Professor of English at Liberty University.  She holds a PhD in Victorian literature from Indiana University and has published on Victorian literature and culture, especially Dickens and the realist novel.  Her book, Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities, was released in 2013 (Ashgate).  She serves as a worship pianist at Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene and, along with her husband Chene, is raising two children, Beatrice and Avery.

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

Part I

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And the Word Became Flesh"


"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)


When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.


Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.


Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.


Elton D. Higgs (1985)

Photo: "Detail of the Adoration of the Magi Stained Glass Window; the Anglican Church of St Paul – Corner Queen and Bridge Streets, Korumburra" by raan99. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part II

Part I Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 15”


After the anticipatory and penitential season of Advent, we come to Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14) Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh.

The Greek word used in the Gospel for “Word” is Logos. It doesn’t just mean word, in the sense of a spoken or written word; Logos also means order, rationality, logic. The universe is an orderly place, one in which laws of nature can be discerned. Cause and effect function; we can observe nature and draw conclusions from it; we can use our own minds, our own reason, to interpret the world rightly and put our interpretations into practice. We take all this for granted, but we shouldn’t. It doesn’t have to be the case that the universe is orderly and comprehensible. The ancient Greeks thought the world was fundamentally chaotic; as a result, they didn’t bother to pursue experimental science. Why observe nature, when it is random? Why run an experiment, if it will just come up differently another day? We should pause in wonder and awe at the fact that the world is, indeed comprehensible, because it doesn’t have to be. Though there is so much that we do not understand about the world, yet we can understand so much through the use of our minds, somehow standing above and apart from the universe that we study.

The underlying structure of the cosmos; the basic rationality from which all reason comes; order, rationality, meaning – Logos. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us... full of grace and truth.” When we speak of the order of the universe, whether we know it or not, we speak of the Second Person of the most holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Who was born in a stable in Bethlehem.

John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet 15” invites us to consider what that means.


Holy Sonnet  15

Wilt thou love God as he thee ? then digest, My soul, this wholesome meditation, How God the Spirit, by angels waited on In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast. The Father having begot a Son most blest, And still begetting—for he ne'er begun— Hath deign'd to choose thee by adoption, Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath' endless rest. And as a robb'd man, which by search doth find His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again, The Sun of glory came down, and was slain, Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind. 'Twas much, that man was made like God before, But, that God should be made like man, much more.


Like Eliot, Donne shows the connection between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. For why did God become man? For us, and for our salvation: “The Sun of glory came down, and was slain, / Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.” We are bound by sin, stuck in alienation, misled by Satan to put our own wills higher than the will of the One who made us. Despite the fact that our situation is, to put it bluntly, all our own fault, the Son, the Light of the World – the Sun of Glory – came infinitely far down to us, to loose us from the chains of sin.

And at what a cost. He made us, and so we are rightfully His, but even so, He chose to pay for us again – to pay the ultimate price of His own perfect and sinless life, for us: “And as a robb'd man, which by search doth find / His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again, / The Sun of glory came down, and was slain.”

Yet Donne reminds us that our Lord offers not just rescue from sin, but eternal life as adopted children of God! “The Father... Hath deign'd to choose thee by adoption, / Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath' endless rest.” It is an offer that seems too good to be true... except that it comes from the hand of the Father, who is perfect Good, and so it is an offer that we can trust.

What does Christmas Day mean to us? It means that on a particular day in history, God Himself took on mortal flesh and was born as a human baby, in cold and poverty, in fear and uncertainty and the shadow of Herod’s murderous intentions.

We could not reach up to Him, so He came down to us. No myth, this. No fairy tale – but reality, a fact of history, as hard-edged as it gets.

What does this mean to me, to you?

If it is true – it changes everything.

“'Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But, that God should be made like man, much more.”


Photo: "Virgin and Angels Watching Over the Sleeping Infant Jesus." By Francesco Cozza. Public Domain. Obtained from National Gallery of Art. 


Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles William

Debate: "Is God Necessary for Objective Morality?"

In this congenial debate, Shelly Kagan defends a social contract theory of morality, according to which objective and binding moral obligations are grounded in an implicit agreement between members of a society.  William Lane Craig, on the other hand, defends the idea that morality is grounded in God. [embed][/embed]

The Budding Stump

The Budding Stump

(Isaiah 11:1-3 and 53:1-3)

The Stump of David,

Cracked and grey with age,

Neglected, cast aside,

Now sprouts again, as God had said.

Not couched in beauty, or in power,

Comes this obscure and unexpected Branch;

Nor with glory sought by swords,

Drenching Israel's enemies in blood--

Though bloodshed nascent lies within.

O Lord of stumps,

Whose sapience informs

What men have cast aside,

And makes to grow again

What you yourself have pruned away:

Now take the hopes of glory

Grown and nourished by our pride;

Reform them by Your promised Shoot,

That we may find the power

That lies in roots, and not in mighty trees.

Elton D. Higgs

(Dec. 26, 1982)

Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Kurt Vonnegut: Unlikely Apologist

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

The late Kurt Vonnegut inspires loyalty among his readers. He’s the kind of author whose fans devour book after book, reading one after another in rapid succession. Or at least I did. Back in 1997 a coworker recommended Vonnegut to me, specifically Slaughterhouse-Five. Unable to get my hands on that novel, I checked out Deadeye Dick. I was hooked. By the end of the year, I’d read at least ten Vonnegut novels, only whetting my appetite for more.

Vonnegut is often thought of as cynical, edgy, and distasteful, not the most inviting qualities. This reputation is based—I believe—on his role as social satirist and his liberal-leaning political stance. The Vonnegut I love, on the other hand, is found in his letter to an English class at Xavier High School, one of the most popular Letters of Note posts from last year. He’s charming and kind, concerned with the students’ flourishing, aware of the indignities of life (his aging and its effects), yet vanquishing them with humor and grace. Reading that letter reaffirms my enthusiasm for Vonnegut’s work.

