Skip to main content

Moral Objectivity & Universality

Moral Objectivity & Universality

Is moral universality necessary to show moral objectivity? Is it sufficient?

Before we can answer those questions, we have to explain what we mean by these words. Moral objectivity contrasts with moral subjectivity, which relativizes moral truth to individuals, cultures, or subcultures. Moral objectivity is the contrasting (indeed, contradictory) idea that that some moral truths apply to everyone irrespective of their preferences, wishes, beliefs, etc.

Moral universality features an important ambiguity. It might mean, first, (a moral claim) believed by everyone. Or it might mean, second, (a moral claim) applicable to or authoritative for everyone. This is a crucial distinction to draw. Let’s call the first sense of universality Ub, and the second Ua.

Is moral universality necessary for moral objectivity? This is the same question as asking if the following conditional is true: If moral objectivity obtains, is morality universal? But then we have to ask this for both senses of moral universality. Let “MO” stand for “moral objectivity.”

The questions, symbolically expressed, then look like this:

(1) Is “MO –> Ub” true? an

(2) Is “MO –> Ua” true?

First, consider (1). If Ub is necessary for MO, then MO would be sufficient to show Ub. But it isn’t. The fact that something is an objective moral truth isn’t enough to imply that everyone believes it. So the answer to (1) is no.

What about (2)? Is Ua necessary for MO? It would seem so. If something is an objective moral truth, it’s applicable to everyone (capable of understanding it, at least). Moral objectivity is sufficient to show universality in this sense, and (equivalently) Ua is logically necessary for MO.

Now let’s go the other way and ask if universality is sufficient for moral objectivity. Again, we have to disambiguate between the two kinds of universality, so there are two questions here:

(3) Is “Ub –> MO” true? and

(4) Is “Ua –> MO” true?

In terms of (3), the mere fact that some moral claim is universally believed is not enough to show that it’s an objective moral truth. Everyone might turn out to be wrong, after all, perhaps systematically deluded. So the answer to (3) is no. But suppose we consider it in the form of an argument:

(5) Ub

(6) So, MO

This is not an entailment, for the same reason it’s false to claim that Ub implies MO. Nevertheless, as a less-than-deductive inference, it’s not necessarily bad. The universality (or near universality) of a moral belief can, in certain cases, provide reasons to think the belief in question is an objective moral truth. We see an analogous example or parity in reasoning in, say, science, when we take widespread agreement on a matter to have for its best explanation its convergence on an objective truth. Still, though, nothing like an entailment relation obtains, obviously enough.

What about (4)? Does universal moral applicability imply moral objectivity? It would plausibly seem so. If a moral truth applies authoritatively to everyone, that’s practically the definition of an objective, morally binding truth. (4) is true.

If this is right, then Ub is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral objectivity, although universality or near universality of belief may (if certain conditions are met) provide some evidence for an objective moral truth.

But Ua is both necessary and sufficient for moral objectivity. This would mean that universality, in this sense, obtains just in case moral objectivity obtains.

Another way of putting that last claim is that universality—in the sense of universal authority or applicability—is true if and only if moral objectivity is true. In other words, both of these claims are true: Ua is true if moral objectivity is true, and Ua is true only if moral objectivity is true.

Represented symbolically, they would look like this, respectively:

MO –> Ua, and Ua –> MO.

Such universality, along with moral objectivity, mutually imply one another, which can be expressed with a biconditional like this:

Ua <—-> MO.

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

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image: “Maimonides” By Unknown – Psychiatric News, Public Domain,

Apologetics and the Fulfillment of Prophecies


by David Baggett

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. – Acts 18:24-28


There’s a debate about apologetic methodology between evidentialists and presuppositionalists concerning the role of scripture in arguing for the faith. Although my proclivities run more in the direction of evidentialism, I concede there’s something of an important exception—a case where explicit appeal to scripture is altogether appropriate and not at all problematically circular. Normally the problem with this approach, in trying to convince someone that God exists, is that the person would obviously be skeptical of scripture as authoritative revelation. But the assumption this is always the case is largely because apologetics today is usually thought of in terms of convincing the skeptic, the unbeliever. Early Christians, however, were rarely confronted with that particular challenge. Atheists were rare. In fact, it was common that they themselves were called atheists because, in their exclusivism, they vociferously denied any and all of the state-sanctioned divinities in affirming the one true God. It would have been more than a little ironic if they were additionally tasked with taking on atheists!

Almost all of the earliest Christians were Jews, and initially their outreach was mainly to Jews. This would change in due course, but their audience early on was most often a Jewish one, and, for quite a while, they were wildly successful. Such outreach typically took the form of appealing to scripture—specifically, the Old Testament. (The New Testament hadn’t yet been written.) And quite often this took the form of early Christian witnesses, evangelists, and apologists trying to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Jews had the expectation of a coming Messiah, and the Old Testament featured quite a number of prophecies about this figure. Steeped in the Old Testament themselves, the early apologists constructed their case for Christ by arguing that Jesus was the promised one, the expected Messiah.

After Saul’s conversion, for example, we’re told that he “increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is the very Christ” (Acts 9:22). Luke tells us that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to a few disciples on their way to Emmaus, saying, “’O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken, ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). Note in the epigraph that Apollos vigorously “showed from the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:28).

Those for whom the Old Testament little matters are usually and understandably unpersuaded by appealing to it, but the world contains billions of people from the Abrahamic faiths who claim to take the Old Testament seriously indeed. This may not exactly be an instance of presuppositionalist apologetics, but pointing to fulfillment of prophecies is an entirely legitimate and demonstrably effective apologetic, especially for those who claim to believe the Old Testament.

To this end, here’s just a smattering of examples for those who’d like to become better equipped to do just this.

Micah 5:2 says, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. According to the New Testament account of the apostle Matthew, Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem in the southern region of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and later moved to Nazareth in the northern Galilee region.

Genesis 49:10 says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” The Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah. In Matthew 1:1–6 and Luke 3:31–34 of the New Testament, Jesus is described as a member of the tribe of Judah by lineage. Revelation 5:5 also mentions an apocalyptic vision of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Zechariah 9:9 says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” The Messiah would present himself by riding on an ass. Matthew 21:6-7, for one example, says the disciples did as Jesus commanded them, and “brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon,” as Jesus then entered Jerusalem.

Psalm 22 describes how the Messiah would be tortured. Numerous vivid passages are uncanny in their similarities to sufferings Christ endured. Among them, “they pierced my hands and my feet” (16b) and “they part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture” (18). John 19:23-24 relates what happened after the crucifixion of Christ: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.” Luke 24:39 features the resurrected Jesus saying, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see—for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Daniel 9:24-27 says the Messiah would arrive before the destruction of the (Second) Temple. In 66 CE the Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire. Four years later, in 70 CE, Roman legions under Titus retook and destroyed much of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 says the Messiah’s life would include suffering, silence at his arrest and trial, and death and burial in a rich man’s tomb. Origen recounted using Isaiah 53 in a discussion with some rabbis, who responded that the prophecies referred to the whole people as though of a single individual, since they were scattered in the dispersion and smitten. So Origen asked which person could be referred to in the texts: “This man bears our sins and suffers pain for us,” and “but he was wounded for our transgressions and he was made sick for our iniquities,” and “by his stripe we were healed.”

This is just a small sample. Passages from Ezekiel (37:26-27), Haggai (2:6-9), and Hosea (11:1) could be adduced, not to mention other passages from Isaiah (7:14; 8:23-9:2; 9:5-6; 11:12), Jeremiah (31:15), and the Psalms (2, 16, 34, 69, 110), and more besides. In his book Choosing Your Faith, Mark Mittelberg writes that there’s no less than something on the order of 48 messianic prophecies that were fulfilled in the person of Jesus, some with terrific specificity that defies naturalistic explanation.

Michael Green, Anglican theologian and priest, prolific author, and Senior Research Fellow and Head of Evangelism and Apologetics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, recalls talking to an intelligent Jewish woman interested in discussing Christianity. “I showed her from the Old Testament Scriptures how closely Jesus had fulfilled the varied hopes of the prophets. She believed, and was baptized. . . . the zeal of my friend to reach others with the good news she had come to recognize for herself was no less reminiscent of the Acts of the Apostles. She studied Greek and Hebrew, with the intention of working full time among Jews.”

Green quotes her as writing him, “You know, it is so blatantly clear that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose from the grave—I just long to get it across to others, especially to my own people. I am longing to work among them and show them their Messiah.” [Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 120.]


Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

By David Baggett 

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.
In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

Summary of Robert Adams’ chapter on Moral Faith, Part III, from Finite and Infinite Goods: The Cognitive Aspect of Moral Faith


Finite and Infinite Goods

Summary by David Baggett

Is it really correct to speak of believing in these contexts, or is something less cognitive demanded in moral faith? Adams chooses to concentrate on some of the concrete features of moral faith that incline him to speak of “belief” here. For no theory on metaethical issues is likely to attain a very high degree of certainty. Moral faith is therefore a stance we will have to take, if we are reasonable, in the face of the recognition that any metaethical theory we may hold could rather easily be mistaken. So it would be good to have an understanding of the stance that does not presuppose very much metaethics.

Adams thinks both will and feeling are involved in moral faith, but he does not think that moral faith is merely will and feeling, or that believing another person’s life is worth living is merely caring about that life. It’s not just a volitional matter; an intention central to moral faith is an intention of respecting something more commanding, more external to the self than mere personal preference and feeling.

This is the most important reason for speaking of moral faith as a sort of “belief,” and it is connected with the possibility of error. Faith confronts a temptation to doubt precisely because such possibilities of error must be recognized, and in a way respected.

Emotions too can be mistaken, but it’s far from clear that we can understand how an emotion of faith in the value of life can be inappropriately related to reality if we can’t understand how faith can be, or involve, a false belief that life is worth living. In any event, the possibility of an objectively appropriate or inappropriate relation to reality is precisely the aspect of moral belief most subject to metaethical doubts, and also the aspect that seems to Adams most important to the nonegocentric character of moral faith.

Connected with the possibility of error is the giving of reasons for and against beliefs. In thinking about items of moral faith one uses logic, one aims at consistency and at coherence with one’s beliefs on other subjects, and one is responsive to one’s sense of “plausibility,” as we sometimes put it. All of that provides grounds for classifying moral faith as a sort of belief.

Particular interest attaches to the question of responsiveness or unresponsiveness of moral faith to the evidence of experience. Our faith in the value of particular human lives, in the value and the possibility of a moral life, and in the possibility of a common good, can be put under strain by particular experiences. Indeed, adverse experience is precisely what gives rise, as Adams has argued, to a problem of evil for moral faith.

There is thus a considerable empirical element in faith in moral ends. But Adams does not believe that science, or social science, could devise a definitive empirical test of the truth of faith in any moral end. Objects of faith have vaguer contours that permit reformulation in the face of adverse experience, so we can’t identify experiences that are unequivocally predicted or excluded by such items of faith as that so-and-so’s life is worth living. So faith is not normally subject to definitive proof or refutation by any specifiable finite set of experiences. And from the perspective of moral faith, this is as it should be, for moral faith is supposed to be resistant to adverse evidence.

Empiricists may take offense at this feature of faith. Faith as such is indeed resistant to adverse experience, and is apt to revise itself before simply accepting refutation. Flew is right that faith is in danger of evacuating itself of content if its resistance is undiscriminating or absolutely unconditional. Nonetheless, Adams believes that resistance to adverse experience, and to refutation in general, is an appropriate feature of faith; and he will argue this with specific reference to moral faith.

Our interest in items of faith is importantly different from our interest in scientific hypotheses. Conclusive falsification of a hypothesis is progress in science. But falsification of an item of faith is not progress—at least not from the perspective within which it is an item of faith. To think that falsification of the belief in morality itself, or of the belief that a moral life is worth living, might be pure progress is already to hold an amoral view, a morally bad view. A loss of moral faith would be the loss of something precious.

When we resist refutation of an item of moral faith, we may, and should, be thinking of the danger of being misled into giving it up while it is true. From a moral point of view that would be a worse mistake to make than the mistake of clinging to moral faith while it is false. Even if an item of moral faith is false, moreover, we are not likely in abandoning it to attain anything corresponding to the moral value of believing it if it is true. This is an important asymmetry.

The balance of potential payoffs is much more equal when it is a question of revising moral faith, rather than abandoning it. We can hope that revision of moral faith will be progress from a moral point of view. This is a further reason for thinking it is good for moral faith to combine a variable, revisable form with a vaguer but more enduring core, so that self-critical growth and development may be combined with constancy of commitment.

Items of faith are not hypotheses to be tested by experience, though we may well want their formulations to be tested by experience. Items of faith may in fact be tested by experience, but we are not trying to refute them. We are trying to live by them. It’s not that moral faith is wholly unempirical, let alone noncognitive, but that it involves a different way of accommodating thought to experience.

Maybe this suggests too stark a contrast between morality and science. Notoriously, the reliability of induction and more broadly of empirical scientific methods has been doubted by reasonable persons and it may not be possible to set the doubts to rest in a completely satisfying way. Yet a refutation of the reliability of induction would not be scientific progress in the same way that a refutation of the meteorite explanation of the extinction of dinosaurs might be. So perhaps there is a place, or even a need, for faith in the highest level beliefs of science, but for now Adams is content to make a point just about moral faith.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Twilight Musings 20 – for Jan. 22, 2016 “Believing and Hoping”

By Elton D. Higgs

Two related contrasts came up in my devotional times this week:

  1. the distinction between optimism and hope (particularly Christian hope); and
  2. the profound difference between the popular saying, “Seeing is believing,” and the reverse of that, “Believing is seeing.”

The first of each pair is an expression of a secular, humanistic interpretation of reality, and latter of each pair embodies reality seen through the eyes of faith.  I would like to expound a bit on both pairs.

Optimism and Hope

Both optimism and hope go beyond the visible facts of the situation to which they are applied, but whereas optimism is a chosen attitude, hope is the embracing of confidence in what somebody has said.  Optimism can be merely the expression of a sunny disposition, or perhaps of a kind of naiveté; but hope is the conviction, based on a reliable source, that things are being engineered in a certain direction.  We can choose to be optimistic that the stock market will go up and the economy will prosper, but we can have hope for these developments only if we have inside information that we trust.  Optimism is subjective, whereas hope is grounded in the assurance that a promise will be fulfilled.

When the Bible speaks of hope, it is always connected with faith, and it is never merely a subjective choice to see things in the most positive light.  The Psalms are full of references to hope based on trusting God.  (All biblical passages are from the NIV.)

  Ps 33:20-21

 We wait in hope for the Lord ;

he is our help and our shield.

 In him our hearts rejoice,

for we trust in his holy name.

Isa 40:31

 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Rom. 4: 18-22 shows the extreme of hope that perseveres because of belief in God’s faithfulness and the surety of His promise:

 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.  Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Heb. 6:17-19 makes clear that our hope in God’s promises is anchored in the Absolute Truth of Yahweh Himself:

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.  God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.   We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.

Seeing is believing/Believing is seeing

All of us have encountered, at some time or another, the practical skepticism of someone who says, “Well, seeing is believing” (or some expression of that sentiment).  Applied to some situations, such as hearing the promises of someone who has proven himself to be untrustworthy, this response is appropriate and understandable.  But for some people, it becomes the expression of a materialistic epistemology, based on the assumption that the only questions worth asking (or answering) are those subject to rational, scientific investigation.

For a person of active faith, this aphorism has to be inverted: “Believing is seeing.”   The contrast between the two statements is very instructive about what is involved in living a life of faith.  At the center of this contrast is the implicit assertion in the first that only seeing can validate and inform believing, while the inverted statement affirms that believing is the foundation for truly seeing.  Augustine articulated the contrast by saying, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.”  Later, Anselm reinforced this idea with his maxim, “Credo ut intelligam,” which is a reflection of the scriptural statement that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).  The core meaning of the biblical idea is that one must go beyond the narrow boundaries of what can be established merely by human observation and analysis and accept that the Source of all knowledge is the God Who gave us the power to think.  If we are to have a deep understanding of Truth, we must be grounded in a simple act of faith that accepts possibilities beyond what we can see.

As Paul says in Rom. 8:23-25, we “groan inwardly” in hope of “the redemption of our bodies.   For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?   But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

Image: “Hope” by P. Herjolf. CC License. 

Video: Too Good Not to Be True: The Shape of Moral Apologetics – David Horner

Dr. David Horner  is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology. Today we are excited to feature the video version of his essay, “Too Good Not to Be True.” Here is the blurb describing the video from the Forum of Christian Leader’s YouTube page:

Apologetics is about communicating, not merely talking. It requires that we understand those with whom we speak: what they think, the questions they’re asking (and not asking), the assumptions they’re making; and the misconceptions that keep them from listening to what we have to say. If we don’t understand the soil, we may be scattering seeds in vain – talking but not communicating, making noise but not making progress. Perhaps the deepest, soil-hardening challenges to the apologetic task in our time are moral objections to Christianity – to the (perceived) immorality of Christian attitudes and behavior in history and the present. In this talk we think about apologetics and its relation to “soil management,” consider the apologetic role and importance of moral goodness, and suggest some ways to help people come to see the gospel as too good not to be true.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to read Horner’s essay, this lecture will be well worth your time.



