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John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.3, “Sharon Street”

 summary by David Baggett

In 2006 Sharon Street published an article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” which has been the subject of a considerable literature in reply. Her argument relies on the primary claim that our normative dispositions—that is, our dispositions to form certain normative beliefs rather than others—are (largely) selected because they have some natural property. For example, perhaps they contribute to reproductive success by promoting certain kinds of cooperation. But from the perspective of realism, accepting this claim defeats our epistemic entitlement to our normative beliefs, because we will come to be aware of the unlikely reliability of the processes that shaped those beliefs.

This is the Darwinian dilemma: the realist has either to deny the primary claim or to concede that her “normative judgments are, by her own lights, irrational.” She’s not arguing for skepticism or for the impossibility of ethical knowledge. Rather, she is trying to show that, if there is to be ethical knowledge, it has to be understood on an anti-realist model. Her point is that all that natural selection needs is our beliefs in the normative facts, not the normative facts themselves. If our normative and theological beliefs are largely the product of our evolutionary history, fitness-enhancing beliefs about morality and gods will be adopted, regardless of whether they are, in the realist sense, true or false. Even if a particular belief is false, it may promote genetic propagation.

This is the challenge. But there is a good response to it. Even if we grant that natural selection has given us normative belief-forming dispositions that are not truth-tracking, and that have in fact given us a mixture of “nasty” belief-forming dispositions and corresponding behaviors alongside other “nicer” ones, and even if we grant that therefore our normative beliefs are unreliable to the extent that they are given to us by natural selection, nothing follows about how many of our normative beliefs are formed in this way.

Consider the analogy with mathematical beliefs. To what extent do we have the ability to track truths about non-linear algebra? The point is that, even if we get our cognitive equipment from evolution, we can use that equipment to reach beliefs that are independent of adaptive value. It remains possible that cultural evolution has been operating to refine our normative stance in a truth-tracking way. If we use the phrase “cultural evolution” loosely, we can make the point that admitting a significant initial effect of biological evolution on belief formation does not license the conclusion that natural selection is the sole force in all our belief formation thereafter.

The initial effect of natural selection is still relevant, because, if we were given cognitive equipment that was hopelessly and permanently vitiated, then we could not hope to use this equipment to discriminate subsequently between the beliefs in the initial mixture that we should endorse and the ones we should reject. We would be, so to speak, fatally handicapped. But there is no reason to think our situation is hopeless in this way.

Are our current normative disposition all simply products of natural selection and not (partly or wholly) products of experience, reflection, and reasoning guided by moral reality as such? This is a metaphysical question, not one proper to science in its own domain. Ruse’s recognition of this separates him from Mackie. We need to distinguish the claims of science and the claims of “scientism,” which is the attempt, as Ruse puts it, to make science say everything. Metaphysical naturalism claims baldly that there is nothing beyond physical reality, but this is a claim that requires philosophical justification and is not within the proper sphere of science. Street’s argument does not give us any reason to believe that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Image: Australopithecus Afarensis, Lucy. C. Lorenzo. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.2, “Michael Ruse”

summary by David Baggett

Michael Ruse is an anti-realist, in some ways like Mackie, but in other ways different. He thinks ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators. Ruse is a moral skeptic. He does not think the sense of right and wrong has a justification at all. It’s an illusion foisted on us by our genes, like a mirage in the desert.

Yet Ruse is quite optimistic that our moral lives will not be affected by the kind of skepticism he endorses. Hare is skeptical of this, thinking we surely need some kind of justification for morality to answer the “normative question” of the first chapter. Not everybody is consistently moved by the forces of natural selection to cooperate in the way morality requires. Moral obedience is fragile. We do find precursors of the moral sentiments in our non-human ancestors, but we also find defection, and we have inherited both of these tendencies. We are by nature, in this sense, a mixture. But this means we need support from our cultural sources not only for our beliefs about what morality requires, but for our beliefs about why we should comply with it, or endorse it, why it’s valid as a demand on us. There’s evidence in the psychological literature that the force of the moral demand can be undermined by teaching, as Ruse does, that objective morality is an illusion. Saying that ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators is likely to have the same undercutting effect as an egoist ethical theory has on economics students, particularly when morality might call for a sacrifice.

But is it just an unfortunate truth that morality is an illusion? What arguments does Ruse have for his skepticism? He has basically two, and they are versions of the same arguments we saw in Mackie. But here is the irony. Ruse ought not to accept either of them any longer because of differences from his mentor that he has come to have in other parts of his theory.

First, the argument from relativity. Ruse’s form of the argument makes a significant shift from the factual to the counterfactual. Ruse embodies a pendulum swing away from Mackie back to human universals, encoded in our genes (with environmental triggers). He appeals to what he calls “our shared psychological nature,” which includes a sense of right and wrong. So his argument from relativity is counterfactual. We could have had a quite different morality if our evolutionary history had been different. Since evolution could have taken a different path, there can’t be an objective set of values that lies behind our moral practice.

