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

 Summary by Frederick Choo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By David Baggett 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Dorothy Greco, Author of Making Marriage Beautiful

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

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

Dorothy Greco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.1 “Maimonides”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In Chapter 7, Hare explores the tensions between divine command theory and Jewish thinkers. Hare suggests that though there are important differences between the Abrahamic faiths, they nevertheless all “wrestle with the question of how divine command relates to human nature.”

In the first of three sections, Hare concerns himself with the thought of Maimonides, especially as he has been interpreted by Marvin Fox. One of the difficulties with understanding Maimonides is due to the esoteric nature of his work. On the surface, it seems that Maimonides presents and affirms many contradictory positions. Maimonides’ approach can sometimes obfuscate or confuse his meaning, so the first step to understanding his insights about the connection between natural law and divine command will be to determine how to interpret his The Guide for the Perplexed.

Hare considers three different hermeneutical approaches. The first approach comes from Leo Strauss. Strauss suggests that the seeming contradictions can be untangled by taking whatever position is least frequently mentioned as Maimonides’ actual view. But Hare thinks this approach is not well supported and leads to some awkward interpretations. Second, Fox argues that Maimonides wants his readers to hold the opposing views at the same time, but that these views are not actually contradictions. Fox thinks that this strategy is didactic; it is meant to ease the reader into deeper and deeper truths about God. Hare, however, thinks that such a practice will leave Maimonides’ thought forever in a fog and is uncharitable; therefore, Hare thinks we should adopt a third way. Hare thinks we should Maimonides as presenting opposing statements as only appearing to be contradictory and the right set of qualifications and context will dissolve the tension.

With a principled method for interpreting Maimonides in hand, Hare applies it Maimonides’ doctrine of the mean and account of the virtues. Hare takes Fox and his interpretation of Maimonides as a foil as he provides his own account. Fox thinks of Maimonides’ understanding of the virtues as deeply influenced by Aristotle. Even though Maimonides and Aristotle disagree, they both have a “doctrine of the mean.” Fox tries to show that Aristotle’s account of the virtues was established by appeal to nature. Supposedly, Aristotle determined what the virtues were and their character by grounding them in facts about human nature.

hare god's commandHare thinks Fox’s analysis of Aristotle goes wrong in two ways. First, the doctrine of the mean does not only seek to find the balance between human activities, like courage being between foolhardiness and cowardice. Often, virtue is correlated with a “peak” which might vary depending on context instead of a balance. The best number of calories to eat, for example, will depend on the activity and physiology of a particular person. There is no set number of calories that is exactly in the middle of two extremes which all people should eat. Secondly, Hare says that Aristotle never makes the connection between nature and the specific character of the virtues. Aristotle does, broadly, ground happiness in human nature and its proper function. But his specific characterization of proper function is primarily influenced by his own tradition, especially as it comes from Homer. Thus, Aristotle does not ground the specific requirements of the moral life in facts about nature and, therefore, Fox’s understanding of the disagreement between Maimonides and Aristotle is mistaken.

Hare thinks there are two fundamental differences between Aristotle and Maimonides. First, Maimonides is conscious of his use of sources outside his own tradition and argues for their legitimacy. This is important because it helps to demonstrate that Maimonides recognizes the cognitive value of philosophy in thinking about ethics. Aristotle, on the other hand, has his own sources but they come from within his tradition and he offers no argument for their use. The second difference has to do with the sources internal to their tradition. Aristotle says that God does not give commands, but that he serves the role of grounding what reason can determine. Maimonides, on the other hand, thinks God has given commands and that these commands have ontological and epistemic priority, but they can be shown to be consistent with proper human reason and nature. However, moral obligations are only obligatory because they are command by God. Man can see often that they are good, but their rightness supervenes on the divine command.

Hare’s final aim in his discussion of Maimonides is to correct the idea that he was a moral non-cognitivist. One motivation for the non-cognitivist view comes from Maimonides’ comments on the effects of the Fall. Prior to the Fall, Maimonides say that Adam could make “true judgments” and afterwards, he could only make judgments about what is “beautiful or ugly.” Fox argues, on the assumption that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive, plus Maimonides’ relative pessimism about human ability to discern the moral law, that this makes Maimonides a non-cognitivist.

