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

By David Baggett

We’re discussing Russ Shafer-Landau (SL), and his critique of theistic ethics. He started with the Euthyphro Dilemma, and then uses analogies to make his point better. He asks us to envision a referee at a sporting match. A good referee is good in virtue of following the rules of the game, rather than making up new rules willy-nilly. A good referee can cite reasons for his calls, and reasons that aren’t merely ad hoc, made up on the spot, lacking rationale.

He admits it may sound odd, or mildly blasphemous, to liken God to a sports referee, but he doesn’t think there’s much harm in it. “The Divine Command Theory has us picture a God who controls our game in its entirety, making up all the rules, perhaps continually, and having no need to cite any reasons on their behalf.” For what other reasons could there be? “If there are not moral rules or reasons prior to God’s commands, then there is nothing God could rely on to justify the divine commands. So any choice is arbitrary.” Had God chosen differently, “we’d be saddled with a morality that encourages torture, pederasty, perjury, and all sorts of other things we now recognize to be evil.”

Recall, though, that on a view like that of Adams’, God typically commands something that’s good. He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it, and the additional motivation for us that the command would provide is another, and those are just two examples. DCT makes an action right, not good, to the thinking of leading DCT’ists today. Presumably, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, God has compelling reason to issue the command, rendering an already good action morally obligatory. But this is not to say that he couldn’t have done otherwise, at least on some occasions. It’s plausible to many, including me, that at least some of God’s commands are contingent. Not all of them follow ineluctably with necessity from his nature; he retains, at least with respect to certain actions, to command them or not to command them. The goodness of the action isn’t affected, but rather whether it’s obligatory or not. Perhaps God might even speak to me personally, commanding me to perform an action, that otherwise wouldn’t be obligatory—like help a particular homeless person. It becomes my duty once he issues the command.

Another important point to remember here is that if we’re dealing with a God of perfect love, there are some things God simply would never command. They would be inconsistent with his character. To say God is essentially loving, for these words to retain their meaning, is to suggest that some actions—those that are irremediably hideous and treacherous, for example—are ruled out. The ascription of love and goodness to God has determinate content, ruling some things out. So though God may retain a measure of divine prerogative in issuing various commands, there are still some commands outside his character he would never command. In fact, it’s right to say he can’t, in the sense, to put it into the terms of modal logic, there’s no metaphysically possible world in which he does issue such a command. As the delimiter of possible worlds, on an Anselmian conception, there are likely worlds and states of affairs we can vaguely conceive of or imagine that nevertheless don’t constitute genuine possibilities.

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

Now, when we say God is good, SL thinks the only sense we can make of such an ascription is that God follows the moral rules. But this is where the long tradition of analogical predication in the history of the Christian church may prove handy. When we say God is good, we’re not saying God is good in exactly the same sense that we attribute goodness to people. Human beings may be good to one degree or another, but God is, on a view like that of Adams’, goodness itself, the paradigm, the exemplar, the archetype of the good. Ultimate goodness is a person, not a set of principles. In fact, there’s something deeply intuitive about making persons the locus of goodness. States of affairs may be pleasant or unpleasant, but aren’t morally good or bad. People are. It makes sense to think of persons as the primary subjects of goodness, but no merely human person is perfectly good. God, though, almost by definition, is perfectly good. Whether we predicate perfect goodness of God or identify God with goodness, or both, God’s goodness is nonnegotiable on Anselmianism. But his goodness isn’t univocal with our own; ours is the imperfect wheel; his is the perfect circle. There’s relevant resemblance, but also infinite distance, as God is perfect and we are far from it.

So this isn’t equivocation, but analogical predication, with which we can still meaningfully, in a sort of analogically extended sense, ascribe goodness, indeed perfect goodness, to God. If A. C. Ewing was right—and I think he was—this is also consistent with God functioning at the foundation of ethics, for the source of the good is also most plausibly taken to be perfectly good. Obviously, though, all of this is a far cry from SL’s simplistic and minimally charitable analogies and caricatures.