But for a divine command theorist this is not a successful objection. God could use evolution to produce the kind of creatures God wants to have, and this does not deny “random” mutation of the kind that Darwinian evolution proposes. Ruse concedes this, and agrees that a Christian can, consistently with science, “be committed to a form of what is known as the ‘divine command theory’ of metaethics.” But then the fact that humans could have evolved differently does not give us reason to think there is no objective value. Perhaps God willed us to evolve to recognize the values there actually are, and gave us commands to supplement the limits of this evolutionary history.

Ruse’s version of the argument from queerness is similarly undercut by his later concessions. He doesn’t use the term ‘queer’ but he does insist that it’s biological theory that requires us to take the skeptical position about justification. At the causal level, he thinks what’s going on is probably individual selection maximizing our own reproductive ends, and there’s no room here for objective rightness and wrongness. But Mackie was an atheist who thought theism was a “miracle.” Ruse, on the other hand, aims to expose the over-reaching character of some contemporary militant Darwinism that wants to turn science into metaphysics and to make science the arbiter of all truth. Darwinism, he holds, should not try to say everything. Whether there is or is not a God Ruse says he does not know, and science doesn’t tell him. Such claims go beyond science. He says in light of modern science someone can be a Christian and that he sees no arguments to the contrary.

To be consistent, though, Ruse should say the same of objective morality. Mackie’s argument from queerness required the premise that anything that has causal relations with the world must be accessible to science. Ruse at least sometimes now wants to deny this, and if he denies it then the foundation of the argument from queerness disappears. There’s a tension in Ruse’s thought that can be resolved by rejecting the skeptical hold-over from the less generous views of his mentor.

Here is a general principle worth emphasizing. Antagonism to realist claims in ethics or theology that made sense against the background of a thoroughgoing reductive empiricism makes no sense once that kind of empiricism is rejected.


Image: “Australopithecus sediba” by B. Eloff. Courtesy Profberger and Wits University who release it under the terms below. – Own work, GFDL,


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

summary by David Baggett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: “Neurons” by Penn State. CC License. 

United or Untied?


By Tom Thomas

The second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC), is schismatized.  For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB).   In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times.   He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward.  The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church.[i] Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.

This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’?  In the following I want to consider three New Testament words regarding ‘unity’.  I will organize them under two headings, horizontal and vertical unity.   In light of this, I want to show how the prevailing talk of unity leaves out the most crucial factor in the unity equation.

The word ‘unity’ (enotas) appears but four times and the term ‘united’ seven in the Holy Scriptures.  This is few in comparison to such key terms as ‘truth’ which appears approximately seventy times.  In each of the four occurrences ‘unity’ speaks of the saints in Christ’s Body having a oneness of spirit.  Peter exemplifies its meaning when he exhorts believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This ‘unity’ is horizontal.  It speaks of ‘unity’ on the human plane.  It talks of human inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves.  This is the plane in which Bishop Ough operates.

The word ‘united’ is used to mean being ‘joined’.  Persons are ‘united in love’ if they are connected and brought into close association with another. One use of ‘united’ speaks of our being ‘united’ to the Lord.   This conception of our being united to the Lord is more fully expressed by another term which I am coming to now.  (1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 2:2).

I asked myself, is this all the Bible has to say about ‘unity’ and being bound together as one?  The Bible talks also of ‘unity’ in speaking of ‘being one’.   The Greek New Testament word for ‘one’ is eis.  Eis can mean the quality of being one in mind, feeling, opinion, purpose and spirit.  Indeed, the word ‘one’ is the Bible’s richest word for ‘being one’ or ‘unity’.

Let me organize ‘one’ under two large headings: (1) ‘vertical’/ transcendent oneness (2) horizontal oneness.  What do I mean by ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness?  This is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son.  The believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son.  Jesus prays in John 17:21, ‘…that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’  In John17:23, Jesus prays, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’  This oneness and unity comes only by believing in Jesus Christ.  ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….’ (John 17: 20).  Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.

Constituent of being one in the Father and Son is sharing: sharing their glory and the Son’s blood.  Jesus prays, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17: 22).  Believers share also in Christ’s blood.  Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing…is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Being one with the Lord is further fleshed out by the Apostle Paul.  Being one with Him is being ‘united to the Lord’ and one spirit with him.  Paul says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ (1 Corinthians 6: 17).    The word ‘united’ is ‘kollao’.  ‘Kollao’ means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’.  ‘Kollao’ can picture sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ.  Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” has been joined indissolubly with Christ’[ii]

One would like to go on, but suffice to say, the believers’ oneness with the Lord is oneness and unity of the first order.  Oneness as revealed by the Lord Jesus originates in being one in the Father and the Son.   Vertical, transcendent unity issues in horizontal unity.  Grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ reconciling antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, and Gentile and Jew.  ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16)  We, the Body of Christ ‘though many, are one body’.  By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12).  Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ.  Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one (John 17: 21) only works in this light.  The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit.  The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power.

