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Summary of Chapter 7, God and Cosmos: “Moral Transformation”

 Summary by Frederick Choo

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss the performative aspect of morality, what John Hare calls the moral gap. They argue that theism possesses the necessary resources for moral transformation. Secular theories however do not have such resources and either reduce the moral demand, artificially exaggerate human capacities, or settle for substitutes for Divine assistance.

C. S. Lewis painted a picture of the moral enterprise. He envisioned a fleet of ships, where each individual ship must be seaworthy, the ships must avoid running into each other, and they need a destination. Likewise, morality has these three aspects: (1) individual moral flourishing, (2) harmonious interpersonal interaction, and (3) all of us striving toward a moral destination.

Although morality celebrates every step in the right direction, it seems to impose a demand for more. Telling lesser unjustified lies is an improvement over telling whoppers, but it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of morality. Morality calls us towards the goal of moral perfection. So the real question is what can secularists say about moral transformation? How do they close the moral gap (the gap between our best efforts to live a moral life and the moral demand itself)? Note that a full-fledged moral account has to address matters of character and virtue, not just moral behaviors. Morality pertains not only to what we do, but to who we are. Note that their view is not that secularists are morally weak or deficient. Neither is their claim that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person. Rather, if the secular worldview is true, then there is a moral gap.

Immanuel Kant was one of those who recognized this gap. The first aspect of Kantian moral faith is the conviction that the moral life is possible. On Kant’s view, our natural capacities are not up to the task, yet the moral demand is constantly there. Without adequate resources to meet the moral demand, a moral gap is inevitable. If morality requires of us what we cannot do, however, then we may complain based on the principle that “ought implies can.” If we cannot live up to the moral standard, then it is not the case that we ought to. The standard cannot be authoritative if it’s impossible to meet. However, there is another possibility. If there are resources to help us meet the moral demand, then there may be a duty to use these resources. So the principle can be modified to “ought implies can with the help available.” If naturalism does not have such resources, however, then it seems that secular theories fall short of explaining the authority of morality.

First, a secular theory may try to close the gap by exaggerating human capacities. Hare takes utilitarian Shelly Kagan as a contemporary example. It seems obvious that our own interests have the most motivational force for us. As Hare says, “We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than the utilitarian principle allows.” Kagan makes a counterfactual claim that “if one’s beliefs were vivid, then one would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.”

Baggett and Walls first reply that if it is the case we ought to do something, then it must be the case that we can do it, not just in the counterfactual sense of “I could do it if I wanted to,” but we must be able to want to. Second, they reference Hare who argues the counterfactual is false. There are two ways to understand vividness. Vividness might capture the degree of clarity and distinctness regarding a belief, or it might pertain instead to the degree of importance we attach to a belief. Kagan means to use vividness in the former sense. In reply, then, we can look at cases where we can be very clear about someone’s pleasure without caring much about it. Consider misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Another example is when the love of power, envy, fear, and resentment are operative in families, even where awareness of the needs of others is great. Also, there’s willful blindness such as choosing not to be vividly aware of a need such as famine relief.  Greater clarity of the pleasure and pain of others does not necessarily result in an increased tendency towards partiality. Even if it did, it may not lead to an overall tendency towards partiality. Impartiality requires no bias at all. Hence complete impartiality is beyond the natural capacity, and cultivating vividness is insufficient to close the gap.

Second, a secular theory may instead try to reduce the moral demand in order to close the gap. Baggett and Walls examine some feminist views. The first strategy suggests that women are better suited to meet the moral demand than men are. Feminist Carol Gilligan argued that women are more caring, less competitive, less abstract, and more sensitive than men in making moral decisions. Her claims, however, are controversial and many studies on gender difference in solving moral dilemmas show otherwise. Empathy is a human trait found in both genders. Hence this view is implausible.

