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

 Summary by Frederick Choo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.

 

 

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

Notes:

[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, section 1.4: “God’s Command and the Scope of Obligation”

Summary by David Baggett 

God’s command produces not only moral obligation, but obligations of other kinds, like ceremonial and dietary obligations in Judaism. But with moral obligation, we might say that God’s command not only lays the obligation on us, but also gives us the scope of the obligation. This needs more explanation.

Kantian morality requires that we give equal moral status, or dignity (as opposed to price), to all human beings. But it has proved hard to justify this status. Hare will try to show that divine prescription will not merely give us a justification for the claim that we are under obligation, but it will ground the particular kind of obligation that is peculiar to morality.

Kant says in the Groundwork, in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, that we are to treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, and never merely as a means. Moreover, morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity. But there are different schools of interpretation of this point. The inclusive interpretation says only persons have moral status, all human beings have moral status, and therefore all human beings are persons. But the problem is that Kant’s criterion for personality (“the susceptibility to respect for the moral law as of itself a sufficient incentive to the will”) seems to rule out some human beings, such as two-month-olds. A second group holds that, on Kant’s criterion for personhood, many human beings, including normal human infants but also adults with Alzheimer’s disease, must lack moral status. Kant, on this reading, ends up disallowing important subgroups of human beings from having moral status.

hare god's commandIf we take Kant’s language about the predisposition to the good seriously, however, we have a partial answer to this difficulty. In his biological and psychological writing, Kant seems to privilege reference to belonging to the species of human beings. He treats children as entities to whom obligations are owed, and Kant thinks we have obligations only to persons. So he seems committed to the view of humans as persons from conception. What makes something a person, then, for him, is membership in a species in which some members have this kind of second potentiality for responding to the moral law.

This helps answer some concerns about children and Alzheimer’s victims, but a difficulty remains: it’s unclear why we should give status to members of a species who do not themselves have the relevant capacities (the second potentialities), for example, infants born with severe mental retardation, if it’s the existence of just those capacities in some of its members that is supposed to make the species valuable in the particular way that moral status implies.

Within the Abrahamic faiths we do have a way to do this, starting from the premise that humans are created in the image of God. Two ways of understanding this are not successful, but there is a third that works, and that takes us back to divine command.

The passages that mention the image of God tell us very little about what this image in a human being amounts to. Speculation has been continuous and manifold, referring to our rationality, or our freedom or our capacity for dominion or our capacity for relation. The problem with all these accounts is that they are based on the capacities we can exercise in this life. This is the first approach that is unsuccessful, because it is not clear how any such capacity-based account can cover all human beings and give them the same basic dignity.

One response to this point is to look for a theistic account of the basis of human dignity not in human capacities but in God’s activity of conferring or bestowing value. This is the second way that is unsuccessful. Wolterstorff takes this route, writing that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for.

Hare is unconvinced. When God created human beings, God said it was “very good.” God is portrayed here not as reflecting on the divine attachment, but as seeing something good in the created order, and especially in the human life. The analysis of human value as imparted value makes this value too transparent, as though we see through it to God’s value without any value added. A successful theistic account of human value needs to accommodate both the relation to God, who is the ultimate source of all value, and the intrinsic value of what God creates.

Hare thinks there’s an account that can meet these conditions, traceable to Karl Barth. David Kelsey puts it like this: human beings’ inherent accountability for their response to God provides the theological basis on which the peculiar dignity of human creatures is to be understood. Dignity inheres in human creatures’ concrete actuality by virtue of the fact that the triune God has directly related to them as their creator. Human dignity is thus ex-centric, grounded and centered outside human creatures.

But if dignity is centered outside human creatures, how can it be intrinsic to the human creature? The justification for ascribing value to human beings is not from our capacities, but from God’s calling us to a certain vocation. This calling is particular, different for each concrete human person. In this way the ground is not something abstract or universal, like Kant’s ‘personality’.

There is a good reply here to the charge that locating the ground of human value in God’s attachment to us makes our value extrinsic. On the conception defended in the rest of Hare’s book, there is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Rev. 2:17 refers to a unique name conferred on a person—and the name gives us insight into the nature into which we are being called (the way ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’). If we think of nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God. What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves (which is one thing the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ might mean), since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.

Is dignity based on the call of God, or in the destination towards which God is calling us? Dignity in this discussion is incommensurable worth. This is how Kant distinguishes dignity from price, such as the price of a pen that can be exchanged for something else of commensurable or equivalent worth. If we grant that God has incommensurable worth, we should grant that the love by a particular person of God (which is her destination) shares in that worth, though it will not be of the same value. And what leads her to that love (namely, God’s call) will also have value. The idea that this love is of incommensurable value is suggested by texts like, “Or what will they give in return for their life?” To answer the earlier question, we should say that it is the destination that gives the final value, but it is the call that leads to the destination, and it’s the call that we already have; we are not yet there, even though it’s already our destination.

The beginning of Section 1.3 claimed that this theist reply to the request for a justification was an indirect use of Kant’s view that our dignity resides in our potential to respond to the moral law. What kind of use of Kant is this? Kant’s view throughout his published corpus is that we should recognize our duties as God’s commands. But in Religion he undertakes a translation project as a philosophical theologian, translating historical revelation into the revelation to reason, using moral concepts. Hare doesn’t read Kant as reducing historical revelation to the revelation of reason, but to leave what he calls “biblical theology” as it is. In the translation, he proposes to talk about the Trinity in relation to the problem of our falling short of the life we ought to lead, the problem of the moral gap.