This is a brief and inadequate description of ‘being one’.   Nevertheless, I hope it is enough to contrast the biblical witness on first-order unity with ‘unity’ being promoted by UMC leadership today.  The prevailing view of the vanguard leading the way forward virtually ignores the vertical union. The stress is horizontally on a theologically diverse church (‘the many’) being ‘one’.  Yes, so the argument goes, we may differ on the sufficiency and authority of Holy Scripture, on the nature of God and Jesus Christ, on the nature of salvation, and on human sexuality.  These should not divide us because we the ‘many’ are one Body bound by a common purpose and mission.  Do we believe in Jesus Christ so that we are one in the Father and in the Son?

The prevailing view is keeping alive yesteryear’s conception of ‘theological pluralism’.  ‘Theological pluralism’ is doctrinal diversity in unity.  It harks back to theologian Albert Outler’s revision of John Wesley’s theological approach.   ‘Revision’ it is because it is a misuse of John Wesley’s approach.  Indeed, John Wesley argued for unity on theological ‘essentials’ and liberty on theological ‘opinions’.  However, he argued for it among a pre-selected group whom he knew was already united by an inner experience of conviction of sin and of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever?  Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ he asked those of ‘catholic spirit’.[iii]

What Albert Outler revised and, subsequently, several generations of pluralists have ignored, is that ‘unity’ begins with intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith.  Vertical oneness cannot be assumed or ignored.  It is first-order business.  Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!

Martin Luther became almost violently exasperated with ‘the Prince of the Humanists’ scholar Erasmus.  Luther felt Erasmus with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity but neglected Jesus Christ.[iv] What value is ‘unity’ if we ignore Jesus Christ?  What value is ‘unity’ if we are not united first with the Savior Jesus Christ?  No transcendent union, no unity!


[i] Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church President’s Address: ‘In Love with Union’, Nov. 6, 2017,

[ii]F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 19 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee,  p. 260.

[iii] Frank Baker, editor in chief, The Works of John Wesley, 34 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1975 – ), Vol. 2: Sermons II, ed. by Albert C. Outler, pp.  87, 90, 94.  See, Howe O. Tom Thomas, ‘John Wesley: Concept of “Connection” and Theological Pluralism’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36: 2(Fall, 2001), p. 98.

[iv] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 368.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.1, “Evolution and Anti-Realism”

summary by David Baggett

This section explores whether evolutionary psychology gives us a reason to be anti-realists, either about value or about God. The first of these forms of anti-realism rejects the view described earlier as “prescriptive realism.” According to prescriptive realism, when we make moral judgments we are both expressing some attitude of the will or desire and claiming that evaluative reality is a certain way independently of our judgment, so that our judgment is appropriate to it. The second part of this, the realism, is at stake in the present context. Mackie, Ruse, and Street will be covered. The second form of anti-realism is about God, and the fourth part of this section, concerning Paul Bloom, will focus specifically on this.

8.3.1 “John Mackie”

We begin with John Mackie’s argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. His first sentence is, “There are no objective values.” He was Humean (like Haidt), and thought our tendency to believe in objective value results from what Hume called the mind’s “propensity to spread itself on external objects” together with the pressure of our sociality. He proposed an error theory, “that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.” In other words, Mackie conceded that realists are right about what moral language means, but he held that nonetheless what people mean when they make moral judgments is always false.

He conceded if DCT were true then moral judgments that claim objective prescriptivity would also be true, but he was an atheist and thought DCT false. He was also opposed to Kant’s universalism, and behind this to the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is simply impracticable, and inconsistent with human nature, he thought, because “a large element of selfishness—or, in an older terminology, self-love—is a quite ineradicable part of human nature,” and it’s doubtful any agency could effect the fundamental changes that would be needed to make practicable a morality of universal concern.

Mackie offered two arguments against realism, which he called the “argument from relativity” and the “argument from queerness.” The first says moral views are too diverse for us to suppose plausibly that we are all receptors of the same objectively prescriptive values beaming down to us. They rather seem to reflect participation in different ways of life.

But in reply, Hare says on DCT it’s unsurprising to find substantial variation in the reception of divine commands. First, in Kant’s language, we are born under the evil maxim, so that we have, in addition to the predisposition to good, the propensity to evil. The closer a faculty is to our heart or will, the more likely the faculty is to be distorted in its perceptions by the preference for our own happiness over what is good in itself, independently of its relation to ourselves. There are manifold ways in which it’s possible to get value perceptions wrong, and so there is manifold variety in moral views.

The contrast with color perception is interesting here. Though there are marginal differences in how different people split up the spectrum, there’s large-scale agreement.

Second, what God commands one set of people, or one person within a group, may be different from what God commands another.