Image: “What a beautiful day – Bavaria today” by digital cat. CC license.

The Possibility and Pursuit of Truth

By Andrew J. Spencer

Editor’s note: 

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics is a close second. In addition to blogging at, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

The Christian worldview is nothing if it is not true. John 14:6 records Jesus’ declaration of his truthfulness and the exclusivity of that truth claim: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Paul comments that the historicity––the truthfulness––of the resurrection is a foundation that Christianity stands or falls by in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.

The most basic question we need to strive to answer is not, “How does this make me feel?” Rather, we need to answer the question, “How do I know this is true?” Truthfulness is at the heart of Christianity. The entire Christian perspective is worthless if it isn’t true.

Recently I was struck by overlap between my overwhelming interest in truth and the perspective of someone with a very different view of life. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger announces something should be obvious but needs defense in the contemporary age: “Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.”

Dreger is an advocate for intersex rights (which deserves more nuanced attention from Christians) and a proponent of sexual ethics at odds with Scripture. However, the commonality in understanding between my worldview and hers is noteworthy. We both recognize that truthfulness has ethical implications that are essential for society to exist. We both believe that truthfulness will lead to justice.

And this is important methodologically in our discourse with unbelievers. Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 demonstrated that he was willing to start with where his interlocutors were at, complement them when he could, identify features of their worldview that resonated with his own, and even quote writers and poets that his opponents would recognize as their own and as potentially authoritative. In all of these ways, incidentally, Paul was following the well tread dictates of Greek rhetoric. Starting with shared ground in our evangelistic efforts is an impeccable bridge-building exercise and features a distinguished biblical pedigree and precedent.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life. We have access to truth, because of God’s illumination of his self-revelation in Scripture, in a way that secular thinkers and practitioners of false religions lack. This does not mean we possess a perfect objectivity—the ability to see things without bias—but it does mean we have access to truth and should strive for objectivity.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life.

Even Dreger argues for the importance of objectivity. She wryly comments, “Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de fact criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners.”

We may disagree with Alice Dreger about what the content of truth, but we should be able to agree with her that the truth is essential and the pursuit of objectivity is necessary if we are going to find truth. Often, our first step in reaching out to people with the hope of the truth needs to be making a case for the existence of truth itself.

I recently reviewed a book for the academic journal Environmental Ethics. In Religion and Ecology, a professor from Florida International University, Whitney Bauman, applies queer theory to ecology in an attempt to discover a planetary ethic. The book, at its heart, is trying to re-envision the relationship between “self-and-other beyond substance-based notions of identity.” Bauman is rejecting the foundational understandings of the existence of truth in search of something that “works better” for the environment.

In Bauman’s post-foundational approach, he rejects the possibility of objectivity in natural sciences because science necessarily begins with certain assumptions. As Dreger acknowledges, and I affirm, any human pursuit of truth is tainted with our own perspectives. However, Bauman calls for an abandonment of the quest for objective truth altogether, which creates enormous difficulties both in theory and in practice. A standard we can only asymptotically approach without ever being able to achieve perfectly is not evidence for its absence, nor grounds to suggest that more closely approximating it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

The end result for Bauman is a mishmash of experience, emotion, and knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, much less defend. His goal, it seems, is to find a unity by erasing distinctions between categories. This includes his contention “that atheism and theism are really like two sides of the same coin, as are reductionism and holism or relativism and universalism.” Such a rejection of differences is bound to make both the theist and atheist unhappy.

For Bauman, reconfiguring the means of gaining knowledge is necessary, and it allows him to conclude that the best solutions for contemporary environmental problems are “free” higher education, universal healthcare, and the promotion of leisure time. The book offers no explanation as to why those things are good for the environment, but that just illustrates the problem with Bauman’s approach to truth. The method undermines the possibility of a meaningful solution.

Both Dreger and Bauman are people in need of the truth, which is rooted in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the approach to engaging them––and people that share their views––is entirely different.

People who accept that truth exists and is an objective reality can be influenced by traditional apologetic arguments. They recognize the cogency of the world and are seeking to find a systemic understanding that has explanatory power.

Others, though, who consider belief in any truth to be naïve, are more difficult to engage. With palpable paradoxicality, their axiomatic belief is that foundational beliefs are inappropriate. This illustrates the circularity of the belief system, but breaking through the infinite regress is much more difficult. The first step here is more important and harder. It requires demonstrating that an objective truth is possible and necessary.

In the arena of moral apologetics, it’s harder to reach those who don’t believe in at least certain obvious moral truths. Fortunately this remains a distinctly minority position among secularists, but, if Nietzsche was right (and he may well have been), it’s a position that is likely to grow in popularity as the implications of naturalism sink in. Ours is a culture that still benefits from the effects of being steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as even recent events have shown, the Christian framework for apprehending reality is gradually losing its grip on the popular imagination.

As we reach into the world with the hope of the Gospel, there is more to the discussion than just memorizing an evangelism outline. We need to ask enough questions to be aware of the appropriate starting point and make the case that needs to be made. The Bible itself makes it clear that our outreach needs to be audience-sensitive. In Paul’s speeches in Acts, his sermons to Jews and God-fearers were filled with biblical references; but at Lystra or Athens he shifted gears, finding common ground elsewhere: in nature, in pagan poetry. Although his preaching on such occasions tapped into biblical truth, explicit references to the scriptures came to a screeching halt. One size doesn’t fit all. In some cases, in a culture increasingly relativistic, pluralist, and postmodern, the conversation will have to begin by explaining that there is an objective moral order in the universe and that such truth is both available and valuable.



Image:”What is truth” by Nikolai Ge – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Too Good Not to be True: A Call to Moral Apologetics as a Mode of Civil Discourse

By David Horner 

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. 

                                                                                                          Blaise Pascal[1]


I once attended an atheist parade, where hundreds of atheists marched through downtown Denver, carrying signs and chanting anti-Christian slogans. It was an unusual group, but stranger still were some of the Christians who lined the parade route. A particular image that continues to haunt me is of the representative of Jesus wearing a yellow construction hard hat with a large, battery-operated speaker mounted on top, and a cable connected to a hand-held microphone. Glaring in evident hatred at the marchers passing by, he screamed repeatedly into the microphone, at the top of his lungs, “Jesus loves you!!!  Jesus loves you!!!”

As one would expect, the parade immediately stopped at this point, as the atheists, grasping the truth that Jesus loved them, dropped their placards and joined Mr. Hard Hat in grateful praise to God. Well, not exactly. Instead, the march continued, the marchers all the more firmly established in their convictions. This episode represents, shall we say, a “failure to communicate.” Certainly, nothing was amiss in the proposition asserted; Jesus loves you was both true and important for the audience to understand. And it was articulated clearly; competent speakers of English had no trouble understanding the words. Yet I warrant that none in the audience came, as a result of this speech act, to see the proposition to be true – to believe it. If anything, the communicative result was the opposite. (“You’re with Jesus, you hate me, therefore Jesus hates me.”) Although Jesus loves you is true, it was not believable to those who heard it.

This scenario may serve as a metaphor for what believers now face in much of American and European culture with respect to communicating the gospel. To a growing extent, when we assert Jesus loves you (i.e., when we declare the gospel or articulate the Christian worldview), people do not find it believable. As with the atheists in Denver, this is not so much a function of the content of what we say as the context in which we say it. In some cases, it may be the way we say it; in most cases, it is the hearers’ perception (whether accurate or not) of who we are, as we say it. That is, what makes the gospel unbelievable to many today is their perception of Christians and Christianity. This is a reality that followers of Jesus, as they consider the task and importance of civil discourse, particularly in relation to representing the gospel, must recognize.

Once Christian moral teaching was widely regarded in western culture as the highest expression of ethical thought. Indeed, Christians were seen by some to set the moral bar too high, that Christianity was, as it were, “too good” to be true—a criticism, but one that rests upon an underlying moral admiration. Times have changed. According to Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford,

For 1,500 years, it has been assumed that to be good and to be Christian were synonymous. That is simply not true now . . . One of the churches’ great, unacknowledged failures is their reluctance to face this. They like to assume that they hold the high moral ground. If they ever did, they certainly do not now, at least in the minds of the liberal intelligentsia. People often find Christianity’s picture of God unattractive . . . I believe that, beneath people’s alleged philosophical or scientific objections, there is often a gut feeling, at once both psychological, moral and spiritual, that they do not like what has been put before them—and they do not like it not just because of their temperament, or because they are wicked, but because it feels psychologically oppressive, morally suspect and spiritually unattractive . . . I believe that the Christian understanding of God is the most morally and spiritually beautiful picture of the divine that has been put before human beings. But if we want people to feel the persuasive power of this, we have first to hear how people find it morally and spiritually unpersuasive.[3]

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is “too bad” to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—”moral apologetics”—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time. However, Christian apologists have given comparatively little attention to diagnosing, understanding, and strategically responding to it.[4] As Harries suggests, we need to consider how people find our understanding of God “morally and spiritually unpersuasive,” and work together to address it. In this paper I hope to encourage further, strategic work by many of us in the area of moral apologetics, toward the end that people would come increasingly to see Christianity and the gospel as too good not to be true.