Hare disagrees for two reasons. First, he thinks it is anachronistic to apply the label to Maimonides. Second, he argues that it is simply not true that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive. But then what did Maimonides mean in his comments about the Fall? Hare suggests that possibly Maimonides was merely indicating that human epistemic capacity is limited by the effects of the Fall. Maimonides intends for the move from truth to beauty to be a deterioration and Hare thinks that this deterioration has to do with man’s capacity to discern rightly objective truths. Without the proper relation to God, man can only judge from his perspective. These judgments will be based on convention and be provisional. However, God in his revelation of himself in the Torah, makes accommodation to man’s position while also providing them with moral truth. An example of this accommodation and restoration is the animal sacrifices. The moral truth is that God should be worshiped, but God accommodates this truth to man by allowing them to continue their “natural” practice of worship through sacrifice, but only when it is directed to him.

In this section, Hare wants to emphasize that Maimonides did not think that morality and reason are totally isolated; they are complementary. But this does not mean that the moral law can be discovered by reason, even if it can be shown to be rational after it is revealed.

 

Image: “Maimonides” By Unknown – Psychiatric News, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26202333

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, summary of “Prophetic Ethics” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

by Jeff Dickson

As Heltzel observes the contemporary moral sitz em leben he recognizes a need for the abandonment of what he refers to as a “one-sided emphasis on personal ethic to an ethic that is both personal and social.” To this end, he advocates for prophetic ethics that he defines as a moral theory that is committed to action, discipleship, embodiment, mission, justice, and love.

The Source and Shape of Prophetic Ethics

Heltzel claims that the Holy Scriptures in general and Jesus’ teachings/practices in particular, are the primary source of prophetic ethics. The contents of Jesus’ message and the character of his activity encouraged “shalom justice” and proclaimed “the kingdom of God” all in the context of “a Spirit led movement fueled by the fire of revolutionary love.” Stories of Jesus’s dealings with others ought to, according to Heltzel, steer Christians toward empathy for those who are “the least of these” and galvanize disciples toward compelling action in the context of transformational communities.

This requires that Christians know themselves and the context in which they live. If believers are to involve themselves in the justice movement, they must understand where they fit “within the travail and tragedy of human history, which is also the history of redemption.” In so doing, Christians are to take their cue from Christ’s example and act as moral agents who are sensitive to local conditions, events, circumstances, and actions.

81EExywD6iLSuch moral activity is supported by Heltzel’s interpretation of Micah 6:8. Therein, the prophet Micah challenges the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse satisfies what Heltzel believes are the three characteristics of prophetic ethics: faith-rooted organizing (acting justly), empathetic solidarity (loving mercy), and daily prayer (walking humbly with God). While these characteristics describe the praxis of prophetic ethics, Heltzel argues that such practices are rooted in the Hebrew Scripture’s imperative for justice and righteousness. When these two terms (tzadeqah and mishpat) are juxtaposed (see Psalm 33:5 and Jer. 9:23-24 for examples), Heltzel and others like Tim Keller believe that they convey the idea of social justice. As a result, what the Hebrews Scriptures advocate and what Jesus illustrates is a call not just to personal morality, but to appropriate social relations. Taking from Christ’s example, the believer ought to fight for the same in his/her context.

The Application of Prophetic Ethics

Though Love and justice most nearly categorize the moral norms of prophetic ethics, improvisation is its method. “Like a jazz musician improvising on standards,” Heltzel believes that “Jesus improvises on Scripture when he preaches and teaches.” This is most clearly witnessed in his exposition of the Old Testament law in Matthew 5-7. There, Jesus provides his commentary on the law and preaches a revised ethic that offers love and justice to an oppressed and broken people.

In similar ways, contemporary Christians ought to take the themes of love and justice that are articulated in the example of Jesus and improvise on their themes in a way that can speak to the issues that people are confronting.  Though the Black Lives Matter movement, death penalty opposition, and Martin Luther King Jr. are cited as examples of how this looks, prophetic ethics is satisfied anytime Christians “empathetically enter the experience of…fellow humans, especially the marginalized who are victims of violence,” and bring love and justice with them. Ultimatley, Heltzel and the prophetic ethic movement is calling Christians to prayerfully shrug off a deleterious preoccupation with personal righteousness and strive for social sanctity.