By Kurt Vonnegut

At one time I felt a little timid about my affinity for Vonnegut. He was often conceived as tasteless, a charge getting its bite from a cursory reading of the author’s irreverent and iconoclastic titles. Satirists tip sacred cows, and Vonnegut’s no exception. His outspoken agnosticism further reinforced my timidity. Having flirted with both theism and atheism, Vonnegut was willing to commit to neither. He even claims that his first wife’s conversion to Christianity was a key factor in their divorce. Even so, Vonnegut retained interest in scripture and Christianity, with a particular fondness for Christ himself. Closing the letter to Xavier HS “God bless you all!” is, ironically enough, vintage Vonnegut. He also once claimed, tongue in cheek perhaps, his epitaph should read, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Vonnegut’s words consistently dance with such delight, even when dealing with death and dearth—the firebombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five), apocalyptic nightmares (Cat’s CradleGalápagos), Nazi war crimes (Mother Night). Yet the most salient response he elicits from readers is laughter. The humor lacing Vonnegut’s letter to the high school class permeates all of his books. However heavy the subject matter, he never loses his light touch; however tragic, he retains the capacity to laugh. Vonnegut’s humor exposes man’s fears and limitations and invites his readers to reject human pretensions.

As he wraps up the opening chapter to Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, he turns the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on its head, using it as a parallel to the destruction of the Nazi-occupied city of Dresden and challenging us to reconsider the source and nature of evil and our obligations to one another:

Those were vile people in both cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them. And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

Then, poignantly: “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” The tension between loss and life, pain and joy, is felt in every line of this and many other of his books. Mingled among these jokes and laments are moving passages honoring human beings. In the aftermath of Dresden’s firebombing, the main character rests in a horse-drawn wagon, appreciating the sun, rest, and full belly he’d been denied while a POW. At this moment, Vonnegut introduces two German obstetricians who care for the horse Billy and his comrades have failed to feed or groom properly. Picturesque scenes like this one recur in Vonnegut’s work, encouraging readers to reject easy cynicism amidst pain and tragedy.

Vonnegut is a paradox like that—a likeable curmudgeon, a pessimistic optimist, an earnest humorist. And it’s his honesty about the paradoxes of life that draws me back to him again and again. It’s an honesty that, despite Vonnegut’s inability to submit personally to the gospel message, brilliantly proclaims its truth. As Christian enthusiasts of popular culture realize, evidence for the truth of the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places. In Vonnegut recognition of fundamental gospel truth abounds, reinforcing and renewing for me the wisdom of John 1:1, that in the beginning was the Word, that the logos of Christ underpins reality and speaks to us all. I no longer hide my fondness for Vonnegut and his work; I embrace it. I have come to realize that reading Vonnegut enlivens my understanding and practice of Christianity.

For this reason, I see in Vonnegut a depiction of the world as it is—filled with sorrow, overwhelmed by joy, populated by valuable human beings, capable of being redeemed (if only on a small-scale in his work). I see, too, Vonnegut’s inescapable paradox, a paradox resolved only by Christ: victim-perpetrators seeking salvation and absolution, powerless to save themselves. Such a world resonates with my experience, and Christianity makes best sense of it. The God he denies is the One who enters into the world to save the humans Vonnegut cherishes.


Marybeth Davis Baggett lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, and teaches English at Liberty University. Having earned her Ph.D. in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marybeth’s professional interests include literary theory, contemporary American literature, science fiction, and dystopian literature. She also writes and edits for Christ and Pop Culture. Her most recent publication was a chapter called “What Means Utopia to Us? Reconsidering More’s Message,” in Hope and the Longing for Utopia: Futures and Illusions in Theology and the Arts. Marybeth's most recent book is The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God, coauthored with her husband, David.

Podcast: Chad Thornhill on the Doctrine of Election and the Moral Argument

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.


Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License.


Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.

The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights

(Ed. Note: Dr. Menuge is the current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society)


Almost everyone is in favor of human rights, and many of our cultural debates depend on pitting one alleged human right against another.  Both of the major human rights instruments, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) include the basic right to life, for the obvious reason that without life, none of the other rights can be exercised.  Yet today, it is common to claim that abortion and physician assisted suicide are also fundamental human rights.  Since the set of rights claims is inconsistent, we all need some principle that will tell us when a particular claim is (or is not) justified.   As Dave Baggett[1], Paul Copan[2] and John Warwick Montgomery[3] have argued at length, theism clearly provides such a principle.   But most philosophers are committed to naturalism.  So, can human rights be given a naturalistic foundation and avoid the need for God?

I will begin with a few remarks about the nature of human rights, and indicate the prima facie implausibility of naturalistic theories.  Then we will examine Evolutionary Ethics in more detail and show that its attempt to ground morality in natural history faces a serious dilemma.

1. Human Rights and Naturalism.

The modern idea of a human right developed as a response to Nazi atrocities in World War II and the inadequacy of appeal to the positive law of particular nations, since, in point of fact, the atrocities were legal.[4]  At the Nuremburg trials it was recognized that human beings have fundamental, intrinsic value and dignity deserving of protection, and that the state has no authority either to grant or to revoke human rights: these rights are universal (all humans have them), inherent (one has them simply in virtue of being human) and they are inalienable (they cannot be suspended or taken away).

An interesting consequence is that the obligation to protect human rights holds of normative necessity.  To be sure, a higher right can override a lower one (thus the right to self-defense may override an attacker’s right to life), but this is a case of two rights worthy of moral consideration, not one.  It cannot be said, in utilitarian mood, that one has a human right only if the consequences are good and thus perhaps that the attacker had no right to life:  rather, he had a genuine human right to life worthy of moral consideration that was overridden by a higher right to self-preservation.  Thus even though it may be overridden, the existence of a human right as a morally considerable factor is not contingent on circumstances, and this is why (at least) a prima facie obligation to protect human rights has normative necessity.

It is not hard to see why naturalism finds it difficult to ground such obligations.  This is just a special case of the general difficulty naturalists find in accounting for the existence of objective moral values and duties.   For naturalism, the entire cosmos is an unintended collection of undirected natural processes.   It is not true of any of these processes that they are (or are not) supposed to be a certain way.   Thus, on the face of it, the natural processes leading the members of a tyrannical regime to commit genocide are no different, morally speaking, from the natural processes that led Mother Teresa to care for the sick and the poor of Calcutta.   These processes simply are, and we cannot say that some are good (e.g. those protecting human rights) and some evil (e.g. those violating them).