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is “too bad” to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—”moral apologetics”—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time.

My purpose here is to contribute to the beginning of a conversation about these matters, by suggesting some ways to think about the project and where it fits into the apologetic and moral terrain, specifically in relation to the believability of the gospel. More particularly, I attempt to sketch a conception of the apologetic task and its relation to moral goodness that is informed by considerations from epistemology, philosophical theology, and broadly Aristotelian moral psychology, which I hope will help clarify the need for moral apologetics, as well as its nature and general shape. What I say is more suggestive than definitive; each of these areas needs to be developed much further. It will also be more diagnostic than prescriptive; developing a strategic plan for addressing these issues is something, I hope, that some of us can work on together. The challenge is much bigger than all of us. I hope that what I say here will be helpful in thinking about the broad shape of the project, but my chief aim is to cast a vision: to sound a call to moral apologetics.

The term moral apologetics is ambiguous. It can refer either to being “moral” (i.e., morally good) as we do apologetics, or to doing apologetics in relation to (matters of) moral goodness and evil. In my view, the ambiguity is appropriate, as both aspects are implicated in the problem and required for the solution. My central intuition is that apologists must take seriously the role of goodness in how people are drawn to the gospel. Doing so implies both negative and positive apologetic tasks: that we respond to moral objections raised against Christianity and the gospel and that we point to the goodness of God, both in the content of our apologetic arguments and—most especially—in our lives. Each of these elements is essential, I maintain, if we are to say Jesus loves you in such a way that people actually believe it.

1 A brief sketch of apologetics

I understand apologetics as the art and science of explaining and defending the truth-claims of the Christian worldview.[5] As a science, doing apologetics involves mastering information and arguments. As an art, it involves developing skills in understanding one’s “audience” and tuning what one knows toward engaging them in real communication. While the science of apologetics focuses solely on questions of truth and validity, the art of apologetics is concerned with understanding how people come to believe what is true, or matters of “believability.” Moral apologetics, as I describe it here, reflects concerns that particularly emerge from the “art” side.

Positive apologetics involves “playing offense”: pointing to the truth of the gospel by offering reasons and positive pointers on its behalf. Negative apologetics involves “playing defense”: answering objections and clearing away obstacles that obstruct someone’s vision of the truth of the gospel. Moral apologetics includes both orientations. It involves thinking strategically about how to point to the goodness of God, on the one hand, and about how to respond effectively to moral objections mounted against God’s goodness, on the other.

Beyond these basic distinctions, I will make two further suggestions about apologetics that are, perhaps, less obvious. I will introduce the second in the section 3, but the first here. An important concern related to the art of apologetics, I have suggested, is “believability.” Apologists should be concerned, not only to defend the claim that a proposition like Jesus loves you is true, but to do so in such a way that others will see it to be true, to believe it. What does it mean, to come to believe such a proposition—in a way that is appropriate to the sort of proposition it is and to the kind of response that it properly calls forth? Deep theological waters glisten before me, which I hope to leap with a single bound. For my purposes here, I make two assumptions. I assume, first, that a necessary condition for one’s coming to believe that p, where p is a proposition that is part of the essential content of the gospel, such as Jesus loves you or Jesus died on the cross for my sins, is that the Holy Spirit is at work in one’s heart, drawing one to himself—however we undertand the details of this, theologically. Second, I assume (again, however one spells out the details) that the Holy Spirit uses human agents such as evangelists and apologists in the process of drawing someone to himself. The first assumption is simply a given in this discussion; my focus is related to the second. That assumption implies that we should approach our role as apologists both prayerfully and intelligently, and I suggest that this means we should think carefully and strategically about both the science and the art of apologetics. With respect to the latter, I suggest further that we should reflect, among other things, on how people form beliefs, and specifically, how they find them to be believable.

This leads us into deep epistemological waters as well, and here I just want to dip my toe in enough to appeal to a distinction I find quite helpful in envisioning the apologetic task, one adapted from sociologists of knowledge: the distinction between credibility and plausibility.[6] Both, on my understanding, are constituents of believability. As I describe them briefly, what I mean by believability should become reasonably clear as well. (“Reasonably clear” is all I aspire to here.)

            Credibility has to do with having reasons to believe something is true. The credibility question with respect to some matter is: Is it true? Where p is a proposition, for subject S to believe that p (i.e., to hold p to be true, or to assent to p as true), S needs to think that p is true—S needs to have reasons to believe that p. That is, p must be credible to S; credibility is a necessary condition for believability. Put differently, there is, as it were, a credibility filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations of p must successfully pass, before S believes that p.

The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.

Traditional apologetic strategies focus on the credibility of Christianity, providing evidence or reasons that, in its constituents (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus) or in its totality, the Christian worldview is true. This is a crucial task, as credibility is necessary for believability. But it is not sufficient. There is a prior filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations must successfully pass before S will even entertain the question whether p is true, and, thus, actually consider evidence that it is. This is a plausibility filter. The plausibility question with respect to p is: Could p be true? Only if S sees p as plausible will S seriously consider whether p is credible. To use agricultural language, plausibility has to do with the kinds or conditions of “soil” in which propositional seeds can grow. Misconceptions about the gospel, faulty assumptions about science, or bad experiences with Christians do not (yet) function as reasons or arguments against the existence of God or explicit defeaters for belief in things like the resurrection of Jesus. What they do is to harden the ground against entertaining such reasons, or seriously considering the truth of the gospel. Plausibility factors like these render Christianity unattractive, even unthinkable for people, who may simply write it off from consideration entirely (“It couldn’t be true”) and so never seriously consider evidence that it is true.

Credibility and plausibility both constitute necessary conditions for S’s coming to believe p to be true. If p is already plausible to S, credibility considerations may be all that is needed for p’s becoming believable to S. But if p is not plausible to S, S will not seriously attend to those considerations, and the communicative focus must shift to plausibility. Such is the situation to an increasing extent, I believe, with respect to the gospel, which has become implausible to many. While this is due to a number of factors,[7] our subject here is at the heart of it: Christians and Christianity seem to increasing numbers of people to be bad. The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.


2 The goodness of God and why it matters

The Psalmist invites us to “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Psalm 34.8)[1] Peter draws upon this image, as he invites his readers to grow in Christ: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2.2-3) What Peter sees as the result of his readers’ tasting of God’s goodness is suggested in his immediately subsequent phrase: “As you come to him . . .” (4a).[2] The picture suggested here is one that is reflected throughout Scripture and the history of Christian thought, viz. that God is good, and we are—and should be—drawn to him for precisely that reason: as good. Such an understanding also fits the classical philosophical conception of goodness as essentially desirable.[3] On this view, we as rational agents are drawn to what we take to be good, and, whether we are reflectively aware of it or not, we in fact order our lives in relation to what we conceive to be our ultimate good, our summum bonum. Such is the basic shape of moral psychology in the classical, especially the broadly Aristotelian tradition.[4]

Although I can’t defend these claims in any remotely complete way here, I will fill in the contours of this biblical and classical picture a bit more fully in what follows. The biblical story emphasizes God’s goodness and people being drawn to him in that light. Examples of passages and contexts could be multiplied. I’ll briefly note two, the first reflecting a general pattern, the second a particular instance. Arguably, the most common worship chorus in the Old Testament, appearing in different Psalms and appealed to in a range of circumstances and worship contexts, from dedicating the Temple to facing enemies in battle, is the familiar refrain: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”[5] The worship pattern of the people of God was consistently to face joys and challenges by focusing their attention on God’s goodness, expressed in his steadfast love (hesed) toward them.

A vivid particular instance of reflecting on God’s goodness and being drawn to it is found in Psalm 73. In this strikingly honest meditation, the worship leader, Asaph, struggles with the problem of evil: the unjust suffering of those who are good and the unjust flourishing of those who do evil. Resolution for Asaph comes when, in the Temple (v. 17), he sees the bigger, eternal perspective, and comes to understand in a fuller and deeper way that God is good – indeed, that God is his good (“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” v. 28, NASB) – and Asaph is drawn back to God as a result. Charles Spurgeon comments on this Psalm:

The greater our nearness to God, the less we are affected by the attractions and distractions of earth. Access into the most holy place is a great privilege, and a cure for a multitude of ills. It is good for all saints, it is good for me in particular; it is always good, and always will be good for me to approach the greatest good, the source of all good, even God himself.[6]

What I want to emphasize from both of these contexts is not only the centrality of God’s goodness to the biblical understanding of God, but also the role that one’s awareness of God’s goodness plays in one’s being drawn to him, coming to him in order to worship him, trust him, and love him. Responding properly to Jesus loves you, I suggest, involves a kind of conviction of Jesus’ goodness.