A third important point is that Mackie may have been wrong about the amount of variety. The pendulum seems to have swung back within evolutionary psychology to the acknowledgment of human universals. It’s surprising in fact how much agreement there seems to be on basic principles between cultures, though the details and application of these principles vary substantially.

The argument from queerness is that the objectively prescriptive values that realism proposes and their effects on us are very strange things, not easily related to any kind of causation we know about within science. The simpler explanation is a subjectivist one. The notion of something objective in the world like rightness and wrongness is, in Mackie’s terms, “queer,” by which he meant inexplicable by scientific theory. He accepted that it might make sense if we believed in a God who was prescribing, but science acknowledges, in his view, no such thing.

Hare adds that Mackie was right to point out that a theist has less reason than an atheist to be an anti-realist about value. A divine command theorist already believes in a divine spiritual person outside normal science. She will still have valid questions about how a spiritual being communicates with material beings like us, but she will be less inclined to think such communication is impossible.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.2, “Evolution and Reducing the Moral Demand”

summary by David Baggett

The first way of thinking about the relation between evolution and morality is that evolution shows the idea of impartial benevolence to be utopian. 8.2.1 covers the views of Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart.

8.2.1 “Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart”

Here Hare looks at two attempts to oppose a Kantian or universal morality on the basis that it is unrealistic for our present condition, given our evolutionary endowment. Herbert Spencer is now deeply unpopular because of the use that was made of his eugenic ideas in the twentieth century. For Spencer, as Michael Ruse puts it, what holds as a matter of fact among organisms holds as a matter of obligation among humans. The relevant fact about organisms is the struggle for existence, and the consequent weeding out of the less fit, Spencer says.

He disparages efforts of those who advocated in the name of a universal humanitarianism for intervention by the state to counteract the effects of the unregulated market in 19th century Britain. In Germany this idea of the law of struggle was taken up, notoriously by Hitler in Mein Kampf. National Socialism took up also the idea of encouraging the natural order by which imbecile and unfit parts of the population are eliminated, and the highest form of life flourishes. Spencer didn’t think this natural order of struggle was permanent. He was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, and he thought that there would be human progress through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that the lower forms of human life most given to violence would decline, and we would end with universal peace. Still, in our current situation, he thought that we should let the order of nature weed out the unfit also in human society, since we are part of nature.

The particular application to eugenics and laissez-faire economics is not the important thing for our present purposes, but the general principle that we should follow our biological nature. Chapter 4 argued against what it called “deductivism,” the principle that we can deduce our moral obligations from human nature. The present principle is a species of deductivism, telling us that we can tell how we ought to live by looking at the nature of organisms in general, since we are organisms. The trouble with this principle is that the nature of organisms in general, and human nature in particular, contains characteristics that, when promoted in human society, produce evil as well as good by Kantian and utilitarian standards. To say this is not so much to argue against Spencer as to display some of the consequences of his view, and the same is true of Larry Arnhart. (Both thinkers seem to be aware of this.)

This deductivism is clearly displayed in Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, a work Hare earlier compared with Foot’s Natural Goodness. The governing principle of Arnhart’s book is that the definition of the good as the desirable (as in Aquinas) means that the good is what is generally desired, or what most people in every society throughout our time on earth have in fact desired. Arnhart claims that evolution has given us these desires because of their adaptive value, and he lists twenty of them. The claim is not that these desires are universal, because there can be defective individuals who lack them. But the principle of his book is that only if a desire is general in the above sense, or is a specification or application of such a desire, is its fulfillment good. The normative theory that results is one, he claims, that enables us to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. He intends a contrast here with Christianity, which invokes the supernatural in explaining how we should live. And he faults Darwin for having been misled by the prevailing universal humanitarianism of his time into a utopian yearning for an ideal moral realm that transcends nature, a yearning that contradicts Darwin’s general claim that human beings are fully contained within the natural order. Arnhart doesn’t deny that humans have a natural sympathy for others, but, though sympathy can expand to embrace ever-larger groups based on some sense of shared interests, this will always rest on loving one’s own group as opposed to other groups. Arnhartian morality will always be, in the language of Chapter 3, self-indexed.

The important point for present purposes is that the list of twenty natural desires doesn’t include disinterested benevolence or the love of the enemy, and therefore the theory can’t say that the fulfillment of such desires or preferences is good. It’s significant that Aristotle is Arnhart’s philosophical hero, to whom he continually appeals. Aristotle thinks an admirable human life usually requires wealth and power and high status, and he may be right about the desires we’re born with, but it doesn’t follow that he’s right in his inference that the fulfillment of this ranking is good. The thesis of Hare’s book has been that “following nature” in this way is not a good alternative to following Kantian or Christian morality.