Virtue Ethics Response

Brad Kallenberg is sympathetic to Heltzer’s assessment of the church as overly individualistic and largely ignorant/avoidant of social involvement. Kallenberg also concurs with Heltzel’s emphasis on ethics as active and performative. However, Kallenberg believes that Heltzel’s system is not prepared to answer why this is the case. Also, using his own musical metaphor, Kallenberg criticizes prophetic ethics for not identifying any unifying/fundamental theme by which the many variations of moral improvisations Heltzel calls for can be rightly understood and applied.

Natural Law Response

Along with the other contributors to the volume, Claire Brown Peterson agrees with prophetic ethics’ call for a just society and prayerful, coordinated, open, and nonviolent campaigns to that end. However, she criticizes prophetic ethics in general and Heltzel in particular on three fronts. First, while advocating for social justice, prophetic ethics does not elucidate how the requirements of justice must reference human nature and flourishing. Second, in its appeal for society, Heltzel largely ignores the necessary private dimensions of ethical consideration. Finally, Heltzel’s iteration of prophetic ethics makes it appear as those collective organization and embodied solidarity are the only appropriate responses to injustices when more choices are, in fact, available.

Divine Command Theory Response

Divine command theorist John Hare widely concedes the crux of what Heltzel has offered inasmuch as prophetic ethics is predominately based on prophetic commands divinely given in the Scriptures. However, Hare wonders if Heltzel does not draw an unnecessary dichotomy between personal purity and concern for others. Also, while Hare appreciates Heltzel’s emphasis on Jesus “prophetic” work, he wishes that prophetic ethics would not dismiss his roles as priest (committed to holiness and sacrifice) and king (exercising stewardship over the created realm). Finally, Hare questions whether or not it is appropriate to describe Jesus’s preaching as improvising on the Scripture and if more work needs to be done to improve this analogy.

 

John Hare, summary of “Divine Command Theory” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

by Jeff Dickson

Moral Right and Wrong

In his chapter on divine command theory (DCT), John Hare argues that “what makes something morally wrong…is that God forbids it, and what make something morally right…is that God requires it.” To this end, Hare first defines moral obligation (moral right and moral wrong). Although Hare reveals that other explanations for moral obligation exist (divine command consequentialism, divine command virtue ethics, etc.), he decides to couch moral obligation within a Kantian framework, particularly the categorical imperative. Any moral consideration that is capable of being willed as a universal law and treats individuals as ends instead of mean is understood as right (morally obligatory). Any decision that transgresses/distorts these formulas are understood as wrong.

Divine Command

For Hare, “the purpose of commands is for the speaker to effect change in the world through the expression of her will.” But how? Hare is especially concerned about those divine commands that can be characterized as precepts and prohibitions. When given by divine authority, these seem to bring about a reason for acting in accordance with the command issued. To frame how this happens, Hare returns to Kant for an analogy. Kant understood the state as an arbiter of external freedom. It issues commands and establishes “sanctions” in an effort to supply such freedom to its citizens. Similarly, God provides commands and endorses sanctions for noncompliance in an effort to provide something good for morally free beings to enjoy. Such commands ought to be followed (like the laws of the state), not out of fear of punishment, but out of respect for what is being provided.  In both cases, there is a union of wills between authority and subject—the authority seeks good for his subjects and the subject complies with commands to that end.

The Relation between Moral Obligation and Divine Command

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To highlight the relationship between moral obligation and divine command, Hare discards Philip Quinn’s assertion that divine commands cause obligation and rejects the notion that divine commands constitute obligation (Robert Adams). In their place, Hare offers his own proposal—God wills obligations via commands by means of what John Austin refers to as an “explicit performatives.” Like a king who declares laws into existence, God commands obligations simply “because of the necessity of the judgment that God is to be obeyed.”

Answers to Objections

Against those who believe that such a theory leads to an infinite regress (Why does one obey what God says? Why does someone do that? and so on),  Hare argues, along with Ockham, that if God exists and is impeccably good, obedience to him is required. This conclusion keeps the “vicious regress” from progressing ad infinitum.  Against those who claim God’s commands are arbitrary, Hare concludes, along with Adams and others, that God chooses what is right from what is good and this is rooted in who he is. Against those who believe DCT renders humans infantile, Hare argues that human sophistication is sustained by how commands and given and how humanity fits within the arc of God’s grand metanarrative. Against those who believe that DCT establishes an unassailable gulf between theists and non-theists, Hare states that divine commands provide a basis for obligations felt by believers and nonbelievers alike.

