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Chapter 5, Part 2b, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Constructivism”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 


Perhaps one might think the objectionable features of Harman’s view come from his decision to treat moral obligations as the outcome of relativistic social bargains that individuals freely enter into. It’s thus worth investigating whether moral obligations can be understood as the result of a social agreement that is ideal and perhaps for that reason universal.

Ronald Milo has proposed a view that he calls “contractarian constructivism.” It holds that moral truths are most plausibly construed as truths about an ideal social order. On this view, a certain kind of act is wrong just in case a social order prohibiting such acts would be chosen by rational contractors under suitably idealized conditions. This introduces a number of questions. For example, are the decisions based on making possible some good? And if so, isn’t this an abandonment of contractarianism, since it’s the good the guides the contractors’ decisions? Milo tries to avoid this by saying the practical reasoning of the contractors will be shaped by “means—end” reasoning as to how best to satisfy our desires. The aim is to improve the satisfactoriness of our lives. But Evans notes that this stance still involves a theory of the good, namely, a desire-fulfillment theory, and such an account of the good is as realistic as any other, since it seems committed to the claim that it is objectively good for humans to satisfy as many of their desires as possible. It’s also a controversial theory, but there is a more fundamental problem with the whole project.

What authority do the decisions of these hypothetical contractors have over actual individuals? Even if we decided that there are true counterfactuals of this type and that we could know what they are, why should the decisions of these non-actual people be binding on actual people? If I don’t accept their view of the good, then there is no reason to think I would agree with the views about right and wrong that they base on their theory of the good. One might try to avoid this by saying the contractors have no theory of the good at all, but this should only make us more suspicious.

The best attempt Evans knows to resolve this problem of authority is provided by David Gauthier in his Morals by Agreement. He tries to motivate a social contract approach to moral theory by seeing such an agreement as a way of trying to resolve “prisoner’s dilemma” situations. In these scenarios, two accused criminals—call them Ed and Fred—have the chance to confess to a more serious offense. The situation is stipulated such that it appears that whatever Fred does, Ed will be better off confessing. If Ed and Fred, though, could somehow count on each other not to confess, then each would get a small penalty. It looks like the best strategy for both of them would be to reach an agreement not to confess, but there is little reason for them to behave in this way without some assurance the other will keep the agreement.

Gauthier believes that such prisoner’s dilemma situations are not simply unusual possibilities, but capture many features of actual human social interaction. There are many situations in which, if every individual in a group pursues his or her self-interest, the outcome for everyone in the group will be much worse than would be the case if the individuals accept some restraints on their self-interest. Without an agreement regulating our behavior, in the actual world we are doomed to “non-optimal outcomes that, in ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma-type’ situations, may be little better than disastrous.” The solution is an agreement that creates duties that limit our quest for self-interest, though in the long run the agreement actually furthers our self-interest. Duty overrides advantage, but the acceptance of duty is truly advantageous. The authority of the agreement lies in the advantages the agreement makes possible, along with the fact that those who are party to the agreement will withdraw their cooperation towards those who fail to comply.

Is the agreement actual or hypothetical? Evans thinks Gauthier thinks that both can be true. The agreements may be implicit rather than explicit, but they are not a “mere fiction” since they give rise to new modes of interaction. Gauthier thinks that the authority of actual agreements depends on the degree to which they resemble an ideal agreement. He argues that ideal agreement is one that adheres to the “principle of minimax relative concession,” in which the maximum that each party is asked to concede is as small as possible, thus giving everyone reason to commit to the agreement.

Gauthier’s attempt to see morality as a solution to the disasters that stem from unfettered pursuit of self-interest is powerful, and it’s a creative effort to get beyond Harman’s relativism. But Evans thinks many of the same problems beset Gauthier’s solution. For example, it’s still not clear why an agreement that would be made by ideally rational agents under certain conditions (which in fact do not hold) is binding on actual individuals. It seems unlikely that the agreement that it would be reasonable for an individual to keep if other people could be counted on to behave morally is binding on actual individuals, who know that in the real world people frequently lie and cheat.

It’s true that those who are known to violate the agreement can be penalized by others who keep the rules, but this only gives a reason to keep the agreement when breaking it is likely to be detected and the offender is likely to face some serious sanction if it is detected. Gauthier admits he isn’t claiming it’s never rational for one person to take advantage of another, never rational to comply with unfair practices. But Evans points out that this is simply to abandon key elements of the Anscombe intuition, since on such a view moral obligations are not always overriding and do not apply with equal force to everyone.

Perhaps to solve such a problem Gauthier suggests another response to the problem of why individuals should keep their agreement to behave morally. Morality can’t really survive if we are purely self-interested individuals who behave like “economic man.” What must happen is that we must strive to be like the “just man,” whose feelings are engaged by morality and adheres not because of self-interest, but because he simply loves the ideals he is committed to. But this limits the authority of morality to those with the relevant feelings.

The last difficulty Evans raises with Gauthier’s theory concerns the scope of the moral obligations as these are understood. Evans has argued that moral obligations are universal in scope: applying to all humans, and at least some obligations extending to all humans. It’s hard to see how an agreement grounded in self-interest could be the basis for obligations of this type. Gauthier concedes that animals, the unborn, the congenitally handicapped and defectives fall beyond the pale of morality tied to mutuality.

Nor is it easy to see why people in one human society should have obligations towards people in some distant land, particularly if the people in the distant land are too poor and weak to threaten or benefit the people in the first society.

Gauthier imagines such cultural contact between privileged purple people and impoverished green people, and gives three reasons why the purples might decide to treat the greens in a moral way. First, it may in the purples’ self-interest. Second, the purples may have become the kind of people who are so disposed to kind and compassionate treatment that they literally have no choice but to treat the greens well. Evans says this would only be plausible if human nature were completely transformed.

Third, the purples may possess a certain measure of sympathy for all whom they consider human. Evans replies, though, by saying it’s hard to see how such feelings of sympathy by themselves could be the basis of real moral obligations. All of the considerations to which Gauthier appeals manifestly fail to provide a foundation for genuine moral obligations that are overriding, binary in character, motivating, and universal. The contrast between such a view and a divine command account of moral obligations is clear.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

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Chapter 5, Part 2a, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Constructivism”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

Evans takes constructivism to be a metaethical stance that tries to steer a middle course between realist, cognitivist accounts of the moral life and expressivist views. Like realists, constructivists want to argue that moral judgments have an objectivity such that they can be judged true or false, but they want to hold that such judgments gain that status because of our activities. They thus share the expressivist view that the moral world is a human creation. In this section of the chapter, Evans discusses three different versions of this project. Two of them see moral obligations as the result of a social contract or agreement, while the third is inspired by the Kantian-type view that morality is something that is created by the autonomous self. This post covers the first of these three accounts.