The second strategy reduces the moral demand by rejecting the universalist and impartiality constraints in Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Instead one should adopt the views put forth by various care ethicists. Gilligan, for example, says that moral judgments must be specific, but the universalist requires them to be general. Hare replies by distinguishing between the general and specific, on the one hand, and between the universal and particular, on the other. A principle can be universal and yet completely specific in detail. Kant’s universal does not imply being general and non-specific.

Contra Kant, Hare further argues that some moral judgments are not universalizable. He calls these particular moral judgments. For example, if a mother is torn between caring for her daughter and helping in a worthy cause, she may be within her moral rights to care for her daughter, even if she cannot show that doing so is morally preferable. She is caring for her daughter and doing so for her daughter’s own sake, whether or not everything about it can be universalized. Hare thinks such an example does not lower the moral demand. What would, however, lower the demand is feminist Nell Noddings’ sort of extreme particularism. Noddings insists that she bears no responsibility to feed starving children in Africa because duties only arise in the close context of caring. Hence, it seems troubling to reduce the moral demand.

Finally, one may try to find a secular substitute for God’s assistance. Baggett and Walls choose to review Hare’s discussion of David Gauthier’s social contract theory. Gauthier argues that it is rational to agree to be moral, and also to refrain from being a “free rider.” (A free rider is one who does not follow the rules of morality and yet gets the benefits of social cooperation.) Gauthier thinks that we are all self-interested and argues that we need to cooperate because there are goods we cannot obtain without doing so. Morality is a set of prescriptions for such participation. Morality in time can then take on value for us.

Hare thinks that such an account fails. Morality simply does not present itself to us as justifying itself first instrumentally, as a means for the production of cooperative goods, and then we end up caring for justice. Following Kant, Hare thinks that practical reason does not start from maximizing self-interest, and then choosing to bring others into affective ties, and finally end up valuing justice for its own sake. Rather, practical reason starts from recognizing the self and others as under the law. Hare also lists many other difficulties with such a view.

Going back to the moral gap, there are some challenges related to it. It is common to ask “Why be moral?” A good answer is that morality is its own reward. But as Linda Zagzebski points out, the question of “should I try to be moral?” arises. It doesn’t make sense to attempt to do something one cannot possibly do. What is the point of someone trying to become a great artist if he lacks the talent and cannot achieve it? Knowing that it is worthwhile is not sufficient to provide rational motivation if the chances of success are too remote. Zagzebski further identifies three ways in which we need moral confidence. First, we need confidence that we can have moral knowledge. Second, we need confidence in our moral efficacy, both in the sense that we can overcome moral weakness, and in the sense that we have the causal power to bring about good in the world. Third, we need confidence in the moral knowledge and moral efficacy of other people, since moral goals require cooperation. Moral despair cannot be rational. Hence, we must be able to rely on more than our own human powers and those of others in attempting to lead a moral life—God. This is the basis for Zagzebski’s moral argument.

One might try to avoid moral despair by embracing David Hume’s form of skepticism. His skepticism over causation, induction, an enduring self, etc., had no practical implications. When Hume said that various beliefs were not rationally justified or rationally grounded, his subsequent counsel was not that we abandon such beliefs or stop such practices. Is this an option? Baggett and Walls argue that this possibility obtains only if certain Humean strictures are satisfied. One of those features is that the beliefs and practices in question are impracticable to give up. Moral beliefs and practices, however, do not qualify, since they can be abandoned and in certain circles surely are. Hence, appealing to Hume’s form of skepticism does not work to evade the force of Zagzebski’s moral argument.

 

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part I

By David Baggett 

Russ Shafer-Landau is a leading metaethicist today, and the book in which this particular chapter is included is a popular treatment of the question of moral objectivity. In dealing with this book, I don’t pretend I have addressed everything he’s written (in his other work) on this specific question of God and ethics, and I also readily concede that the treatment he gives these issues here is more cursory than he treats them in other places.