The general problem is the well-known naturalistic fallacy.  No amount of facts about what is going on in nature imply anything about what ought, or ought not, to be going on.   Now a naturalist might embrace nihilism or some very strong version of moral anti-realism, but then they can no longer (without equivocation) claim to justify human rights claims since they do not believe human rights exist.  So what is a naturalist who affirms human rights to do?

A rather desperate suggestion is Atheistic Moral Platonism (AMP).[5]   According to AMP, it is just a brute fact that reality contains both the physical universe and a “Platonic” realm of moral universals (like justice and goodness), and so it is possible that there are objective moral obligations and duties.  However, this is highly implausible. The defender of AMP seems to have whipped out his philosophical credit card and added moral universals to the ontological cart with no serious attempt to show that the moral universals are grounded in the physical universe.[6]  And since there is no substantial relation between the physical and moral realms, there is no reason to expect that the moral universals have anything especially to do with us: why should they not protect the rights of rocks and mollusks, but be indifferent to human beings?   And even if these universals did apply to us, how could they generate obligations?  It is simply incredible that we can have moral obligations to impersonal universals like the form of the good or justice.   And this reveals a more fundamental problem: in our experience, moral obligations (e.g. to keep promises, be fair and impartial, etc.) obtain between persons, for it is persons who prescribe, persons to whom we are morally accountable, and persons whom we can wrong.

Most naturalists realize that they must show why moral values and duties are to be expected in a physical universe.   Naturalists may be either strict or broad.[7]  For strict naturalists, no teleology is operative in nature and so there are no goals (not even impersonal ones) that could ground moral obligations.  If this is how nature is, then J. L. Mackie was surely right to conclude that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features … constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events…”[8]  Indeed, there is no way (besides magic) that completely non-teleological processes can ground objectively binding prescriptions since there is no way the world is supposed to be.   It is not surprising then, that strict naturalists have often concluded that a non-cognitive approach to ethics is required (e.g. emotivism or constructivism[9]), and this means that any idea that we should respect and protect human rights must be an illusion.

However, broad naturalists typically claim[10] that even though teleology is absent at the level of basic particles, as more complex arrangements of these particles in physical systems develop, various higher level properties appear (e.g. consciousness, reason, free will, moral values[11]).  It is further claimed that these properties still qualify as naturalistic because they wholly depend on the physical arrangement of particles (via supervenience or emergence).   On this view, the basis for human rights is to be found in the natural, causal history of human beings: it is only because human beings developed the right kind of complexity that they have special rights.   Yet, it is precisely this claim of historical contingency that appears incompatible with the very idea of a human right.

2. Evolutionary Ethics.

While several versions of evolutionary ethics (EE) are possible, a shared claim is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history.   Since this history is contingent, it follows that our moral sense could have been different, leading us to make different moral judgments than those we actually do.  Darwin illustrates the point with a striking illustration.

If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.[12]

In this scenario, humans might have thought that (select) acts of fratricide or infanticide were not merely permissible, but obligatory.

But Darwin is not clear about whether these counterfactual moral beliefs would correspond to a different moral reality, and this leaves the defender or EE two options, which I call Weak EE and Strong EE.  For Weak EE, it is only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees.  So fratricide and infanticide might still be wrong even if we didn’t think so.   But for Strong EE, it is moral ontology itself (what is right and wrong) that natural history explains.  And so in that case, had we been raised like hive bees, fratricide and infanticide would have been right.

Now it is certainly possible for a proponent of EE to defend either moral skepticism[13] or some version of moral anti-realism.[14]  But that would not be sufficient to show there is a genuine moral obligation to respect and protect human rights.  Our question, then, is whether either Strong EE or Weak EE is a plausible foundation for this obligation.  I submit that it is not.  Strong EE faces a serious ontological problem: if it is true, it does not seem that there can be any such thing as human rights.   Weak EE faces an epistemological problem: while it is compatible with the existence of human rights, Weak EE makes it incredible that we could know what they are.  Either way, there is no effective, practical basis for defending human rights.

A. The Ontological Problem for Strong EE.

The trouble with Strong EE is that it makes human rights unacceptably contingent.  Of course, even a theist will say that rights are contingent in some ways: they are contingent on our having been made in the image of God.  However, granted that we are so made, the theist affirms that being human is enough to secure our rights and denies that any further contingencies (such as class, race, intelligence, strength or wealth) are relevant to our value.   By contrast, on Strong EE, being human is no guarantee that we will have any particular set of rights, since our rights will also depend on the details of our natural history.  Thus, had we been raised like hive bees, (select acts of) fratricide and infanticide would have been right, and this means that (certain) brothers and female infants would not have a right to life.   If so, then any right to life such brothers and infants have (because we were not in fact raised like hive bees) is not inherent: we do not have it because we are human, but because of the way we were raised.

Now of course, a defender of Strong EE might bite the bullet and say that his view still allows us appropriate rights in the actual world, where we were not raised like hive bees.  But this move incurs several serious costs.  First, the defender of Strong EE still must deny that there is any normative necessity to our obligation to protect life.  That brothers and daughters have a right to life just happens to be the case.  And yet the only difference between these individuals and others who happen to have been raised like hive bees is extrinsic (we are, note, not assuming some ghastly genetic experiment, so that in the counterfactual case, humans actually become hive bees).  Thus, second, Strong EE seems to violate the principle of relevant difference: it says two classes of individual have different moral value without indicating a relevant difference between them.  And third, Strong EE seems to have the same problem as classical utilitarianism.  When confronted with the fact that a majority may be made happy by the genocide of a minority, utilitarians typically retort that in the real world and over time, most people are made unhappy by such atrocities.  Even if true, this would imply that had a tyrant been more effective in brainwashing or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right.  It is surely absurd to suggest that genocide is only wrong in the actual world because of administrative incompetence!

