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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Virtue Ethics” by Kallenberg

Summary by Jeff Dickson

What is virtue Ethics?

According to Kallenberg, virtue ethics considers deeds in relation to the telos of human life and what Kallenberg calls “thick descriptions” thereof—i.e. those descriptions that take into account all three components of ethical behavior: agents, actions, and outcomes. That said, virtue ethics, more than other moral theories, seeks to understand and appreciate the first of these components—agents. As a result, Kallenberg distills the goal of human living as follows: “doing the right thing for the right reason and having your friends never be surprised.” Such a system is employed in the Christian worldview to advance Jesus’ story on both a personal and corporate level. Ultimately, Kallenberg concludes that virtue ethics in general and Christian virtue ethics in particular is most concerned about understanding what kind of people we ought to be and then becoming just that so that Jesus’ story can progress.

Who are the “We?”

To rightly delineate this theory, one must come to terms with what is meant by “we” in the “we ought to be” statement. For Kallenberg, we, like Christ, are a sophisticated body that is learning, developing, and growing into a certain type of person by means of personal habits and subsequent character formation. This process, according to the author, is primarily biological and is fleshed out by means of practical reasoning. Unlike animals, humans endorse this practical reasoning and obedience toward second nature compliance through an intentional program of meditation (properly understood as “thinking about the real world with an eye to acting”) and real-life rehearsal/practice. Such behaviors and resulting habituation are being formed against the friction of pervasive physical and spiritual entropy. Thankfully, Kallenberg reveals that individuals and communities are assisted during this process by God’s grace, allowing them to progress, as Jesus did, toward becoming obedient moral agents.

What is “Ought?”

Obedient to what? Obedient to what one “ought” to do. Kallenberg believes, along with the other moral theories represented later in this volume, that this “ought” or “telos….is given, not chosen.” However, obtaining a clear understanding of the telos is difficult inasmuch as many remain morally untutored and, as a result, lack proper “moral eyesight.” Thankfully, the Savior provides his example and grace that clears this vision and allows for proper moral training to commence. Such training toward proper “oughts” comes by means of the following: 1) specific practices that, if endorsed, aid in moral maturation, 2) tradition that, if remembered, helps the Christian become conversant with appropriate “identity-constituting practices,” and 3) narrative that, if studied, helps the believer join the right story.

To illustrate his findings, Kallenberg applies his virtue ethic to the phenomenon of smartphones which are, in his estimation, tools that have unfortunately imbued the polis with a host of unethical implications. Everything from how they are manufactured to how they manipulate users into distracted pleasure-seekers suggests that these devices have changed the moral fabric of society. To combat these secular vices, Kallenberg offers a piece of ancient advice—fasting—inasmuch as fasting (both as a practice and tradition) aides people in general and Christians in particular in the rediscovery of the right set of virtues.

Responses

Natural Law Response

Natural law ethicist Claire Brown Peterson “defends the heart” of Kallenberg’s virtue ethic and recognizes that both of their views endorse the following: 1) an emphasis on both individual and corporate dimensions of morality, 2) “thick descriptions” of moral activities, and 3) references to the incarnation as support for a more robust understanding of the good. That said, Peterson believes that natural law theory provides the deeper explanatory context that virtue ethics is missing—context that explains “what makes a particular trait a virtue” and “how to flesh out specific virtues.” Without a robust context that can answer these inquiries, virtue ethics runs the risk of grounding moral behavior in what is pleasurable (Hume) or that which produces more good (Driver) and undermining certain Christian virtues like humility (Aristotle). Therefore, while Peterson agrees with many of Kallenberg’s points, she argues that virtue ethics is most successful when it is grounded in natural law.

Divine Command Theory Response

John Hare criticizes Kallenberg’s presentation on three major fronts. First, while Kallenberg argues that skilled moral judgment is developed by gradual bodily training, Hare reveals that often the kind of training or habituation that is required in such a pursuit is not bodily, but mental and/or spiritual. Second, though Kallenberg intimates that what one ought to do often goes against one’s inclinations, Hare reveals that this is not always the case. After all, on occasion, even the irreligious want to do something that they ought to do. Finally, while Kallenberg’s theory involves the pursuit of the human telos, Hare wonders if there is not also an individual telos or, to put it another way, if there are “different good ways to be human.” On a related note, though Kallenberg speaks of a single Christian tradition, Hare wonders if this is appropriate inasmuch as a plethora of appropriate Christian traditions exist for same purpose.

Prophetic Ethics Response

In his own response, Peter Goodwin Heltzel is appreciative of Kallenberg’s attention to habit-forming practices, his argument that virtues are best formed in the context of Christian community, and his identification of tradition’s impact on the ethical enterprise. However, Heltzel is alarmed by Kallenberg’s failure to acknowledge justice as a foundational ethical pillar. Heltzel also draws attention to Kallenberg’s failure to identify which virtues Christians are called upon to cultivate. Finally, in response to Kallenberg’s illustration of fasting, Heltzel would have appreciated a greater emphasis on how fasting (or any other ethical/moral pursuit) is connected to “liberating love and community-restoring justice.”

