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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.

 

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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. 

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

Summary by Jeff Dickson

What is virtue Ethics?

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

Who are the “We?”

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

What is “Ought?”

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

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

Responses

Natural Law Response

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

Divine Command Theory Response

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

Prophetic Ethics Response

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

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

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Faith: Book Reviews – God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning


The folks at Faith have provided a thoughtful review of God and Cosmos. God and Cosmos was co-authored by MoralApologetics.com’s Executive Editor, David Baggett.

Excerpt:

The positive points in this book far outweigh the negative. It convincingly argues that the Christian contribution to the moral debate is a way back for society, and especially the younger generation, to appreciate the true value of a Christian belief.

For the full review, click here

 

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

 

Summary by Jeff Dickson

 

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

Virtue Ethics

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

Natural Law

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

Divine Command Theory

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

Prophetic Ethics

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

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

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

 

 

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

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.3, “Al-Maturidi”

summary by David Baggett

What’s the relation Al-Maturidi sees between reason and revelation? He claims there are three possible outcomes of reasoning. The first is that the thinker will be led to the knowledge of being created and to see that he has a Creator who will reward him for his good and punish him for his bad deeds, which will inspire him to adopt that which pleases Him. The second is that the thinker will deny all this, and indulge himself in all kinds of pleasure, which will have its consequence in the hereafter. The third is that the thinker will be led to the realization of the incomprehensibility of knowledge and its reality which inspired him to search, but then his heart will rest and the pain will disappear that afflicts him when he tries to think. He doesn’t think the second outcome will happen, and that reasoning, whether on the first outcome or third, will be a gain to the thinker in all of its aspects.

He thinks that God has both given us a sign by way of which we can know God’s command, and He has stirred our mind to thought and reminded us of the various consequences of our actions. So if we disobey God, it’s only because we abandon the pursuit of reasoning and this is our fault. So we’ll be judged by the very thing that could have excused us. This is a result of our own act. Ignorance is no excuse, and that’s because God has given both the sign and the prompting, which are in happy harmony. Reflection will lead to belief in the very God who gives the command.

The important point here is al-Maturidi’s use of the language of “both/and,” in what Hare calls “two methods.” They are both theoretical intuition and the way of revelation. The way of revelation is clear, accessible within the domain of perceptible things. The way of speculative thought is hidden. It may start from something like theoretical intuition, but it requires difficult reflection about things that are beyond the reach of the senses. He makes these partners, though not equal partners.

Al-Maturidi also gives a role to reason in checking the reliability of reports. We need speculative thinking not merely to reflect about that which is beyond the reach of the senses, but also to check the kind of reports that may or may not be erroneous. He accepts the principle of credulity: that human beings have to rely on the reports of others and should therefore give initial credence to what someone tells them, as well as to what they receive through the senses and through reason. But what is received may be true or false, and needs to be tested by a form of knowledge that can discriminate between reliable and unreliable testimony. Al-Maturidi holds that the divine report (the Qur’an) and the Prophet’s personal reports pass this test, and are supported by the consensus of the faithful and by clear miraculous signs. But historical reports in general, and some of the traditions about the Prophet, do not have this degree of reliability.

Reason also has the function of showing that the universe has a purpose, being made by a rational Creator, for whom to act unwisely is a bad thing, who combines that which is properly combined and divides that which is properly divided, and who directs human beings in their different desires, divergent natures, and their various passions. He does, however, acknowledge that our reason has its own proper limits. For example, he thought Aristotle was misled by too ambitious an account of analogy.

We might say that al-Maturidi gives the place of a junior partner to reason in relation to divine command. It’s not, as in al-Jabbar, that revelation merely gives us instruments to what are already known as ends by reason. It’s not, as in al-Ash’ari, that reason simply works out the implications of what is already given by revelation. We could put the matter this way. For both al-Jabbar and al-Ash’ari there is only one final place for access to our proper ends; for the Mu’tazilite it is reason, and for al-Ash’ari it is revelation. But for al-Maturidi there are two, and they are mutually reinforcing. This is not to say that they are equal in status, for our human rational faculties were originated as finite and therefore are short of grasping the absolute reality of things. This is because the rational faculties are parts of the world which is in its entirety finite. The Qur’an is, al-Ash’ari and al-Maturidi agree, God’s own eternal word, received by the Prophet. But in the view of al-Maturidi, God has stirred our minds to be receptive to another source of value, the reason that God himself has for his command, and though we are divided in our nature, and our access to this source of value is not always reliable, we have been given difficult and partial access if we do the necessary hard work.