All in good time; philosophy is slow. On another occasion I can discuss those other works. Here I will consider just this one chapter in this particular book, a book that’s full of good sense on a wide variety of subjects. Much of the time I find myself entirely agreeing with his analysis in the book, which is tremendously useful and admirably well expressed. The content of this particular chapter, though, while clear, is far less persuasive to me, for reasons I’ll outline below. I thought it might be worthwhile to explicate the reasons why.

The title of this chapter reveals a clue as to how Shafer-Landau (subsequently SL) intends to conduct the discussion: does ethical objectivity require God? Language of requirement here is interesting to note. From a descriptive viewpoint, it’s surely not the case that all atheists are skeptical of ethical objectivity, so that’s one obvious sense in which ethical objectivity doesn’t require God—though, of course, what’s shown by this descriptive analysis is merely that belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require belief in God. Beliefs may or may not be rational, warranted, justified, and the like, however, so this isn’t much of a substantive claim yet.

CoverA more revealing question is whether belief can be rational that there is moral objectivity without believing in God. I suspect the answer to that question is yes, even though I myself am a theistic ethicist and, in fact, a moral apologist. But this is because my case is that God (not mere belief in God) is the best explanation of various moral phenomena (including a robust sense of moral objectivity), not necessarily the only explanation, and that, given certain background assumptions and other convictions, folks are well within their epistemic rights, as atheists, to believe in moral objectivity. Of course, the fact that my argument doesn’t require God to be the only ultimate explanation of morality doesn’t preclude my believing that he is, but the point that needs special emphasis at the moment is this one: the moral argument for God’s existence assumes that there are plenty of unbelievers who have solid reasons for taking moral objectivity seriously.

If indeed God exists and even does serve at the foundation of morality, it makes all the more sense that even unbelievers would have epistemic access to moral truth—on the assumption that a piece of evidence for a divine reality is objective morality itself. An argument for God’s existence needs to feature evidence that appears at least as likely as God’s existence, preferably even more so. Otherwise the argument is trying in vain to persuade one to accept a conclusion on the basis of evidence that seems even less likely. I wholeheartedly affirm that unbelievers can know, just as well as theists can, that there are objective moral standards of rightness and wrongness, good and evil. (Obviously, in speaking of morality here, the reference is to objective moral truths, not merely conventional and contingent moral beliefs and practices that may or may not comport with objective morality.)

The question “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” can be understood epistemically or ontologically. Epistemologically, I’ve already argued that rational belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require God. If the order of being is different from the order of knowing, however, this isn’t enough to show that morality is independent of God metaphysically. The ontological or metaphysical question is the more penetrating question: does moral truth require God as its foundation? Admittedly this is a question that’s not easy to answer; making a case either for or against such an idea takes quite a bit of time and effort. If SL doesn’t want to pursue this particular question in this chapter, that’s entirely fine and his prerogative, but it will be useful as we go along to look to see if his claims broach moral metaphysics or are confined to moral epistemology. If the former happens (and it surely does), I intend to subject what he says to critical scrutiny.

Now that we’re done assessing the title of the chapter, we can proceed.

Moral Objectivity & Universality

Moral Objectivity & Universality

Is moral universality necessary to show moral objectivity? Is it sufficient?

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

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

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

The questions, symbolically expressed, then look like this:

(1) Is “MO –> Ub” true? an

(2) Is “MO –> Ua” true?

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

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

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

(3) Is “Ub –> MO” true? and

(4) Is “Ua –> MO” true?

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

(5) Ub

(6) So, MO

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

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

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

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

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

Represented symbolically, they would look like this, respectively:

MO –> Ua, and Ua –> MO.

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

Ua <—-> MO.

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

By Tom Thomas

In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, ‘gotcha’ question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: “The World’s Greatest Dective.” by Kit. CC license. 