Image: Saverio Autellitano http://ilsalli.altervista.org – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=139372

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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Introduction”

 

Summary by Jeff Dickson

 

Though most Christians concede that moral goodness is rooted in and revealed by God, these are also divided on moral theory, particularly as it pertains to how God communicates moral knowledge, anthropological conclusions, and how the body of Christ fits in the moral landscape. As a result, relatively clear distinctions can be drawn between moral theories depending on how they explain these considerations. These distinctions have established named ethical systems that Steve Wilkens believes deserve a properly nuanced introduction. Such introductions must be made before a compelling juxtaposition/debate between these general ethical systems can be entertained. This is the expressed purpose of the first chapter of this collaborative volume.

Virtue Ethics

Wilkens begins his introductions with virtue ethics and distills its essence down to that moral theory which is more concerned about achieving good character than good actions. According to Plato and Aristotle, virtue ethics is teleologically focused on reaching a moral and transcendent “Form” that is consistent with specific impeccable ideals (like moderation, courage, prudence, justice, etc.) in the context of the polis. The context of this enterprise shifted in the medieval period to the church and more divinely-rooted virtues (especially love) were introduced. However, in reaction to corruption within the church, many during the Renaissance wanted to return ethics to the secular and political world. These became more concerned about what was pragmatic for society building. In the 20th century, Anscombe and MacIntyre returned the moral enterprise to its transcendent and teleological foundations. Such foundations, according to Hauerwas and other more current Christian ethicists, are understood in the context of the church and, according to Zagzebski, appropriately rooted in divine virtue.

Natural Law

Like virtue ethics, natural law theory is teleologically focused. However, unlike virtue ethics, natural law theories are more concerned about adhering to an external and preexisting code than they are about developing personal character. Inasmuch as humans possess a nature, natural law is the guide leading to the highest good and subsequent flourishing. Though reason is championed as the way in which natural law is discovered and followed in the secular world, Wilkens acknowledges that natural law is arbitrary unless it is governed by an appropriate authority and people can be helped to it. Enter Aquinas and Suarez who argue (respectively) that God draws the human person to goodness via the laws that govern human life and serves as the originator of the natural law via his perfect will.

Divine Command Theory

Quite unlike virtue ethics and natural law, divine command theory, in one way or another, delimits morality to what is determined by the commands and prohibitions of God. What is moral depends on God’s sovereign will and this, according to Wilkens, is “opaque to reason and ,…most clearly known by revelation.” However, divine command theory must provide a cogent answer to the age-old euthyphro dilemma which tries to render the supposed commander either subservient to a higher moral code or capable of determining otherwise abhorrent acts moral by divine fiat. Thankfully, Wilkens highlights the work of Robert Adams which satisfies the charge of euthyphro in a way that preserves God’s sovereignty and staves off the criticism that his commands are arbitrary. Adams’ iteration of divine command theory argues that ethics is not grounded in God’s commands, but in his character. He and other more recent modified divine command theorists believe that moral law is a natural implication of God’s nature and, as a result, such a God would only command certain things.

Prophetic Ethics

The final introduction Wilkens makes involves what he calls prophetic ethics. The author concedes that while this particular ethical theory endorses the broadest range of expression, prophetic ethics does share several distinct characteristics. First, its foundation is built on ecclesiology and mission rather than divine commands (see divine command theory) or human flourishing (see virtue ethics and natural law ethics). Second, it pays closer attention to the problem of corporate sin than do the other theories represented in this work. Third, prophetic ethics is more interested in engaging the world, especially the world in need, than it is in theory and doctrine. The Anabaptist movement, the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, and liberation theology are mentioned as rough expressions of this ethical formula as each of these movements endorse these and other corresponding characteristics.51oNubO+DcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Inasmuch as this work is most interested in Christian ethics and the various theories appertaining thereunto, Wilkens is right to demonstrate how each of these systems finds support in the Scriptures. For instance, virtue ethics is consistent with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8 to dwell on that which is moral and the apostle’s call to mimic the character of Christ (see Phil. 2:5-11). That all possess at least some awareness of a natural law seems to comply with what Paul observes in Romans 2:14-15—“…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness,…”. Divine command theory appears to enjoy the broadest scriptural support given the copious commands and ordinances that proliferate both testaments of the canon. Even prophetic ethics enjoys support in passages where the needy and “least of these” are being cared for (Lev.19:9-10; 25:10) and where the standard of judgment is connected to one’s response to those less fortunate (Matt. 25:31-46).

The short introductions provided in this first chapter not only give the reader a brief understanding of the salient features of each position, they provide a brief history of the evolution each theory has endured, elucidate a current expression of these systems, and demonstrate how every one of them enjoys Scriptural support. In so doing, Wilkens is successful at setting a sophisticated table for four in which a robust debate can be had between representatives for each of these theories.

 

 

Image: By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980809

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.4.3, “The Good Promise-Keeper”

summary by David Baggett

For human natural goodness, Foot gives the example of an anthropologist who made a promise to a Malayan native never to photograph him. Later he could get away with doing it, and the picture would have been valuable, but he had made a promise. Foot commented about this case that in giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that (though not absolute) the harmlessness of its violation does not annul. Breaking the promise would have been defective. She thought there was a “natural-history story” to explain why the disposition to break a promise is defective, just as much as there is a natural-history story to explain why it is a defect not to be able to walk or see. She used Anscombe’s story about the need for the institution of promising if we are going to be able to get each other to do the sorts of things that constitute the human form of life.