SL anticipates that some will object and say God’s command of rape or torture is impossible. “A good God would never allow such a thing.” Right enough, SL replies. “But what does it mean to be good? If the Divine Command Theory is correct, then something is good just in case it is favored by God. But then look what happens: to say that God is good is just to say that God is favored by God.” That’s not very informative, and in fact wouldn’t preclude a self-loving being from issuing hideous commands.

True enough, except note that SL is offering a DCT account of goodness, having earlier confined it to rightness. This may not have been intentionally duplicitous; he may have just used rightness as a generic term for morality, a penumbral term under which falls both goodness and rightness. But for present purposes, the distinction is a crucial one. DCT nowadays is nearly always delimited to deontic matters, rightness rather than goodness. For extended accounts of how and why God is aptly thought of as good, see the work of Evans, Hare, Adams, etc.

SL is convinced he knows exactly from what an ascription of goodness to God must derive: “A good God, like a good referee, is one who plays by the rules. When we speak of God as morally good—indeed, as morally perfect—what we really mean is that God cannot fail to uphold and respect all moral rules.” SL seems to be operating on the assumption that a perfect God either is perfect in virtue of following all the moral rules or is a vacuous conception because it means he can change the moral rules at will. But surely those don’t exhaust the alternatives. Recall the earlier point that God indeed can’t change the moral rules at will; there are indeed constraints on his behavior if he’s perfect; it’s just that the constraints happen to be entirely internal to his character. They’re a feature of his perfection. A God who could commit suicide, deny himself, or lie would be imperfect. The constraints don’t threaten his omnipotence or sovereignty, but help reveal it. Recall that on an Anselmian picture God possesses all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree, which admit of intrinsic maxima.

SL is convinced the analogy is close between referees and games, on the one hand, and God and morality on the other. But I am not. SL’s insistence is on a God who is not the ultimate reality, but distinctly secondary. He refuses to acknowledge relevant disanalogies between human referees and the divine, and he thinks that constraints on God’s actions necessitate that morality doesn’t find its foundation or locus in God. He does much of this by illegitimately assuming the only theistic ethic on offer is a radically voluntarist version of DCT, and he ignores the illuminating good/right distinction in the process.

Again, he argues that if the moral character of torture is fixed prior to God’s reaction to it, then God is not the author of the moral law. But the moral character of an action is not just based on divine commands. Its goodness or badness traces to a different foundation (on Adams’ view, and that of most DCT’ists). The action may already have lots of moral features to it besides being obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. Its moral hideousness, for example, might already obtain. And God’s command against an action in certain cases, I’ve argued, isn’t contingent, but necessary, meaning such commands couldn’t have been otherwise. This actually makes good sense of necessary moral truths even in deontic matters—and a better explanation of them, to my thinking, than what (nontheistic) nonnaturalists can offer. This resonates nicely with Plantinga’s suggestion in “How to be an Anti-Realist” that the necessary truths can offer an insight into God’s unchanging character.

In the next blog, at long last, I’ll wrap up my response to this chapter of SL’s.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

By Jonathan Pruitt

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Cover for Gods Command Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705275

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

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

CoverSL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.3 “Rosenzweig”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt 

In his final section on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores the thought of Franz Rosenzweig as it is found in his important work, The Star of Redemption. Before offering his analysis, Hare thinks it is important to provide some context for understanding Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was deeply attracted to Christianity and nearly converted; the impact of Christian thought is evident in his ideas. Also, Rosenzweig has some of the same philosophical influences as Barth and works to address some of the same challenges, especially the challenge of idealism. It was within this context that Rosenzweig wrote The Star and Hare picks out three central themes from that book in his analysis: creation, revelation, and redemption.

Rosenzweig thinks that idealism results in a deficient view of God and his creation. The idealist position implies that God emanates or overflows as some static object and this is the cause of creation, but Rosenzweig is committed to the idea that God freely acts to create and to love. God is “absolute spirit” or the “unmoved mover” for the idealists; God is a concept or force and not a personal agent. He is not the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible. But idealism also flattens out the particularity of God’s creation. On idealism, the moral life is highly generalized and does not take into account the distinctiveness of created things. There is not a good for an individual as that particular creature, but only the good in totality. Hare describes this conclusion as resulting in the “disappearance of God.” Hare further argues that this sort of critique can be applied to any view that seeks to ground the moral law in creation, as some natural law theorists claim to do. If it is true that nature grounds all there is to morality, then it is not clear why morality need go any further and posit the existence of God.