God’s goodness plays a central role in the historical tradition of Christian thought about God as well. According to Boethius, for example, God is identical in his substance to true or supreme goodness,[7] by which “He rules all things.” God’s goodness “is the helm and rudder, so to speak, by which the fabric of the universe is kept constant and unimpaired.”[8] The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought. Augustine endorses the classical moral psychology, according to which we do all that we do in relation to what we take to be our summum bonum.

Here the supreme good is sought, the good to which we refer everything that we do, desiring it not for the sake of something else, but for its very own sake. Obtaining it, we require nothing further in order to be happy. It is truly called the “end,” because we want everything else for the sake of this, but this we want only for itself.[9]

The highest good, Augustine argues, which everyone is ultimately seeking, is in fact God himself.[10] Augustine’s famous words at the beginning of his Confessions should be understood in that light: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[11] God is our good, the good we ultimately seek.

In Thomas Aquinas the classical understanding of good as desirable is at the heart both of his moral psychology and his metaphysical teleology.

 [W]hatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good, because the beginning of anything is always ordained to its completion; as is clearly the case in effects both of nature and of art. Wherefore every beginning of perfection is ordained to complete perfection which is achieved through the last end.[12]

The “perfect good” toward which all human desires ultimately point, for Aquinas, even beyond the full realization of the specific potentialities of human nature, is God himself. God is the ground or “Supreme Fount” of goodness[13] and its true fulfillment, as “the vision of the Divine Essence fills the soul with all good things, since it unites it to the source of all goodness.”[14] Like Augustine, Aquinas sees the universal human hunger for goodness as an expression, most fundamentally, of the longing to know God. “There is but one Sovereign Good, namely, God, by enjoying Whom, men are made happy.”[15] The deep connection between goodness and God also shapes Aquinas’s natural theology. Near the beginning of his initial metaphysical reflections on the nature of God, prior to his arguing for God’s infinity or even unpacking the nature of God’s existence, Aquinas devotes two full questions (Ia.5-6) to the nature of goodness and God’s goodness, developing a rich metaphysical account of goodness that underwrites the metaphysical teleology and moral psychology noted above.[16] At the heart of Aquinas’s thought is seeing God as good, as the supreme good.

John Calvin also firmly and evocatively points to the role of understanding God’s goodness in one’s coming to worship him properly. In the first paragraph of his Institutes, noting the relationship between knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself, Calvin observes that our recognizing “the blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven” naturally leads us to the “infinitude of good which resides in God,” that is, to the Lord, in whom “dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness.”[17] To be sure, for Calvin, it is “one thing to perceive that God our Maker supports us by his power, rules us by his providence, fosters us by his goodness, and visits us with all kinds of blessings, and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.” Still, to worship God properly, “it will not . . . be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all ought to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness.”[18] It is not enough even to recognize God as creator, the one to whom we must give reverent obedience, for “your idea of his nature is not clear unless you acknowledge him to be the origin and fountain of all goodness, and that we seek everything in him and in none but him.”[19] The fact that God created solely out of his goodness[20] has implications for natural theology. According to Calvin, the most direct path toward natural knowledge of God is to “contemplate his works” – to which Calvin adds: “and so refresh ourselves with his goodness.”[21]

What I hope is salient from this incomplete survey is the recognition, from Scripture and the Christian tradition, of the essential connection between coming to God and seeing God as good. Although recognizing God’s goodness may not be sufficient for coming to him, i.e. for believing in him and embracing the gospel, it does appear to be not only necessary but central.


3 Anselmian apologetics

In his Proslogion, St. Anselm famously articulated what has come to be called the ontological argument for God’s existence.[22] The success of that argument, or even whether Anselm intended it as an argument for theistic belief, continues to be debated. His pattern of reasoning, however—drawing out the implications of understanding God as the maximally perfect Being, or “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”—has proved fruitful in the field of philosophical theology for analyzing the concept and attributes of God. Unlike Mary Poppins, who was “practically perfect in every way,” God is completely perfect in every way. Thomas V. Morris describes our intuitions of God’s being supremely perfect as “Anselmian intuitions,” and he calls this approach to theology, “Perfect Being Theology.”[23] In his introduction to philosophical theology, Morris begins with an analysis of God’s goodness, and underscores the centrality we have seen it enjoy in earlier thinkers:

For the religious believer, trust, praise and worship all focus on this one property, whose importance in the religious life thus cannot be overestimated. In fact, earlier in this century, the British philosopher A. C. Ewing once stated that the most important thing about religion is its claim that the being on whom everything depends is absolutely and supremely good.[24]

I can now fulfill my earlier promise to introduce a second suggestion for apologetics that I find helpful in marking out the conceptual terrain for moral apologetics, by drawing upon the distinctions we have made so far, and by applying a broadly Anselmian approach to the apologetic task. I will call this, “Anselmian apologetics.”[25]

Classical philosophers and theologians identified the supreme or ultimate values in the moral, cognitive, and aesthetic realms as goodness, truth, and beauty (or: the good, the true, and the beautiful). As ultimate values, goodness, truth, and beauty constitute the ends or what is ultimately desired and sought for in these different domains. Moreover, classical thinkers understood goodness, truth, and beauty as bound together in a dynamic unity; indeed, as being ultimately one: truth is good, goodness is beautiful, beauty is good and true, and so on. This picture was easily amenable to early Christian thinkers, who saw these values as ultimately bound together in the nature of God. God is the good, the true, and the beautiful—the ultimate ground, source, and end of all cognitive, moral, and aesthetic value. On this view, as we have already seen with goodness, desires for truth and beauty ultimately reflect a desire for God.

Traditional apologetics is concerned chiefly with truth; its appeal is to the cognitive domain. The aim of traditional apologetics is to show, with reasons and arguments, that Christian truth claims are in fact true—true to facts about the natural order, the origin of the universe, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and so on. Some people, however, are drawn to God more through reflections of his goodness or beauty in the world than through reasoning about such matters. Given the variety of pointers to God and the complexity of human psychology (and epistemology), I suggest that our understanding of apologetics should be broad enough to include each of these (and perhaps more) kinds of considerations in pointing to God. Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.[26] God is the ultimate ground of goodness, truth, and beauty; he is their origin, their source, their end, their fullest actuality, and he is to be worshiped as such. God is not just an inferred entity or the best explanation of certain phenomena, but the ultimate to-be-worshiped. This broader picture, it seems to me, should be reflected in our apologetics.

Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.

For some people and in some circumstances, goodness and beauty play a particularly important role in plausibilizing the gospel. These values (to anticipate where I’m headed next) engage experiential and desiderative aspects of the epistemic “soil,” beyond the merely cognitive, and those aspects are often deeply important in determining what one takes to be plausible. Consider Psalm 27, for example, where David, in the midst of ugly, fearful conflict, longs for beauty—and turns to God as the satisfaction of that longing.

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27.4)

David’s deepest longing, he saw, was for God himself. This fits the general picture we’ve seen. But note that this longing for God was beauty-shaped, an experience, I suspect, that is echoed in the lives of many others. C. S. Lewis stands, for many of us, as a model for truth-oriented traditional apologetics, and rightly so. But Lewis also developed pointers to God based on goodness and beauty, expressed both in arguments and in imaginative literature. To many readers, the latter represent Lewis’s most powerful apologetic work. In Lewis’s own journey to faith, moreover, beauty was arguably the most important factor.[27]

Putting these considerations together with what we’ve already seen, we can rough out an initial picture of moral apologetics: Within a broad conception of apologetics as pointing to all that is true of God, including his goodness, truth, and beauty, and recognizing the centrality of seeing God as good in coming to believe in God, the focus of moral apologetics will be on pointing to God’s goodness. This could take a number of forms, beyond (but including) traditional forms of argument. A further line of thought suggests the importance of broadening our approach, however, and it is crucial for understanding how moral apologetics relates particularly to plausibility considerations and for illustrating the devastating power of moral objections to Christianity.


4 Grasping that God is good

Concern with God’s goodness plays at least two roles in traditional apologetics. First, a very important line of apologetic argumentation, a negative one (“playing defense”), is to respond to the perennial “problem of evil” (POE). The POE constitutes a moral objection to the Christian worldview. For many objectors, moreover, it is not merely a rational puzzle about the formal consistency of evil and divine great-making properties, but (also) an expression of their existential struggle about believing in God in the midst of suffering and pain. Part of the negative task of moral apologetics, then, will be continued work on the POE—supplemented with an emphasis, I suggest, on giving attention to the plausibility-relevant, real-life experiences of suffering that often lie behind this objection for some who object.