RMH, in contrast, argued that promising creates an obligation in this way: if a speaker says sincerely that all promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised, he must himself be expressing his own subscription to the rule of the institution of promising and thus stating a moral principle. There is no deduction, therefore, from a fact to an obligation. It’s characteristic of words like “promise,” which have meaning only within institutions, that they can be introduced into language only when certain synthetic propositions about how we should act are assented to.

Foot thought there was a deduction of our obligation to keep our promises from our human form of life. Keeping our promises is an instance of justice, she thought, and she said that justice is one of the virtues that is an “Aristotelian necessity.” Foot was not an absolutist about keeping promises. Apart from killing the innocent, torture is the only absolute prohibition she mentioned. Torture was also an absolute prohibition for RMH, who spoke out of his own experience as a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2.

At any rate, Hare thinks Foot’s deduction doesn’t work. She treats our nature too much as a single unified package, and she was too optimistic in her account of practical rationality as sensitivity to the reasons this package gives us. Consider things like the fact that humans lie, cheat, or steal. Are these Aristotelian categoricals? Can we rule them out as irrelevant because they are not directly or indirectly related to our survival and reproduction? The accusation here is not that Foot was trying to deduce moral goodness from biology or from the inclinations we supposedly share with the hunter-gatherers who formed most of our evolutionary history. Other philosophers have tried to do this and failed.

For example, Arnhart argued that the good is the desirable (as in Aquinas) and the desirable is what is generally desired by human beings. By “generally desired” he meant that these desires are found in most people in every society throughout human history, and he thought evolution had given us these desires because they enhanced our chances of survival and reproduction. He listed twenty such desires, and his framework principle was that if a desire is general in this sense, belonging to this list, then its fulfillment is good. He did not find disinterested benevolence among these desires, and he concluded that it is merely utopian, beyond the order of nature, and foisted on us by religion.

Hare thinks it instructive to compare Arnhart with Foot on these points. Foot said that there is the same form of inference for humans and for wolves, from the Aristotelian categoricals about a form of life to conclusions about goodness. Unlike Arnhart she pointed out that Wittgenstein said at his end that he had had a wonderful life, but she said that he was not, in any ordinary sense, happy. Happiness is the human good only if we think of happiness in the way we discussed in relation to the letter-writers earlier, for whom it was already too late for happiness. But this kind of happiness is an ideal, and there is the same kind of difficulty as we found with RMH’s treatment of ideals. Foot had a worked-out theory about moral goodness in terms of natural facts and then had trouble integrating into it the distinction between the natural traits we should admire and the natural traits we should not. She included among Aristotelian categoricals seeking justice, but not the desire for power over others. This is better than Arnhart, but there’s a price. We know with Arnhart where his conclusions come from, even if we disagree with them. He faced the nasty as well as the nice aspects of our nature, and he was consistent about how we should live. In the same way Aristotle was. For Foot, by contrast, there was a gap. The categoricals for plants and non-human animals are supposed to be reached by saying how for a certain species nourishment was obtained, how development took place, what defenses were available, and how reproduction was secured. Answers to such questions for humans come in terms of deception and coercion, just as much as the recognition of rights. Foot was right to want a different way to think about the human good. But she did not give us a method for doing so that is “naturalistic” in the way the claim about the same “form of inference” from categoricals to virtues implies.

Hare thinks one basic problem is that the four natural ends given by Hursthouse don’t cohere, which means that our nature is not harmonious in the way she needs and claims. She wants to reject the view that human nature is “just a mess,” because she thinks this leads to moral nihilism and despair. But she does not consider the possibility that we are not exactly a mess, but a mixture of the kind Kant describes. This means that we are, as she denies, a “battleground.” There’s a dilemma here for her. Either the Aristotelian categoricals need to be already screened by ethical principle, in which case we get a deduction from nature only by this screening. Or we can allow that any typical feature leading to the four natural ends is a virtue, but then we will not get the deduction of a conclusion about moral goodness or the good human life. It’s better to allow that most of what we think constitutes a good human life comes from our ideals, which are not deducible from the four ends at all, though these ends are constraints on our ideals.

Another way to put the dilemma is that Hursthouse has two theses that conflict, when conjoined, with her admission that much of the work in deciding how to live does not come from the four ends, and that there is no fifth end characteristic of human animals from which to derive these decisions. These two theses are, first, what Hare calls “virtue dominance” and, second, deductivism about virtue. If the virtues are to be deducible from our nature, then they ought to give us a great deal more content about how to live than the admission that there is no fifth end implies.

We should concede that our nature puts a constraint on what we should say about a good human life and therefore about obligation. Foot and Hursthouse are right that it makes sense to talk about a human specific good, at least in ordinary speech, and so to talk about the kinds of human goodness that contribute to it. Even so, such facts don’t obligate us. Hare thinks the one exception is that we have a self-evident obligation to love God and neighbor, but none of the more specific obligations of the second table follow.

For DCT, it is God’s command that obligates. We should have the faith, though, that God wants our good, and commands us to live in a way that will be conducive to this end. So, even though obligations are not (with one exception) deducible from facts about human nature, those facts can serve as constraints on what we should believe about how God has commanded us to live. Does DCT derive an ought from an is? Hare thinks not, but defending his view is subtle. It’s true that God’s commanding something makes it obligatory, and that this is the right criterion (according to DCT) for the judgment that we ought to live a certain way. But we have to make what is the criterion our criterion, by a decision of the will.