In contrast, Rosenzweig offers a view that emphasizes the substantive reality of particular things. There are real distinctions between objects. He also holds that God freely chose to create, though the act of creation itself is necessarily righteous. In his creation, God continually acts towards humanity in love.

It is partly because of Rosenzweig’s strong view of the distinction between God and creation that he needs an equally strong view of revelation. Rosenzweig thinks that the primary message of revelation is of a love as strong as death. Significantly, Rosenzweig holds that death is part of the intended created order and not a consequence of sin. Thus, apart from this revelation, man would conclude that his end is death. God reveals himself in an event where he loves a particular person at a particular time; a deeply personal and intimate act. When we find ourselves being loved by God, this frees us from being “merely created” and the cycle of death. This revelation produces a change in us from “self to soul” and occurs in four stages. The first stage is self-enclosure; we become aware of being loved by God. Then we react in defiance, valuing our own freedom over the love of God. Third, we become aware of the implications of God’s love for us. Hare says this results in both pride and humility. We are proud because we are protected by the love of God and humbled because we are what we are only because of love. Finally, we allow ourselves to be loved; this is faithfulness and turns our proclivity for defiance into devotion to God.

Rosenzweig thinks that the personal nature of the revelation is important for a few reasons. First, the revelation of God is both the epistemic and ontological grounds for human virtue. God must first love us before we can love him and we must assume this is so. Second, he argues that it is only in the encounter with God that we are given a “name.” That is, God reveals to us who and what we are and frees us to live as we ought. Third, God’s love for us as individuals grounds and motivates his command to “love the Lord they God with all the heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.” Love demands reciprocation and it because God loves us that we ought to respond in the way he requests. Love of neighbor is an extension of our love for God. If another is made in the image of God, then we ought to love the other because of God’s love for us. This is also means that God’s love should result in a practical, outward response to the world; the revelation of God requires that we move beyond mystical experience and act with love toward our neighbors.

The final theme explored in this section is redemption. Rosenzweig holds that the word is created teleologically, but that this telos is not discernible by mere human reason. We are only becoming what we were intended to be, and are not yet transformed into our intended form of life, which Rosenzweig calls, “immortality,” “eternal life,” or “soul.” Our true nature is hidden and if we were to ground our moral vision on only what we can discover on our own steam, we “disenchant” ourselves and the world. Our true nature is mysterious, “uncanny.” However, this is not to say that Rosenzweig thinks there is a break between what we are and our eschatological end. What we are now is the raw material of what we will be. We will endure through the change, even if we could not see final destination by our own dim lights. God’s command is consistent with nature, though it is not determined by it.

Thus, Rosenzweig’s view of the moral life is one that takes seriously both nature and divine command without collapsing one into the other. God’s creation is rich with telos, but that telos can only be understood and obtained by divine revelation or grace. Apart from providence, we cannot know or become what we were intended to be. Further, Rosenzweig suggests that it is the love of God that provides sufficient motivation to be moral. God is the right kind of person in the right kind of relation to us to ground a robust moral realism.

Image: By Frank Behnsen at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11214437

Jerry before Seinfeld: Delightfully Distinct

By Marybeth Baggett

For nearly thirty years, Jerry Seinfeld has been a fixture of the American cultural landscape. His signature sitcom, the so-called “show about nothing,” dominated television during the 1990s, and the comedian himself became a household name. Close to twenty years after its finale, Seinfeld remains in syndication, and its namesake has a net worth of $860 million. Seinfeld still commands sell-out crowds on his comedy tours and has recently inked a deal with Netflix to distribute new standup specials and host new episodes of his low-key Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Bottom line: Jerry Seinfeld is just about as big as it gets in today’s America. And yet, ironically enough, he has achieved this iconic status by dealing in minutia. The quintessential observational comic, Seinfeld draws the attention of his audience to the often-overlooked mundane realities that comprise our lives—breakfast cereal, wallpaper, construction tools, laundry, childhood toys, shopping, furniture. And through his comic vision, Seinfeld culls insights on our shared hopes and dreams, our fears and failings, our charms and virtues, our pride and pretensions—insights as brilliant as they seem, after the fact, obvious.