One of the simplest and most natural ways of thinking of morality as a human construction is to see it as the result of a social agreement, for such an agreement would obviously be the result of human activity, yet if morality were grounded in such an agreement, it would appear to have a degree of objectivity. A key question that must be faced by social contract theories of morality concerns the nature of the agreement: Is the agreement supposed to be an actual agreement or is it merely a hypothetical ideal, an agreement that people would make if certain conditions were fulfilled, even if those conditions never in fact hold? The difficulty with a hypothetical agreement is understanding how it could be actually binding.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the actual agreement model can be seen in the metaethical thought of Gilbert Harman, who’s a metaphysical naturalist. He’s skeptical that moral terms can be defined in terms of non-moral facts, so he instead envisions morality as the result of a human agreement, which can salvage a sort of objectivity. Harman wants to distinguish his own view, which he calls ethical relativism, from the view he terms ethical nihilism, which simply denies that ethical propositions have any truth at all. Moral nihilism would thus logically lead to the view that morality should be rejected altogether, and Harman does not wish to go that far.

Why does Harman commit to ethical relativism? Because actual human social agreements differ significantly. One might of course propose that there would be no relativity if the agreement is an ideal one, an agreement that all humans would agree to if they were fully rational and had the opportunity to make such an agreement. But Harman is skeptical this could be achieved and, even if it could, that it would be binding. Any moral obligations we have must then be grounded in actual agreements made by concrete social groups. Since many such groups exist, there could be many different moral frameworks.

This means, Harman says, that moral claims will be analogous to claims about motion that are made in the context of Einstein’s theory that space and time are relative. There are alternative spatio-temporal frameworks and any claim about whether an object is in motion (as well as how fast it is moving) are always  made relative to some particular spatio-temporal framework. When understood as relative to a particular framework, claims about motion can be true or false, but it makes no sense to see such claims as “absolute.” Similarly, no one moral framework can be correct in the sense of holding for everyone, even though such claims can be made relative to a particular framework. But Evans wants to raise questions about whether Harman’s relativism really differs significantly from nihilism.

Ultimately the problem with Harman’s view is similar to the problem that emerged with expressivism: the authority of morality is undermined. Remember such key features of moral obligation as objectivity and universality. Harman admits his view can’t accommodate universal moral obligations. But consider a Mafiaoso obligated to murder—Harman says it’s a misuse of language to say of the assassin that he ought not to kill, or that it would be wrong of him to do so.

But Evans replies that it’s hardly a misuse of ordinary moral language to say that this employee of Murder, Inc. ought not to kill. Morality has been emptied of its authority otherwise. In particular, our conviction that moral obligations are universal and apply to everyone has been undermined. To say that morality has authority is in part to say that such claims about what people ought to do can be true regardless of what people believe.

Consider too why people adhere to their agreements. If the motivation for the agreement is self-interest, as Harman says it is, it is not clear they it is not sometimes reasonable for a person to fail to keep their moral agreements. Why should a person agree to live by a set of moral rules and yet selectively disregard those rules when it is in the person’s interest? Why should the rules of morality be seen as possessing genuine authority? This is particularly a problem for Harman’s view that says what creates moral obligations is the individual’s decision to accept a particular moral agreement as binding. This means people can walk away when they choose.

Harman anticipates this objection about “free riders” by saying the agreement implies an intention to carry out one’s part of the agreement on the condition others do the same. But this will not do, Evans says, for if we admit that a moral agreement can be tacit and grounded in actions and intentions rather than an explicit promise, it still must involve an element of commitment over time. Harman sees moral obligations as grounded in relative agreements we can always opt out of, but it is easy to see that a moral skeptic might claim that the view that there are such obligations does not differ significantly from the moral nihilist claim that genuine moral obligations do not exist at all.

Harman’s account fails in another way. Since the individual can opt out of morality altogether, there is no reason to believe that all are subject to moral obligations, nor is there any reason to think that any of us has moral obligations that extend to all human persons. Nor does it seem we have any obligations to people in our own neighborhood we may come in contact with, if these are people who can’t benefit us or harm us. But it seems arguable, quite to the contrary, that some of our deepest and most serious moral obligations are precisely obligations towards people who may be in such categories; for example, those who may be senile or handicapped or unable to act towards us in ways that our self-interest should take into account.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

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Chapter 5, Part I, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Alternatives to Divine Command Theory”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

In this chapter Evans looks at metaethical views that some will see as a rival to a divine command theory (DCT) to see what strengths and weaknesses they have. Some aren’t really competitors, and for those that are Evans will try to show that they face serious objections that a DCT does not face. He will try to select examples of each view that are prominent and representative, without claiming that such views exhaust the territory.


J. L. Mackie was well known for his moral skepticism and “error theory” in ethics. Ordinary morality, he thought, is best thought of as a kind of “folk theory” that turns out to be false. Mackie presents a number of arguments for this view. First, he thought a subjective account of morality accounts for the relativity and variability in moral beliefs and practices. Second, objective moral value would be “queer” in the sense of being peculiar; they have no foundation in the world as described by science. Third, it’s hard to see why moral values should supervene as they do on natural features of the world. Fourth, it’s hard to see how such objective values could be known even if they are real. Finally, a reductive explanation of beliefs about values undermines any claim to objectivity.

How should a DCT’ist respond? Well, she can join her voice with various other ethicists (Kantians, natural law theorists, utilitarians, and the like) to argue for the objectivity of ethics. Beyond that, though, she can show that several of Mackie’s arguments work well against naturalistic theories. Values and other moral properties are indeed queer in a naturalistic world, but not a theistic one. Likewise it would be strange in a naturalistic world that humans have cognitive capacities that give them understanding of the good and the bad, of right and wrong, but not in a theistic one. Interestingly, Mackie himself imagined how God could play a role in ethics much as Evans envisions. Mackie didn’t subscribe to the view, but he thought it coherent and could see how it could defuse the Euthyphro objection.

Nietzsche, another atheist, similarly saw ethics as connected with God. His scathing critique of secular ethics was based on the way it tended to assume objective morality is possible without God, which he thought ludicrous. In this way he offered the testimony of an “unfriendly witness” that objective moral obligations require God and make sense only, or at least the most sense, if God exists.


Expressivism as a metaethical theory comes in a variety of forms, from the emotivism of Ayer to the sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn. What they hold in common is “non-cognitivism” or “anti-realism”: the rejection of the idea that moral propositions express objective truths. Instead moral statements express emotions (Ayer), attitudes (Stevenson), prescriptions as to how one should behave (Hare), plans to which one is committed (Gibbard), or perhaps a complex mix of such subjective states (Blackburn).

The strength of the expressivist view is that it appears to account for why morality matters, and why moral claims can motivate as they do. It links to our actions. But Evans wants to raise a question about whether it links morality to behavior in the right way. The question he wants to raise is not whether moral judgments can motivate, but whether on expressivist views such judgments can have the kind of authority morality ought to have.