By David Baggett and Jonathan Pruitt 

Goodness is a broader category than moral goodness. One way to show the conceptual distinction, even if organic connections or family resemblances obtain between them, is that something is good to the extent it fulfills its intended function. A good car, to use a contemporary example, is good in virtue of and to the extent it provides reliable transportation. In that case, the goodness in question is not moral goodness, of course; but the same general principle, he thought, applied to the moral goodness of persons. The impetus behind this conviction might be a strongly teleological conception of everything in existence, including human beings. On such a view, persons, too, have an intended function, such as being rational beings. Again, to the extent a person fulfills this function, which includes cultivating virtues of character by developing the right sorts of settled dispositions, he is a good, indeed morally good, human being.

A different way to highlight the distinction between goodness per se and moral goodness in particular is by identifying two salient contrasts with goodness: badness and evil. Contrasting goodness with badness primarily pertains to the relative desirability of various states of affairs. A good state of affairs is one that we are positively drawn to, like a pleasant evening filled with mirth, whereas a bad state of affairs is one to which we are averse, like a painful toothache. When goodness is contrasted with evil, however, it is most natural to think of the ascription as applied to persons and their choices or characters. This was the import of Kant’s suggestion that the only unqualified good is a good will, a distinctive feature only of persons; this is arguably the province of moral goodness (Kant 9). So no state of affairs is rightly thought of as morally good or evil per se except in a secondary or derived sense. A hurricane, no matter how intense, is not morally evil in itself despite the havoc it wreaks, because hurricanes don’t have a mind of their own of which we can predicate such a moral property. At most we can say the hurricane is nonmorally bad because of the suffering it produces.

Moral goodness is one type of value; other comparable values traditionally identified include truth and beauty. Moral value is most naturally applicable to persons, but another disambiguation remains in order. Based on their exemplification of various virtues, persons might be thought morally good, but such an ascription remains importantly distinct from the moral worth or value of such persons. Attributing inherent value, dignity, or worth to persons is acknowledging the objective value they possess qua persons. Kant famously contrasted value in this sense with something like a price (Kant 46). An object or service might be worth a certain monetary amount, but treating persons as worth a particular price is irremediably unseemly. Moreover, even morally bad persons presumably still possess intrinsic human value. Such worth does not depend on their moral goodness, which is part of the import of qualifying it as “intrinsic,” in contrast with extrinsic or instrumental value.

An Aristotelian dictum is that the good is that at which all things aim, and in some cases the activity itself is the end (Aristotle 3). In speaking of an activity that is the end itself, part of what Aristotle had in mind is that some activities are worth doing for their own sake. In other words, some activities have intrinsic value. This is one way to flesh out the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods. Money is often used as an example of a merely extrinsic or instrumental value. Rather than valuable in and of itself, its value derives from the fact that it can be exchanged for other goods (that themselves may have either intrinsic or extrinsic value). Whereas moral goodness primarily applies to persons and only secondarily to states of affairs, intrinsic moral value may have a broader primary application than persons alone. Presumably there are goods—for example, human activities like (at least some) friendships—that have intrinsic value.

G. E. Moore offered an “isolation test” that asks what value we would give something if it existed in absolute isolation, stripped of all its usual accompaniments (Moore 187). Of course, a thorny (even if not intractable) challenge in applying such a test is the risk of subtly replacing prescription with description in the thought experiment. H. P. Owen once made a distinction in this vicinity when he wrote that we may use the notion of intrinsic goodness in either a subjective or an objective sense (Owen 22). Calling something an intrinsic good in the subjective sense is to say that it is desirable “in itself,” while in the objective sense it possesses goodness as a property. A back rub might be thought of as an intrinsic good in the subjective sense, desirable in itself, but characterizing it as an objective intrinsic good strains credulity. Any sense in which goodness would inhere in a back rub as a property would not, at any rate, count as an intrinsic moral good.

Equipped with those distinctions, let’s now consider, by turns, the significance, first, of ascribing objective moral value to human persons, and, second, moral goodness to persons. First consider the contemporary Kantian, Christine Korsgaard. Her moral theory is an ostensible attempt at constructivism, which sees itself as an alternative to substantive moral realism. A key part of her interpretation of Kantian ethics is to fill in the content of potential maxims with agents’ existential commitments, practical identities, based in a sense of who people think they are. Such reflective endorsements can rectify the criticism of Kant’s categorical imperative that it is too formal and abstract to give a determinate enough sense of content to the moral law.

However, since not everyone would choose a sense of practical identity consistent with recognition of the dignity and value of other persons—think of a person whose self-identity is as a member of the Mafia—Korsgaard claims that “our identity as moral beings—as people who value themselves as human beings—stands behind our more particular practical identities” (Korsgaard 121). But Korsgaard’s attempt to do justice to the Kantian principle of respect for others seems to be a tacit recognition of moral realism—that others are in fact worthy of being shown such respect and accorded such dignity. Her effort to provide an alternative to substantive moral realism on this score seems to fail. If valuing is not a response to a property in the thing or action chosen, but merely an expression of one’s identity, morality would also become self-referential, and therefore intolerably narcissistic. Korsgaard is right to affirm that people have intrinsic value grounded simply in the kinds of beings that they are, but this is not constructivism.