Practical rationality can give us contradictory maxims, both of which fit the facts of human nature, unless we’ve rigged those facts by incorporating ideals into their specification. It’s not silly to be torn on occasion, even torn apart. When we bring the interests of others into the picture, especially the interests of those not related to us by friendship or family, most of us in the richer parts of the world fail most of the time. We simply do not think about the impact our own lifestyles have on those who are suffering in the rest of the world. Foot was herself not blind in this way, but she was too optimistic about the rest of us.

Hursthouse ends with the need for hope that we can flourish together, and not at each other’s expense, and she knows that this hope used to be called belief in (God’s) Providence. If we can’t rely on our nature to produce this ethical commonwealth, though, because our nature is a mixture of good and evil, then what is the ground of this hope? It must be something beyond our nature, and God’s sovereignty is an answer to be considered, as we did in the argument from providence in the first chapter.

 

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John Hare’s God’s Command, Section 4.4.2, “Good Roots and Good Wolves”

summary by David Baggett

Hare admits that we should accept at least one central point from Foot and Hursthouse: there is a natural goodness that is conducive to the good life, or simply the good for both animals and plants. The roots of an oak tree are an example, which play a part in the life of the tree: they obtain nourishment. It matters in the life of the organism, and its absence would be a defect. This is an example of an Aristotelian categorical. Goodness in the roots is their ability to carry out this contribution to the life of the organism. We can deduce this goodness from this ability. Hare says this is an acceptable form of deductivism. This is not yet moral goodness, however.

RMH resisted any sort of deduction like this. But if we were to accept the notion of a primary goodness for, say, a tree, what would it mean to say a tree is good? We could say that something is good means one is drawn by it and to endorse the claim that the thing deserves to draw one in that way. Aquinas said goodness belongs to everything that is, and degrees of being and degrees of goodness are coextensive. So here would be a way to think of a tree as good: a tree is good because goodness belongs to everything that is. Another picture of goodness involves every kind of life created by God being good. Yet another, less theist, account of the goodness of, say, an oak tree says goodness consists in the range of features possessed by mature oaks that are flourishing, and this goodness is what the oak is aiming towards. (But this language of “aiming towards” is the language of final causation, and, while it is true that we make use of it continually for organisms, in both lay and professional talk, it is not clear whether it can be validated within the strict terms of the biological sciences.)

Can we make sense of the idea that animals have more value than plants in general, though this may not be true in all cases? Yes, Hare thinks, if there is value in the things animals can do that plants can’t. There are of course dangers with such a hierarchy, but Aristotle could be right about plants and animals and wrong to deny that all humans have the same basic value. On Hare’s view, all humans have the same basic value because they equally receive God’s call, not because they are now equally capable of valuable activities.

Even if we can give an account of the goodness of a tree, though, this is not what Foot was talking about when she said that the roots have a “function.” Foot tried to tie function to features that have to do, directly or indirectly, with self-maintenance or reproduction. Even so, the plants are in competition with each other, and not only with other species; there are strong specimens and weak, and just as many weak as strong. There is no deduction from a particular plant’s typical performance to its doing well or from the typical performance at a time for the set of members of a species to the species doing well.

Hursthouse has a corrective to this, conceding that on occasion it’s indeterminate whether an individual x is overall a good x, and that even an individual perfectly endowed in every relevant respect may still not live well given its circumstances. Survival, reproduction, pleasure or absence of pain, and the well-being of our social group are the natural ends against which we can measure whether some human life is a naturally good life, she claims. Hursthouse and Foot admit that these are value-laden and not simply statistical. But the picture leaves us without a way to say why some dispositions to pursue these four ends are good and some dispositions to pursue these same four ends are not. Even with plants, the result of Hursthouse’s corrective is to make the primary good of the oak frustratingly indeterminate.

Now we move to non-human animals. Foot characterizes a free-riding wolf as defective. RMH had resisted such deductions. What’s at issue here is the distinction between what Foot called “primary” and “secondary” goodness. A particular kind of pig or horse is useful to humans, for eating or riding, and this is secondary goodness. But the question is whether there is a kind of goodness for the pig or the horse in itself. RHM denies that ‘horse’ is a functional word like ‘screwdriver’ is. But Hare says this doesn’t show that there isn’t a primary goodness of horses. So far, Foot’s right.

A complication, though, is that RMH’s examples were of domesticated animals, which have been bred so as to serve human uses. Foot’s examples were of wild animals, the wolf and not the dog. For Foot, defect or natural goodness in an individual is relative not to the actual environment of the individual (like a zoo), but to the normal habitat of the species. Hare sees many difficulties here.

But the main case for the present chapter is the free-rider wolf. Is it defective? One reason this is important is that the cooperation of wolves is the kind of thing de Waal suggests is a precursor or requisite of human cooperation. On Hare’s view, in light of the contingency of the adaptiveness of a trait, there’s no determinate answer to the question of what the good incidence of the trait is within a species. The basic problem here, as Hare sees it, is that what Foot called Aristotelian categoricals work much better with an essentialist conception of species, like one Aristotle operated with.