Many early criticisms of the view were based on the claim that such views do not seem to do justice to moral disagreements and arguments. Relatedly, Geach said it couldn’t make sense of moral propositions figuring in logically valid arguments. This led to more sophisticated accounts. At the heart of such views lies the idea that even though moral statements do not express propositions with genuinely objective truth values, there is a natural human tendency to “project” our emotions, attitudes, prescriptions, plans, etc. onto the objective world. This projective theory gives a reductive explanation of why moral language has the features it does that enable moral statements to mimic propositions that have genuine representational content. Blackburn and others have in turn developed accounts of the “logic” of moral statements that explain how it can be that these statements mimic the properties of genuinely representational propositions, even though they actually don’t refer to anything.

Evans thinks the real difficulty with the view lies with the way that expressivism, even in its projectivist, quasi-realist form, undermines the authority of moral judgments, especially judgments about moral obligations. Take emotivism, for example. Why should Mary care about the approval of James? One might think the problem is that the James doesn’t mean enough to Mary, but that’s not really the point. The challenge is to account for moral authority. The more sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn may appear to help with this problem, but the help is illusory. For in the end moral judgments merely mimic statements that can be true or false independently of the stance of the person making the judgment.

Blackburn doesn’t think his view makes truth relative, because if we “step back into the boat,” as it were, and put back the lens of a sensibility, there’s nothing relativistic left to say. Evans replies, though, that for the person who has awakened to the truth of projectivism, even this will be difficult to do or even impossible for some. How can we get back into one particular boat and believe that it’s the “right” boat, when we know there’s no such thing as the right boat?

If we could segregate our beliefs about normative ethics from our metaethical beliefs, perhaps Blackburn’s view would work, but it is not easy to wall off our beliefs about morality from our actual moral convictions. In the end, quasi-realism is a form of moral skepticism, only Mackie’s theory is transparent and honest, while the skepticism on Blackburn’s part is disguised by the fact that he continues voicing some elements of his own moral stance as if they were objectively true judgments. But the truth on offer seems a pseudo-truth, a “semantic shadow” of the attitudes and stances taken by ordinary people.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 


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Chapter 4, Part II, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the last four objections discussed.

The Prior Obligations Objection

Wainwright calls this objection the Cudworth objection, since it can be found in the writings of Ralph Cudworth. It’s rooted in the worry that DCT is too narrow and does not account for all genuine moral obligations. A full-fledged DCT holds that all moral obligations are divine commands. The prior obligations objection argues that there must be some moral obligations that are not grounded in divine commands because they hold antecedently to or independently of divine commands. Specifically, the claim is that humans have a moral obligation to obey God. This obligation is not itself grounded in God’s commands. There’s a prior obligation to obey God that explains why God’s commands can create new obligations. So there must be some moral obligations other than those that are created by God’s commands.

Defenders of DCT could say that these “prior obligations” to obey God are not actual obligations but just hypothetical ones: To say that we have a prior obligation to obey God is just another way of saying that we are obligated to obey God if God issues commands, but there is no actual obligation until a command is issued. The conditional proposition itself can be understood as simply spelling out the meaning of the claim that God has moral authority. To say that God has moral authority is just to say that he has the right to issue commands that ought to be obeyed. The sense of prior oughtness should not cause the DCT’ist worry, Evans thinks.

Notice, too, that this objection could apply to any moral theory, but such objections are wrongheaded. But the critic might object and suggest there is nothing hypothetical about the fact that we ought to obey God. It’s a standing obligation, not a hypothetical one. But to this Evans replies by reminding readers of his earlier distinction between sorts of ought statements—not all of them are moral obligations. We may even have moral reasons to obey God without those reasons constituting moral obligations.

One final reply Evans offers is this, which can supplement what’s already been said: perhaps, since the Bible does command us to obey God, God can convert the antecedent fact that humans ought to obey God’s commands into an actual moral duty, in what Evans calls a “bootstrapping” manner. On this view it is both true independently of God’s commands that one ought to obey God, but also true that “one ought to obey God” is in fact a moral obligation, because God has commanded us to keep his commands.

At worst, the objection would show that some obligations aren’t rooted in God’s commands, whereas others may be.

The Supervenience Objection

Murphy offers a version of this objection. It’s directed against an identity version of DCT, according to which God’s commands just are moral obligations. God’s prerogative in issuing commands, combined with an identity version of DCT, Murphy argues, entails the falsehood of the supervenience of the moral on the nonmoral. The idea behind this notion of supervenience is that the moral properties of things are supposed to be fixed by their non-moral properties. Moral properties, such as being obligatory, do not “float free of their other properties. So it can’t be the case that two actions are exactly alike except that one of the acts is morally obligatory and the other is not obligatory. Evans agrees with Murphy on this, and that if DCT entailed the falsehood of supervenience, that would be a problem for DCT.

Now, why does supervenience appear to be threatened? Because if God has discretion in his commands, then there could be two possible worlds exactly alike in their natural features, but in which God gives different commands. If moral obligations are determined by God commands, then it follows that actions in one of those worlds will be exactly like those in the other except for being morally obligatory. But this violates the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral.

It is true there’s a difference in the two situations: in one world God issues one command, and in the other a different command. But if God’s commands are moral obligations (on the identity thesis), the difference is a moral difference, but there’s no difference in nonmoral or natural properties, and thus a violation of supervenience.

Now, one response might be to reject divine discretion here, but Evans isn’t willing to do that. A second possible reply is to appeal to weak supervenience rather than strong supervenience. According to strong supervenience, “property x supervenes on property y” = a claim that in any possible world whatever has property y will also have property x. On weak supervenience, instead, “property x supervenes on property y” = it is necessarily the case that anything that has property y in some particular world will also have property x in that world. Since weak supervenience confines its requirement to a single possible world, Murphy’s transworld constraint is removed and supervenience is easier to satisfy. But Evans doesn’t go that route, opting instead for a way to satisfy both strong and weak supervenience.

To do so, Evans points out the distinction between non-moral properties and natural properties. There may be non-moral but supernatural properties: such as the property of being pleasing to God—in each situation, what it pleases God to do might be different. So there might be a difference in nonmoral properties after all, and supervenience is thereby preserved.

Consider two situations identical in all their natural properties, but God commands X in one of them but not the other (either in different worlds or in the same world). The command/noncommand is a moral property, but other supernatural properties are non-moral, such as: “being pleasing to God” or “being preferred by God.” This preserves the supervenience intuition: “no difference in moral properties without some difference in non-moral properties.”

Mysterious Relationship Objection

What is relation between divine commands and moral obligation? Three possibilities are:

  1. God’s commands are the cause of moral obligations.
  2. Moral obligations supervene on God’s commands.
  3. God’s commands are identical to moral obligations.

Having discussed identity and supervenience variants of DCT, Evans considers a causal version. Murphy argues that the problem with a causal version of DCT is that such a view does not allow for God’s commands to be at least partially constitutive of one’s reasons for actions. It’s true that if God commands us to do X, then we are obligated to do X, and thus have reason to do it. But it’s not God’s command that gives us that reason. A bully who threatens to beat you up unless you do X gives you a reason to do X, but the bully doesn’t have moral authority over you.