Philippa Foot, in her naturalistic account of goodness, also fails to provide an account of the intrinsic moral value of human persons. Foot wants to show that judgments usually considered to be the special subject of moral philosophy really should be seen as belonging to a wider class of evaluations of conduct with which they share a common conceptual structure. In Aristotelian fashion, she argues that happiness is best understood in terms of flourishing, and to flourish is to instantiate the life form of that species. Perhaps the most significant flaw in her analysis is that her account seems to leave unanswered a most fundamental question: Is human flourishing of intrinsic value? She surely thought it was, but can her account explain it? It seems unlikely.

To see why, consider cancer cells, which similarly feature their own natural normativities without such categoricals, however teleologically connected to their survival, implying anything of intrinsic moral value in their survival and flourishing (Foot 48-49). Foot is not suggesting that the biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or even tigers either entail or are predicated on objective moral facts about the value of their survival. Rather, in light of the sorts of entities or species that they are, some behaviors simply conduce better to their flourishing than others.

True enough, but then we’re left with this question: how to effect Foot’s slide from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings? For she is admitting in the case of animals and pestilential creatures that her analysis is neither based on the assumption of, nor logically implies, any intrinsic moral value in their surviving and thriving. Why then is it different for human beings? The insuperable challenge for Foot is to account for such differences with the resources to which she’s limited herself, and it is not at all clear that she can. In fact, in light of what she has said, there are reasons to think that she cannot. If moral value does not follow from the teleologically significant natural normativities of pestilential creatures or animals, then why does it do so in the case of human beings?

Some secular nonnaturalist ethical realists suggest that moral goodness supervenes on natural properties, but among the challenges that sort of attempt encounters is accounting for how physical properties can cause abstract properties to come into existence in light of their qualitative differences. Of course, there’s no shortage of attempts by various secularist theorists to provide accounts of objective values, though an important recurring challenge is accounting adequately for their normative force.

In light of the challenges naturalists and secularists encounter on this score, some consider intrinsic human value and dignity as one of the divine signs that provide a signal of transcendence, a distinct moral phenomenon in need of a substantive enough explanation. How might a classical theist account for the intrinsic value or essential equality of human persons? David Bentley Hart suggests that Christianity gradually succeeded in sowing in human consciences a tenderness of moral intuitions. In contrast to the casual destruction of lives among the ancients, he says that we would do well to reflect that theirs was a more “natural” disposition toward reality. To make even the best of us conscious (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons on us required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls. It was Christian teaching, he argues, that inexorably shows the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within all persons. For those tempted to historical naiveté on this matter, he also issues a sober warning of how precarious and easily forgotten this mystery is that only charity can penetrate (Hart 214).

Christian theists suggest that, on a Christian understanding, the value of human persons is found in the personhood of God. Similarly, Robert Adams thinks that the value of persons derives from what they have in common, a shared, relevant resemblance to God. John Hare partially demurs at this point, however, and in doing so adds an important element about how human dignity can be both intrinsic and derivative. His point is that an account of goodness rooted in God must emphasize not just what good things they share in common but the distinctive ways they are different. For in those very differences are reflections of disparate aspects of God. Human beings aren’t called to reflect God only in virtue of their collective humanity but also as individuals. This is why Hare is skeptical of Moore’s aforementioned isolation test for intrinsic goods, for Hare thinks it isn’t clear that any necessarily-God-maintained good could exist in complete isolation, so as to be the object of the required thought experiment. He suggests instead that a normative property can be intrinsic even if it is necessarily given not just its existence but its goodness by God. Part of his motivation in doing so is his conviction that the good that is the individual’s destination is itself both a relation and a kind of intrinsic good (Hare 188). Whether intrinsic goodness can essentially include such a relational component is a recurring bone of contention between certain secular and religious ethicists.

Turning now to moral goodness, Hart is bold enough to suggest that among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics. Among the challenges naturalists face in accounting for moral goodness and such a longing is the inevitable gap between the best that human beings can morally do by dint of their most valiant efforts at moral improvement and the uncompromising standard of moral goodness. At best humans can experience some finite amount of moral development in their lifetime, but that would leave anything like the hope for unalloyed moral goodness beyond our reach. Secular efforts to close this “moral gap” include lowering the moral demand, exaggerating human capacities, or replacing divine assistance to close the gap with a secular substitute. The Christian doctrine of sanctification recognizes the need for divine assistance without exaggerating human capacities or compromising the moral demand.