What is more, the defender of Strong EE is in no position to claim that human rights are inalienable or necessarily universal.  This is because changes in future living conditions could affect what rights we have.  Thus, suppose some tyrant loves hive bees (he sees them as model citizens) and decides that, henceforth, we are all to be raised in similar fashion.  With a stroke, brothers and female infants lose their right to life.  So even if they currently do have such a right, it is not necessary that they do, and the state could easily engineer circumstances which revoke that right.  Indeed, more horrific scenarios are possible, reminiscent of various science fiction novels and movies, where human beings are used as living batteries, fertilizer or food, and in which no one has a right to life (or has it for very long).   More realistically, we see that societies frequently have attempted to engineer living conditions such that (they claim) some group does not enjoy (full) human rights: slavery, child labor, the caste system, forced concubines, ghettoes and apartheid.  All of these, though, are clear examples of human rights abuses, and reinforce the fact that human rights are not dependent on living conditions as Strong EE claims.

Underlying this failure of Strong EE is that it appears to confuse two notions of “good.”  Natural selection can explain the retention of characteristics that are good for an organism, community or species, in that they increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction.   But as Richard Joyce points out, the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.[15]  Assassination is good for removing political leaders and exterminating people in gas chambers is good for ethnic purity, but this does not make either of them morally good.   And the same point applies to the biological good.  That mosquitoes serve malaria’s biological good does not imply that mosquitoes have any moral value, and the fact that (to use one of Darwin’s examples) tribal warfare serves the biological good of a particular tribe by enhancing cooperation and cohesion within it (even if the tribal warfare violates all conditions of a just war) surely does not imply that such tribal warfare is morally good: indeed it could constitute a major human rights abuse.  And similarly, the fact that fratricide and female infanticide might be biologically good for human beings if they lived like hive bees does not imply that those behaviors would be morally good.  Thus there is a logical chasm between what serves the biological interests of a species and what is morally valuable.

A yet further problem is that once our rights are made contingent on the actual distribution of natural capacities conferred by our natural history, there is no good reason to think that only human beings, or that all human beings, have special rights.  If rights are based on our degree of biological adaptedness, then, as James Rachels points out, the humble cockroach is just as well adapted.[16]  So Peter Singer would be right to reject the claim that only human beings have special rights as “species-ism.”  And if rights are based on our natural capacities, then it will always be possible to find individuals who suffer physical and mental defects and thus do not have rights.   And in any case, natural capacities are not uniformly distributed, and this would undermine the basic equality of human rights.  Thus, since some people are naturally smarter or stronger (etc.) than others, it appears some people will have more rights than others.  Yet again, being human is not enough for naturalism: one has to be the right kind of human.  This utterly subverts the idea of human rights, rights one has simply in virtue of being human.

So, if Strong EE is true, it seems that there really are no universal, inherent, inalienable rights.  Even if there are some “rights” (e.g. conventional or contractual ones), human rights will not exist.

B. The Epistemological Problem for Weak EE.

Weak EE, as a modest thesis of moral psychology, is certainly consistent with the existence of human rights.  However, it also has nothing to do with the explanation of those rights.   On this view, had we been raised like hive bees, we would have believed that fratricide and female infanticide were right, but that would have nothing to do with moral reality.    Certainly, this view allows that we might have true moral beliefs, since what our natural history disposes us to believe might happen to correspond to moral reality.   But Weak EE surely gives no grounds for thinking we could know moral reality (including human rights) and even some reason to think that we could not.

It is virtually universally agreed amongst epistemologists (whether internalists who demand we can see why our belief is true, or externalists who are satisfied provided we are in fact reliably connected to the truth) that it is impossible to know that p if one is only right by accident in believing that p.  Thus, if I look at a broken clock that says 7:30 and it is 7:30, my belief is true, but I do not have knowledge because I was only right by accidental coincidence.   A natural explanation of what went wrong here is this: the fact that it was 7:30 had nothing to do with why the clock said 7:30, and hence nothing to do with why I believed that it was 7:30.

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

Notice that internal conviction of certainty is of no avail.  Suppose we were to meet a tribe of humans raised like hive bees.  They would be just as convinced that we were wrong, holding back out of superstitious ignorance from our sacred duties of fratricide and infanticide, as we would be convinced that their behavior was morally abhorrent.  Thus the best that Weak EE could hope for is that we are right by the fortunate accident that we were raised a certain way.

But then of course, one must also ask how likely it is that our beliefs would track moral reality if Weak EE is true.  We have already seen that there is no logical connection between biological adaptedness (what is biologically good for an individual or species) and the moral good.   If so, and given the vast number of possible natural histories we might have had, it seems highly unlikely that our belief-forming mechanism would be apt for moral truth.

This is not merely because of the well-known general problem for naturalism, that biologically useful beliefs do not have to be true.  In the case of beliefs about physical reality, the naturalist can at least offer some sort of causal theory of representation that connects the physical state of affairs with a belief, and it is not wholly implausible that having true beliefs about some local aspects of the physical environment would be adaptive.  Matters are wholly different with moral beliefs since moral values are not physical items with which a creature’s body and brain could causally interact (at least, not on any naturalistic view of causation).  As J. P. Moreland points out, “value properties are not empirically detectable nor are they the sorts of properties whose instances can stand in physical causal relations with the brain.”[17]  So even if moral values are out there in the world, naturalistic evolution has no credible account of how our belief-forming mechanism could be formed and honed so that we could come to know what they are, making moral skepticism the most reasonable option.  In fact, matters are even worse, as Richard Joyce points out.  On naturalistic assumptions, we would have the moral values we do because they are biologically useful even if no objective moral values have ever existed![18]  So if the explanation of our moral faculties and beliefs does not even depend on the existence of moral values, it surely follows that we cannot know them if they do exist.

So if Weak EE is true, even if there are human rights lying around somewhere, we can never claim to know what they are (indeed, for similar reasons to those given above, we cannot even have evidence of their existence and character).  This is as good as useless in justifying human rights and adjudicating competing human rights claims.