In reply, Evans suggests that the proponent of a causal version of DCT should say that it is the fact that God has the requisite authority that gives him the causal power to establish moral obligations. The special sort of causation at play is the authority of God that makes God different from the bully.

Promulgation Objection

Recipients of God’s commands, according to some critics, must know that the commands come from God; otherwise no obligation is generated. I may be obliged to loan a car to my friend to whom I owe a favor, but an anonymous note saying to leave my car with its keys available produces no duty to do so. Likewise with God’s commands if we don’t know where they came from.

How does Evans reply? He rejects the idea that for God to successfully communicate a command to humans, he must communicate the command in such a way that it is obvious that the command comes from God. Two helpful distinctions can be brought to bear here: (1) We must distinguish between the recognition of a moral obligation and the recognition of the moral obligation as a divine command; and (2) one must distinguish a recognition of a moral obligation from an explanation of the existence of a moral obligation.

Believers and unbelievers alike can recognize various moral obligations. It might be a function of God’s grace for God to conceal that he’s behind obligations initially in order to mitigate judgment on those who disregard them.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

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Chapter 4, Part I, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

Summary by David Baggett

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the first three objections discussed; following posts in the series will cover the last four objections.

The Euthyphro Problem

From an early Socratic dialogue the question came, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Either way we seem to have a problem: either the gods are arbitrary or holiness is independent of the gods. We can extend the dilemma to morality and ask if God approves what’s moral because it’s moral or if something is moral because God approves it. If the latter, this leads to two undesirable results: it looks as if things like hatred and cruelty would be good if God approved of them, and it looks as if it will be impossible meaningfully to praise God as good, since goodness is whatever God says it is.

Evans thinks the Dilemma poses a problem for a universal voluntaristic ethical theory that tries to base all ethical properties in God’s commands or will, but not his theory that delimits DCT to moral duties based on some theory of the good, in his case a natural law conception. For then God’s commands aren’t arbitrary, and God can be rightly praised for his goodness.

Since Evans opts for the divine discretion thesis, he thinks God has some latitude in the commands he issues. Does this reintroduce arbitrariness? Evans doesn’t think so, since the commands would provide a special test of devotion to God, and perhaps be especially conducive to practices that would nourish such devotion.

Evans concludes that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for a DCT of his type.

The Horrible Acts Objection

Another objection is that DCT violates deep moral intuitions about what’s morally right. If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so, for example. The standard response to this charge is that God is necessarily good. It follows from this that God could not possibly give commands to do what is morally horrible because of the intrinsic badness of such acts. Louise Antony is mistaken in claiming that this move abandons DCT.

Recently some critics have extended the argument by saying that if, counterfactually, God were to issue such horrible commands (even if he never actually would or could), DCT would entail our obligation to engage in such horrible acts. Such critics provide no logical semantical theory to explain and justify these claims, but rather seem to rely on intuitions. But Evans plays along and says there’s no problem here, because (following Pruss on this score) such an argument would apply to any and every moral theory. For example, if the categorical imperative required us to torture innocents, it would be morally obligatory to torture innocents (on that theory). Someone might say the categorical imperative never would or could require us to do any such thing, but of course the DCT’ist says the same of DCT. Perhaps in fact the impossibility of God making such a command would be even more intuitively obvious than the impossibility of deriving an obligation to torture innocents from the categorical imperative.

The Autonomy Objection

Other critics object that a DCT of moral obligations is objectionable because it undermines the autonomy of humans as moral agents, and they believe that such autonomy is essential to morality. In one form, the charge is that morality, to be recognized as morality at all, must be based on reasons or arguments that humans can recognize for themselves. James Rachels argues this. For him DCT doesn’t even qualify as a moral theory. Other critics admit DCT is a moral theory, but argue it’s a bad one, because it infantilizes humans, conceiving of us as childlike creatures incapable of deciding important matters for ourselves, needing to be told what to do.

Let’s start with the claim that DCT does not even count as a moral theory because a genuine moral theory must ground morality in principles and/or arguments that an agent can recognize as true and/or sound for herself. Evans’ first point is that his DCT does not have to recognize a moral obligation as a divine command in order to have knowledge or at least justified belief that he or she has the obligation. Such people recognize their moral obligations, presumably in the same ways as other people, and it is hard to see how the fact that those obligations are really divine commands could undermine their autonomy, since they are ignorant of that fact.

So Rachels’ argument must be intended to show that it is coming to believe that one’s moral obligations are divine commands that undermines authority. But why should this follow? If one supposes that an individual has come to accept a DCT on the basis of a philosophical argument, then it is hard to see how this could undermine the moral agent’s autonomy. Rachels’ requirement that the individual form moral beliefs on the basis of reason and/or arguments that the individual has considered for herself would seem to be met.

Maybe Rachels or someone else could push the point by insisting that following the dictates of another person would not count as following moral principles at all. But sometimes following the dictates of human persons does result in moral obligations (think of an air raid warden during wartime). In God’s case, Evans has argued that he has genuine moral authority which enables his commands to create moral obligations. This is perfectly consistent with autonomy in Rachels’ sense.

Now consider the second version of the autonomy objection, which does not claim that divine commands are incompatible with the kind of autonomy a moral agent must have, but rather that following divine commands would be a kind of childish version of morality. Evans admits that even if God gives us commands, by giving us freedom to obey or disobey his commands he treats us as moral beings who have the opportunity freely to follow his principles.

Beyond that, though, Evans thinks it’s easy to show that God does not necessarily infantilize humans by giving them commands as to how they should live. Whether something like that is true would depend on the nature of the commands God gives. Perhaps if God gave humans detailed instructions on a minute by minute basis for every detail of their lives then this criticism would have weight. For in that case human persons would not need to use their rational faculties or develop them in order to know how to live. The task would simply be to listen to God’s continuing instructions and follow them. But if we assume that God does not give such commands, but rather gives humans commands that are at least somewhat general in nature, this would not follow. God’s commands need to be interpreted and applied, and their implications thought through. God might well decide to give commands of just this nature so as to require humans to develop the capacities he has given them.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

Image: “The Ten Commandments” by Walt Jabsco. CC License. 


Summary of Second Half of Chapter 3, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations

Summary by David Baggett

In the latter half of this chapter, Evans explores whether divine command theories of obligation are consistent with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics (or theory—thus VT), understood broadly, is an ethical theory that emphasizes the central role played in ethics by long-term dispositional states of character of moral agents. Evans points out that it’s easy to answer the question of consistency if he’s right to have argued that DCT is consistent with a natural law ethic, since the greatest natural law theorist, Thomas Aquinas, was himself also a virtue ethicist. If A is consistent with B, and A entails C, then B must also be consistent with C. If a natural law ethic is consistent with a DCT, and a natural law ethic logically requires a virtue ethic, then DCT is consistent with virtue theory.

