Skip to main content

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.

On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics

 

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

By David Baggett 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast: Dr. Chad Thornhill on Election, Moral Performance, Culpability, and the Character of God

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

This is a two part series. In this first part, we discuss the nature of human freedom and some questions related to moral performance and the moral argument.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 1)

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

Podcast: Dr. Gary Yates on the Character of God and the Problem of the Canaanite Conquest

On this week’s episode, we have an in depth conversation with Dr. Gary Yates concerning what the Old Testament says about the goodness of God. One of the main aims is to turn back objections that are often raised in light of the Canaanite Conquest. By the end of the conversation, Dr. Yates explains how an honest reading of the Old Testament is compatible with character of God we see revealed in Jesus.


 

Photo: “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon” by John Martin. Public Domain from NGA.GOV.