Responses

Virtue Ethics Response

Virtue ethics expositor Brad Kallenberg admires Hare’s commitment to moral obligation as “internally related” to the command of God. That said, there are three primary objections Kallenberg has with DCT in general and Hare’s delineation of this program in particular. First, Kallenberg does not appreciate how Hare couches DCT in individualistic terms. He wonders why Hare does not make more of the fact that divine commands are typically issued to a group. He also wishes that a distinction had been drawn between the compelling nature of commands as revealed to individuals verses a collective.  Second, Kallenberg asks how someone is supposed to tell the difference between divine invitation, advice, and command, as Hare does not articulate any meaningful ways of deciphering such. Finally, Kallenberg takes issue with the way in which Hare conflates what he refers to as an “overly generic” interpretation of Kant with J. L. Austin’s speech act theory.

Natural Law Response

In her response to Hare’s presentation, Claire Brown Peterson concedes two of DCT’s major commitments: 1) “certain actions can be objectively good or bad even if God does not command those actions” and 2) “any action, (good, bad, or neutral) becomes obligatory once God commands it (and wrong once God prohibits its).” However, she disagrees with the idea that “no action is obligatory unless God has commanded it (and no action is wrong unless God has prohibited it).” Peterson believes that if obligations are rooted in revealed speech acts of God, then it becomes difficult to explain morality in those who are not cognizant of such communication. Many who may not be privy to revealed speech acts seem to understand something of what is right and wrong and behave accordingly (at least some of the time and even then imperfectly). Ultimately, Peterson does not believe that if people know God would want people to do X then God has issued a command to do X.

Prophetic Ethics Response

Prophetic ethicist Peter Goodwin Heltzel is skeptical of what he identifies as Hare’s reliance on “Kant of Konigsberg” over “Jesus of Nazareth.” In fact, Heltzel goes so Hare as to suggest that “Kant provides Hare with a philosophical vehicle…for a distinctively Christian command ethics.” This heavy endorsement of Kant is suspect inasmuch as Kant mistakenly advocated for racial and gender hierarchies. Heltzel would have preferred that Hare construct his argument on the foundation of Christ, not the philosopher who (according to Heltzel) proved to be an inspiration behind western imperialism.

Chapter 6, God and Cosmos, “Moral Knowledge” (Epistemic)

 

by Frederick Choo

To start off this chapter, Baggett and Walls give a set of scenarios. Suppose you look at a clock tower at 2 o’clock and form the belief that it is 2 o’clock. The first scenario is the discursive knowledge case. The clock is accurate and fully functional in this case. Given this, one seems to have justification and (inferential) knowledge. The second scenario is the nondiscursive knowledge scenario. While the clock is accurate and fully functional, one does not infer the time from such factors. Rather, having glanced at the clock, you simply find yourself believing it’s 2 o’clock. Or you intuitively know the time accurately without even looking at the clock (though this seems farfetched for us in the actual world). The point here is that this is something more intuitive and perhaps even properly basic, which counts as knowledge.

The third case is a Gettier case. Suppose that the clock broke 24 hours before. It is just a coincidence that you look at the clock at 2 o’clock. Here Baggett and Walls distinguish between objective justification and subjective justification. Objectively speaking, one lacks justification because one is relying on a defective clock. However, one has subjective justification because one has no reason to suspect that the clock is broken and has good reason to believe that it is 2 o’clock. However, one presumably lacks knowledge in this case. The last scenario is the random time scenario. Suppose that the clock was never made to give accurate times, but instead its hands are guided by a random set of electronic signals. So the clock gives the time it does because of causes which are completely disconnected from the actual time. Suppose it gives the time 7:15 when you know well that it is early afternoon. Here there is no knowledge and no justification to think that the time indicated is accurate.

While some may think that naturalism rules out moral knowledge, it does not mean that naturalists lack moral knowledge. For them (and everyone else) to lack moral knowledge, it must be that naturalism rules out moral knowledge and that naturalism is true. However, Baggett and Walls want to maintain that naturalists have moral knowledge.

They start by discussing discursive moral knowledge. Consider three categories of people. The first have argued that on naturalism, both morality and logic lose their validity. Some examples are C. S. Lewis, Victor Reppert and Alvin Plantinga.

The second, such as J. L. Mackie, Richard Joyce, E. O. Wilson, and Michael Ruse, argue that on naturalism, theoretical reasoning retains its power and validity, but normative moral categories are lost.