It is not difficult to see that the dilemma for Evolutionary Ethics is but one instance of a general problem for Naturalistic Ethics.  Given only the contingencies of naturalistic causation, there is no way to ground claims that hold of normative necessity.  Just like the authority of deductive logic, the authority of fundamental moral obligations depends on a kind of normative necessity that does not depend on, or reduce to, the contingent interactions of humans with their physical environment.  Indeed, we can run a precisely analogous argument to the argument against EE above if the naturalist appeals to individual learning history rather than the natural history of the species.   If we believe in real obligations, like those to respect and protect human rights, we should abandon naturalism.



[1]For example, see David Baggett and Jerry Walls’s, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2]See Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in eds. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister and Khaldoun Sweis, Debating Christian Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 85-100 and “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in ed. Angus J. L. Menuge, Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Farnham, UK; Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 11-31.

[3]See John Warwick Montgomery’s The Law Above the Law (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 1975) and Human Rights and Human Dignity (Dallas, TX: Probe, 1986).

[4]John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law, 24.

[5]An example of this sort of view is provided by Erik Wielenberg, “In defense of non-natural, non-theistic moral realism,” Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (2009) 23-41.

[6]See the critique of Wielenberg in Paul Copan’s “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalisms’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success,” 13-14.

[7]See Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

[8]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 115.

[9] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127:1 (2006): 109-66.

[10]An exception is Thomas Nagel [Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)], who attempts to build teleology into nature at a foundational level.  Arguably, though, this natural teleology then stands in the same need of explanation as all of the “remarkable” phenomena (consciousness, reason and morality) which it is invoked to explain.  Otherwise, it suffers many of the same problems as AMP, since there is no reason to think the teleology is especially concerned with us, and nor is it the sort of thing to which one could have a moral obligation.

[11]See, for example, Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998) and Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).

[12]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 102.

[13]Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy 61: 236 (1986): 173-92.

[14]For example, Sharon Street defends the idea that there are no moral facts, but that moral truths derive from a process of reflective equilibrium.  This is no use for defending human rights as those who gathered together to plan the “final solution” for the “Jewish problem” reached reflective equilibrium.

[15]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 170.

[16]James Rachels, Created From Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 70.

[17]J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009), 149.

[18]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, 183.


Photo: "Broken" by hjhipster. CC License. 


Angus Menuge


Angus Menuge is professor of philosophy and Concordia University Wisconsin and President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.  His research interests include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, apologetics and C. S. Lewis.  He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Diploma in Christian Apologetics from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, Strasbourg.  He is editor of C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, Christ and Culture in Dialogue, Reading God's World and Legitimizing Human Rights.  He is author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science.

On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics


Editor's Note: The whole video is well worth watching, but you can find Wood's comments about the moral argument around 23 minutes into the video. Also, we would like to thank The Gospel Coalition for highlighting Wood's story

When David Wood was a boy, his dog was hit by a bus and died. Although his mother was terribly upset, he was not. He figured it was just a dog, now it’s dead, end of story. A few years later when a friend of his died, his response was largely the same. He didn’t feel any particular regret or remorse, but at the same time, largely owing to the very different responses of others, he sensed that maybe he should. Not everyone emotionally impaired in such a way turns violent, but he did. In years to follow, he extended his emotionally dead and unempathetic take on those around him by engaging in some horrifying acts, like brutally attacking his father with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t). Wood was convinced that right and wrong were fictions to be discarded at will and that the apathetic universe couldn’t care less how anyone acts.

The absence of empathy that Wood seemed to exhibit as a young boy is often indicative of psychopathy or sociopathy. Although sometimes these categories are treated interchangeably, some insist that there are crucial clinical differences between them. For example, some (like Chris Weller) suggest that, though both psychopaths and sociopaths tend to lack fear and disgust, sociopaths are more likely to be found holed up in their houses removed from society, while a psychopath is busy in his basement rigging shackles to his furnace. Psychopaths are dangerous, violent, cruel, and often sinister. Showing no remorse, they commit crimes in cold blood, crave control, behave impulsively, possess a predatory instinct, and attack proactively rather than as a reaction to confrontation.

In contrast, upbringing may play a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath than those diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopaths project an appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity, but sociopathic behavior is actually conniving and deceitful. Often pathological liars, sociopaths are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation—not for lack of a moral compass (like we find in psychopaths), but because of a greatly skewed moral compass. Despite their differences, both psychopaths and sociopaths can wreak quite a bit of havoc and do much damage in people’s lives.

Since Wood was (1) remarkably unempathetic from such a young age, (2) seemingly lacking a sense of right and wrong rather than having a merely skewed sense of morality, and (3) engaging in extremely antisocial and violent behavior, perhaps this would suggest that he was more a psychopath than a sociopath. Since this is not my area of specialty, though, I am doing nothing more than offering my untutored guess. Yesterday the Gospel Coalition posted an article about Wood called “What Sociopaths Reveal to Us about the Existence of God.” For present purposes, we needn’t worry with the exactly right psychological diagnosis, but it bears pointing that, if anything, Wood seemed to be riddled with the more congenital, more entrenched, more debilitating of the two mental disorders, which is instructive. Wood wasn’t at all inclined to believe he should refrain from hurting others for fear he would thereby violate their “intrinsic value,” since this was a notion he scoffed at as a young man, thinking people were just biological machines for propagating DNA inhabiting a speck in a vast, empty, meaningless universe. For Wood was also, as a young man, an atheist, but this piece is not about his atheism. It’s rather about this mental phenomenon of psychopathy/sociopathy and its bearing on moral apologetics—and vice versa.

What does any of this have to do with the moral argument for God’s existence? Atheists Sam Harris and Erik Wielenberg, both well-known and outspoken atheists, think that the existence of psychopaths, in the clinical sense of the term—by some estimates making up as much as one percent of the population—poses a challenge to theistic ethics generally and divine command theory more particularly. In Sam Harris’s debate with William Lane Craig, Harris pointed out one potential connection between psychopathy and moral apologetics, but we can dispense with it fairly quickly. (Harris also devotes a section of his book The Moral Landscape to the issue of psychopathy, thinking it provides a case study of dissection of conventional morality.) In the debate Harris pointed out that psychopaths manifest an inability to distinguish between true moral claims and commands from authority. They tend to think that moral rules are just arbitrary impositions by someone in charge. Interestingly, Wood himself now admits that for years this was his own view—that for years he was willing to give up everything for the sake of a false freedom from the control of others he despised. At any rate, casting a moral theory of obligations as rooted in divine commands as an arbitrary morality of “authority,” Harris ambitiously argued that there is a psychopathic core to divine command theory—not a compliment to his theistic interlocutors.