Hare concludes that, in light of all this, we again need modesty about whether there are determinate answers in many cases to questions about whether an x is a good x, and indeed about the very notion of a species, since the different modes of classification are in part determined by different interests of ours. None of this bodes well for deductivism.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.4: “Foot and Hursthouse on Deductivism”

Summary by David Baggett 

Foot gave three striking examples that can organize this section of the chapter: an example from vegetable life, from non-human animal life, and from human life. We will look at these, and then consider some additions to the theory by Hursthouse. But before turning to those: Hare’s main criticism is that Foot and Hursthouse treat our nature too much as a single united package, and they are too optimistic in their account of practical rationality as sensitivity to the reasons this package gives us. Our nature does indeed give us reasons (to act), but some of them are good and some of them are bad. So we need a way to discern which reasons given us by our nature we should follow.

4.4.1 “Too Much and Too Little”

Hare argues that our nature is both too much and too little to allow us to deduce conclusions about moral goodness. It is too much, because the promptings it gives us are a mixture of good and bad, and are therefore not a reliable source. Theologically this is a reading of the doctrine of the Fall: that we are corrupt in every part. But there is also a philosophical “translation” that Kant gave us of this theology. He says that we are born with both the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil. Our nature prompts us to both prudence (enlightened self-interest) and morality, and sometimes not even to prudence.

hare god's commandIt’s not that prudence and morality are unconnected, but RMH agreed with Sidgwick that rationality does not itself tell us to take the step to universalization. The question remains of why, when prudence and morality conflict, we should choose morality. Do Foot and Hursthouse have the resources to answer this question, the “normative question” of the first chapter? If not, the appeal to nature will fall into the same pattern as the appeal to reason, or intuition, or the authority of one’s cultural norms. We will need to know which reason, which intuitions, which cultural norms, and now which promptings of nature we should follow.

Our nature gives us both too much and too little for the deduction of the requirements of morality. We have so far considered why it gives us too much. For the other half of this, the “too little,” there is in the same way a theological source and a Kantian philosophical (though still theist) translation. The theological source is the doctrine of sanctification, on one reading a restoration to righteousness by the work of the Spirit. One philosophical translation is in terms of Kant’s argument from grace. Since we are not able by our own resources to overcome the propensity to evil expressed in our fundamental maxim, we need God’s grace in order to live a human life pleasing to God. But we will not find in the facts of our nature, as Foot and Hursthouse construe them, either this kind of assistance or an example of this kind of life. In this sense, nature gives us too little for the deduction.

In the next post, we will turn to the first two of Foot’s examples, and then, in the last one from this chapter, her third example.

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Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

Notes:

[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.3, Prescriptivism

Summary by David Baggett 

The third and fourth sections of this chapter are about a debate between RMH’s views about the objectivity of moral judgment and the contrasting attempt by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse in On Virtue Ethics to deduce conclusions about moral goodness by what Foot called a “natural-history story” from the characteristic form of life of the human species. Foot scholars divide up her career, like Plato’s, into three periods: an early Foot, a middle Foot, and a late Foot. Natural Goodness was late Foot. Hursthouse has added significant structure to Foot’s account. There are some ways that late Foot is more like RMH than early or middle Foot. But there still differences, and one of them is that Foot affirmed and RMH denied the deducibility of conclusions about moral goodness from facts about human nature. Hare will argue that we should accept some of the positions of each side in this dispute, but that form-of-life deductivism should be rejected.

One theme in this discussion of Foot will be that we need to disentangle her deductivism from her attack on what she calls “subjectivism.” Hare will argue we can be opposed to both subjectivism of various kinds and to deductivism. What is subjectivism? RMH didn’t like being dubbed either a subjectivist or non-cognitivist, though Foot called him this. The central error she was concerned with was the error of thinking that value is desire-based, rather than being (“objectively”) there whether it is desired or not. But there are at least three things this might mean, and they can be distinguished under three headings: “motivation,” “moral properties,” and “ideals.” RMH’s views can be helpfully separated under these headings.

 

4.3.1 Motivation

RMH held that when we make a moral or evaluative judgment we are expressing a pro-attitude toward, or an endorsement of, some prescription. The position Foot was attacking was what we might call “judgment internalism,” the view that motivation is internal to moral and evaluative judgment. Why did RMH care about this? He thought it was a true analysis of the logic or grammar of evaluative language. But something else needs emphasis. RMH, through his life, was concerned for the possibility of communication about moral matters between different cultures and different generations within the same culture. He thought that his account of the difference between the meaning of evaluative terms such as “good” and “wrong” and the criteria for the use of such terms in evaluative and moral judgment was important for the preservation of this possibility. He thought we were more likely to be capable of genuine dialogue over moral issues if we shared the meaning of these basic terms, and could then talk together about what criteria to employ for their use.

Whare god's commandhat did he think was the difference between meaning and criteria? He thought that it was given in the meaning of evaluative terms that, when we use them sincerely in an evaluative judgment, we commit ourselves to an imperative. If the judgment is a moral judgment about action, the imperative is a command to act a certain way. For RMH, the criteria for an evaluative judgment were the descriptive facts about the world that we use in our evaluations. An endorsement of the goodness of something is called “a decision of principle.” The principle here is that, say, knives are good when they are sharp, and my decision is to endorse this principle in commending the knife.