The last category of people think that reason (and logic) is reliable, and so we should think that morality should be thought of as reliable too. Such are moral realists like Derek Parfit, Erik Wielenberg, David Brink, and David Enoch.51PlwfRvNxL._SY445_QL70_

For example, they may say that we are committed to the existence of other norms of reasoning with the same ontological and epistemological properties as moral ones. Angus Ritchie (a theist) argues that there are true statements which (1) are both descriptive of entities and are also prescriptive to those rational agents who come to know their truth, and (2) they are neither analytic nor knowable by empirical research alone. Ritchie identifies norms of theory choice in the physical sciences. Some call these epistemic norms. Ritchie uses inference to the best explanation (IBE) as an example. Physicists routinely make such inferences. The principle is both descriptive and normative, for it tells us what we ought to accept on the basis of evidence generated by empirical observation and experimentation.

Hence based on IBEs, we are committed to the existence of synthetic a priori imperatives. David Enoch takes another approach by arguing that human beings can’t help but engage in explanatory projects in order to make sense of the world. Since the practice of explanation is indispensable, and principles of IBE are indispensable to that practice, we have to take their deliverances seriously. Ritchie further conjoins this with the practice of reflective equilibrium where we take singular intuitively compelling judgments and systematize them into general rules.

Next Baggett and Walls discuss nondiscursive moral knowledge. Psychologists distinguish between the “adaptive unconscious,” whose operations are fast, automatic, and effortless, and the operations of the conscious mind, which are slow and require work. The former is known as System 1 and the latter as System 2. Some knowledge is nondiscursive. Some, like Plantinga, have argued that certain beliefs are rational, justified, and warranted without being evidentially supported by other propositions because they are properly basic. Baggett and Walls suggest that it is reasonable to think that certain foundational, axiomatic moral convictions might qualify as properly basic beliefs.

Baggett and Walls next discuss moral Gettier cases. Angus Menuge says that the shared claimed of variants of evolutionary ethics (EE) is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history, which is contingent and could have been different. He makes a distinction where weak EE says that it is only our moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had evolved differently, while strong EE says that moral ontology itself (what actually is right or wrong) would be different if we evolved differently.

Strong EE’s main problem is that it makes human rights contingent. It cannot account for moral values and obligations well. Furthermore, Menuge points out that if rights are based on our natural capacities, then some individuals who suffer physical or mental defects do not have rights. Another point is that natural selection may explain what is good for an organism, in that certain characteristics can increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Yet the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.

Weak EE on the other hand gives us no grounds for thinking that we could know moral reality. On weak EE, it seems that one is right just by mere coincidence, since our epistemic moral faculties are not properly connected to moral truth. Erik Wielenberg replies that it is a mistake to assume that humans could have evolved with radically different moral principles from the ones we actually possess. While he admits some luck is involved, he does not think it is significant since the same luck afflicts many of our nonmoral beliefs also.

Baggett and Walls now discuss the challenge to justified moral beliefs. If moral beliefs are not dependent on the relevant moral truth-makers, then a tracking relation has not been established to show that our moral judgments essentially depend on actual moral truth. Gilbert Harman, for example, says that if moral beliefs can be given an evolutionary explanation, then they can be explained without appealing to their truth, and thus moral beliefs lack justification. Many others such as Guy Kahane, Michael Ruse, Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville have advanced similar evolutionary debunking arguments.

Street, for example, assumes that our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed but asks if they are also truth-aimed. If there is no fitness-truth relation, then we should be skeptical about morality. If there is a fitness-truth relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the tracking relation) or simply because of the fitness they have conferred (the adaptive link account). The adaptive link account leads to constructivism. The moral realist needs a tracking account but this seems implausible. A tracking account of paternal instincts, for example, has to say that such instincts were favored not just because such behavior preserved DNA, but also because it is independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Richard Joyce thinks similarly, yet thinks that there is wisdom in a fictionalist approach to ethics, acting as if there are binding moral truths for the purpose of social harmony.