A recent documentary on Joan Didion said that her writing revealed a recurring and remarkable knack for showing the centrality of the peripheral and the universality of the particular. Much the same can be said of Seinfeld’s penchant for accentuating the extraordinary of the ordinary. Both artists remind us all of the magic of the everyday and the beauty of the quotidian. Despite this similarity, they manifest this shared trait in remarkably distinct ways. No one would confuse Jerry with Joan. And in these very differences is revealed the allure of diversity’s charm.

Seinfeld’s delightful pairing of the big and the small, the distinctive and the seemingly insignificant is at the heart of Jerry before Seinfeld, the special that kicks off his deal with Netflix, released this September. In this combination documentary/standup routine, the comedian returns, literally and figuratively, to his professional roots. Seinfeld once again takes the stage at the Comic Strip, the New York comedy club that gave him his start. Interspersing bits from his show with an assortment of memories tracing his career back to its beginnings, Jerry before Seinfeld offers a needful cultural corrective—emphasizing that the comedian’s value lies not in his celebrity status but in his unique calling and craft.

It turns out that the Jerry who became Seinfeld was remarkably unremarkable. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, second child of a middle-class Jewish family, with an upbringing marked by no major traumas or spectacular good fortunes. He was simply an ordinary kid. But that ordinary kid had an extraordinary bent toward humor. He couldn’t get enough—poring over MAD magazines, collecting every comedy album he could get his hands on, and stopping everything if a comedian came on TV.

Great performers like Jean Shepherd, George Carlin, and Abbot and Costello transported him from his “boring, regular life” to a realm of wonder and creativity. What captured his imagination, he says, is that these comics held nothing sacred; they just didn’t respect anything. It blew his mind to think that he didn’t have to simply accept what was handed to him.

Such a lesson might be poison to some kids; to Seinfeld it was liberation. It freed him to discover his unique angle on the world, to believe that his perspective mattered, too. It also enabled him, at twenty-one, to walk away from a full-time construction gig and throw himself completely into comedy, earning nothing but free meals and t-shirts and dealing with hecklers and gigs that bombed. Even still he testifies, “None of this bothered me. I was in comedy, and it just felt like heaven.”

Thus inspired, it took real work to cultivate his act, develop material, and find his voice. One of the great services Seinfeld has offered us is the inside scoop of what it takes to become a premier comedian, to achieve excellence in one’s field. Though a prodigious talent, he was willing to put in the time and effort to maximize his innate skills.[1]

What’s true for Seinfeld is true for us all: each of us has a unique voice to share, something we’re a genius at doing, which we can do unlike anyone and everyone else. As Christians we most often say that human value resides most significantly in the fact that we were, all of us, made in God’s image, His imago dei. What we all share in this respect is something unspeakably remarkable indeed.

But John Hare points out that there’s another vital ingredient to our value as human persons: our distinctiveness. It’s not just what we share in common that matters; our differences, too, are a crucial part of who we are and of why we’re valuable. No two of us is exactly alike; each of us is designed to reflect a different aspect of our Creator. A prodigious talent and distinctive voice like Seinfeld’s is a reminder that each of us is unique, that each of us has a contribution to make that’s a reflection of how God made us and what He intended us to do.

Hare writes as follows:

. . . [T]here is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Revelation 2:17, in the instructions to the church in Pergamos, refers to a name about which God says, “and [I] will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one that receives it.” If we think of this name, like “Peter” meaning “rock” (the name Jesus gives to Simon), as giving us the nature into which we are being called, and if we think of this nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God.[2]

A theistic and Christian picture of the human condition provides a compelling account of human dignity, of incommensurable worth, and of ordained work, not just for humanity as a whole but for each and every individual. This is an account strong enough to sustain our deepest intuitions about the inestimable value of every human person—a profound truth hinted at even in a guy whose concerns canvass nothing. The story of Seinfeld shows that there’s something sacred after all.