Of course there are some versions of VT that clash with DCT. Hursthouse, for example, describes VT as an alternative to ethical theories that emphasize moral rules or principles and ones that emphasize consequences. In some cases it’s not clear whether a particular thinker sees VT as an alternative to an ethic of duty—like Stanley Hauerwas. Arguably, though Hauerwas has focused almost exclusively on issues of character, his target is not the existence of moral obligations, but the claim that an ethic of obligation by itself captures all that is important in the ethical life.

What kind of VT constitutes a genuine alternative to the kind of DCT Evans is defending? One such variant of VT would deny the importance of moral duties, as prescribing or forbidding types of actions, altogether. Such a view is linked to some versions of “moral particularism.” Moral particularism emphasizes the idea that moral judgments are a response to the particular features of a situation, rather than being derived from general principles, and it comes in different forms. A strong form of moral particularism would be one that claims that there are no true moral duties that are general in form; at best a principle that we regard as expressing our moral duty gives us only a general guide or rule of thumb. But we can never deduce what we should do in an actual situation from such a general rule. This comports well with VT idea that correct moral judgments will be those made by virtuous people, people who possess “practical wisdom.”

Evans thinks this view is mistaken. It’s one thing to maintain that good judgment is required to apply moral principles correctly; quite another to assert that moral judgments do not rely on principles at all.

But there are weaker versions of moral particularism that are much more plausible. For example, one might suggest there are some moral situations in which moral principles do not determine any unique right answer, and there are some moral situations in which it may be unclear how to apply our moral principles and thus difficult to apply them. Both situations would imply that there are some particular judgments that can’t simply be deduced from general principles. DCT can admit this. Some situations do fall outside the scope of the principles of duty, and sometimes moral principles are hard to interpret and apply. In any case, VT need not be committed to the strong version of moral particularism. Aquinas, for example, doesn’t seem to have been committed to it. Only the strong version conflicts with DCT.

The second way a virtue ethic could come into conflict with DCT is by claiming that moral obligations can be adequately explained in terms of the virtues, thus making any appeal to God’s commands unnecessary. Michael Slote, for example, has defended a VT that he calls “agent-based,” as opposed to being simply “agent-focused,” which is the kind of view associated with Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. According to an “agent-based” ethic, it is the fact that a virtuous agent would act in a particular way x that makes it true that x is actually the correct way to behave. Slote pretty  much leaves reference to moral duties out of his theory altogether, preferring talk of “caring” instead.

Linda Zagzebski appears to argue that our moral duties are simply those types of acts which a virtuous agent would feel guilt or shame for not doing. The type of VT that Slote and Zagzebski defend is one in which the virtuous agent is the “truth-maker” for normative truths. Evans thinks this inverts the way things actually are. We don’t regard courage as a good thing because it is the kind of trait we find in virtuous people. Rather, we believe courage is a good thing, and so when we find someone who is courageous we have a reason to think that this person is virtuous, at least in that respect.

Another possible version of VT offers an epistemic relation between duties and virtuous persons. On this view, it’s by looking to exemplars that we come to know what our duties are—epistemically speaking. So far as Evans sees it, though, a proponent of DCT could affirm this.

So, on Evans’ view, giving an account of moral duties and giving an account of the characteristics of virtuous people are both important but they are answering different questions about different aspects of our ethical lives. Yet there remain vital links between them. First, our moral duties may include duties to cultivate various virtues. Many of God’s commands are commands to acquire or cultivate particular virtues, such as the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Indeed, it is arguable that the fundamental commands of God are, at least in part, commands to acquire virtues—loving God with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. From the other side, an account of the virtues may be valuable in giving us an understanding of what motivates moral agents to live in accordance with their duties. If DCT is right, fulfilling our moral duties can be at the same time an expression of devotion to God, thus linking the life of duty to such “theological virtues” as hope and faith. To live morally is not to be done with gritting of teeth, but joyously. This is a recurring biblical theme—and tied to the recurring biblical motif of blessings that accompany loving God.

Finally, the deepest link between virtues and duty requires us to reflect on the telos of duty. Kant thought that duties apply to human beings but not God, because God has a “holy will,” and thus there’s no possibility that God will ever follow any principles that are wrong. But Evans pushes this point to suggest that the more perfected a saint becomes, the smaller a role duties play. Moral duties might have as part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such persons, or at least to move in this direction. Kierkegaard seems to suggest this in his Works of Love. After spending a lot of his time focusing on the moral law rooted in God’s authority, he discusses the command to love, nothing that eventually it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t need to be commanded, once someone becomes at one with the commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the law—which is far beyond doing duty for duty’s sake. It is radical transformation—the goal of the moral life. So Slote’s right in a sense—there is a life that goes beyond duty. But he’s wrong to think we can go straight there without a process of transformation first, that may well require obedience to duty. Kierkegaard saw duty as a “schoolmaster” helping us to be changed and transformed. But we’re still in need of this transformation at this point, rendering leaving duties behind too quickly a mistake.

Find the other summaries of this book here.

Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 3, Part 1: The Relation of Divine Command Theory to Natural Law

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1 

Chapter 2

Is divine command theory (DCT) in tension with natural law (NL) or virtue theory (VT)? Evans says no—that, rather, these theories are consistent, offering complementary answers to different questions. The mistake of thinking them inconsistent, he thinks, comes from looking for one, comprehensive theory to account for all of ethics. Radical voluntarism commits such a mistake. It’s true the theories in question can conflict, but they need not. Their central insights, so argues Evans, are consistent. On his view, DCT rests on a natural law theory and points toward a virtue theory.

Most natural law theories have been theistic, though there are exceptions, like Philippa Foot’s. Evans is most interested in the question of the place of divine authority in a religiously grounded ethic. So he will look mainly at natural law theories that include a place for God. But does natural law include God essentially? Raising the question reminds us that some say natural law theory makes ethics autonomous. Grotius makes such a claim—that much of ethics would be the same whether or not God exists. Mark Murphy’s book Natural Law and Practical Rationality is a natural law account in which God plays hardly any role despite that Murphy is a theist.

Evans next makes note of what he calls Murphy’s surprising pivot. In a later work, God and Moral Law: On the Theistic Explanation of Morality, Murphy makes a vigorous attempt to show the role that God might play in explaining morality. In this book, Murphy argues that God’s relation to morality should be conceived as a form of “concurrentism,” analogous to the role God plays in sustaining the laws of nature on some accounts.

Evans thinks this fascinating but entertains reservations about this approach. One concerns the fact that Murphy tries to show how God is important in explaining the whole of morality and not just moral obligations. In the process Evans doesn’t think Murphy does justice to the distinctive characteristics of moral obligations. A second worry concerns Murphy’s requirement that God explain morality “immediately.” Murphy claims that if God is not the immediate ground of morality, then we will have a problem of “divided loyalties,” in which finite goods can become rivals of God. This can happen, Evans thinks, but recognizing a finite good as good is not itself idolatry, and Evans suspects this requirement that God explain morality immediately is too strong, because it’s not consistent with God using various  means to establish morality. Evans suspects if Murphy’s requirement is indeed too strong, then Murphy’s criticisms of both natural law and theological voluntarism fail.