Here is one place the early Foot and RMH disagreed. She held that we can’t simply decide what criteria to apply; some are internal to the moral point of view. RMH didn’t think a claim that it’s wrong to run around a tree right-handed was unintelligible (the way Foot did), but of course he did think it wrong. He agreed to this point: we have the pro-attitudes that we have, and therefore call the things good which we do call good, because of their relevance to certain ends which are sometimes called “fundamental human needs.” This passage is remarkable because of its similarity to many things in late Foot. The difference is just that these considerations about the human form of life and its evolutionary history were located by RMH as constraints on criteria, whereas Foot did not admit the meaning/criteria distinction.

There is a second, more significant, place that RMH and Foot disagreed, and this gives one reason for Foot’s rejection of judgment internalism. Foot referred to the category of shamelessness. She thought it showed that a person may make a full-fledged moral judgment without endorsing the norms he is referring to in the judgment. RMH’s response to this was that shamelessness is most probably a rejection of conventional morality, thinking there’s something nonstandard or defective about such a case.

We could put this in terms of a natural-history story. The human form of life needs not only norms—for example, norms of justice—to hold us together, but also ways to express to each other that we are committed to such norms. We need a form of expression that conveys, across a huge range of evaluations, “if I were you, I would.” We need this function because we can’t carry out our characteristic human projects without it. Being social animals is a feature of our thought life as much as our action. Moral language is plausibly construed as having this social function. But as with all functions, misuse or defective use is possible. It’s like not being able to use a chisel except as a screwdriver.

This point about the function of evaluative language is what is essentially right about judgment internalism. It’s true that each side in the dispute can explain the same phenomena. For Foot, shamelessness is making a full-fledged moral judgment but one that can’t be lived by; for RMH, it is not making a full-fledged, but rather a defective moral judgment. But the internalist account preserves one central contribution that evaluative language makes to our form of life. The key is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. RMH thought that this internalism about judgment meant that no deduction of evaluative judgment from descriptive facts was legitimate. But surprisingly, even if they were to agree that a full-fledged evaluative judgment is an expression of some state of desire or emotion or will, they could still disagree about whether the state of the world being commended in such a judgment is a state of the world with natural properties and evaluative properties that have some kind of mutually implicative relation.

Sermon on the Mount
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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, Section 4.2, “Consensus Deductivism”:

Summary by David Baggett

What about Adams’s claim that we can fix the reference of ‘good’ by the evaluations of most of the people most of the time? His analogy is water, which people refer to regularly; what constitutes water is something else, and on an imagined twin earth they do not have water at all, but something else, let’s assume, like XYZ. The structure of Adams’s account is that the meaning of ‘good’ does not give us the nature of ‘good’; what is given by the meaning is, instead, a role that the nature is to play. He limits the claim to the meaning of ‘good’ in certain contexts, those in which ‘goodness’ is naturally interpreted as meaning excellence.

Adams says that the role assigned by ordinary understanding to the good is that it is an object of pursuit. But here arises an objection: we don’t always pursue the good, and sometimes what we pursue is not good. Adams denies that this is a problem for his theory, because it’s not one of those theories that analyze the nature of the good as consisting in some fact about our desires. The role of our desires is only to help fix the signification of our value terminology to a property or object that has its own nature independent of our desires.

Hare asks whether the failure of our actual desires is a problem for Adams’s theory as well, even though Adams proposes that those desires only fix the reference of the good, rather than determining its nature. He is forced by his account to say that we can’t always or even usually be totally mistaken about goodness. Hare wishes to consider this claim. Surely it’s true that we can be and very often are deeply wrong about the good, but this is not quite the same as saying we are “usually totally mistaken.” But we are mistaken enough that we should be hesitant about our ability to fix the reference of ‘good’. Jesus overturns or “transvalues” (in Nietzsche’s term) our conception of the good, and Aristotle gives a more accurate picture of what we usually think of as “common sense.”

The chief contrast between Aristotle and Jesus has to do with what we might call “competitive goods.” A competitive good is one where, in order for one person to have it, another person has not to have it, or to have less of it. The chief good for Aristotle couldn’t be honor, because it would be to be honored by the best people. The chief good is activity in accordance with virtue. But being honored in this sense is a competitive good, and can be lost. Most of the time Aristotle seems to think the chief good for human beings usually requires wealth, power, and honor. To have the relevant virtue (like magnanimity) you have to be worthy of great honor and deem yourself worthy of it. What various passages indicate is that the chief good for a human being requires power over others. The claim is not simply that the competitive goods are good, but that they are necessary for a highly admirable life.

The Gospels portray Jesus as overturning this sort of view, and the rest of the NT follows suit. Aristotle says humility is the state in which persons are so low they should not even aspire to virtue; in the NT we are told in humility to consider others better than ourselves. Or consider the command to love your enemies. This overturning of the world’s values is a central Christian theme, and is abundantly discussed in the literature. There is an important and difficult question whether the difference of Christian virtue, as described in these texts, shows more continuity or discontinuity with pagan virtue. Can we know, by human reason, unaided by special revelation, what is the best human life? If we’re born under the evil maxim, we tend to prefer our happiness to our duty. It suffices for now to say that there is not enough truth in most people’s desires most of the time for those loves to fix the reference of the term ‘good’ and its related family.

hare god's commandThis claim is not shown to be true just because Jesus disagreed with Aristotle. It’s possible general revelation is progressive, after all. It’s also true that the culture of large parts of the world has been shaped by the Abrahamic faiths. But there’s also been a return to Greek ethics in some. The central point is not about whether most people get most of their evaluations and preferences right most of the time. Even if they do, this is not the right way to fix the reference of ‘good’. As RMH pointed out years ago, this approach to fixing the reference by consensus is inherently relativistic. We end up saying that the reference of ‘good’ is fixed by whatever most people say it is. We ought to have a way of being able to say that most people most of the time are wrong, even if it is not the case that they are. If we take the consensus model, we lost such a way.