Interview with Dorothy Greco, Author of Making Marriage Beautiful

Making Marriage Beautiful stands apart from the many marriage books that flood today’s publishing markets. In its pages, Dorothy Greco draws on her twenty-five plus years of marriage and her wealth of experience in writing and ministry to highlight essential components of a healthy marriage and exhort readers to aspire toward inculcating such a vision in their own relationships. Greco’s book and the principles she offers are motivated and undergirded by her Christian convictions, and reading the book is pure joy. With its lived wisdom and gracious tone, Making Marriage Beautiful is a unique and important resource. And, as our interview below demonstrates, there is plenty of overlap between our concerns here at MoralApologetics.com and the issues Dorothy considers in this volume, most especially questions of the value of persons and God’s provisions for meeting the moral standard.

Marybeth Baggett: Based on what I’ve heard from you and on the book itself, it seems that writing Making Marriage Beautiful is something you felt called to do. On a Christian picture, this idea of calling is connected to the notion of human dignity, that God has created each one of us for a purpose, a specific way in which we image him. Can you talk a little about that in regards to your writing of this book? How do you feel that God prepared you to do this work? I’m especially interested in how he made this charge clear to you.

Dorothy Greco

Dorothy Greco: Much like the story of Joseph, it can often seem that the place of our greatest pain or wounding intersects with our calling. I can see this clearly in my own life.

I believe that every follower of Christ must yield to the call to love their neighbors. Some of us are called to love specific people for a life-time. Neither of these invitations has come easily for me. Due to a challenging childhood, my highly sensitive nature, and some deep relational hurts, by the time I graduated from college, I had the emotional EKG of a cadaver. I mistrusted others and chose independence, rather than healthy interdependence.

I know it’s unusual, but I did not grow up inserting myself into romantic Disneyesque plots or dreaming of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armor. About seven years after choosing to follow Jesus, I began to detect something stirring in my soul for my now husband. Because I was both guarded and insecure, we had an incredibly tumultuous dating relationship and engagement round one. He eventually broke up with me, and we did not speak to each other for nearly two years. When we finally reconnected, it was obvious that we had both changed.

In round two of our relationship, there’s been no shadow of turning, but we have also had to be intentional and work hard in order to have a solid, fulfilling marriage. We are both strong-willed, stubborn people who seem to have opinions about everything from the bathroom wall color to where the Christmas tree should go. Additionally, life has thrown us some long-term vocational and health challenges. As a result, sparks fly on a regular basis, and we have had to learn how to have productive conflict.

Throughout our 26 years together, we have both felt impressed and emboldened by the Lord to believe that Scripture is true and to step out in that truth. Practically speaking, that means though we’ve had a great deal of conflict, many disappointments, and significant loss, we continue to trust that because God called us to commit our lives to each other, He will empower us to love well.

When I approached my agent about writing a marriage book, she warned me that they are one of the most difficult genres to break into, especially if one does not have a substantial platform. My platform is modest, I am not married to a famous athlete or movie star, and I had no intention of doing anything scandalous in order to sell books. Despite her dire predictions, I strongly believed that God was nudging me to go for it. I felt a divine compulsion to write this book (maybe because I needed it)! After following Jesus for nearly 40 years, I’ve learned to trust the impulses and believe in his provision.

Baggett: Morality may involve rules and law, but as we know, guidelines and prescripts do not exhaust what living a moral life requires. As scripture teaches, love is the animating force behind the law (Matthew 22:40) and its fulfillment (Romans 13:8-10). In writing a book on marriage, did you find it challenging to balance offering particular advice, rules for readers to follow, with exhortations toward love, more holistically understood? If so, how did you address this tension? How do you understand the relationship between following rules and the law of love?

Greco: I really chaff at books with titles such as Forty Days to Transform Your Husband or Ten Steps to a Perfect Marriage. Though we might want it to be, life is not formulaic. We should not assume our relationship with God will be formulaic either. I certainly rely on both the specifics and the abiding principles which undergird certain rules (e.g. the Ten Commandments), but I have not found a rule-based approach to relationships at all helpful. It was not really a struggle for me to approach writing this book in a more nuanced and organic fashion.