As this site has emphasized repeatedly, divine command theory, rightly understood, is not at all an effort to render morality arbitrary, nor does it unintentionally accomplish such a feat de facto. Of course there is the occasional radical voluntarist (sometimes dubbed an Ockhamist, though writers like Lucan Freppert and Marilyn Adams have argued this is unfair to Ockham), but most mainstream divine command theorists don’t embrace anything so scandalous. No, God has reasons for the commands he issues—reasons tied to the nature and telos he’s given to us and, most ultimately, to his own perfect and essentially loving character.

Setting aside that arbitrariness misunderstanding, though, the even more egregious misstep of Harris’s is the suggestion that submitting to moral authority is psychopathic for equating morality with a presumed authority. This is a rookie mistake. Morality, particularly moral obligations, is authoritative—this is what Anscombe pointed out when she talked about the verdict- and law-like nature of moral obligations, what Richard Joyce means when he refers to the punch and clout of moral duties, what Mackie was pointing to when discussing the “queerness”’ of morality; part of what it means to reject objective morality is to deny that such prescriptively binding obligations exist. This shows there’s nothing question-begging about insisting on this aspect of morality; someone can deny objective morality, but such authority is precisely part of what they are denying. Psychopaths are not denying that morality possesses such authority, but rather insisting that morality, invested with such authority, doesn’t exist. Clearly such authority just is part of morality classically construed—whether morality is real or not. So acknowledging such authority is no evidence that those doing so are mentally unstable; such authority is rather one of those important moral facts in need of adequate explanation. The moral argument, especially in its long (abductive) game, wishes—carefully, patiently, and systematically—to make the principled case that theism, better than the plethora of secular moral theories on offer taken individually or in any particular combination, can provide the better explanation of such authority. The recognition of a true and legitimate authority hardly qualifies as psychopathic. Harris’s charged rhetoric here is strategically hyperbolic and borders the conversationally uncooperative.

Let’s turn now to the more serious objection to moral apologetics on the basis of psychopathy that Erik Wielenberg raises. He broaches the topic of psychopathy in his book God and the Reach of Reason. In the context of discussing C. S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, Wielenberg writes, “Perhaps more problematic for Lewis’s argument than variation in the deliverances of conscience is the fact that some people apparently lack a conscience altogether. Psychopathy (sometimes called ‘sociopathy’) is a personality disorder characterized by, among other things, the absence of the capacity to experience various emotions, including empathy, love, and guilt.” An interesting characteristic of psychopaths, experts tell us, is that they know the difference between right and wrong in some sense. Or they at least recognize that others view certain acts as right or wrong and can use such language appropriately. But such words hold no purchase for psychopaths, because they don’t care about morality. Wielenberg quotes psychologist Robert Hare, who’s studied psychopathy for over a quarter of a century: “They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Wielenberg notes that there may be an odd individual here and there who doesn’t know the moral law, just as we find a few people color-blind or tone deaf. Robert Hare, too, uses color-blindness to explain psychopathy:

The psychopath is like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic light. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. . . . Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.

Wielenberg argues the existence of psychopaths poses a problem for Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence. Lewis argues that human conscience is a tool that God uses to communicate with us. “More precisely,” Wielenberg writes, “conscience is a tool that God uses to get us to recognize our need for Him.” Christianity tells people to repent and promises forgiveness; Lewis thus writes it “has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.” Since psychopaths are unable to feel they need forgiveness—and psychologists estimate that about four percent of human beings are psychopaths (at least in the West)—Wielenberg asks where this leaves roughly one in twenty-five human beings? Has God abandoned them? This is how Wielenberg argues that the phenomenon of psychopathy undermines the premise of Lewis’s argument that says “the Higher Power issues instructions and wants us to engage in morally right conduct.” Why would God allow so many to lack the emotional equipment essential for engaging in morally right conduct? Wielenberg admits this may not be a decisive objection, owing to the possibility of a justification for psychopathy that lies beyond our current understanding, but he suggests it’s a phenomenon that does not fit very well with Lewis’s overall view.

In response to Wielenberg, I would point to the rest of Wood’s story. If his story were unique, this tack could be accused of being merely anecdotal, but it is one of many stories of remarkable personal transformation. Constructing his worldview to correspond with his flat and lifeless emotional perception of reality, Wood began to think that all of life was pointless. At the same time, he would try to hold his worldview together whenever occasional doubts crept in, until he finally realized that if life was pointless, so too was his effort to hold it all together. And then, he says, life offered him an alternative. In prison he ran into a Christian who was willing to defend his convictions rather than cower in silence or run for cover when Wood issued his usual barrage of insults and challenges. And the believer, named Randy, challenged Wood in return, forcing him to articulate his convictions, at which point Wood recognized something for the first time: “Things that made perfect sense when unquestioned seemed silly when questioned.” Questions of why the disciples would risk death to testify to the resurrection of Jesus or how life could emerge from lifelessness now began to plague Wood’s mind.

In an effort to refute Randy’s faith and consolidate his own, Wood began reading the Bible. He was refraining from eating at the time—long story—and found in scripture that Jesus was the bread of life. He wanted escape from his imprisonment, and read that the Son of God can set us free. He was painfully sick at the time, and read that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Over and over again he was startled to find Christ to be the answer he was seeking. He spent time reading the books on apologetics Randy had given him, and gradually his secular worldview began to crumble. The design argument and the argument for the historicity of the resurrection began to make more sense to him, and then the moral argument began to speak to him as well. Heretofore he’d held two beliefs at the same time—that humans are meaningless lumps of cells, AND that he was the best, most important person in all the world—and the realization dawned on him how inconsistent these were. A best person, he began to see, required an objective standard of goodness. He went from thinking himself the best person in the world to the worst, and then realized that if his earlier assessment of morality was wrong and there really was an objective standard of goodness and rightness, he was in trouble.