This line of thought is most germane to a performative variant of the moral argument for God’s existence, which is closely related to the human need to forgive and to be forgiven and liberated from guilt for failing to meet the standard of moral goodness. Here too the resources of Christian theology, in particular its doctrine of atonement and justification, might be seen as especially effective at providing a sufficiently sturdy solution. H. P. Owen, John Henry Newman, A. E. Taylor, and William Sorley are important examples of ethicists who made a centerpiece of their moral apologetic this component of forgiveness for wrongdoing and freedom from a condition of objective moral guilt. Then, once sins are forgiven, sin itself can be ultimately expunged.

The quest for attaining moral goodness potentially raises what Henry Sidgwick called the “dualism of practical reason.” It seems unavoidable that there are occasions in which conflicts arise between what’s doing what’s good for another and what’s good for oneself, and both impulses are morally legitimate. Sidgwick considered this tension to be fairly intractable for ethics, and the only means he saw of resolving it involved a providential God who ensures that the morally good are also ultimately fulfilled and satisfied people. He himself was unwilling to embrace theism on this account, and chose to live with the intractable tension, while admitting that, without a solution, it’s difficult to see how the moral enterprise is altogether coherent.

Even more foundational than either the performative and rational versions of the moral argument, however, is the metaphysical inquiry into the nature of goodness itself. Secular attempts to offer deflationary accounts of goodness, according to which it is reducible to something else (pleasure, fulfillment, etc.) are legion, but many of these efforts fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy; there’s more to say, of course, but for now let’s set those to the side. A contrasting theistic account here is the Thomistic equation of goodness with being. Being and goodness, on this view, co-refer, picking out the same referent under two different names and descriptions.

A more contemporary example of a distinctively theistic account of moral goodness comes from Robert Adams, who takes intimations of an ultimate good or paradigmatic archetype of goodness and beauty as veridical, akin to beatific visions of God among theists (Adams ch.1). Because of the similarity of these perceptions he thinks it only natural that an Anselmian theist would take God himself to be what is apprehended in those moments (Adams 45). Rather than a Kantian, Aristotelian, or utilitarian theory of the good, his theistic Platonic account sees an infinite and transcendent good, understood as God himself, as foundational to the right axiological account. His theory comes from an extensive argument canvassing the language and phenomenology of moral experience, and entails that finite goods are good in virtue of somehow resembling or otherwise participating in goodness itself.

Of course, these are just a few examples of a theistic account of the good, but their underlying shared intuition is important. It resonates with key features of goodness. The source of moral goodness must plausibly be perfectly good, as an omnibenevolent God is, which distinguishes the operative theology from that of the fallible and finite gods of, say, the Greek pantheon riddled with foibles and caprice. God qualifies as the best account of both the first and final cause of moral goodness.

A common view of many historical Christian thinkers is that God is the Good itself, and that all things but God are good by participation. The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought (cf. Augustine 114ff, 1998). Augustine endorses the classical moral psychology, according to which we do all that we do in relation to what we take to be our summum bonum, God himself: “Here the supreme good is sought, the good to which we refer everything that we do, desiring it not for the sake of something else, but for its very own sake. Obtaining it, we require nothing further in order to be happy. It is truly called the ‘end,’ because we want everything else for the sake of this, but this we want only for itself” (Augustine 63-64, 1994).



Adams, Robert 1999. Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1998. The Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1994. Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Foot, Philippa 2003. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hare, John E. 2015. God’s Command. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hart, David Bentley 2015. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kant, Immanuel 2012. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition.

Korsgaard, Christine 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacDonald, Scott, ed., 1991. Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moore, G. E. 1903/1993. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, John 2006. Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Owen, H. P. 1954. The Moral Argument for Christian Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.



Further Readings

Ewing, A. C. 1973. Value and Reality: The Philosophical Case for Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Kinghorn, Kevin 2016. A Framework for the Good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.







John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.1, “The Story”

 summary by David Baggett

[This first section tells a story about the origins of our morality. The story is just a story, not history or science. The story is not, however, merely fiction. The aim is to embed elements of the essential structure of the story at the beginning of Genesis about the Garden of Eden in an account whose details are mostly drawn from contemporary (non-theological) anthropology. It is still a story or myth, telescoping what a scientific account would spread over hundreds of thousands of years. The story does not mention God, but the fifth section of the chapter suggests that a storyteller who did mention God would provide a satisfying addition from an explanatory point of view. We can see the story as one that an anthropologist might tell her children, or as a Kant-like translation of the biblical story “within the boundaries of mere reason.”] Once upon a time there lived in Central Africa a group of apes. They were different from the groups of apes who lived around them, and they recognized this difference. For one thing, they seemed to be able to think of themselves as a group, and to think of what helped them as a group and what harmed them as a group. They would regularly meet together, and they sometimes had a kind of experience together when they met that also separated them from the other apes. They had an experience of everything belonging together, not just their own group, but everything. And it all seemed to them good and beautiful. Their assemblies gave them great joy and also a sense of awe, and they came to organize their lives together around them. They were able at these times to forget what kept them apart from each other, and to rejoice in what kept them together. Because of their new kind of unity, they were able to invent new cooperative ways to find food, and find new places to live that could sustain their form of life.