 

Notes: 

[1] Horace make this same point regarding the poet in his classic Ars Poetica:It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].”

[2] “What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves . . . since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.” Hare, God’s Command, p. 29.

 

image: By Tracie Hall from Orange County, us (DSC_0235) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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

by David Baggett 

We’ve been considering Shafer-Landau (SL) and his effort to refute an argument from atheism for moral skepticism: Ethics is objective only if God exists, but God does not exist, so ethics isn’t objective. In replying to this argument from atheists, he doesn’t address the premise that says God doesn’t exist, but he tries to show atheists that they should reject the first premise. The main reason, he claims, that some atheists accept this premise is because they’re convinced that all laws require authors. He reminds them they believe in the laws of physics and mathematics without believing them to be divinely or humanly authored, so he suggests they do the same with respect to moral laws and reject the idea that they require, to be objective, a divine author.

In our last installment, we mentioned the possibility of important disanalogies between the descriptive laws of physics and the prescriptive laws of morality, which is in the vicinity of an objection that SL now anticipates. In his own words: “Here’s a reply you might be thinking of: while scientific laws may be authorless, normative laws—those that tell us what we ought to do, how we should behave—do require an author.” This would render the scientific laws relevantly disanalogous, definitely undermining the analogical argument he’s making.

SL is not convinced, doggedly insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, which he thinks he has shown is wrong. He’s skeptical there’s any other reason, or at least any good one. But let’s pause for a moment. Note his claim here. Earlier he had said that, in his own experience, people tie moral objectivity to God because of a specific line of thought: that all laws, principles, standards, etc. require a lawmaker. Now he’s suggesting that the reason he’s witnessed most people adducing for their conviction that objective ethics needs God is also the best reason on offer, perhaps even the only one. This now makes more sense of why he would earlier conclude that dispensing with the notion that laws require lawmakers leaves one with no reason at all to think that objective moral rules require God’s existence.

Again, however, it strains credulity to think this is the only or best reason for an atheist to think that morality find its locus in God. Moral properties might simply strike some atheists as ontologically odd entities, and not likely to exist in a naturalistic world. Or perhaps they think that it’s likely, at the macroscopic level, that naturalism entails loss of meaningful agency, without which moral norms don’t make sense. How can we obligated to do actions we may well be physically determined not to do? Perhaps they consider moral convictions a vestige of a supernatural myth they have left behind. And there could be plenty of other reasons besides those. The likelihood is that they’re not necessarily thinking in a tight, carefully reasoned, airtight discursive format; it may be a more intuitive matter for them, an issue of probabilities and likelihoods rather than a deductive inference.

CoverA moment’s reflection, too, would seem to undo the course-grained analysis that dictates that no non-authored laws exist. Here SL’s point is good: there are mathematical laws, and the laws of physics, yet atheists don’t think those to be “authored.” So, yes, an unnuanced acceptance by an atheist of the claim that all laws—irrespective of disanalogies—have to be authored seems worthy of rejection and susceptible to refutation. Again, though, are there many atheists who make this mistake? It seems unlikely.

It bears repeating at this point, though, that SL’s point is a very small one. What he has accomplished is just this: for an atheist who makes no distinctions between laws—be they mathematical, physical, or moral—he shouldn’t accept the idea that all laws require authors. What he hasn’t accomplished, remotely, are the following things: Shown that morality doesn’t have its foundation in God; shown that atheists are right to think there are nonauthored laws; shown that morality is relevantly analogous to physics or mathematics; shown that atheists with other reasons for thinking morality finds its locus in God are mistaken. In short, he has yet to show, as he claims to have shown, that there is “no reason to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

But he’s not through, so let’s continue to listen to what he has to say. Recall that he’s anticipated the objection that morality and physics are not relevantly analogous. He disagrees, insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws do. He thinks this, presumably, because he must put quite a bit of stock in the analogy, which, we’ll see, is no doubt true. When it comes to the laws of physics, though, which merely seem to describe how the physical world operates, it seems to many of us that the disanalogy with the authoritative prescriptions of morality, which we egregiously violate on pain of deep guilt, is a large and relevant disanalogy that undermines his argument.