At this point he recognized, without anything much emotional going on in him, what John Hare calls the “moral gap.” Either he was irremediably selfish and sick and there was no hope, or there was someone, or Someone, who could help. He knew he, riddled with his psychological, spiritual, and moral maladies, couldn’t help himself. Who could? Gradually he came to think that only God could do it, and Jesus, the One God raised. Eventually, beaten down, desperate, barely able to know how, he prayed for forgiveness. His was a dramatic conversion, which happens on occasion. Instantaneously, no longer did he want to hurt anyone, and, perhaps even more importantly, he had the strange sense that he’d known the truth all along.

Wood’s moral sense was damaged but not beyond repair. The grace of God and the use of his other faculties (like that of reason) enabled him to understand that he did indeed have moral obligations after all. So perhaps the feelings that psychopaths lack are not necessary in order to recognize the reality and authority of morality. A psychopath is a person who doesn’t feel appropriately about his actions, but reason still leads to moral law. So psychopaths are not incapable of recognizing the moral law, they just lack the right emotional responses to it. Thus they are disadvantaged, but not in a way that precludes knowledge of the moral law. So Wielenberg may be operating on a mistake, namely, the conviction that to be morally responsible one has to have the right moral feelings. Perhaps having moral feelings is not a necessary condition for being morally accountable and that having these feelings is just a gift from God to aid in the moral life. Wielenberg, therefore, may be treating conscience in an overly narrow sense. Perhaps he thinks of conscience as morally appropriate feelings that guide us to right action, but why not include among the faculties of conscience the deliverances of reason? In which case, if our feelings fail us, we are not without a conscience, but just without some of the faculties a healthy conscience would have.

Today Wood runs an apologetics ministry (Acts 17 Apologetics), and he says that, though God created the universe, he created human beings in a special way, imbuing them with his image. Wood realizes now that true freedom is deliverance from his earlier desire to turn against his Creator. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says he now believes in Christianity as he believes in the Sun—because by it he can see everything else. Wood perhaps didn’t have the advantage of most: a well-functioning conscience and active capacity for empathy, which God can indeed and often does use to draw people to himself. Lewis was right about that, but perhaps overstated the case, because God has other resources besides. People don’t fall through the cracks if God is a God of love. Augustine once wrote that God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him. In an important sense, we are all morally sick to the core and in need of healing that only God can provide; we all need to become not just better men and women, but new men and women. Contra Wielenberg, despite his deficiency Wood was still able to apprehend the truth, recognize the possibility he was wrong, throw himself on God’s mercy, and emerge from the darkness into the light. And for a person who underwent such radical transformation, these words from Ezekiel 36:26 seem poignantly apt: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Photo: "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. 

Interstellar and Partiality

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar tells a sweeping story, speculating on potential widespread destruction and human potential in the face of such prospects. Despite its scope, it also zeroes in on individual concerns, using the protagonist and his family as the vehicle for considering important ethical questions. One such question centers on the tension between particular and more general moral judgments.

In an early critical scene, Cooper, the main character played by Matthew McConaughey, must decide whether or not to embark on an incredibly ambitious space mission. This mission requires leaving his children behind and risking never seeing them again. But his success in this endeavor could allow for survival of the entire human race, which has few options. A scientist involved in the mission encourages his participation, appealing to Cooper’s obligations to mankind: “You can't just think about your family,” Doyle says. “You have to think bigger than that.” Cooper’s response suggests that he recognizes his responsibility involves both the particular and the universal simultaneously: “I'm thinking about my family and millions of other families.”

One could not blame Cooper had he participated in the mission solely out of a desire to ensure his own family’s survival. But as the above quote suggests, he is also motivated by broader concerns. It seems rather unlikely, in light of Cooper’s character, that he would have refrained from the world-saving mission if he did not have his own family to save. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is something unmistakably particular and concrete about his driving motivation.

And this particularity is emphasized through the touchingly depicted relationship Cooper has with his daughter Murphy. Despite his visceral aversion to leaving her behind, and his arduous effort to part on good terms, he feels compelled and likely obligated to leave. This tension—between duties to his daughter and his duties to the rest of humanity—raises an interesting question: is Cooper morally obligated to complete this mission, a mission for which he is the best qualified? Even if the mission is a success and he returns, it’s likely that his children will be considerably older. Does he have a duty to leave them behind? In light of all that’s at stake, perhaps he does, but if this is so, it shows something interesting. Parental obligations have their limits. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct.

In the ethics of Immanuel Kant, a person is to follow the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on those principle we can will to become universal laws. And the principles, or maxims, on which we are to act are to be expressible in universal terms, singular references (like to family) having been expunged. Kant, however, departed on this score from a number of other important ethical thinkers, like Aristotle, who thought that moral judgments are always made in the context of family or polis. Kant’s insistence that such particular terms be replaced with universal ones is an interesting claim, but one that leaves many dubious.

Various feminist thinkers, for example, have emphasized that morality is to be understood in more particular terms than Kant would allow. On their view, moral determinations are to be made in the arena of our relationships, as we take into account all the various concrete details and particular specifics of the richly contextualized circumstances in which we find ourselves. We shouldn’t be guided by universal and abstract moral principles bereft of reference to those we know, those with whom we have cultivated lasting relationships.

They have a point, of course, which makes understandable the protagonist in Interstellar being motivated most of all by a desire to save his own family. But he’s also confronted with a truly universal challenge: the planet is slowly dying, and time for rescue is short. The survival of humanity depends on a successful mission. And this crisis, it seems to us, renders unworkable a desire to care only about his own family. Although most of us won’t find ourselves in so dire a situation, we live in a much smaller world than we used to. We’re aware of human needs that go beyond those of our immediate family, close friends, and nearby neighbors. Because of technological advances, we know about innumerable global needs. If there’s a tsunami in Japan, we can watch it in real time. If there are refugees in the Middle East, we can read tweets about them instantaneously. This makes it less permissible to be indifferent to the needs of strangers. Of course, we care most about our close family members and friends, but this doesn’t license indifference to others beyond those confines. In fact, we can become so fixated on privileging and prioritizing our loved ones that that very partiality can become perverse.