I am, first and foremost, a sinner saved by grace. As such, I am always aware of my sinful tendencies whether it’s to curse someone who cuts me off in Boston traffic, or to withhold love as a passive-aggressive retaliation for a minor infraction committed by my husband.

In the case of marriage, it’s quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that God is about monogamy. The clarity of Jesus’ words on marriage (e.g., Matthew 5:27-32) awaken me to God’s high standards, which exist for my own good, and then simultaneously reorient me toward Him. So if I’m being mature and living in a posture of humility, God’s rules strengthen and empower me to love more like Jesus.

Baggett: A point you made in some of the marketing material you sent along before this interview struck a nerve with me—you said that one of the hardest things you faced writing the book was ensuring that you had the integrity to do so, if any marital struggles you went through somehow undermined your credibility. This resonated with us at Moral Apologetics, since we’re writing about morality and ethics, and some might think that, in doing so, we’re claiming we’ve arrived. Of course we know we have not—as you know that sanctification is an ongoing process. Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with this doubt while writing your book? Did this self-reflection reveal anything new to you about that process of sanctification? For purposes of this interview, I’m wondering especially how you think God uses marriage in that process.

Greco: It would have been super easy to write a book on having an awesome marriage while mine was less than awesome. (Who would know other than my husband?) The idea for this book actually emerged when we were going through one of the most painful seasons in our lives together. The crisis was not marital, but of course it deeply affected us as individuals and as a couple.

Because we had already been married for 20+ years and had been doing pastoral care for almost that whole time, I could have gone through the motions of being married and simply relied on my experiences to pull this book together. That felt rather disingenuous to say the least. As followers of Christ and leaders, my husband and I have always felt that our offering will be tainted and perhaps even poisonous if we lack integrity. We’ve each benched ourselves from doing ministry at various times along the way, knowing that we were not in a good place and needed to take a break.

I can assure you, I expediently confessed and repented of my sins when I was writing Making Marriage Beautiful. I have enough fear of the Lord and enough knowledge of Scripture to know that how we live matters a great deal to Him.

As I was polling friends about possible titles for this book, one response really struck me. This woman, who is in mid-life and has been married for more than thirty years, wrote, “I have been married a long time and don’t feel the need to learn more. I’m good.” I literally gasped and then started to cry. I immediately prayed, “God, don’t ever let me become complacent. May I always be willing to keep learning and keep growing.”

One of the most significant lesson I learned when writing this book (other than that writing books is so much more difficult than I ever imagined!) is that I have not arrived: I am not a marriage expert and never will be. I’m simply a middle-aged woman who endeavors to love her husband with a fierceness and consistency that allows him to flourish. Though we have experienced glimpses of God’s sublime love breaking into our marriage, learning how to love my spouse is a life-long process.

Baggett: Lately I’ve been meditating on scripture passages that explain fear and love as opposing forces (I John 4:18, for example), and so (in reading your marketing materials) I was especially interested in your description of newly married self as fearful. Can you talk a little about how you opened yourself up to your husband’s love? What risks did that involve, and how did you gain the courage to take that risk? Have you found that love itself, as you grow deeper in it, has given you more moral courage?

Greco: By the time I turned 21, I assumed that people were generally not trustworthy and if I made mistakes, I would be abandoned. That’s a lot of fear—and a lot of pressure to make no mistakes. Early on in our marriage, I attempted to be perfect in an effort to quiet my anxieties. Of course, anyone who goes down that road knows that not only is it impossible, but the pressure to be perfect causes more anxiety.