The approach Murphy takes in God and Moral Law is one which assumes the truth of theism and then asks in what way God can explain morality. The book gives a central place to God as explanans, without completely ignoring the explanandum (the moral facts which need to be explained). But Evans admits his approach is devoid of apologetic value. In contrast, Evans sees his own project as having apologetic value. He wants to argue that someone who reasonably accepts the existence of morality might be brought to see the reasonableness of believing in God as the explanation of a part of morality, namely  moral obligations.

Evans thinks Murphy’s claim in his earlier book that a natural law ethic is not consistent with God’s playing a foundational role in ethics fails because it depends on the too-strong requirement that God be the immediate ground of morality. Evans figures a natural law theory of rationality requires some metaphysical underpinning, and that a theistic metaphysic seems to the job better than any other. The role God plays in giving the natural world a structure in which things have natures that determine what is good for them is important. It may be possible to develop a natural law ethic without God as part of the story, but when God is part of the picture the story seems far more complete and satisfying. But he agrees with Murphy that to give a satisfying account of morality as a whole we need God to play a more central role than simply as the creator of natural kinds that determine the good. God’s having additional roles to play will be a better natural law ethic than one that confines God to the role of simply being the one who determines what is actually good by his decisions about what to create.

Murphy (in his earlier book) describes natural law as an account of “practical rationality,” which has two main goals: to show that actions have a point or purpose, such that they are worth performing, and to help us make decisions about worthwhile actions. Both goals are accomplished by providing an account of what is good. NL theories assign priority to the good. To understand the point of actions and to know what actions are reasonable, we must know what is good.

It’s obvious, though, that such an abstract first principle by itself does not give us guidance with respect to specific actions. Usually natural law theorists offer an account of goods that are universally and naturally good, and most have done so by offering an Aristotelian-inspired account of the good for humans in terms of what completes or perfects human nature, or that enables human flourishing. (Not all have done so; consider Hobbes’s egoism.) Some other natural law theorists have defended a more Platonic account of the good, which sees some things, such as knowledge or beauty, as just good in themselves, apart from reference to human nature. But most natural law theorists have explained the good for humans in terms of human nature, and Evans takes this as a defining characteristic of a natural law theory.

One dispute among natural law theorists is between derivationism and inclinationism. Derivationism says that our knowledge of what is good derives from our understanding of human nature, since one can’t grasp what perfects or completes human nature without an understanding of that nature. Inclinationism is the view of one like Finnis that says knowledge of basic good is something that is immediate and self-evident and something that is internal to the life of practical reason. Evans happens to find Murphy’s “real identity thesis” plausible that says the insight we have into the good through our inclinations and the knowledge we have about human flourishing through our understanding of human nature represent two alternative ways of grasping the same goods. Evans assumes that a natural law theory is one that holds that those goods are in some way determined by our nature, such that if human nature were fundamentally different, what would be good for humans would be fundamentally different as well.

Typical goods for humans would include: Life, health, knowledge, beauty, friendship, other social goods, fulfilling work and activity, psychological goods such as “inner peace” or self-integration, practical reasonableness, and in some cases religion.

Although natural law prioritizes the good over the right, as does utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism, a NL theory differs from most forms of utilitarianism in that it does not assume that rationality demands simply that goodness be maximized. NL calls for a reasonable response to the goods people encounter or could encounter. This means the NL theorist, like a Kantian, can argue that there are some types of actions that are always inappropriate or unreasonable, and thus there may be general rules or principles that rule out some kinds of actions absolutely. If human life is a basic good, then murder, understood as the intentional destruction of innocent human life, may be viewed as intrinsically wrong.

Now, how does Evans argue a divine command theory rests on a natural law account? DCT presupposes some theory of the good. Evans thinks natural law provides it, even though Evans recognizes other alternatives, like Adams’s Platonic account of the good. But at least one form of DCT could rest on natural law. Evans thinks, beyond that, that natural law is especially well-suited for this purpose.

Consider the obligations of parents—incurred by their becoming parents. They hold partly because of certain truths about human nature, truths with normative implications, not purely conventional. Why is this the case? A natural law ethic provides a plausible answer. According to a natural law ethic, human life is a good, and thus humans who decide to bring new human life into the world are bringing a good into the world. But we can’t care for ourselves when very young. Parents who bring children into the world but do nothing to see that those children grow up and flourish thus take an unreasonable stance towards a basic good. The obligations that parents incur by becoming parents thus hold partly because of certain truths about human nature, truths with normative implications. Similarly, the obligations children have towards their parents hold partly because of the truth of a normative principle such as “It is good to feel and express gratitude towards the giver of a gift.”

DCT sees the relationship of creature to creator as a distinctive kind of social relationship that carries with it certain obligations. DCT requires God possess legitimate authority, so that his commands establish obligations for his human creatures. But it is clear that some normative principle or principles must be the basis of this authority. For a DCT to be plausible there must be some reasonable answer to the question, “Why should a human being obey the commands of God?”

Evans suggests that once more a natural law ethic provides a plausible explanation of why the requisite normative principles hold. There are several principles that could explain or justify divine authority. Appropriate gratitude for all of his gifts is one such principle, as God as creator and sustainer is ultimately behind all the gifts of human benefactors. A second way divine authority could be justified is to appeal to the goodness of a relation to God. Aquinas considered this the highest good possible for a human person, the beatific vision the culmination of this good. One always has some reason to satisfy someone one wants to have a good relation with. A plausible answer to the purpose of God’s commands is that God through his commands wants to help his human creatures be transformed in their characters to make it possible for them to know God truly, relate to God properly, and achieve their deepest joy made possible by this relationship. A third possible normative principle that might justify divine authority is the claim that God, by virtue of his creation of humans and the natural world, has a rightful claim to be the owner of that created world and everything in it, including human beings. God would certainly qualify as the owner of humans on Locke’s principles of mixed labor and such. Murphy resists such a notion, saying people can’t rightly be owned. But Evans isn’t convinced, since though human slavery is always wrong, God’s in a wholly different category. There’s no degradation involved here, God’s our creator, he loves us, etc. Evans thus concludes that a natural law ethic is not a rival ethical view to a DCT, at least from his perspective, but rather a plausible foundation for a DCT account of moral obligations.

But is there room in NL for DCT? Why might a NL theorist think that a DCT is unnecessary? Evans thinks one reason is a failure to appreciate the distinction between the discretion thesis and the modal status thesis discussed earlier. Even Scotus, who affirmed the discretion thesis, held that some of what God commands is necessary. It’s possible to affirm that this is true for all of God’s commands, affirming only the modal status thesis. Nevertheless, given the power of the Anscombe intuition about the distinctive character of moral obligations, it still seems plausible that something important is left out by the natural law theorist who does not bring God’s commands into the story. It would still seem God’s commands, even if we reject discretion, add an important dimension to the moral character of what he commands. His commands would furnish powerful new reasons for performing various acts. One may hold then that the content of what God commands is determined by the created natures he has chosen to give things, but still hold that what one might call the preceptorial force of the morally right is due to God’s commands.