Second, concern with God’s goodness has also played a positive role in traditional apologetics. Moral arguments for theistic belief appeal to moral considerations that point to the existence of God.[28] Probably the most famous of such arguments is C. S. Lewis’s line of reasoning in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity.[29] The basic intuition driving moral arguments is that the existence of objective moral values or moral obligations, properties that impinge upon us, bind us, and obligate us point beyond themselves—and beyond us imperfect moral agents—to a perfect moral agent who made us and who reveals his character and will to us in these ways. They point to a supreme moral authority who holds us responsible to live up to them. In short, the best explanation of a moral order is that there is a Moral Orderer. It is notoriously difficult, at best, to account for these pervasive and central features of moral reality in terms of alternative worldviews such as naturalism or pantheism.

Although moral arguments like this are often difficult to spell out in their specifics, they capture what is for many people one of the most powerful pointers to the existence of God. This is because, I suggest, it reflects the Anselmian intuition that God is the final, ultimate locus or ground of value. Moral arguments touch our desire for goodness, which is central to our being drawn to God. What motivates moral arguments for theistic belief, then, is what is at the heart of moral apologetics. Developing such arguments, then,  is part of moral apologetics.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the part with the whole. Traditional moral arguments play a crucial role, but they function primarily at the level of credibility; their fruitfulness in pointing God’s goodness presupposes the existence of plausible soil, where God’s goodness is already plausible. But what is particularly exigent at this time with respect to God’s goodness is at the level of plausiblility: the need to soften and enrich the soil. The chief objection today is that Christianity is too bad to be true. Traditional moral arguments do not address this directly, either in their content or, more importantly, in the level at which they function. This is not to say that traditional moral arguments play no role in plausibilizing the Christian worldview. Any considerations that point to God’s goodness will contribute. But what I wish to stress here is the importance of other, more experiential aspects of grasping goodness that need to be taken into account.

It is helpful to appeal here to a final classical perspective that I think gives us specific insight into the relation between goodness and believability: in this case, the rich virtue-oriented moral psychology and epistemology of the classical tradition. The insight I want to draw from it here is that moral knowledge, specifically grasping something as good, involves qualitatively more than grasping something as true. One’s grasping x as good necessarily involves a kind of affective experience, an engagement with one’s affections. (I use “affections” to refer to one’s desiderative-motivational complex.)[30]

Consider an analogue from another side of Anselmian apologetics, beauty. Aesthetic pointers to God must be expressed aesthetically, as it were; a certain kind of experience is involved in grasping beauty, which is not merely cognitive. Actual aesthetic pointers to God could hardly be sufficiently captured in formulating “aesthetic arguments” for theistic belief. There may be such arguments, and some may be very good ones, but—as Lewis describes in his own experience—it is the experience of beauty that draws one to the ground of Beauty. Arguments about or from beauty presuppose such an experience.

Something similar, I suggest, is the case with goodness. The phenomenology of moral experience is that moral properties essentially engage one’s feelings, desires, and will. The rational intuition of a logical truth like modus ponens is different in this way from the moral intuition that cruelty is bad, or that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Philosopher John Hare describes the phenomenology of a moral property as its having a kind of “call” upon one—it elicits a response, obliges one, binds one, presses in upon one, draws one.[31] Because of this affective aspect of morality some philosophers have mistakenly inferred that moral judgments are “nothing but” expressions of desire or feelings or intentions. To rebut metaethical noncognitivism would take us too far afield here. My short response, however, is that moral experience is more than merely cognitive—but it’s not less. In any case, because grasping something as good or bad involves a kind of experience, it goes beyond merely grasping it to be true or false. As C. S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all hold this view—Lewis concurring—and apply it to the task of moral education: one’s being able to engage in higher-order reflection about goodness presupposes one’s actual experience of goodness, and that kind of experience involves the engagement of one’s affections, desires, and will. Classical moral education is about learning to be good, the shaping of one’s feelings and desires, about one’s developing a “taste” for what is good. And this begins with one’s learning to experience pleasure and pain rightly in relation to what is good and bad, through, particularly, parental discipline.[32] “That,” says Aristotle, “is why we need to have had the appropriate upbringing—right from early youth, as Plato says—to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education.”[33]

This is where I think that traditional moral arguments can fall short for many people: not as good philosophy but as fully persuasive apologetics, given current epistemic soil conditions. Where the moral evidence for God is most important in this respect is prior to argument: it is seen, rather than heard, as it were. Grasping that God is good—believing that God is good, that the gospel is good—requires an experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel. Bad experience in this regard, or no experience, will derail credibilizing moral arguments from reaching their mark.

So I suggest that it is in the experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel, that the goodness and badness of Christians and Christianity, whether actual or merely perceived, is relevant to the goodness of God. We are, as is often noted, the tangible hands and feet of God. We are what people do see of the God they do not see. This sensory, experiential imagery, it seems to me, is important. Thankfully, my first assumption is true – the Holy Spirit’s work in people’s hearts limits how badly we can mess things up in this process. Still, if grasping good essentially involves a kind of tangible experience of goodness, the experiences people have with God’s people will be hugely significant in relation to their seeing God as good. This is why, as with Mr. Hard Hat, if the context conflicts with the content—if who we are conflicts with what we say, however true—people will go with the context. Jesus loves you is not believable.

5 The power of embodied moral arguments

The project of moral apologetics, then, should be full-orbed and holistic. The genus of moral apolostics is: pointing to the goodness of God. Its species reflect the different approaches that may be taken to point to God’s goodness, including traditional moral arguments and responses to the POE but also a variety of more experiential, embodied approaches. Along Anselmian lines, we build on the strong sense that we as humans have that goodness is not merely or ultimately self-explanatory or self-grounding. Tastes of goodness are themselves hints or clues or reflections of something much bigger and better: “the way it’s supposed to be,”[34] which we can grasp only provisionally now, and is often reflected in our experience in twisted and distorted ways. As moral creatures we desire to make sense of our experience of moral value and we long for a worldview that does so in a coherent, explanatory, livable way; one that connects our experience and our aspirations, but also can provide a solution for our guilt in falling short of what we know to be good. We want and need to know the truth of these things, but we also deeply want and need to experience them—to experience goodness, forgiveness, cleansing.

In the second to last page of his book exploring the implications of Life After God, Douglas Coupland makes a startling turn. He acknowledges his longing to be good, and he recognizes that that hunger points to God:

Now—here is my secret:

I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.[35]

The hunger for goodness that Coupland describes is a reflection of the Anselmian intuition that goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. It is an expression of the classical picture of the nature and role of goodness in relation to God that we saw in Augustine and Aquinas, not to mention Scripture.

Jewish moral philosopher, Philip Hallie, having completed an extensive analysis of cruelty, was driven to despair. But his perspective radically changed when he happened to read the story of a French village of about 3,500 people, who, during World War II, rescued some 6,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Hallie writes:

Then one gray April afternoon I found a brief article on the French Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I shall not analyze here the tears of amazement and gladness and release from despair—in short, of joy—that I shed when I first read that story . . . at last I had discovered an embodiment of goodness in opposition to cruelty. I had discovered in the flesh and blood of history, in people with definite names in a definite place at a definite time in the nightmare of history, what [no one] could deny was goodness.[36]

Hallie discovered people living the way people are supposed to live, morally—embodying goodness. And he was drawn to them and the kind of life they represented. Moreover, what he and others discovered as they dug deeper is that the people of this village were, in fact, Christians—people who lived as they did, doing what they did, as Christians, as a reflection of their simple, non-scholarly yet deeply, irreducibly biblical understanding of reality. Today, in the field of ethics, the village of Le Chambon is well known, and is widely regarded as the chief example of moral altruism or self-sacrificial goodness in the twentieth century. The power of their example and its Christian basis are undeniable, and they elicit universal admiration. The people of Le Chambon constitute an embodied moral argument for the gospel, one that makes Christianity immensely more plausible to those who are aware of them and what they did.[37]


6 Moral objections

The understanding we have developed here not only makes sense of the positive power of such examples, but it also reveals the devastating power of moral objections to belief in God, why they make the gospel unbelievable to so many. Bad Christian behavior, whether real or merely perceived, hardens the soil and makes the gospel implausible. Beyond the essential connection between experiencing good and grasping good, the effect of bad Christian behavior is exacerbated by its collision with the basic Anselmian intuition that the human hunger for goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. This, in my view, is an important explanation for why Christians, as those who represent God, are expected to be good, even by those who adamantly disagree with them, and why it is so devastating for all concerned when Christians are not. Many different moral systems and religions commend high standards of morality, but Christians are typically held to a higher standard. Part of the reason for this is that Christianity has historically been seen, rightly in my view, to represent the highest of moral standards, and so there is understandable revulsion at the hypocrisy of Christians making high moral pronouncements but not living up to them. But that’s not all there is to it; Christianity also, after all, teaches that all humans fall short of the glory of God, that all are sinners and are in need of God’s grace and divine intervention. The gospel is not a reward for moral perfection, but rescue, forgiveness, healing and hope for those who admit they need it.