One of the ways I learned to trust was by incorporating confession as a regular discipline into our marriage. By committing to confess my sins, no matter how small, my facades fell. My husband saw me as the broken, weak woman that I truly am. Miraculously, he kept loving me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been a constant reassurance that he’s not looking for or expecting perfection. He has always been quick and gracious to extend forgiveness to me. Over time, we have accumulated a great deal of relational equity which we draw upon as needed.

And yes, feeling secure in his love and in the Father’s love has definitely allowed me to be more courageous in all aspects of my life. The deeper my identity in Christ and the more confident I am of my husband’s love, the more risks I can take—like writing a vulnerable marriage book! Truth be told, this level of freedom is exhilarating.

 

Making Marriage Beautiful can be purchased at Amazon.com. There is currently a special running for the Kindle version, selling for $2.99.

“Signs of His Presence” A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

“Signs of His Presence”  is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

In this sermon, Kinlaw explains how human relationships image the kind of love that God has for humanity. The best of human love points beyond ourselves and to the ultimate ground of love and goodness in God.  “The end is going to be family in the full sense of the term.”

Signs of His Presence

Image: Return of the Prodigal  By Axel Kulle 1846-1908 – www.auktionsverket.se, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10248000

Mailbag: The Science of Morality?

Question

Hello professor, I hope you are doing well. I have been looking at some of your work and I think you could answer a question I have in regards to ethics. If you have time that is. If you don’t have the time you can just ignore my email. My question has to do with an article I have been reading recently that is titled the science of morality. In the article the author states that morally good is identical with flourishing well being and the morally bad is identical with misery. I read some reviews of the articles and other scholars state that the author was just redefining moral goodness with well being and argument was circular. But why believe that objective goodness cannot be identical with flourishing of human well being? What makes the argument invalid?

Thank you for your time,

Bill

Answer

Hi Bill,

This is a deceptively hard question! The topic of goodness is quite complicated. Usually when we say that someone is morally good, we’re talking about traits of character and various virtues the person shows. Somehow the goodness inheres in the person. We speak secondarily of various states of affairs being good, but it’s almost a misnomer to call a state of affairs morally good. This is why Kant was of the view that the only truly good thing is a good will–an attribute of a person.

We might come across an awful state of affairs, but what’s morally bad is, most likely, the person or persons (if there is such a person or are such persons) culpably responsible for bringing it about. To say a hurricane is bad is not to say it’s morally bad. It just is what it is. Calling it morally bad is anthropomorphism. Of course it’s nonmorally bad, in that it produces, potentially, a range of undesirable consequences, but you asked about moral goodness in particular. Often when goodness gets contrasted with bad, the focus is on nonmoral considerations that pertain to things like pleasure and pain; but when good gets contrasted with evil, the distinctively moral features come into view.

So flourishing is a perfect example of something that’s nonmorally good. But it doesn’t get us to the heart of moral goodness. The effort to define moral goodness by appeal to human flourishing is a rookie mistake. It’s a deflationary attempt by folks who want to domesticate the concept to reduce moral goodness to something other than itself. It’s thus an attempt to define moral goodness in terms that aren’t moral at all. But moral goodness can’t be reduced or explained away in such a manner. The effort falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy, for one thing. For another, it just leaves too much out.

Suppose you are asked a question and risk being shot to tell the right answer. The morally good thing to do, you’re convinced, is to tell the truth. But still, you tell the truth and immediately get shot. How on earth can an appeal to human flourishing be adequate to account for the moral goodness of your choice in such a situation? Rather than conducing to survival and flourishing, it ensured your immediate death.

Now, just because there’s not an analytic reduction of “moral goodness” into “human flourishing” doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them. To the contrary, I think there’s an airtight (synthetic) connection between the two, but that’s quite different from saying moral goodness just is human flourishing. Ultimately, on a Christian worldview, moral goodness comes about by way of right relation with and transformation by God entirely into the image of Christ–a righteous and holy life–and with such a life will come complete fulfillment and satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean morality and happiness are the same thing; they’re not. But a good God can and will ensure their ultimate correspondence.