Physicists can explore how space and energy and matter can feature stable laws of operation; but where would authoritative moral dictates and deliverances come from in a purely natural world? SL himself doubts they do, for he’s not a naturalistic ethicist, but a nonnaturalistic one, thinking moral properties are sui generis, not reducible to aspects of the physical world. On that we’re agreed. But the question of which explanation is better—some version of Platonism or some version of theism—remains an important question. And it’s arguable that the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its guilt-inducement for violation, its universality, etc.—find a better explanation in supernaturalism than nonnaturalism. I’m not making that case here, but noting that so far he hasn’t done anything to undermine the supernatural case—in a chapter, recall, called “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?”

In the next installment, we’ll continue considering the import of relevant disanalogies between the laws of morality, on the one hand, and those of physics, mathematics, and rationality, on the other.

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

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) argues that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, though he doesn’t think this is a very good reason. For he thinks that laws come in various shapes and sizes, and that it’s plausible to think of some of them as lacking an author, human or divine. The laws of physics, for example. Certainly atheists are inclined to think this is so. For this reason he thinks that atheists should reject the idea that all laws require lawgivers, and that if they do so they have no other reason to embrace moral skepticism. I’ve expressed misgivings about aspects of this analysis in previous posts, but now I want to consider in greater detail the analogies he uses.

I’m inclined to think the existence of the laws of physics provides me little reason to doubt God functions at the foundation of morality. Since I think God created the universe, and think this for what I consider a number of principled reasons, I don’t see the operative laws of the physical world as wholly independent of God. I also tend to think such nomological laws are contingent and descriptive, rather than necessary and prescriptive, which constitute, to my thinking, relevant disanalogies with those of morality. SL sticks to his guns, though, insisting that the analogy between the laws of physics and morality holds. I disagree.

SL does recognize, though, that some readers might be more convinced by normative laws than those of science, so here too he emphasizes that not all normative laws require lawmakers. In his own words: “For instance, the laws of logic and rationality are normative. They tell us what we ought to do.” But since nobody invented them, we have an example of authorless normative laws. And thereby SL thinks he’s shown another reason to reject the notion that all laws require lawgivers and that moral objectivity needs God.

What should be said of this attempt? SL admits that the laws of logic or rationality aren’t moral principles, though they are normative ones. Atheists would naturally be inclined to see these as authorless, objective, normative laws that issue in a kind of (non-moral) oughtness. This is the import of their being normative or evaluative.

Should an atheist for this reason think that objective morality wouldn’t need God? It’s hard to say. Clearly SL is convinced they should, but plenty of atheists demur. They might think that this analysis fails to do justice to continuing relevant disanalogies between moral and nonmoral oughts. For example, we don’t tend to feel guilty for doing our best but making a rational or logical mistake. Perhaps we feel bad, morally speaking, for failing to work as hard as we should have, being as attentive as we should have been to the evidence, but we arguably don’t feel guilty for nonmoral failings. We may be ashamed or embarrassed, but it’s not likely we feel guilty.

This is plausibly taken to be a distinctive feature of the moral life, which seems to hint to us that we are morally responsible for our actions, and culpably guilty for our failures, not just before an impersonal set of principles, or ontologically odd sui generis moral realities inhabiting a Platonic heaven, but before something more personal than that. Obviously, this is just the slightest tip of the hat in the direction of the argument that would need to be fleshed out here, but it seems likely that plenty of atheists could well sense that morality, if objective, would lead in this direction. (Among some of them, perhaps, their very resistance to objective morality comes from just this concern.)

SL, though, thinks he’s made his case, adding, “Scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God does not exist. If God is claimed to be specially necessary for moral laws in particular, that will require some further argument, something that has yet to make its appearance.” Note, though, the nature of the claim: scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God doesn’t exist. In what sense has this been established? On the assumption of atheism, and in light of an unrefined account of laws, objective morality would be possible without God. But why assume atheism in the first place? Speaking of epistemic possibilities, atheism might be false. At bottom, all that SL has argued for is the bare epistemic possibility that God isn’t needed for ethics. True enough.