Recently, we read an article about how so many college-aged kids of today’s generation are experiencing a hard time growing up and assuming responsibility. One of the reasons for the phenomenon, it was suggested, is overly protective parenting. Parents are supposed to make their children feel loved and special, no doubt, but parents also have to teach their children that disappointments are inevitable; that, though undeniably valuable, they are not more objectively valuable than others; that achievement requires work; and that failure requires ownership of responsibility. In his examination of Kantian ethics, The Moral Gap, John Hare explains the psychological challenges children face upon realizing they are not the guide of their parents’ moral compass: “It can be a startling lesson for a child who has been the apple of his mother’s eye to discover that his mother is not willing to put pressure on his teacher to get him into a tem, or even to make a scene in the shop to get him the last remaining construction set of the kind he wants for Christmas.” Yet as most parents know, protecting fragile psyches from such hard truths to avoid their kids from experiencing pain is to confer them permission to remain children, if not infantile.

Neglecting the responsibility to impart these truths, however sober, to their children is a recipe for disaster and perpetual adolescence. Rather than an expression of love, it’s to privilege the particular to the neglect of broader truths applicable to everyone. One is implicated in an objectionable form of extreme partiality when her judgments fail to be qualified and regulated by universal truths. C. S. Lewis depicts this insight in a brilliant scene from The Great Divorce, where a mother has so fixated on her son that her “love” becomes idolatrous, blinding her to the fullness of reality in which he exists. Sadly, her extreme particularism costs her paradise and is tantamount to choosing darkness over light.

So the feminists have their points to make, but it’s a mistake to swing the pendulum toward partiality to the exclusion of what remains true for the whole of humankind. Close personal relationships are particularly vulnerable to corruption, or even abuse, when they’re not guided by sound moral principles that apply universally. Every evil in this world is the distortion of something primordially good—wives whose selfless service gets cruelly taken for granted, a healthy sense of self that transforms into pride. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct. Particular obligations obtain, but don’t vitiate more general ones.


Photo: "Hubble Helps Find Smallest Known Galaxy Containing a Supermassive Black Hole" by NASA Goodard Space Flight Center. CC License. 

The Husbandry of God

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God's planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

                                                --Elton D. Higgs

                                                      (Dec. 8, 1980)

Photo: "Annunciation. Icon by Andrey Rublev. 1430s" by paukrus. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



State of the Site

This term marked the start of It is a website the vision for which had been in my head for a while, but I am not the most technologically or social media savvy person, to put it mildly, and I was rather riddled with fear about getting the project underway. I didn’t really know the first step about purchasing a domain name or setting up a web page. With reticence and tentativeness, sometime late summer or so, I asked for help from Facebook, and several folks generously volunteered. I availed myself of an offer by former star student Delia Ursulescu, who really got the early ball rolling. I am so very grateful to her for getting us over the first major series of hurdles. And then Jonathan Pruitt, a student in the Ph.D. in theology and apologetics program here at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, enthusiastically came onboard with great energy and a head full of innovative ideas on how we can move the site forward. He’s been my Managing Editor ever since, my right hand man, and rumor has it a middle-of-the-night conspirator in a trip to IHOP for a nocturnal podcast. My English professor wife has also helped immensely with editing and has been, as always, a faithful source of support, encouragement, and inspiration. In the three or four months we’ve been up and running, the website has really taken off. We’ve garnered nearly half a thousand Facebook likes, and we’re just starting to attract Twitter followers, a more recent initiative. Gary Habermas wrote a nice blurb for our site, and FB nods have come from no less than public philosopher Tom Morris (formerly from Notre Dame) and apologist extraordinaire William Lane Craig (from Reasonable Faith). We were delighted to see a talented writer and friend, Corey Latta, come onboard early on to write for us, and we’ve been able to assemble a growing team of theologians, philosophers, Old and New Testament Bible scholars, and literary experts to write for us and generate podcasts—from Biola to Houston Baptist to Liberty, from coast to coast and lots of places in between, not to mention from all around the world. Two brilliant New Zealanders who do cutting-edge work in the area of theistic ethics, Matt Flannagan and Glenn Peoples, have been generous enough to share their work, and Angus Ritchie in England promises something soon. We’re currently in the middle of a writing contest along three different dimensions: philosophy, Bible, and literature. My dear friend and undergraduate mentor Elton Higgs has written poems the site has featured. It’s been just great fun.

We want to continue to showcase and highlight the terrific work getting done by a broad array of scholars and thinkers on topics related to the powerful apologetic resource morality provides. The topic is so rich and fertile and multi-faceted it’s going to take contributions from a range of disciplines to do it justice. We’ve only just begun. Potential to build a cumulative, multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary moral apologetic is great, and the time is right.

Please pray for the site and the impact it can have, and as you feel led, contribute something. Moral arguments are here to stay; in fact, they’re catching on and gaining momentum. They’re deriving strength from top-notch analysis and imaginative work, both fiction and nonfiction. We hope to feature work by the Paul Copans and J. P. Morelands, but the site isn’t just pitched to scholars and Ph.D.’s. We want folks from a broad array of backgrounds and educational experience to catch this shared vision. Some essays or blogs or podcasts are pitched at higher levels than others, but there’s something for everyone. We want the site to be a microcosm of the body of Christ—with lots of members, lots of different moving parts, plenty of diversity, but all of us working together in the same direction, to accomplish together what we couldn’t have accomplished on our own. We want to play a leading role in helping moral apologetics do the work we know it can in bringing attention to the moral features of this world that serve as a signal of transcendence, a powerful piece of evidence for a good and loving God: the locus of value, the Source and Goal of our best moral impulses, the one who invested this world with its sacramental significance; who promises to be with us through every trial, forgive us every sin as we turn to Him in faith and repentance, and who has the resources to wipe away every tear, redeem every suffering, and put this world aright.

Blessed Advent Season to you all!

Dave Baggett


Photo: "waterplace condo tower" by J. Nickerson. CC License. 

Morality and The Recalcitrant Imago Dei

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

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

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

  2. the reality of human moral action; and

  3. intrinsic value and human rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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