Given the normative principles that undergird a claim that God has divine authority, it seems odd for a theistic natural law theorist to hold that God’s commands add no new moral character to what is commanded. The DCT’ist certainly can acknowledge that we may have good reasons to perform those acts that are our moral obligations, even if God had not commanded them. The defender of a DCT just insists that those reasons do not capture everything that is required for an act to be a moral obligation.

Finnis argues no divine command is needed for natural law, but the ‘ought’ he describes sounds much like the “Aristotelian ought” rather than the ‘ought’ of moral obligation. Evans thinks Murphy’s account of obligations also shows the inadequacy of such an approach (NL without DCT). Murphy gives a powerful argument that the popular subjectivist accounts of the good (preference theories) are unsatisfactory, and gives a plausible account of the basic goods that give human beings reasons for actions. So far, so good, but the trouble arises when he tries extending this to moral obligations, which he terms the most fundamental practical sense of ought, which is that “A ought to X if and only if A, whose practical reasoning is functioning without error, decides to X.” This is clearly not the moral ought, since it implies that what an agent ought to do is fundamentally shaped by such subjective factors as what the agent actually decides. So Murphy introduces another sense of ‘ought’: “A morally ought to X if and only if it is not possible that A, whose practical reasoning is functioning without error, decide to Y, where Y-ing and X-ing are incompatible.” Murphy claims this is sufficiently close to the moral ‘ought’.

Evans remains skeptical. First, on Murphy’s view the fact that a person morally ought to perform some act does not imply that the person ought to perform the act; nor does the fact that a person morally ought not to perform some act imply that the person ought not to perform the act. This is because the agent’s actual decision must be factored into the second type of ought but not the first. This violates the overriding character of moral obligations.

Secondly, there’s a difference between kinds of goods: “agent-relative” goods and “agent-neutral” goods. Roughly, an agent-relative good is a good that is good for some particular agent, while an agent-neutral good is one that is good simpliciter, without any specification of the particular person the good is good for. Murphy argues that though the fundamental goods humans pursue are agent-relative, those goods can general agent-neutral reasons for action. Murphy wants to argue that the fact that something is good for someone else can make action on my part to advance that good intelligible. But it’s one thing to show that altruistic actions are reasonable, and quite another to show that they are morally obligatory. On Murphy’s view, it’s fully rational for an agent to be a “quasi-egoist” who chooses to act only on the basis of a life plan, “the ends of which are all agent-relative goods.” Murphy admits he wishes he could defend a more stringent principle of impartiality as a requirement of practical reasonableness, but confesses he can’t.

Murphy also argues there’s no universal requirement that humans act justly, for two reasons. First, on his account the requirements of justice hold only within communities, and for any given person, there will be many other persons who do not belong to that individual’s community. Second, there is no rational requirement that anyone belong to a community, “or indeed to pursue an agent-neutral end of any sort.” This would mean, among other things, we’d have no obligations to folks starving in some other part of the world. [Recall Hare made mention of this as a problem for certain ethical theories.]

Evans thus thinks—owing to the loss of the overriding nature of obligations, the difference between showing altruistic actions to be reasonable versus showing them to be morally obligatory, and the loss of the universality of moral judgments—that NL that makes no use of divine authority will have difficulty making sense of the special character of moral duties. Nor is there, as far as he can see, any good reason why a theistic natural law theorist should neglect this important resource.

Photo: “Moses, Gloucester Cathedral.” By Steve Day. CC License. 

Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 2: What is a Divine Command Theory of Moral Obligation?

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1 

Chapter 3, Part 1

How might God provide a foundation for moral obligations? One way is to understand moral obligations as divine requirements. Evans defines divine requirements for humans simply as God’s will for humans insofar as that will has been communicated to them. He will speak of God’s expressed requirements as divine commands—and these will be understood expansively. Evans will pursue the question of how God might provide a foundation for moral obligations by exploring the viability of what is generally called a divine command account of moral obligations.

A divine command theory might say that divine commands are identical to moral obligations. This would be an identity divine command theory. Another way to explain the connection is to suggest that divine commands cause moral obligations to come about. This is a causal divine command theory. Evans is inclined to embrace the identity version.

Divine command theories are accounts of moral obligations specifically, but not all moral facts, like moral goodness. Adams and Evans predicate their divine command theories on a theory of the good—Adams a theistic Platonic account, Evans a more theistic natural law view. Hare presupposes more of an Aristotelian view of the good, while not rejecting Platonic views altogether.  Some theory of the good is needed, though, since part of what makes God’s command binding is that God is himself essentially good.

Part of the motivation of divine command theory is the Anscombe intuition that implies there’s something distinctive about obligations. To say I have a moral obligation to X is not simply to say I have a reason to X, or even to say I have a decisive reason to X. Rather, an obligation is a distinctive kind of reason, with several important features. Among such features is it brings closure to deliberation, there’s someone who has a right I do X, and who’s rightly disappointed in me and blame me if I fail to do X. It’s to be liable to a kind of claim someone has on me, a claim with a binary, verdict-like character, and it either holds or it doesn’t. Obligations are aimed at the good, but not reducible to the good.

Adams accommodates such insights by defending a social theory of obligations. It’s an attempt to explain moral obligations by situating them in relation to obligations in general, from legal to social to family obligations. All of these duties result from particular social institutions and relations in which persons participate. If God exists and is a genuine person, then the relation between creature and creator is a genuine social relation, and like other such relations, carries with it distinctive obligations. Most religious believers see this relation to God as one in which God rightly has authority over them. This authority might be explained in various ways (God’s ownership rights, gratitude owed to God, the goods which a relation to God makes possible, etc.), but however it’s to be explained, the thought is that God has a rightful claim on humans such that they have good reasons to obey his commands.

The claim isn’t that “moral obligation” and “divine command” have the same meaning, but rather that the two expressions refer to the same reality.

Next Evans lists several ways in which seeing moral obligations as divine commands helps make sense of this kind of obligation. Evans draws both on Adams and his own material from the first chapter. One important feature of moral obligations is that they are objective, in the sense that they are the kind of thing that people can be mistaken about. An adequate account of moral obligation should be able to explain how people can have true and false beliefs about their moral obligations.

A second important feature of moral obligations is that they provide compelling reasons of a distinctive kind for actions, of the kind discussed in the earlier chapter. For example, simply not wanting to discharge a duty doesn’t get one off the hook.

A third feature is that an account of moral obligations should not only explain why we have reasons to perform our moral duty; it should also explain that we should be motivated to do so.