There arose among them a symbol for this goodness and beauty they had discovered, and a symbol of how the enjoyment of it distinguished them from the other apes in the old lands. They found themselves refraining from a particular kind of fruit, and this restraint was connected with their distinctive new form of life. Eating this fruit had been typical of the old way, the way of their ancestors, and they now needed to separate off their new way, connected with their new capacities and their new assemblies. They came to think of the fruit as forbidden by their common life, even though there was no reason (other than the symbolic connection) for refraining.

One day, when food was scarce, the elders of the group saw other animals eating the forbidden fruit, and they felt weariness with the restriction and a desire to go back to the old ways. They decided to eat the fruit themselves. This was a decision different in principle from eating the fruit in the old life, even though it was a decision to eat the same food, because it was now a decision against the authority of the common standard for their lives that they had accepted.

When they had made this decision, they found consequences that were natural but unexpected. One was that they lost the joy in their assemblies together. They also found their sexual lives changed. Before, they had been so conscious of what held them together as a group that they had not needed to protect themselves from each other, though they protected themselves and each other against common enemies. Now, they found themselves hiding from each other or fighting each other. The power of their common life waned, and competition increased for what each controlled individually. That included their food, but also their own bodies. They started to hide their bodies from each other by covering them, and to feel a new emotion of shame when they were uncovered.

Finally, the fighting and the competition between them got so bad that they were not able any longer to trust each other in the way required for the cooperation in finding food that they had discovered in their new place. Without this cooperation their lives there became unsustainable, and they were forced to leave. However, they kept with them the memory of how it had been, and the aspiration to return to it. They became in this way divided, each internally in their hearts, between the desire to protect what belonged to the individual and the desire for the common good that had been shared between them.


Top 10 Posts for 2017

Thank you for supporting Moral Apologetics in 2017! We have had an exciting year and it has been a privilege to host some exciting content in 2017. As a way of looking back, we wanted to share with you the list of the most read posts for the year.

1. “On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics”  By David Baggett

2.  “Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity”  By David Baggett

3.  “God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages”  By Michael Austin

4.  “The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage”  By David Baggett

5.  “The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights” By Angus J. L. Menuge

6.  Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig

7.  “What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall”   By Corey Latta

8. “Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet 15′” By Holly Ordway

9.  “Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture” By Joshua Herring

10. “Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence” By Corey Latta


Image: “Happy New Year” by A. Verde. CC Licence. 

Twilight Musings – “Incarnation: The Intersection of Two Universes”

By Elton Higgs 

The word “incarnation” gets a lot of use this time of year, and like most frequently-used terms, its full meaning tends to get lost in its commonness. Literally, it means “being manifest in bodily form,” and it can refer to any disembodied entity assuming physical shape. However, when Christians say “The Incarnation,” they are of course talking about the Son of God being born and living out an earthly life as a human being. That bare fact would be astounding even if God had taken human form in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden; but His being incarnated in a world corrupted by sin betokens a cosmic intersection between changeless Divinity and the ever-changing sin-diseased heavens and earth. When the apostle John wrote the prologue to his Gospel account (John 1:1-18), he called the part of God that took human form “the Word,” which “was God” and was “with God” (v. 1) before He “became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Deathless Eternity was enveloped by mortal flesh, locking them in a battle from which either Eternal Life or endless Death would emerge victorious. Praise be to God, we know the outcome of that battle won by the Savior Jesus, whose incarnated flesh suffered death, but was raised in glory, the firstfruits of the victory over Death.

Both of the poems below reflect the process of the Word being encased in flesh, but then also emerging from flesh to become the Eternal Word again, having triumphed over Sin and Death. In the first poem, I have assumed a symbolic correspondence between the “swaddling clothes” in which Mary wrapped Jesus at His birth and the customary shroud in which His crucified body was buried. Although there was great rejoicing at Jesus’ birth because of the promises associated with His Advent, the lowly circumstances surrounding that birth indicated that His earthly existence would not fulfill the conventional expectations of powerful king and conquering hero. Just as His birth hid the death embedded in it, so His death was the womb of the Life embedded within it.

The second poem traces the same cycle of progress from the absolute and timeless Presence of God, to the extension of His Essence into the original creation of Earth, and finally to that Essence taking on human form, but without the corruption of sin. Through that Birth, Earth will be delivered from its corruption once again to embody the Essence of God’s original purpose for it, thereby empowering it to be the dwelling place for God’s eternal Presence.

“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.



In God’s Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God’s Presence.

Elton D. Higgs

Nov. 12, 1977

May the wonder of the Word becoming flesh be made real to each of those who rest in its redeeming power; and may each of those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ know with assurance that “this flesh . . . clothed in wordless death” is being transmuted to the “Word restored.”


Image:”Gerard van Honthorst – Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)” by Gerard van Honthorst – Google Art Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –