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

by Jeff Dickson

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

The Source and Shape of Prophetic Ethics

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

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

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

The Application of Prophetic Ethics

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

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

Virtue Ethics Response

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

Natural Law Response

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

Divine Command Theory Response

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


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

by Jeff Dickson

Moral Right and Wrong

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

Divine Command

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

The Relation between Moral Obligation and Divine Command


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

Answers to Objections

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


Virtue Ethics Response

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

Natural Law Response

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

Prophetic Ethics Response

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

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

Summary by Jeff Dickson 

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

Human Nature and Human Purposes

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

From Human Nature to Natural Law and the Knowledge thereof

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

Natural Law and Moral Guidance

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

What Difference does God Make?

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


Natural Law Response

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

Divine Command Theory Response

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

Prophetic Ethics Response

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


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

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

Summary by Jeff Dickson

What is virtue Ethics?

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

Who are the “We?”

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

What is “Ought?”

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

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


Natural Law Response

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

Divine Command Theory Response

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

Prophetic Ethics Response

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

Image: Saverio Autellitano – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin

Summary by Michael W. Austin

God and Morality

In the final chapter of God and Morality, Mark Linville argues for a view in which morality is objective and depends on God. He does not argue that moral realism is true, but assumes as much and then offers a model for understanding how objective moral truths depend on God, which he calls “moral particularism”.

Linville begins the chapter by offering a critique of a view he rejects, in which morality is made true by divine fiat. On this view, the claim that adultery is wrong is true only in a relational and contingent manner. Adultery is immoral because God has prohibited it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the act itself. One problem for this view, however, is that things really could go either way, i.e. God could have commanded adultery, and it would have been good. Or consider the following options: (i) God creates Adam, grants eternal friendship to him, and provides him with what he needs to flourish; or (ii) God creates Adam and allows him to experience nothing but eternal pain, grief, and torment. If morality is true merely by divine fiat, then God is good regardless of the option he actualizes. Both (i) and (ii) are consistent with God’s goodness. But as Linville points out, the term “good” appears to no longer have any real meaning here, because it fails to pick out any feature or property in a distinctive manner.

Fortunately, there are other options available for those who think that morality in some sense depends on God. Aquinas, for example, holds that God is himself the good. The good is not identical to God’s commands, but rather God is the criterion of goodness. As William Alston states it, God is himself the ultimate criterion of value. Alston calls this view value particularism, because “the criterion of value is a particular being rather than a principle or abstract idea” (p. 143). Linville agrees with this. However, Alston goes on to argue that moral obligation depends on God’s commands. Linville disagrees with this latter claim.

The view favored by Linville is moral particularism. This is the view that God’s nature is the standard for both the right and the good. On this view, the ultimate explanation of the significance and value of love is the loving nature of God. That is, loving others is commanded because it is obligatory. It is not obligatory because it is commanded. God is the ultimate ground of the requirement that we love others, because God is himself love (1 John 4:8). The command, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) reflects this reasoning as well. God’s nature yields the obligation, ultimately.

When we reflect upon the obligation of loving others, it is also important to point out, as Linville does, the Christian doctrine of imago Dei. It is crucial that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the ground of our value. This fits nicely with the above. It is quite plausible to think that personhood has value because God is a person, just as love has value because God is love. We owe others love, justice, and mercy because they are persons, made in God’s image. God, a Person, “is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate” (p. 158).

For those engaging in moral apologetics, there are many other issues in this chapter worth considering. One is a response that is often given to the claim that morality depends on God, namely, that there are plenty of atheists who still know particular moral facts and seek to apply them to their lives. I will focus here on the former claim concerning knowledge of moral facts. Consider the following moral fact, offered by Linville:

“Recreational baby-stomping is wrong.”

If we understand this claim, and our moral faculties are functioning properly, we should just see that it is true. One can know that recreational baby stomping is wrong, without any knowledge of theology or God. God can set up our world so that we can form such value judgments that do not depend on understanding their grounding in Him. This belief can have warrant, whether or not one believes in God. This is important because the claim that is relevant to moral apologetics here is not that one must believe in God to have properly functioning faculties. Rather, the claim that is relevant is that the theist can offer a better explanation for why human beings have faculties that reliably track moral truth—those faculties were specifically designed for the task.