How do secularists respond to the challenge? Baggett and Walls first consider replies by secular naturalists who take moral properties to be natural properties. They examine the Cornell realist account advanced by Boyd, Brink, and Sturgeon. Sturgeon replies to Harman by saying that moral facts are explanatorily relevant. Sturgeon thinks that moral facts are commonly and plausibly thought to have explanatory relevance since many moral explanations appear to be good explanations. Consider the case of Hitler. Harman thinks that we should not think that, over and above such natural facts about Hitler as his anti-semitism and will to power, there is a moral fact of Hitler’s depravity. Sturgeon follows Kripke in suggesting that moral terms rigidly designate natural properties, so moral terms pick out natural properties and track them. Justice, for example, picks out some properties such as equity displayed in the distribution of societal goods. This, however, seems to embrace weak EE which seems saddled with an intractable epistemic challenge.

Baggett and Walls then consider instead secular accounts which take moral properties to be non-natural properties (which supervene on natural properties). Neither David Enoch nor Erik Wielenberg provides a tracking account and, and both concede that our moral judgments are not likely directly caused by the relevant moral truths. Instead, they endorse a “third factor” explanation. If we can explain why (1) x causes y, and (2) x entails z, then we have explained why y and z go together.

For example, on one view in philosophy of mind, brain state B causes action A, and B entails mental state M (M supervenes on B), therefore we can explain why M and A go together. Enoch says that this is a (Godless) pre-established-harmony type of explanation. Enoch’s solution assumes that survival or reproductive success is at least somewhat good generally. Next he says that evolutionary selective forces have shaped our normative judgments and beliefs with the aim of survival or reproductive success. So the fact that survival is good pre-establishes the harmony between the normative truths and our normative beliefs. While Baggett and Walls think that Enoch’s approach has potential, they point out that other worldviews can also affirm the value of human beings and their survival, and arguably better.

Wielenberg’s approach is similar but identifies a different third factor. His third factor is certain cognitive faculties. He says that relevant cognitive faculties entail the presence of moral rights and generate beliefs about such rights. How do those faculties entail moral rights? Briefly, he thinks that in light of our cognitive faculties that recognize overriding normative reasons to act, rights are thereby entailed. The primary reservation Baggett and Walls have regarding Wielenberg’s account is ontological. They think his account does not do justice to the authority of morality, and does not satisfactory explain the existence of binding moral obligations and human rights.

To support the claim that theism better explains our moral knowledge than secular accounts, Baggett and Walls look to Ritchie. In From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments, Ritchie advances a moral argument for God by accomplishing three central tasks. First he presses the distinction between justification and explanation of moral truths. Second, he engages secular accounts that address moral cognition. Lastly, he defends the theistic alternative. Ritchie asks three questions about the genesis and justification of our cognitive capacities. (1) What is the justification for our faith in their reliability? (2) What is the historical explanation for their development? (3) What is the explanation for their capacity for tracking truth? Ritchie grants the naturalist moral justification and even moral knowledge, but argues that naturalism fails to explain the truth-tracking ability of our moral cognition. He thinks that natural selection can tell a story of how humans come to have truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning, namely, that we will survive better if we hold true beliefs that derive from theoretical reasoning. However, he denies that such correlation is nearly so plausible in the moral case. He thinks that a value system based on survival, replication, and pleasure alone is inadequate. He thinks that there needs to be a wider teleological explanation, one that ultimately involves the intentions of God.

In summary, Baggett and Walls think that (assuming moral realism) moral knowledge is possible. Naturalism faces some challenges from those who Gettierize or challenge naturalists on the issue of moral justification. Instead of arguing that naturalism cannot account for moral knowledge, Baggett and Walls grants moral knowledge but thinks that theism provides a better explanation of our knowledge than naturalism. While they admit that third factor solutions seem to have potential, such solutions are entirely consistent with theism, and in Enoch’s case theism seems to feature better resources to deploy such a solution. So in agreement with Ritchie, they conclude that even if moral knowledge is consistent with naturalism, a better explanation is a theistic one.

 

Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Natural Law” by Peterson

Summary by Jeff Dickson 

Natural Law representative Claire Brown Peterson understands her ethical system as the theory that “morality is rooted in … who we are as human beings.” Peterson believes that like the other theories represented in this volume, what is being delineated in her programs is “true morality—how human beings really ought to live and relate…” However, what distinguishes her program from the others is that natural law theory grounds morality in the following facts: 1) humans are creatures that are capable of recognizing the good and the pursuit thereof, 2) humans are the kinds of machines that operate most effectively when certain phenomena are satisfied in optimum ways (needs, limitations, purposes, capabilities, etc.). These inner-workings of the human person point to those morals that, if endorsed, allow the human to thrive both individually and collectively. Peterson argues that while there are various ways to morally thrive, any compelling ethic must adhere to God’s grand moral theme for the human person. Such a theme offers individuals and communities the freedom to pursue morality in many different, yet consistent, ways.