When Christians are bad, I suggest, people experience a kind of existential disillusionment. Related to the Anselmian intuition that God is the ultimate ground of goodness, there is a deep sense that Christians who represent him should be good, and that their goodness really does point to the ultimate source of goodness—that their being good is essentially related to their message being believable. So when they’re not, it’s not just that they are inconsistent, or even just that they are bad people. They’ve committed a kind of cosmic treason; they’ve betrayed a much bigger story. They’ve made the gospel unbelievable.

Sadly, examples here may also be multiplied. I will cite only a few. An evangelical journalist who lost his faith after years of covering news of religion attributes his disillusionment to bad Christian behavior.

If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. . . . It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.[38]

More extravagantly (as usual), in “Why I am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell points to what he sees as overwhelming evidence that Christians and Christianity are morally bad.

That is the idea—that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.[39]

Similar charges are stock in trade of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Moral objections to the goodness of God range from the problem of evil and suffering to charges that the “God of the Old Testament” is wicked, petty, and genocidal; to examples of (perceived) shameful Christian misbehavior in history (the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, opposition to science, colonialism, slavery, intolerance toward women and gays, etc.); to bad personal experiences with Christians that some people have had.

Sometimes moral objections are based on actual wrongs Christians have done, or at least to those that people have done in the name of Christ. Sometimes they’re based on misinformation or misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re based on questionable assumptions—as when Christians may have done nothing wrong at all, but their actions (e.g., proclaiming Jesus as Savior) conflict with relativistic assumptions about tolerance and truth, and deemed evil as a result. And sometimes the objections just reflect irreducible conflicts between Christianity and cultural values (chastity vs. sexual freedom, for example).

In any case, real or merely perceived, moral objections that lead someone to see Christianity as bad make the Christian worldview unbelievable to them. Christianity couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. The important negative task of moral apologetics, then, is to respond to those objections.

7 Moral apologetics

In conclusion, I summarize the nature and role of moral apologetics, as it has emerged here. The aim of moral apologetics is to point to the goodness of God in ways that are appropriate to that aim, including—and emphasizing—being good as believers, exemplifying God’s goodness in relation to those to whom we seek to share the message that Jesus loves you. Moral apologetics is one aspect (not the only one) of an Anselmian approach to engaging others with, and pointing toward, God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, and doing so in ways that are appropriate to each of those values.

Negatively, moral apologetics involves engaging and responding to moral objections to the goodness of God and his people. Because moral objections proliferate, we as apologists need to think them through strategically and sensitively, and begin to address them. I suggest that we do this in community, collaborating with each other about how to engage different groups and generations effectively concerning different questions. Some objections will require significant, specialized study in order to address them adequately. Others may require less effort. Working in community, dividing the labor, can make this possible. In all of this, we should be particularly sensitive to the role of plausibility considerations in these objections, and so we need to approach them prayerfully, humbly, and usually dialogically. Again, we can help each other in these ways.

Positively, moral apologetics involves “making the case” that God is good and is the ultimate ground of all goodness. This can take a variety of forms, including traditional moral arguments. My emphasis in this account has been the positive task of moral apologetics in a fundamentally experiential or incarnational sense: being good, as Christians, as representative of God’s goodness—making the gospel plausible, by enabling people to grasp the goodness of God through experienced goodness with his people.

Obviously, the scope of this project goes far beyond traditional understandings of the science of apologetics or even the art of apologetics. It is the task, not only of apologists, but of the entire body of Christ. In fact, that is exactly as it should be, since Jesus described what makes the gospel believable in just these terms: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35) “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mathew 5.16) These famous passages are pictures of plausibility, and, according to Jesus, apparently, they represent the chief pointers to God. Notice particularly, in the latter passage (from Matthew) the connection between our good deeds and those who see them coming to worship God. As we have seen, one’s worshiping God is essentially, perhaps chiefly dependent on one’s coming to see God as good.

May we be able to say Jesus loves you so that those who hear us believe it. May they see Christianity as too good not to be true.

Image: “vying from the gutter” by blueskyjunction photography. CC License. 


[1] Pascal, Blaise, Pensées 12, A. J. Krailsheimer ed. and trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 4.

[2] The term, “moral apologetics,” was first suggested to me, I believe, by Greg Pritchard of the European Leadership Forum, when he invited me to address these issues in a series of lectures given in Hungary in 2006. This paper is a more thorough development of those and subsequent talks on moral apologetics I have subsequently given in various popular-level contexts. I presented an initial draft at the Evangelical Philosophical Society national meeting November 17, 2011. Recent efforts by other scholars include Mark Coppenger’s Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group, 2011) and David Baggett’s website,

[3] “Listening Church,” The Guardian, October 14, 2002.

[4] This is changing. See note 2, and especially the resources featured at

[5] I also describe apologetics in Mind Your Faith: A Student’s Guide to Thinking and Living Well (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), pp. 189-193. I first came to think of apologetics along these lines through the writings and teaching of my esteemed mentor and friend, Gordon Lewis. The definitive work on apologetics today is Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011).

[6] For a related introduction to this distinction and literature, see Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 182-193. My characterization here is provisional and draws substantially from Hollinger’s account. I discuss these matters further in Mind Your Faith, pp. 177-180 and 238-244.

[7] I do not deal here with two other powerful “plausibility” assumptions that tend to derail serious consideration of the Christian worldview: scientism (the assumption that all that is real, true, or knowable is what science is able to establish) and the commonly accepted view of tolerance, according to which all propositions (at least in matters of religion and ethics) should be considered equally true, and it would be immoral (“intolerant”) to think otherwise. I address these briefly in Mind Your Faith, pp. 112-114, 136-137.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptural quotations are from the New International Version (2011).

[2] Proserchomai—Peter uses the present participle, suggesting behavior that is active and regular.

[3] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.1.1094a2-3; Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ST) Ia.5.1c; Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (CP) 3.11;ß Dionysius Div. Nom. iv.

[4] See Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[5] See 1 Chr 16.34, 41; 2 Chr 5.13; 2 Chr 7.3; 2 Chr 20.21; Ezra 3.11; Ps 100.4-5; Ps 106.1; Ps 107.1; Ps 118.1, 29; Ps 136.1 (and passim).

[6] C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David: Volume Two: Psalm LVIII to CX (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 253.

[7] Consolation of Philosophy, 3.10.

[8] Ibid., 3.12. Cited from Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V. E. Watts trans., (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969), p. 115.

[9] City of God, 8.8. Cited from Augustine, Political Writings, Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, eds. and trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), pp. 63-64.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cited from Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), i (1), p. 3.

[12] ST IaIIae.1.6c. Citations from Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans. (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981).

[13] IaIIae.4.7 ad 2.

[14] IaIIae.5.4c.

[15] IaIIae.5.2c. Following Augustine and the tradition, Aquinas understands “enjoying” to refer to seeing something as intrinsically good, desiring it for its own sake and not “using” it as a means to some other end or for the sake of some other good.

[16] On the metaphysics of goodness in classical and Christian thinking, see Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[17] I.1. Citation from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2008), p. 4.

[18] 2.1. Beveridge, p. 7.

[19] 2.2. Beveridge, p. 8.

[20] 1.5.6. Beveridge, p. 20.

[21] 1.5.9. Beveridge, pp. 21-22.

[22] See Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, eds. and trans. with Introduction (Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[23] Thomas V. Morris, Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987); and Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2002).

[24] Our Idea of God, p. 47.

[25] What follows depends closely upon my discussion in Mind Your Faith, pp. 190-192.

[26] See, e.g., Psalm 96.

[27] See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando, Flo.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955); and “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 25-40.

[28] See Robert M. Adams, “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; Robert Gay, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God,” Modern Theology 3 (1987): pp. 117-36; Stuart C. Hacket, “The Value Dimension of the Cosmos: A Moral Argument,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, William Lane Craig, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), pp. 149-54; John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[29] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000; reprint of 1952 edition). Moral arguments were more popular during the early to mid-twentieth century. Besides Lewis, see, e.g., W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1918, and A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London: Macmillan, 1937). A recent moral argument is David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[30] Cf. the role of desire in relation to goodness and virtue noted in part 2 and notes.