I would add that theists have another and in my view stronger claim to make. On theism, there is an explanation for the very existence of such moral truths. There is a personal and morally perfect being whose nature grounds them. It is difficult to see how such truths are metaphysically grounded, on naturalism. In his reply, Evan Fales argues that there is no need to bring God into the explanation. Instead, we can simply say that the moral law is ultimate. The problem here, however, is explaining the existence of the moral law, with its self-evident moral truths, in a purely natural world. Did the moral law arise from the Big Bang? How would that work? Moral truths don’t seem natural. They don’t have weight, spatial location, and so on. The theist has a ready explanation for the existence of such truths, as we’ve seen, whereas the naturalist does not. A moral law fits well within a theistic framework, but not a naturalistic one. This is a key piece of evidence in favor of theism.

Find the other God and Morality summaries here. 

Image: Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Spectral Light by N. Howard. CC license. 

Summary of Chapter Three of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin 

In the third essay in God and Morality, theistic philosopher Keith Yandell engages in a discussion of a variety of topics in metaethics, including ethical relativism, divine command theory, and the Euthyphro dilemma. The breadth, concise nature, and complexity of the chapter make a comprehensive summary difficult. The view that Yandell seems to hold is moral essentialism. This will be the focus of my summary.

A moral essentialist believes that moral truths are necessarily true. A necessary truth is not merely true; it is also impossible for it to be false. To put it differently, a necessary truth is true across all possible worlds. In the non-moral realm, one example of a necessary truth is the claim that two logically contradictory statements cannot both be true. “X is y” and “X is not y” cannot both be true. Many philosophers argue that there are necessary moral truths. For example, if I claim “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” or “Humility is a virtue” I am making a claim involving a necessary moral truth. Yandell claims that it is the fundamental principles of ethics that are necessarily true, such as the claim that we ought to respect persons (unless they’ve forfeited that right).

Both theists and non-theists can hold to some type of moral essentialism. Both might adopt some form of Platonism, in which necessary moral truths are necessarily existing abstract objects of some sort. Platonism is not merely a view of moral truths, but also of other types of truths. On a non-theistic Platonic view,“2 + 2 = 4” is true whether or not there is a God. This necessary mathematical truth is simply a part of the furniture of the universe. Similarly, a necessary moral truth does not depend on God in some ontological sense, but rather it is true whether or not God exists. On such a view, “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” is also a part of the universe’s furniture, whether or not God exists.

Alternatively, a theist may conceive of such truths as “the propositional contents of thoughts that a necessarily existing Mind necessarily has” (p. 103). On this view, Yandell points out that “If ethical principles are made true by divine command or nature, and these principles are necessarily true, God must exist necessarily and necessarily command as God does” (p. 113).

Mark Linville’s reply to Yandell is helpful in further clarifying some of these issues. On Linville’s interpretation, Yandell holds that God is an exemplar of the good. God exists, as do the relevant abstracta, and God exemplifies those abstracta. For Linville, God is himself the good. That is, God’s character, his nature, are identical to the good. If Linville is right, and the good is in fact identical with God, then we have grounds for a distinct moral argument in support not only of God’s existence, but of the necessity of God’s existence. If such an argument is sound, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful case for the existence of God.

Find the other God and Morality summaries here. 



Summary of Chapter Two of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin

In the second chapter of Keith Loftin’s God and Morality: Four Views, philosopher Michael Ruse presents a case for what he calls naturalist moral nonrealism. This is a metaethical view that combines atheism with a form of moral subjectivism. On this view, all facts are natural facts, there is no supernatural reality, and moral principles depend on what people believe.

Ruse first argues that there are connections between natural selection and altruism. Our brains are subject to genetically determined rules. Related to this, we are social beings who must get along with one another in order to survive. As Ruse puts it,

“What evolutionary biologists believe, therefore, is that nature has given our brains certain genetically determined, strategic rules or directives, which we bring into play when dealing with new awkward situations. Rather like a self-correcting machine…we humans can adjust and go in different directions when faced with obstacles to our well-being. The rules are fixed, but how we use the rules is not” (p. 60).