Adams is aware of a problem here, and wishes to maintain the “critical stance.” Thus he says the truth behind Moore’s Open Question argument is that for any natural empirical property or type of action that we or others may regard as good or bad, right or wrong, we are committed to leave it always open in principle to raise evaluative or normative questions by asking whether the property of action-type is really good or right, or to issue an evaluative or normative challenge by denying that it is really good or right. Hare, though, thinks this openness extends only to limited questions within what Adams takes to be the overall massively reliable field. Adams is not willing to concede that the framework as a whole might have been largely distorted.

So how can we be constrained in what we take to be a divine command by our conception of the good, if not by consensus or actual belief and desire? Those within each religious tradition in which there might be a divine command have to use the resources of that tradition about what is good. The Abrahamic faiths share a commitment to the distinction between general and special revelation. This is one of the relevant conditions: a divine command theorist can say that what we take to be a new divine command has to be screened through both the general and the special revelation about the good that has already been given.

Friberg - The Ten Commandments

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.3.4: The Fourth Defense: Agent-Transcendent Eudaemonism

Summary by David Baggett

Finally, the Aquinas-Porter argument can be revised in a way that is not liable to the objections to the first step and the second. Suppose we say that the agent’s encompassing good is not some more general good, like the good of the polis or of the natural world or of God’s friends, that necessarily includes her individual good, but the divine itself, which is by its own nature self-transcending. For Scotus, the end for human beings is to enter into the love that the persons of the Trinity have for each other, or to become co-lovers. This means that the highest activity is one of will, prepared by intellect, since Scotus accepts the principle that nothing is willed except what is previously cognized. This view should be distinguished from a view that happiness involves both the intellect and the will, but the activity of the will (the loving) is consequent on the highest activity, which is the beatific vision in the intellect. On Scotus’s view we can say that, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love both here and in heaven. On the other view, love may be the greatest of the three down here on earth, but in heaven the greatest will be a state of the intellect. The proposal we are now considering is that the agent identifies her happiness as entering into a kind of loving that is itself self-transcending. Such divine self-transcendence can be seen within the Trinity.

The proposal we are considering would appear to overcome the difficulties with the two steps of the Porter-Aquinas argument. First, it doesn’t beg the question about motivation. It allows that we have both a self-perfecting and a self-transcending love. But it holds that the second comes out of the first, because we identify in perfecting ourselves with a being that is itself self-transcending. Second, it does not hold that there is a necessary harmony between the self-indexed interests of an agent and the wider groups in which she is included.

hare god's commandThe proposal has been stated in theistic terms, but can also be found in non-theistic terms. It might seem that if you identify the best (the most perfect) state of yourself as loving, then there will no longer be a tension between perfecting yourself and spending yourself for others. But there’s a difficulty here, which discloses itself in the following dilemma: either this is a single-source theory (deriving all motivation from my own happiness and perfection) or it is not. We have interests that do not reduce to virtue, or to conforming our lives to the Categorical Imperative for its own sake, and it’s completely appropriate for beings like us to have these interests. The point was made earlier that Kant should have allowed that self-indexed motivation includes more than the satisfaction of sensuous inclination. Now a single-source theory can to some extent accommodate such motivation. Aristotle, for example, can insist that self-love of the right kind is consistent with various forms of self-sacrifice. But he also insists that these are forms of self-love. His picture of motivation is that, if the agent were to ask herself “Why am I doing this?” the fundamental answer would be “because I am assigning myself the best thing.” Scotus and Kant would say that this answer is unacceptably self-regarding. But there is a dilemma here. Some followers of Aristotle disagree with his point about self-love and say the virtuous person should be called “good-loving.” This is unobjectionable, but now we no longer have a single-source theory. In Scotus’s terms, God will be loved both for God’s own sake and for the sake of the union. So either we stick with a single source theory that seems objectionably self-regarding, or we allow that self-indexed motivation properly remains, and then we have a double-source theory again, like that of Kant and Scotus.

The point is that the self-indexing of some goods needs to remain. An attempt to get rid of all such goods is Maimonides’ notion we’re absorbed into God. But surely there’s a sense in which we lose ourselves on that view; we lose, in Scotus’s term, our haecceity. One way to put this is that the fourth defense of eudaemonism paradoxically ends up compromising the aspiration to happiness.

So there is a dilemma for this kind of “agent-perfective” account of eudaemonism. It is the best form of eudaemonism; one free from many of the objections raised in this chapter. But it still faces the present dilemma. Suppose we think that an agent should be motivated by the desire to perfect herself, and suppose that being perfected is becoming the kind of person who is not always motivated by self-indexed goods. Do we now have a form of eudaemonism that is not “unacceptably self-regarding”? The problem is that we need to know whether this is a single-source account of motivation. If it is, and this account does not retain motivation toward goods that are self-indexed and necessarily so (such as the particular way of loving God that is unique to an individual), goods that could be (counterfactually) in tension with God’s own good, then the account is, we might say, “unacceptably self-neglecting.” But if it keeps these goods, then it is no longer a single-source account. By the definition at the beginning of this chapter, this means it’s no longer a form of eudaemonism. But what we need in our substantive theory is an account that gives us both kinds of goods.