[31] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).

[32] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 16-17.

[33] NE 2.3.1104b13. Citation from Irwin trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999). For a very helpful analysis of Aristotle’s view here, see Miles F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to Be Good,” in A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (Berkeley, Calif.; University of California Press, 1980), pp. 69-72.

[34] See Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), chapter 1.

[35] Douglas Coupland, Life without God (New York: Pocket Books, 1994), p. 359.

[36] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 93. I tell the story of Le Chambon in detail in Mind Your Faith, chapter 13.

[37] In Mind Your Faith I suggest the possibility that Albert Camus’ reported turn toward Christianity shortly before he died may have been the product of his living in Le Chambon during this time (see pp. 243-244).

[38] William Lobdell, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America – and Found Unexpected Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 271. Cited in Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010), 25.

[39] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” online:, accessed 23 February 2015.

Platonic Ethics and Classical Theism, Part I

 by Dave Sidnam

Why bring Plato into a modern discussion of ethics and classical theism? While moderns might nostalgically refer to him in their works, his theological and ethical teachings, especially in the form he presented them, are usually not considered serious contenders in today’s theologies and texts on the metaphisics of morals.  There are of course some notable exceptions, like Robert Adams, but even Adams admits Plato gets relatively little attention. In light of this, several key reasons can be adduced to show that Plato is very important—especially for the Christian community. One important reason is that early theologians like Ambrose and Augustine saw value in his work and Platonic thought helped shape their theologies. Another reason—one that should be particularly interesting to Christians—is that Plato provides evidence of the power of general revelation. As you read through his works, you will notice many things that align nicely with Christian theology. Most importantly, Plato was an amazing philosopher and many of his philosophical insights still have value today. My hope is to mine some of these insights (e.g., the foundations of objective morals, levels of moral motivation, etc.) over a series of posts. Hopefully you will enjoy the ride.

In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates faces his most difficult—and most important—challenge: the battle for objective morality. In Book 1 of the dialogue, immediately after Socrates defeats Polemarchus and removes convention as a possible foundation for justice, Thrasymachus attacks Socrates like a beast with his wild opinion that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (338c). In other words, true justice (or morality) does not exist—powerful men create morality to ensure that others will do as they wish. Thrasymachus is brash, but he is not a trained philosopher, and Socrates quickly shows his assertion to be inconsistent.[1] However, Glaucon and Adeimantus come to Thrasymachus’s aid (or at least his argument’s aid), presenting a more philosophically sound version of his nihilism, and together they press Socrates to show what justice truly is and why it is good in and of itself. At this point Plato’s Socrates claims to be at a loss, for his dialog partners would not accept the “proof” he offered to Thrasymachus that justice was better than injustice. However, he is willing to investigate the matter with their assistance to see if he can save objective morality.

In his investigation, Socrates discovers defeating Thrasymachus requires four things: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. Without any one of these items, nihilism wins.

  1. The Transcendent Standard

The foundational insight that Plato provides in The Republic is that for objective value to exist it must have a foundation that is not merely an invention of some group—or even unanimously of all persons. An invention is merely convention, and Plato had forcefully removed that as a possible foundation for morality in Book 1 with his master’s discussion with Polemarchus. Any mere invention can always be reinvented and therefore cannot provide the unchanging foundation that true values require. For a standard to apply to all persons at all times, it must be transcendent.

The main vehicle Plato posits for this type of standard is the Forms, and the Form of the Good is his metaphysical and epistemic foundation for all transcendent value. An early intimation of the Form as this transcendent moral standard was arguably explored by Plato in Euthyphro where Plato’s Socrates asserts that the gods love the pious because it is pious—both gods and men were subject to the standard, the Form.  Later, in The Republic, Plato establishes the Form of the Good as the foundational form:

Therefore, say that not only being known is present in the things known as a consequence of the good, but also existence and being are in them besides as a result of it, although the good isn’t being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power. (509b)

An important aspect of Plato’s assertion is that, since the Good is the source of the knowability, existence, and being of the other Forms (and everything else), it is ontologically prior to them. This is a critical insight: if something else—call it X—were ontologically prior to the Good, then X would possibly be the foundation of values. When you descend to the bedrock foundation of some value, you come discover the essential nature of that value; the buck stops there. The Form of the Good defines goodness simply because it exists and because of its nature—it is the type of thing that can possibly ground goodness—not for any reason outside its nature.

  1. The (Recognizable) Goodness of the Standard

Since (for Plato) the Form of the Good is the standard for goodness itself, it cannot be measured against anything to show that it is good; however, we need some way to know that it is in fact good. Plato provides for this by telling us that, if we could see the Good as it is, we would immediately recognize its goodness. When you eat chocolate peanut butter ice cream, no one needs to tell you it is delicious; you experience its deliciousness directly. Plato tells us that if we could also experience the Good directly, we would immediately know not only that it is good (like the ice cream being delicious), but that it is the foundation for—and source of—all goodness (unlike the ice cream which only partakes in deliciousness). He says,

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this in fact is the cause of all that is right and fair in everything…and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it (517c).

There is no external way to judge the goodness of the standard; it must be experienced directly. Once this is done, it will be obvious that all of the terms we try to use to judge the goodness of things owe their existence to the Good itself—they have no other source.

  1. Knowledge of the Standard

As you can see from the quote above, Plato tells us it is difficult to know the Good. His cave metaphor helps us to understand why. When an inhabitant of the cave, who is only used to seeing dim shadows cast on the inner wall of the cave, emerges into the brightness of the sun, he cannot perceive it directly.

At first, he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the phantom of human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—then by day—looking at the sun and sunlight. (516a)

The difficulty of knowing the Good, and the training it will take to make true philosophers who can actually achieve this (through the use of the dialectic), occupies most of Plato’s time in Books 5, 6, and 7, detailing the education of the Guardians (and true philosophers). Although it is difficult, and perhaps no man has done it well so far, in Plato’s economy it is possible to come to know the Good. But knowledge of the Good is indispensable: if you cannot know it, you cannot intentionally do it.

  1. Adherence to the Standard

The final piece of the Platonic puzzle is that of being able to live according to the standard once one knows it (what contemporary philosopher John Hare calls the “performative” question)—Plato’s view of the soul plays the key role here. For Plato, the soul has three components: the calculating part (the head), the spirited part (the chest), and the desiring part (the belly). By default, through nature and poor training, Thrasymachean order exists in the soul where the belly rules and the chest drives one to fulfill desires—the head is used only to calculate how best to get what one wants. Plato tells us, however, that if these three are in harmony—the head ruling the belly through the chest—then we can overcome our passions with knowledge (of the Good) and do the things that we should truly desire to do if we want justice. When properly cultivated, our knowledge of the Good can lead us to live just lives.

With these four items in place, Socrates was able to convince his friends that justice does exist and that it is worth pursuing independent of any practical benefits it might bring. While I believe Plato was wrong in many of the details of his stories describing the Good and how we can know it, I believe he was right philosophically on what is required to have objective morality. If any of the four items above is missing, the moral world risks becoming Thrasymachean. And these criteria have proven difficult for modern philosophers to find in their worldview. G. E. M. Anscombe highlights this in her influential paper Modern Moral Philosophy when she asserts that, while they may sound very different, modern ethical systems all struggle with such foundational issues:

Such discussions generate an appearance of significant diversity of views where what is really significant is an overall similarity. The overall similarity is made clear if you consider that every one of the best known English academic moral philosophers has put out a philosophy according to which, e.g., it is not possible to hold that it cannot be right to kill the innocent as a means to any end whatsoever and that someone who thinks otherwise is in error.

If your ethical system cannot confidently state that murder for fun is wrong, difficult work still lies ahead, work eminently worth the effort. Modern (naturalistic) moral philosophy is faced with the significant challenge of finding a stable foundation for ethics that does not produce unpalatable implications, yet still does justice to our pre-theoretical and nonnegotiable moral insights and apprehensions.

In my next post I’ll look at how classical theism generally and specifically Judeo-Christian ethics can meet Plato’s four requirements, thereby providing an adequate foundation for objective morality.

Part 2

Part 3


[1] Thrasymachus makes the assertion that the unjust man, inventing morality to gain advantage, is virtuous and wise. However, in his nihilism, Thrasymachus does not realize that when he dispatched the foundation for justice he actually destroyed all value. Unfortunately for him, he still held to a conventional view of virtue (in particular, wisdom in the crafts) and Socrates used this to show an inconsistency in his view of justice. Socrates uses conventional ideas of wisdom to show that unjust men cannot be virtuous and wise, and uses this to defeat Thrasymachus.

Image: “Platon, painted portrait”  by thierry ehrmann. CC license.