Best,

djb

Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

By Mark Linville

[Excerpt from a larger essay–my side of a printed debate on God and morality with Louise Antony–forthcoming in a new edition of Michael Peterson and Ray VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell). –MDL]
As a part of a larger project of defending an atheistic accounting of “robust ethics,” Erik Wielenberg has recently taken on such arguments and suggested a model for reconciling an evolutionary account of morality with his view that morality is objective (even “robust”).  One assumption of my argument so far has been that unless there is a direct connection between the reproductive advantage of our moral beliefs and their truth–so that their being true is responsible for their being fitness conferring–then we’ve no reason to assume their truth.  But as Nagel says, “value realism” is like an unattached spinning wheel.  It does no such explanatory work, and so we are left merely with the view that we have the moral beliefs we do because of their reproductive advantage–they have been fobbed off on us by our genes, as Ruse says.  Wielenberg instead posits an indirect connection that is routed through a “third factor”[1]— a set of evolved human cognitive faculties (e.g., reason).  It is plausible that certain cognitive faculties have evolved because they confer fitness upon their possessors.  Further, there is “wide agreement” that “if rights exist at all, their presence is guaranteed by certain cognitive faculties.”[2]  Suppose, then, that there are rights and that such rights are based upon those cognitive faculties.  It will follow that any creature with such cognitive faculties possesses rights, and any such creature who exercises those faculties to believe There are rights believes truly.  This, of course, is because having the cognitive faculties is both necessary for having the belief and sufficient for having the rights.

This is a neat way of explaining how evolution might ultimately be responsible for our having true moral beliefs, even if those beliefs are about non-natural truths.  Does it succeed?

Wielenberg is entitled to the assumption of rights due to the rhetorical context of his argument.  After all, I and others have argued that there would not be moral knowledge even if there were moral truths, and so his strategy–positing some moral truth and determining whether it could be known given the conditions laid down–is the natural way to proceed.  And his proposed model is, so far as I can tell, internally consistent.  After all, if our cognitive faculties are a product of our evolution, and if having such faculties is sufficient for having rights, then anyone capable of believing that there are rights is in possession of both the faculties and the rights.

But one wonders whether the assumption is safely lifted from the paper and transferred to the world itself.  Indeed, there are two assumptions at work: there are rights, and rights are based upon the possession of certain cognitive faculties.  Wielenberg cites “wide agreement” regarding the connection between those faculties and the possession of rights.  But the entrenched evolutionary skeptic might suggest that our belief in rights is just a part of that fobbed-off illusion.  When Bertrand Russell appealed to “wide agreement” regarding certain moral beliefs, George Santayana replied–no doubt with Darwin in mind–that such appeals are little better than “the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.”[4]  Further, given the background assumption of evolutionary naturalism, we might expect that such faculties themselves emerged as an evolutionary solution to the problem of survival and reproduction.  As such, they are of instrumental value as a means to such ends, much like opposable thumbs.  Can we rest the case for the intrinsic value of persons upon their possession of extrinsically valuable properties?  Human rationality is certainly good for humans just as arboreal acrobatic skills are good for rhesus monkeys, but beyond bald assumptions, does Wielenberg’s view provide the conceptual resources for thinking that it is a good in itself as would seem to be required for it to do the work assigned to it?