 

The_Last_Supper_(1886),_by_Fritz_von_Uhde

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, Section 3.3.3, “The Third Defense: Thomist”

Summary by David Baggett 

The third defense of eudaemonism is drawn from the picture of Aquinas’s account of the relation between morality and happiness described by Jean Porter. She starts with a difficulty about understanding Aquinas, which is that he seems both to affirm eudaemonism and to assert that charity loves God for the sake of God and the neighbor for the sake of the neighbor, and not for our own sakes. Porter tries reconciling these. Aquinas expresses his eudaemonism by saying we all act with the goal of happiness, which sounds like a denial of the picture Hare attributed to Scotus and Kant featuring two fundamental motivations behind human action. But Aquinas also says that the love of God for God’s own sake is the distinctive mark of charity, and that charity towards the neighbor requires us to promote the neighbor’s good for the neighbor’s sake and not our own. There’s a paradox here. Porter tries resolving it in two steps.

The first step is to say that whatever overarching good the agent loves as her final end, she must regard it as in some way a meaningful goal for her own actions. But the Kantian would say this begs the question. For Kant and Scotus there are two fundamental sorts of motivations. For Aristotle and Aquinas-Porter, just one. For Aquinas the actualization of one’s final end is natural, but for Kant it’s free, not in this sense natural. Scotus says if an angel had the affection for advantage but not for justice, it wouldn’t be free. It begs the question to assert that we know, just on the basis of understanding human agency, that there is just one final end.

It might be thought almost unavoidable to say any action of mine must be directed at my own good, but recall some distinctions here. The first, from Butler, is that there are two senses in which every good aimed at by an agent might be a good for the agent, and the first does not imply the second. The first sense is that the good aimed at is good for the agent just because it is aimed at. In the second sense, the good for the agent is an object whose definition includes internal reference to the agent. Now, the moral law occasions in the agent a feeling of respect. Respect is my feeling, but it is not occasioned by a self-indexed object. Rather, it is occasioned by the moral law, which has no reference to me at all. The second distinction was between cases where the explicit description under which the object is loved is self-indexed and cases where it is not. Here Aquinas-Porter and Scotus-Kant would share common ground in saying that the self-indexed description need not be present to the mind of the agent. But what is at issue between the two positions is the former question: must the object be self-indexed if it to be intelligible to an agent? Aquinas-Porter says yes, and Scotus-Kant no.

Aquinas-Porter gives a second step in the proposed solution to the apparent contradiction of asserting both eudaemonism and the thesis that we should love God and the neighbor for their own sakes. The solution is to point to the fact that the individual belongs in a nested series of comprehensive general goods: the political community, the natural world, and God’s friends.

hare god's commandBoth sides agree God brings virtue and happiness together, but the anti-eudaemonist insists this is not a necessary connection, but one due to God’s providential care. This makes a difference to the kind of gratitude we have to God. It also reminds us of the possible conflict, and the need for a ranking. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things shall be added unto you.

Is it the case that the interest of the individual necessarily coincides with the true interests of the polis? Not necessarily, for what the polis might need is for me to hand the reins over to another, yet that might not be in my own interest. Even if we leave the Aristotelian framework, the possibility of tension between the true interests of the individual and of the state arises in the so-called problem of dirty hands. The state needs in its leadership people who are willing to compromise moral standards in a way that is inappropriate for private individuals. Moral compromises need to be made, and this is a cost to moral character that our leaders have to bear. Or consider surgeons who have to cut into living tissue on a regular basis, and who have to develop a certain kind of hardness of heart if they are going to do their jobs. This, too, is a kind of sacrifice of moral sensitivity they make. Or take the case of soldiers who have to be willing to become hardened to some degree about killing other people. It seems likely that there is some conflict between the interests of the state and of the individual. Remember the modal claim of Porter-Aquinas that there can’t be a conflict. For Kant divine assistance is needed to ensure there’s no conflict.

The second level in the nested series is the level of the natural world, or cosmos. Can we say that the interests of all the individuals who suffer and die in the course of evolution are somehow realized in the development of human beings? It seems doubtful that the whole created order exists for our sake. Kant’s own position is one that sees no natural coincidence of interest, but he agrees that humans can’t survive or flourish without the laws of nature in place.

The third level in the nested series is the community of the redeemed, the “friends of God.” Is it possible that the loss of salvation by some persons might be to the glory of God, and that charity might therefore require them to accept damnation? In previous generations, Calvinist congregations would regularly contain people who thought they were among the reprobate, but nonetheless attended divine worship with devotion, and no doubt tried to do their duties recognizing them as divine commands. Is such a frame of mind incoherent? If not, then surely there is not a necessary coincidence between my greatest good, in this case my salvation, and the glory of God. This mere possibility is enough to reject the necessary connection of the modal claim.

The point is just that God is not constrained here by necessity any more than we have necessity at the other two levels of the nested series. (I think I disagree with Hare here.) About all three levels we can that, if there is a harmony, it is a contingent harmony established because God is both, in Leibniz’s terms that Kant also uses, sovereign of “the kingdom of nature” and sovereign of “the kingdom of grace.”