What can a divine command theorist learn from al-Maturidi? Many things, but here are three. First, it is consistent to hold both that God makes the divine command intelligible to us, even sometimes giving us access to the divine reason for the command, and to say that our access is only partial and difficult. The combination here comes from the fact that our nature is divided. God’s commands are more helpful even than our knowledge of ourselves. Second, it is consistent to hold both that we have the power to act in opposite ways, and that what we do is determined by the divine decree. This decree needs to be distinguished into what God reveals to us as the divine preference, which we can disappoint, and God’s final effective command, which always brings overall good. The three linked distinctions—between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitudes, and two kinds of divine decree—start to give us a way to hold together God’s sovereignty with our freedom. Finally, we can see in al-Maturidi an acknowledgment of the authority of both reason and revelation. He refuses to reduce the final authority of revelation to that of reason or vice versa. Reason is a junior partner; the idea is we need both, and not merely instrumentally. This is important for anyone living in a pluralistic culture. To some limited extent (because reason is the junior partner), we can rely on what is common between traditions to adjudicate disagreements between them.

In all three of these ways it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi with Scotus. The two play some of the same mediating roles in the debates within their own communities. First, like al-Maturidi, Scotus is hesitant to allow a deduction from our nature to the moral law. They both thought there’s a consonance or fittingness of the commandments with our essence, and that our essence is to be pilgrims on the way to a certain relation to God. But our composite nature makes the deduction problematic, even though we can see the fittingness with our reason. Second, Scotus holds that we have the power of opposites, which is like al-Maturidi’s first kind of power. But God’s generosity leads to our good, despite our tendency towards what is not good. This generosity is consistent with the divine justice that punishes us when we fail to do what God commands by the revealed divine will. Finally, Scotus has the same combination of trust in human reason and emphasis on its limitations. He gives what is probably the most complex rational argument for the existence of God in the whole of Christian scholastic philosophy, and he is insistent on the need and capability of “right reason” to work out how we ought to live. On the other hand, he thinks we don’t know our own (individual) essence, or the essence of God, or who the people are that God has elected for salvation [I think that individualist take on election is wrong], and he is hesitant about saying that we know by reason what God must do.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari doesn’t reject the use of reason, but he does wish to reject the Mu’tazilite approach, but not to stop doing theology. Rather, he wished to use it for the defense of a more traditional doctrine. He uses reason conspicuously. But the relation between reason and revelation is approximately the opposite way round from how al-Jabbar describes it. Al-Ash’ari operates on the assumption that the Qur’an and the Traditions are to be interpreted literally wherever this is possible. He acknowledges that the Qur’an does also sometimes speak metaphorically, but he thinks the literal interpretation should be used when it isn’t impossible.

His second major criticism of the Mu’tazilites is that they hold the Qur’an to be created, whereas al-Ash’ari holds that it was recorded in time, but is itself eternal. The most important point for our purposes is that al-Ash’ari does not think we are justified in holding revelation to some standard of interpretation external to it. God gives guidance, he says, to the faithful, and not to the unfaithful (infidels). The Qur’an has a verse that teaches that the Prophet warns both the one who follows and the one who does not, the unfaithful one. Al-Ash’ari concludes from this that guidance and warning are different. The revelation warns both faithful and unfaithful, but only guides the faithful, and there are some warnings also that are given only to the faithful. The point is just that al-Ash’ari can’t allow what the Mu’tazilites assert, namely, that the guidance gives all human beings what they then recognize as means to what their reason already prescribed for them.

We can relate al-Ash’ari’s position about the sources of theological knowledge to the four traditional sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an, the Traditions, the consensus of the faithful, and analogical deduction from Scripture. Of these the first two are given by revelation. For al-Ash’ari, the third (consensus), as it applies to theological knowledge, is also given by special divine grace. But this is not because of a general truth about communities of religious believers, but because of a special dispensation given to Muslims. The fourth source, analogy, is likewise strictly restricted in its theological use to what is implied by the revealed texts themselves. Sometimes we can tell from a scriptural prescription what God’s reason is for prescribing in this way, and sometimes we can apply that reason to cases analogous to the original case. But the point is that al-Ash’ari, in accepting these four traditional sources, is not putting them under two mutually independent headings, revelation encompassing the first two and reason the second two. Rather, the second two depend for their authority on special revelation.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3, “Revelation and Reason”

summary by David Baggett

All three of our authors have an important place for both revelation and reason, but they describe the relation between the two sources of knowledge differently. The term ‘revelation’ is a convenience, but is potentially misleading. It would be better, but cumbersome, to talk about God’s deliverances through the Scriptures and the Traditions.

6.3.1 “‘Abd al-Jabbar”

Al-Jabbar makes a distinction between necessary knowledge and acquired knowledge. Necessary knowledge, unlike acquired knowledge, is known immediately and is known by all sane adult human beings. This includes knowledge from sense perceptions and rules of logic and knowledge of one’s own mental states. The most important for present purposes are certain moral truths and reliable reports. An adult with sound mind necessarily knows the evil of wrongdoing, the evil of being ungrateful to a benefactor, and the evil of lying if it is not intended to bring about benefit or to repel harm. One also knows the goodness of compassion and giving. These moral principles are the basis for rational obligations. Knowledge of reliable reports is also necessary for knowledge, and is required for religious obligation, which is a part of obligation not known by reason—like the obligation to pray and fast.

So al-Jabbar gives a kind of priority to reason over revelation. Neither revelation nor reason makes something right or wrong. But the right that revelation indicates, reason sees is instrumental towards a right that reason already knows. We know by necessary knowledge that we should choose our duty, and revelation tells us that prayer is conducive to this end. There is a difference between intrinsic wrongs and things that are wrong by relation to their consequences, such as the wrongs of the Law, which are only wrong inasmuch as they lead to the performance of a rational wrong or ceasing to perform certain duties. This does not mean, however, that revelation is redundant. One may not know, before being told, how to achieve the end in question, and one also may be insufficiently motivated.

The opponents of the Mu’tazilites tended to object that the moral principles that are supposed to be necessarily known, and so known to all sane adults, are in fact not known by all. There is, in fact, widespread disagreement. For example, the nomadic Bedouins of Arabia approve the practice of plunder. But this does not mean that there is disagreement here about the principle that injustice is prohibited; it’s just that Bedouins have a different conception of private property. But it’s hard to see that the objection from disagreement can be overcome in this way. To be sure, ‘injustice’ is named together with the wrong and so anyone who agrees that some act is unjust is going to agree that it is wrong; but the relevant disagreement is surely about what kinds of act are unjust.

So take lying. One might object that this is not something about which all sane adults agree, and indeed many of al-Jabbar’s own opponents disagreed with him, holding that it would be right to lie to save the life of a prophet. But the case of lying is anomalous here, and it may be that the operative conception of lying is already evaluatively laden. There is nothing implausible, Hare writes, about holding that there are very general principles that are very widely shared across human cultures, as long as one does not insist that they generate absolute prohibitions.

According to al-Jabbar, we need to distinguish rational worship and religious worship. Both kinds involve obligations that are assigned by God. This seems to imply that we can worship rationally by obedience to the principles that are necessarily known, even if we do not know about God, and even if the obedience is not consciously directed towards God. On this view, it is only in relation to religious worship that God must be “described with every and each action,” to use al-Maturidi’s terms.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.3, “Al-Maturidi,”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Maturidi’s complex views on human freedom and divine command are best understood through three distinctions that he makes, distinctions between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitude, and two kinds of divine decree. Let’s start with the two kinds of power. Of these, the second kind of power is relatively straightforward. It’s the power not definable except as the power to perform the act at the time of the act. But acknowledging this kind of power is consistent with acknowledging a different kind of power, the first kind. What is this kind? It’s the human capacity to act in two opposite ways.

Al-Maturidi says God makes us responsible for things that are hard and easy, steep and level, and gives us principles by which to attain every virtue. He holds that everyone knows that he is the one who chooses to do what he is doing, even though the theological determinists deny this. The picture of the two powers we are given is that the first power precedes the act, and it is a power to choose, and the second power performs the act and is concurrent with the action. Both powers are the gift of God. The action that is taken by the second power must be the action that is chosen by the first power, since al-Maturidi says the action is performed “through” the choice made by the first power.

This brings us to the second distinction, between two kinds of divine attitude. It’s similar to the earlier distinction between decreeing and determining in the sense of producing something and decreeing and determining in the sense of commanding it. But whereas al-Ash’ari resists the implication that there exist things of which God disapproves (because he doesn’t want to attribute weakness to God), al-Maturidi gives us a way to take the distinction inside God’s will, without losing God’s global providential control. This solution distinguishes between satisfaction and will in general. But this isn’t intelligible until we have described the third distinction al-Maturidi makes, namely, the distinction between two kinds of divine decree.

The first decree is the definition with which things come into existence. In something like this sense God has said, “Surely we have created everything by a decree.” About the second kind of decree, al-Maturidi says, “Nor with regard to the second is it possible for human beings to determine their actions with respect to time and place, nor does their knowledge attain this. And so in this respect, too, it is not possible for it to be by them, such that their actions do not come to be from God.

What is the difference between these two kinds of decree, which we can refer to (somewhat imprecisely) as the “absolute decree” and the “detailed decree”? It’s noteworthy that the “absolute” decree is an evaluation that is all good for the object because the decree comes from divine wisdom and knowledge. The “detailed decree,” though, is of the coming-to-be of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and foolishness. When al-Maturidi talks of the distinction between satisfaction and will, he has in mind (under “will”) that everything is good that is created by the absolute decree in its final connection with everything else in the history of the universe, and is under God’s working all things together for good. But when each type of action is put together with its results and circumstances, but still isolated from the final disposition of the whole universe, it can be good or evil. [Is the intimation that in ultimate context it ceases being, say, bad when it was bad before? That seems to confuse something being good versus something being used for good. An evil redeemed doesn’t mean it’s not evil.] God chooses to reward in accordance with the “detailed decree” only what satisfies Him and to punish only those “He does not like.” But God by His absolute decree and in His absolute power turns even the evil that we choose into good. [How can evil change into good?] One way to put this would be to use a distinction al-Maturidi does not: a murder can still be wrong even though God turns it to good. [Yes, and this is exactly the confusion: it’s not turned into something good, but it’s rather used to bring about some good.] Hare says if this is al-Maturidi’s picture, he has a way to repair the fissure in the providential circle that would otherwise result. It will still be the case that we can attribute the whole final circle to God’s good care.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.2., “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Of al-Ash’ari’s ten objections to the Mu’tazilites, three have to do with the matters discussed here (human freedom). The Mu’tazilites assert that human beings create evil, they think that God may wish what is not and that what He does not wish may be, and they think that they alone, and not their Lord, have power over their works. Al-Ash’ari responds that he who doesn’t will the existence of anything except what exists, and nothing exists except what he wills, and nothing is remote from his will, is the worthier of the attribute of divinity. If there are under His authority the existence of things of which He disapproves, this shows an attribute of weakness and poverty. Such a being would be weak in comparison with the sovereign omnipotent God of the tradition.

It’s tempting to think of al-Ash’ari as privileging God’s omnipotence over God’s justice, but this is not how he sees it. He is completely convinced of God’s justice (though he thinks we have to be careful not to think it is the same thing as human justice), and he’s convinced that we are responsible for our actions, and that God rightly holds us responsible. To understand this, we need to describe his notion of “acquisition.” This is the view that a single act can both be created by God and “acquired” or performed by a human being. We can distinguish between the one who lies, who is not the one who makes the act as it really is, and the one who makes it as it really is (namely, God) who does not lie. Similarly, we can make the distinction familiar from experience between cases of casual constraint and cases where we have the power to act, and so responsibility for our action. Al-Ash’ari calls these two cases “necessary motion” and “acquired motion,” and he gives the examples of shaking from palsy or shivering from fever, for the first case, and coming and going or approaching and receding, for the second.

We can ask al-Ash’ari whether God creates evil (or wrong). The answer is not straightforward. Has not God, then, created the injustice of creatures? Al-Ash’ari replies that God created it as their injustice, not as His. But then we deny that God is unjust? Al-Ash’ari replies that one who’s unjust is not unjust because he makes injustice as another’s injustice and not as his. The same reply comes with the question about whether God creates evil and whether God creates lying. God creates evil for another, and lying for another, but God Himself can’t do evil, or lie. Does this mean that God has decreed and determined acts of disobedience? Here al-Ash’ari makes another distinction, between decreed and determined acts of disobedience in the sense that He has commanded them. This is the difference Hare identified in Chapter 2 between two different kinds of prescriptions, namely, “precepts” (or “prohibitions”) and “directly effective commands.”

Someone might worry about God’s commanding things when God does not provide the recipients of the command with the power to carry it out. The interlocutor asks, “Has not God charged the unbeliever with the duty of believing?” Al-Ash’ari answers that He has. But this does not mean that God has given the unbeliever the power of believing, because, if God had given that power, the unbeliever would believe. It seems to follow that God enjoins on him an obligation that he cannot fulfill. Here, al-Ash’ari makes another distinction. Strictly, an inability is an inability both for some act and for its contrary. A stone has the inability to believe, because this inability is also an inability to disbelieve. But the unbeliever has the ability to disbelieve, and so does not strictly have the inability to believe. Al-Ash’ari considers an objection to this account of inability: namely, that he has denied that a power is for an act and its contrary. How can he deny this of powers and affirm it of inabilities? The reason is that, on al-Ash’ari’s conception of power and inability, they are necessarily concurrent with their exercise. The exercise of the inability both for the act and the contrary (to believe and to disbelieve) makes sense (as in the case of the stone). But the exercise of the power both for the act and the contrary does not make sense. It would require a thing to have two contrary attributes at the same time. His opponent could try to reverse the argument and say that it is obvious we have the power both to act and not to act, and so a power can’t be necessarily concurrent with its exercise. This dialectic will continue with the next section (on al-Maturidi).