Finally, an adequate account of moral obligations should help us understand the universality of morality. Evans thinks morality is universal in at least two ways: All humans are subject to the claims of morality; no one is so “special” that he or she gets a free pass and can ignore those claims. Also, some of our moral obligations extend at least to all human persons (maybe also to, say, animals).

Evans thinks the strengths of a divine command theory are apparent when judged by these criteria. Moral obligations can be objective in relation to human beliefs and emotions, since there will be a fact of the  matter about whether God has given some particular command, as well as about the content of the command. So we can see why people can be correct and mistaken. Second, we can understand why moral reasons are overriding in character. We can also explain the motivating power of moral obligations. A moral theory should explain why duties are motivating, but should not imply that people are always motivated to do what is morally right. Divine command theory doesn’t preclude other moral motivations. And we can understand why moral obligations are universal on DCT, in both senses identified above.

Does God have some discretion about what he commands? How tight is the connection between the good and the right? Does God have discretion? Scotus held that at least some of the commands of the Decalogue could have been otherwise. He divided the Decalogue into two sections or “tables,” and held that while the commands of the first table are those that God necessarily issues, those in the second table could have been different. Scotus, Hare, and Adams defend some discretion. Aquinas, though, would say that, given our nature, God’s commands are determined, fixed, in this world as he fashioned it.

Here Evans distinguishes between the modal status theory and the discretion thesis. The discretion thesis is that God has some choice about what he commands. The modal status thesis says an act that God commands acquires a particular moral status in part by virtue of his command. The more central point for Evans is the modal status thesis. Nonetheless, in a case where obedience to God alone is the reason for one choice over another, one’s devotion to God would be most clearly shown.

Evans opts for a divine command theory over a divine will theory because morality would be impossible unless God’s will is somehow expressed in such a way that it can be known. But expressions of God’s will become God’s requirements.

God’s commands don’t have to take the form of imperatives. There’s good reason not to think this should be limited to special revelation, which has only a limited range. Other possibilities include natural law, the magisterium of an ecclesiastical body, specific commands God might communicate to individuals in some way, examining our natural inclinations, and listening to our conscience.

In terms of conscience, does this commit Evans to ethical intuitionism? No, many who deny intuitionism still rely on ethical intuitions themselves or at least regard them as having some epistemic weight. The notion of conscience is by no means limited to western philosophy or western culture. Gyekye claims that something very much like the notion of conscience plays a central role in the ethical thinking and practices of traditional African cultures. Such examples can be multiplied.

If God reveals his commands to humans through conscience and other natural means, this means that his role in morality may be somewhat “hidden” or at least not perfectly transparent to many humans, which has certain implications: If God’s commands are promulgated through conscience and other forms of general revelation, then a divine command theory rejects the claim that one must be religious to be moral, and it rejects the claim that one must be religious to have reasonable moral beliefs.

Stout argues that morality comes from the laws and customs of societies. But Evans says that, though we can gain knowledge of morality by reflection on social practices, that doesn’t mean that those social practices can adequately ground morality. What is lacking is an account of the authority of the norms that are embedded in our social practices. Stout fails to provide a plausible account of his own as to how moral truths can possess the objectivity and transcendence he sees it as having.

In a later chapter Evans will critique alternative metaethical views on offer to explain obligations, but he points out that their existence demonstrates recognition of the need to give some account of why there should be moral obligations.


Photo: “Commandments” by James Perkins. CC License. 

Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 1

By David Baggett 

Chapter 2

Chapter 3, Part 1

In this book Evans will argue that one part of morality in particular threatens to drop out of the picture or be transformed beyond recognition by leaving God out of the picture. That part of morality is moral obligations. He doesn’t mean to suggest that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person, or that moral knowledge depends on religious knowledge. His point instead is an ontological one: that God is the ground of obligation and a crucial part of the explanation of such obligations.

Moral obligations pertain to action primarily. They make up part of a deontic family of concepts. The various terms in the obligation family have nonmoral uses; each type of obligation embodies a particular kind of social institution.

The task of meta-ethics is to understand the foundation of ethics. Regarding obligations, questions arise like this: Are there moral facts about what are our moral obligations? If there are such facts, how can they be explained?

Non-cognitive theories such as emotivism and prescriptivism deny that moral utterances express propositions with objective truth values. Cognitivists, in contrast, affirm this. The main problem with noncognitivism seems to be a loss of moral authority.

But how can we explain the authority of moral obligations? This is an important task for the moral cognitivist. J. L. Mackie thought moral obligations as authoritative are too strange, too ontologically odd, so he rejected them. This led to his “error theory.”

The so-called Cornell Realists (Brink, Boyd, Sturgeon) think that naturalism can explain the authority of moral obligations.

So really there’s a three-party dispute: moral skeptics versus theistic moralists versus naturalistic moral theorists.

What’s special about obligations? To have a moral obligation is to have a special reason to act. An obligation conveys the notion of an absolute verdict. How is this different from Aristotle? When Aristotle used terms like “should” or “ought,” they relate to what is good or bad in the sense in which one can explain what is good and bad for something in terms of what is needed for that thing. Justice is a virtue needed for human flourishing and being unjust is therefore harmful to a person.

In modern moral philosophy, Anscombe maintains, terms like “should” and “ought” have a special moral sense, in which they imply some absolute verdict (like one of guilty/not guilty on a man). Anscombe attributed the difference to the intervening influence of Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. But if such a conception of a law-giving God is dominant for many centuries and then given up, it’s a natural result that the concept of ‘obligation’, of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though it’s lost its root.

Anscombe thought it best to leave the modern conceptions behind and go back to Aristotle’s understanding because she thought the theoretical underpinnings irretrievably lost. She may have been pleasantly surprised to see the more recent resurgence of interest in theistic ethics.

Evans calls the “Anscombe intuition” the idea that moral obligations as experienced have a unique character, and attempts to explain moral obligations must illuminate that special character. What is that special nature?

Four features of moral obligations include these: 1) Judgment about a moral obligation is a kind of verdict on my action; 2) A moral obligation brings reflection to closure; 3) A moral obligation involves accountability or responsibility; and 4) A moral obligation holds for persons simply as persons.

Evans wishes to suggest, though, contra Anscombe, that Socrates seemed to have the concept of moral obligation. See his Apology, for example. All the features are present: some actions are forbidden, settled question, personal responsibility, and universal.

Aristotle thought of God as the model of contemplation. Socrates thought of God as personal, who cared about human beings, and as authoritative.

In this book Evans will argue that a transcendent law-giver is the best explanation of moral obligations. His thesis, again, is ontological, not epistemic. Evans will try to show that God accounts for moral obligations and secular substitutes for God are not satisfactory. A key part of his case will be showing how God has this authority.

“We need to recover the vision of the moral law as a gift intended for human flourishing, a view that is clearly articulated in the attitude of the Jewish people towards the Torah.”

Photo: “Church of the Covenant” by Nicholas Erwin. CC License.