Wielenberg’s strategy may go some distance towards reducing the improbability of our possessing moral knowledge given the emergence of rational and moral agents who have both rights and a tendency to believe that they do.  But the model in itself fails to address a more astonishing cosmic coincidence to which Santayana pointed in his critique of Russell.  As an atheist and naturalist, Russell famously said, “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[5]   The forces of nature are not goal-oriented, and we should not think of the emergence of homo sapiens as the achievement of cosmic purposes.  We are here because nature “in her secular hurryings”[6] happened in at least one corner of the universe to throw spinning matter into the right recipe for things such as ourselves to form. But at the same time, Russell defended a view of morality that includes objective and intrinsic values–a form of Platonism not far from Wielenberg’s robust ethics. Santayana argued that these two commitments are mutually at odds.  As he saw, Russell’s moral philosophy implied that “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.”[7]  But Russell’s naturalism–and rejection of cosmic purpose–implies, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.”[8]   It would be marvelous indeed if, in the accidental world that Russell described, the very things that ought to exist should have come to be.  It would be as though among the eternal verities a special premium had forever been placed upon, say, conscious moral agents, and, despite the countless possibilities, and because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris.  Presumably, Beings with cognitive faculties have rights is a necessary truth–if a truth at all–and, as such, it was inscribed in the Platonic empyrean long before the Big Bang.  How astonishing it seems that such things with that “remarkable property” of being such that they ought to exist–should have appeared at all when the things responsible for their emergence had no prevision of such an end.  Did we win the cosmic lottery?  Santayana observed that at least Plato had an explanation for such things because the Good that he conceived was a “power,” influencing the world of people and things so that the course that nature has in fact taken is determined at least in part by moral values.[9] It is for such reasons that Thomas Nagel has posited the idea that “value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.”[10]  Nagel’s good is a power, unlike Russell’s, and as such it plays a role in explaining the moral shape that the world has taken.  But presumably no such moral guidance was at work in Wielenberg’s universe, seeing to it that portions of the material world should be fashioned and formed into moral agents.  Yet here we are!

I think this point remains despite Wielenberg’s further ruminations on whether Darwinian Counterfactuals are, in fact, likely or even possible.  He suggests that if physical law does not strictly require that emergent moral agents should have developed moral sensibilities something like our own, so that evolution would naturally narrow the range of possible outcomes, it is highly likely–at least “for all we know.”  Daniel Dennett has suggested that there may be certain “forced moves” in evolutionary design space.  For instance, given locomotion, stereoscopic vision is predictable.[11]  Wielenberg seems to be suggesting a forced move of his own.  But both moves are forced–if at all–only once certain conditions are in place.  Nagel has a relevant observation here on precisely the example Dennett cites.


Even if we think it likely that the evolution of moral agents such as ourselves should drop into a predictable groove, we are still left to explain why the natural world should be deeply structured in such a way that its natural processes and algorithms should produce such agents at all.  The whole thing is quite wonderful, and without the guidance of God, a Platonic demiurge, or Nagel’s guiding values, it seems an astonishing bit of luck.  It adds an additional epicycle of coincidence to the so-called “anthropic coincidences” in that not only have we beat astonishing odds simply by arriving on the scene–because of the mind-boggling improbability that the universe should have permitted and sustained life of any kind–but that it is also the achievement of ends eternally declared to be good and morally desirable by necessarily true but causally impotent moral standards. It is a called shot, but without a Babe Ruth to place it.  To base one’s argument on an assumption that defies such odds seems a bit like planning one’s retirement on the assumption that one will win the lottery.  One might suggest that Wielenberg help himself to the additional unjustified assumption of Nagel’s causally effective guiding values, for this would fill a void in his view, and anyone with the liberality to grant the one (i.e., rights) is likely to grant the other.

 

Notes:

[1] To illustrate, suppose we notice a strong–even exceptionless–correlation between chilly weather and the turning of fall leaves.  But suppose we are told that the chill in the air is not the cause of the colorful leaves.  But then we consider a third factor–the earth’s tilt from the sun resulting in both less light and colder weather–which is responsible for both the color (due to the light) and the chill.

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

[5] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine and Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 153.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] “Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.” Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p. 143.

[10] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Consciousness, p. 116.

[11] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

[12] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 60.

 

Image: “Evolution” by M. Bruneke. CC. License.

“Consumed by Christ” A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

“Consumed by Christ” is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be “consumed by Christ.” Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.

Download “Consumed by Christ”