By the way, it’s also epistemically possible that God is needed for ethics. Where, however, does the evidence really point? The chapter still leaves me waiting for something on this score. Meanwhile, SL says he’s waiting in vain for an argument that God is especially important to moral laws. Well, as luck would have it, that’s what this site is all about. For a few years, week in and week out, we’ve been exploring just this question. Moral apologists of a broad variety of stripes have argued in numerous smart ways that the distinctive features of morality—from moral freedom to regret, from moral rights to an account of evil, from moral value to moral obligations, from moral knowledge to moral transformation to moral rationality—provide excellent reasons to think that God exists to undergird these realities. Perhaps SL has heard these arguments and found them wanting, and I respect that; I hope he’ll return the favor when I say that much of what he’s said in this chapter is something I find equally wanting.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss why SL finds problematic the theistic effort to identify God as the author of morality.

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

Berat Writes:

Hello,

Is there a post on the “ontological foundation of evil”? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can’t have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn’t have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God’s attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I’m highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God’s Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. In other words, we think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma I put in the mouth of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

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

 

By David Baggett

Shafer-Landau (SL) is subjecting to scrutiny an argument that goes like this: ethics is objective only if God exists; God does not exist; so ethics isn’t objective. He has admitted that theists will reject the first premise, but he argues that atheists should reject the second premise. I agree that atheists should reject the second premise, for this reason: I don’t think the God question need be settled before one comes to a conclusion about whether or not objective morality obtains; if it did have to be settled first, there would be no room for moral apologetics.

Before proceeding, a word is in order. The idea that ethics is objective only if God exists is an incredibly ambitious metaphysical claim. An important distinction is in order. Consider the theses of objective morality and of God’s existence. For each thesis, there is a body of evidence for or against it. For nonskeptics about morality, they presumably take the evidence to be in favor of morality, and it’s reasonable to think that such evidence is available. Now, it’s obvious that among such nonskeptics are plenty of thoughtful atheists, who might consider the evidence against God’s existence to be strong, or at least the evidence for God’s existence to be weak, or not strong enough. Should such atheists accept the thesis that ethics is objective only if God exists? Clearly not.

Why? They think they have good reason to be moral objectivists, and lack good reasons to be theists, so there’s no particularly good reason they can see to think ethics is objective only if God exists. Of course, however, they might turn out to be wrong, having, for example, misjudged the evidential case for theism. Also, their rational belief in atheism and objective morality does little to show that it’s false that ethics is objective only if God exists; what it shows is that, on their view, they have no good reason to believe it to be true. They have a certain amount of reason to think it’s likely false, but their case is only as strong as their reasons to be both moral realists and atheists. And it’s crucial to remember that this formulation—that ethics is objective only if God exists—is not needed by a number of variants of the moral argument for God’s existence.

SL gives his own reason why atheists should reject the idea that moral objectivity requires God: because the reasoning that supports this premise is one that atheists will not accept. In his own words, here’s what he means: “Recall that the reasoning [in question] stipulated that laws require lawmakers, and that objective laws therefore required God. But atheists deny that God exists. So atheists must either reject the existence of any objective laws, or reject the claim that laws require lawmakers. Since they can easily accept the existence of at least some objective laws (e.g., of physics or chemistry) they should deny that laws require authors. But once we get rid of that view, then there is no reason at all to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

At first glance, this should raise a few questions. When we speak of nomological laws such as those found in physics or chemistry, there seem to be potentially relevant disanalogies between such laws, on the one hand, and moral laws, on the other. Philosophers of science have quite a bit to say about the laws governing the physical universe, and it’s by no means clear what the right analysis is. But supposing it’s fairly plausible to imagine that the nomological laws are contingent, the rate at which a body might fall to the earth might have been different. And even if so, the rate of falling wouldn’t happen because of the laws; the laws would simply describe what happens.

Image result for whatever happened to good and evilAlready we seem to have come across two disanalogies with moral laws. Take a nonnegotiable moral law that says it’s wrong to torture children for the fun of it. A moral objectivist would likely say this is objectively true, and perhaps for the modally minded even necessarily true. It’s hard if not impossible to envision such a law admitting of exceptions or as merely contingent. Since it’s plausible to think some such invariant moral laws exist—and this will prove relevant later to SL’s discussion—it’s worth pointing out that the laws of the physical world are less plausibly thought of as similarly necessary. The second disanalogy might be even more important: the physical laws arguably describe the behaviors of bodies falling through space and the like, whereas the moral laws prescribe how it is we are to behave.