This leads to a discussion of the origin of morality. Some of the rules that we’ve inherited from our ancestors are moral rules. We take them to be moral norms. For example, the belief that we ought to help one another is such a rule, and is genetically determined. Substantive moral beliefs, then, are adaptations. Non-human animals have similar adaptations, insofar as they exhibit altruistic behavior related to kin selection. An animal’s relatives share the same genes. Given this, altruism serves as reproduction by proxy. There is also “reciprocal altruism,” where help is given in expectation that it will be returned.  And these mechanisms are also at work in humans.

Ruse, then, is an advocate of evolutionary ethics, but rejects the traditional view that includes belief in the progressive nature of evolution. He accepts ethical skepticism, which is the view that there is no justification for our moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely “psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness” (p. 65). He contends that this follows from his views about evolution. We could have evolved a very different set of moral beliefs, and for him this is a challenge to those who argue for objective morality.

The upshot is that morality can be explained, but it cannot be justified. Yet morality is such a strong impulse in human beings, and is very difficult to ignore. We think that morality has an objective basis because this is evolutionarily advantageous, but it is still not true. It seems to be objective, but it simply is not. Interestingly, Ruse states that like Hume, he will forget about his skepticism when he goes back into the real world.

Ruse also argues that Christians must be careful when appealing to God as a justification for their metaethical views, because of the well-known Euthyphro problem. He does discuss a natural law reply to Euthyphro, stating that

“The Christian says that loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by God…The Darwinian says loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by natural selection” (p. 73).

There are several criticism worth considering related to evolutionary ethical skepticism. First, it is unclear to me how “reciprocal altruism” is genuine altruism, given that it is given in order to get something in return.

Second, there is a vast discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma, with many options on offer for Christian theists that are intended to resolve it. I take the natural law response as described by Ruse to be one of the weaker theistic replies. The replies given by William Alston and Robert Adams, for example, are much stronger.[1]

Third, moral realists, naturalistic or theistic, will be dissatisfied with the views espoused by Ruse in this chapter. They will agree that for Ruse, as Keith Yandell puts it, “[t]here are no obligations, only feelings of obligation. Such feelings have no more relation to reality than a strong sense of being surrounded by unicorns” (p. 82). There is no correspondence to reality here, only groundless moral feeling that is selected for via Darwinian processes. Morality is merely an adaptive feature of our evolutionary history.

This leads to a serious problem. Yandell points out that on this view, no set of morals is better than any other:

Better and worse, insofar as they have any sense, are relative to the propensities built into the survivors. If the propensities lead to murder and rape, then our mores will come to favor these, and in no objective sense will this be any worse than if the propensities led to love and peace” (p. 85).

Finally, Mark Linville points out in his reply that Ruse ends up saying that he believes something (morality) that he knows is not true. Once you know that morality is not true in any objective sense, why continue to follow it, especially when it frustrates other desires you possess? There are reasons, good reasons, to be moral. But Ruse’s view does not possess the resources to ground a robust form of moral motivation. This is one of the many serious flaws it contains.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

[1] See my “Divine Command Theory” at


Image: “Evolved” by thezombiesaid. CC License. 

Summary of Chapter One of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

By Mike Austin

In this book, two atheists and two Christian theists explain and defend their answers to the following metaethical questions:

  • Where does morality come from?
  • What, if any, is God’s role with respect to morality?
  • Is God necessary for morality?
  • Are morals objective?
  • How do we come to know moral truths?

Each contributor presents and defends his own view, and the other three then provide their comments and critiques of that view. In my summaries of each chapter, I’ll focus on the presentation of the views, and leave the comments and critiques to the reader to pursue in the book itself. The four views included in the text are naturalist moral realism (Evan Fales), naturalist moral nonrealism (Michael Ruse), moral essentialism (Keith Yandell), and moral particularism (Mark Linville). In this post, I will summarize the naturalist moral realism position taken up by Fales, and close with one criticism.