Human Nature and Human Purposes

For Peterson, moral living is realized when people live according to their human nature—“the perfect definition of a human being.” This human nature was present before the fall and remains present today (albeit imperfectly). Knowledge of and adherence to one’s human nature is acutely inhibited by a competing sin nature. This is why, according to the author, special revelation is necessary as it correctly diagnoses the human condition and “clarifies what sin obscures.” Such revelation guides individuals in how to live consistently with his/her original nature and, as a result, affects personal and social good.

From Human Nature to Natural Law and the Knowledge thereof

Performing the kind of good that is consistent with one’s human nature requires cooperation with other moral agents. While both Christians and non-Christians are able to recognize this, Peterson suggests that only the biblical narrative is able to delineate how and why this is the case. According to the Scriptures, humanity was created in the image of God for relationship with God and others and in an effort to enjoy and care for the created order. To satisfy this purpose and live up to their created nature, Peterson believes humans must adhere to the natural law of God—a law that even non-Christians can understand to a certain degree.

Natural Law and Moral Guidance

That said, because one’s knowledge of the law of God and their human nature is incomplete and out of focus, guidance is required. According to Peterson, guidance of this sort comes by “recognizing factors potentially at stake in your choice(s) and how you can responsibly inhabit whichever path you choose,” making sure that such choices are consistent with God’s grand theme. While adherence to God’s grand theme can take on many forms, Peterson argues that such forms will not violate the law of human nature (that is the “perfect definition of a human being”).

What Difference does God Make?

After applying this theory to a hypothetical moral dilemma, Peterson identifies the role that God plays in her theory. In so doing, the author imagines a moral universe in which God does not exist. Such a world would be, in Peterson’s view, morally impoverished for the following reasons: 1) there would be no hope for contact with the divine, 2) no expectation for extreme transformation and healing, and 3) there would be no guarantee that anyone would pursue the ultimate good for all humanity. Therefore, Peterson believes that God provides a compelling telos, real moral change, and a standardizing theme that benefits both individuals and the world.

Responses

Natural Law Response

Kallenberg appreciates Peterson’s insistence that certain things ought to behave in certain ways based on what they are (humans ought to behave in certain ways because of their given human nature). In this way, Peterson is able to circumvent Hume’s complaint that moving from fact to value is somehow guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. However, by way of improving Peterson’s presentation, Kallenberg offers two pieces of advice. First, Kallenberg believes that natural law ethics ought to be considered as a component of virtue ethics (following Aquinas’ Summa Theologica). Second, Kallenberg recommends that Peterson should avoid the tendency to frame the human person as a static thing that can be nailed down by means of perfect definitions. Instead, he believes that humans are living and emerging organisms that can live rightly in many different ways.

Divine Command Theory Response

The most pointed criticism of Peterson’s work comes from divine command theorist John Hare. He takes issue with Peterson’s proclivity to use many different terms for the relation between morality and human nature. He also calls attention to Peterson’s avoidance of Scotus who, like Hare, denies that moral law can be understood primarily from one’s nature or that one would understand from its terms how people ought to live. Most fundamentally, Hare believes that Peterson’s program is not prepared to deduce moral obligation from an investigation of human nature. This is betrayed in natural law theory’s inability to provide compelling answers to questions like “why should we do this or that?” and “how do I know that this is right or wrong?” Hare is also skeptical of how highly Peterson speaks of the human capacity to know moral law (especially those who are not Christian).

Prophetic Ethics Response

In his response to Peterson’s presentation Peter Goodwin Heltzel states that Christians ought to be concerned about being conformed to Christ instead of their human nature. This seems especially appropriate when one considers that while Christ is constant, the culture’s understanding of human nature is ever-changing. Heltzel also believes that Peterson does not appreciate the noetic effects of the fall as much as she should. As a result, he argues that she is wrong to entertain that humans can adequately discern something of their nature and moral purpose.  Though God’s common grace does provide humans with a conscience, Heltzel concludes that even this is “muted and marred” and, as a result, “nature as a source of ethics at best is ambiguous and at its worst can be downright dangerous.”

 

Image: This is a detail from a mural by fra Filippo Lippi in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. It is entitled ‘The Triumph of St Thomas’. CC license. 

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