Now, a fair question at this point is how relevant and telling such disanalogies are. Disanalogies don’t always rebut or undermine analogical arguments. What it depends on, of course, is what work SL thinks the analogies are doing. Recall that he’s trying to emphasize that atheists admit that they already reject the idea that all objective laws require God, since they believe in the laws of physics and chemistry without tracing such laws to God. To the extent that such laws are relevantly analogous to those of morality, SL’s point is that atheists who accept the former have reason to reject the idea that moral laws require a lawgiver—and thus, if accepting such a principle had led to their acceptance of the first premise in the argument from atheism, to choose now to reject it instead.

This is, needless to say, a painfully narrow point that SL is making, but thus delimited it has some value. Still, it strains credulity to think that many atheists would have so unrefined and unnuanced a reason for thinking that moral objectivity requires God. Call the reason ‘R’: “laws require lawmakers.” The narrowness of SL’s point makes surprising his further claim that dispensing with R leaves one with “no reason at all” to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence. It seems there may be ever so many potential (and better) reasons to think objective moral rules require God’s existence other than R, or at least that God somehow functions at the foundations of morality.

SL continues to direct his attention at undermining the notion that laws require authors by suggesting that, without it, the following train of thought collapses: Rules require authors, so objective rules require nonhuman authors, so objective moral rules require a nonhuman author, and that must be God.

Again, SL reminds atheists that they already believe that objective laws of the sort we find in mathematics or astronomy are not of our own creation. This shows, he asserts, that we have instances of laws without lawmakers. At issue here is not what role God might have played in creating the universe with its various operative laws, since SL is directing his argument to atheists, who don’t believe God was responsible for any of that. Since they believe in the laws of mathematics or physics and don’t believe that such laws had either a human or nonhuman author, they should, SL writes, reject the notion that laws require lawmakers, and this goes too for moral laws.

In our next installment, we’ll continue examining SL’s analysis and offer a reply.

See the rest of the series here.

Image: “Welcome rising sun” by A. Malhorta. CC License.

Great Truths, Great Division

Editors’ Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas’ piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. 

By H. O. ‘Tom’ Thomas

Some call it ‘The Great Schism’.  At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’).    Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life?  I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate.  It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split.  Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.

Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two:  territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic.  Both sides were readied for armed warfare.   They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.

‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’.  The presenting issue was serious enough in itself.  However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’.  Over this alone the Church might not have split.  Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.  These truths constitute Christianity.  They could not be compromised!  They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.

As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up.   Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today.  It’s a serious issue in and of itself.  However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church.  I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends.  Under no circumstances can they be compromised!  If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls.  I ask myself, I ask you:  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!

The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’.  An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin.  Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance).  These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God.  Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God.  The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther.  Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity.  What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God?  How can I be forgiven my sin?   What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God?  What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven?  The Church? The Pope?  Or Jesus Christ alone?

The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches.  This alone is serious enough.  Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials.  I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.

(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary.  Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did:  ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8).  One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin.  One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.

You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace.  You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.

No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’.  “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation.  ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons.  All are included.  No one is excluded.  Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone.  He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation.  Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’.   Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today.  The offshoot takes us to the root.  We are not at the periphery.  We are at the heart.  Without this, there is no Christianity!

(2)  The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth:  the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation.  What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation?  Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture.   The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities:  Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries.  These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.

The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’.  Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture.  Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play.  They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus.  That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself:  human beings.  On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture.  We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!

(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue:  does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience?  This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive.  On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church.  They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church.  The same act is both good and evil.  This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.

We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful.  God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love.  God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order.  Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism.  Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’.  Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.

This is wrongheaded.  This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity.  If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows.  ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false.  ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true.  By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people.   The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false.  If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view.  They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong!  In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption.  They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing:  homosexual practice is sin and wrong.

Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church?  Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity.  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?

 

Image: By Anton von Werner – https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320