Fales first explains some key terms concerning his view, Naturalist Moral Realism (NMR). For him naturalism is the view that there are no disembodied minds, and that ethical theory should be grounded in a scientific understanding of human beings. Moral realism is the view that moral norms are independent of our beliefs. These norms are determined by facts about us, and other creatures. Fales clarifies that there is still room for differences due to convention on his view. For example, how one expresses kindness through polite behavior might vary across different cultures. What matters for Fales is that the underlying moral principle concerning kindness is the same.

But how does Fales ontologically ground such moral truths? He contends that morality is based on what is good or bad for a being, and morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. The basis of morality, according to Fales, is our common human nature. Our common nature makes morality objective, because it is objective. That is, we have a particular objective nature as human beings, and it is this nature that grounds objective morality.

Human morality is based on what is good or bad for us, given that we are teleologically organized systems (TOS’s). We are organized such that we have one or more ends, goals, or purposes as human beings. There are several things that are intrinsic goods for human beings with such ends, including health, reproduction, and knowledge. Instrumental goods serve these intrinsic goods. Food, for example, serves the intrinsic good of health. Humans have the particular intrinsic goods or ends that we have as a result of natural evolutionary processes. There is no reason to bring God into the picture, on such a view, because our existence as the type of beings we are is fully explainable by natural means. And since human morality is based on human nature, it is also a result of naturalistic evolutionary processes.

So on this view, how should we live? Fales asserts that morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. Our most central obligations are those that promote social flourishing, because we are a fundamentally social species. In order to know what our obligations are, we can depend upon empirical data derived from an examination of our teleological organization. Other moral facts are necessary truths, which we can know a priori. For example, Fales states “There is a necessary connection—one we easily recognize—between the nature of a small human child and the prima facie duty not to kill it, a connection mediated by the understanding that in killing it we foreclose in the most fundamental and comprehensive sort of way on the realization of that child’s natural teloi” (p. 25).

A problem arises, however, with respect to justifying moral principles that conflict with demonstrable aspects of human nature, such as our tendencies toward violence, greed, dishonesty, and so on. Theism and naturalism offer distinct explanations of our corruption, and according to Fales they each offer a remedy as well.

On Christian theism, human beings are fallen creatures. Adam and Eve chose disobedience, as do the rest of us. We are morally corrupt, and in need of redemption and transformation. Fales argues that Christians have little evidence to offer that shows their remedy—the saving grace offered via the cross—is effective. For instance, over the centuries the individual and corporate behavior of Christians has been in direct contradiction to the ethical dictates of the Sermon on the Mount, in “sordid and massive ways” (p. 27). I will return to this below.

Naturalists can provide a different account of human corruption. Biological evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is quick. Biological evolution cannot keep pace with cultural evolution. As Fales puts it, “so far as our genetic makeup and the social instincts it controls go, we are basically hunter-gatherers who find ourselves born into social unit orders of magnitude larger and more complex than our biological adaptations are designed to handle” (p. 28). We are not suited for the kind of social life we find ourselves thrown into, but since we can reflect rationally on our moral commitments, there is hope for progress, if we focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality. With this in mind, if theists and naturalists can agree on what human nature consists of, then there is common ground for agreement about normative ethics.

I think a focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality is a good place to start. There is common ground based on what theists and naturalists hold in common about human nature. With this in mind theists and naturalists could construct a normative ethic that has much to recommend to them both. But there will be important differences, too, and this could lead to problems in constructing a common normative ethic.

More critically, I think Fales is too quick with respect to the evidence Christians have for the efficacy of their solution to human corruption. He is certainly right that much Christian behavior falls well short of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere), and that there are lame justifications provided for this. However, it is important to emphasize that just because someone is, or claims to be, a Christian, it does not follow that they are participating in the kingdom of God to the extent that they should or could. There are many reasons for this. One is that on Christianity, human corruption persists in many ways, in both Christians and non-Christians. However, the relevant individuals to consider are those who profess faith in Christ and have diligently pursued transformation in partnership with the Spirit of Christ (see 2 Peter 1:3-11). It is those who have pursued the Way that are the crucial test cases here, not those who have merely professed it. I’m reminded of the well-known G.K. Chesterton line: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Image: “Pacific Silhouette” by T. Lucas. CC License.