With this in mind, we can see Kant’s language about our dignity residing in our potential to respond to the moral law as a translation of more traditional language about our potential to respond to God’s command or call. Kant does not have the idea of the particularity of the call. He does, though, have the idea that what gives us our dignity is our potential to respond, and not our actual response. As mentioned before, he ties this potential to our membership in the human species. The basic idea of locating our dignity in our potential to respond to God’s call is already in Kant, and is part of his inheritance from the Lutheran catechisms of his youth. We get valuable help in answering the normative question by returning to the pre-translated version that he does not discuss, but takes for granted.

To sum up the chapter, three arguments were distinguished for the dependence of morality on religion: the argument from providence, the argument from grace, and the argument from justification. The justification of obligation, that it is obedience to God’s commands, was shown, if Scotus is right, not to rely on a basic premise that itself requires justification. The justification also does not fall prey to the Euthyphro objection, if we make a separation between the good and the obligatory in the way suggested. Finally, this justification gives us a way to ground the basic Kantian morality (that gives the same dignity to every human being) in the notion of a unique call by God to each individual to love God in a unique way.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, Section 1.2, “The Argument from Grace”

Summary by David Baggett 

The second way of establishing a dependence relation of morality on God is by means of the argument from grace, again an argument from Kant’s Religion. Kant saw revelation as two concentric circles, with historical revelation in the larger circle and in the smaller the revelation to reason. The project of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is then to determine whether doctrines in the outer circle can be translated into the language of the inner circle by means of the moral concepts. Kant attempts this translation with the four doctrines of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Second Coming, and this project dictates the structure of the work as a whole.

At the end of part one, the topic is “effects of grace.” Kant is here discussing a problem he refers to elsewhere as “Spener’s problem,” after the great Lutheran Pietist. We humans are born, Kant says, under the evil maxim, which subordinates duty to happiness. Evil doesn’t just come from our sensory inclinations, but is a choice in the will to rank happiness over duty. Kant agrees with Luther here, putting locus of evil in reason and will rather than the lower affections. Since we are born under this ranking of happiness over duty, we can’t reverse the ranking by our own devices, for this would require a choice that was already under the opposite ranking. Kant says the propensity to evil is not to be extirpated through human forces, for this could only happen through good maxims—something that can’t take place if the subjective supreme ground of all maxims is presupposed to be corrupted.

Hare has called this problem elsewhere the “moral gap,” a gap between how we ought to live and how we can live by our own devices. Ought implies can, but in this case we ought to give duty the priority ranking, yet we seem to have a radical incapacity to do so. To talk about a radical incapacity or about being “under the evil maxim” is not to say that we are fundamentally evil. We are born, Kant thinks, with both the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil, and of these two only the predisposition to good is essential to us. Nonetheless, it is natural to us, when forced to rank the two, to put our own happiness first and duty second. This means that legislators should try to set up laws so that we are forced to rank the two as seldom as possible.

By presenting the problem in terms of a ranking of incentives, Kant puts himself again in the tradition of Luther and Augustine. Augustine says that God bids us do what we cannot, in order that we might learn our dependence on God. In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says both that we have lost our freedom to choose to act rightly and that we do have the ability to ask God for assistance. (But this is an early text, and his later work is different on this topic. See Retractations: “And unless the divine grace by which the will is freed preceded the act of will, it would not be grace at all.”)

The key to a solution to the problem of the moral gap is to see that, while ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can by our own devices’. There are things we can do, but only with assistance from outside. Kant thus appeals to God’s assistance in accomplishing what he calls a “revolution of the will,” by which the ranking of happiness over duty is reversed. This divine assistance is an effect of grace. Kant says we can admit an effect of grace as something incomprehensible, but can’t incorporate it into our maxims for either theoretical or practical use. We can’t make theoretical use of effects of grace because they go beyond the limits of our understanding, and Kant thinks we need to confine the theoretical use of reason within these limits. We can’t make practical use of effects of grace because they are things God does and not things we do. But still, the appeal to effects of grace is the solution to what would otherwise be a contradiction in practical reason: we both ought to and can’t live by the moral law.

Hare goes beyond Kant here by adding that one of the effects of grace that makes the moral life livable is that grace makes forgiveness possible, in cases where we can’t forgive ourselves for moral failure, because we don’t have the right moral status to do so. The view of the effects of grace that Hare defends is that God intervenes in our situation, and enables us to live by the high moral demand placed on us by divine command.

There’s a large theological problem here. Does not God put all human beings under the moral demand? But does not this mean that God gives all human beings the means to comply with it? It’s incoherent, after all, to put someone under a demand that she can’t reach. This is the meaning of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. There is a tendency in this thought towards universalism, the view that all human beings are saved. Kant may have been a universalist. At least he thought that the doctrine of double election (of some to salvation and others to damnation) was the salto mortale (the death leap) of human reason. There is also a tendency in Barth towards universalism.

Hare writes that Christians may, in a weak sense, hope that all are saved. They should not, however, have hope in the strong sense of expectation that this is so, for two reasons. The first is that there are too many contrary texts in the Scriptures. There are passages (mainly from Paul) that suggest universalism, but the texts from the Gospels are predominantly opposed to it. The second reason is that Christians have the experience of people who die denying God, or at least their picture of God. The best conclusion is that God does make the moral demand of all human beings and God does offer assistance to all human beings to meet this demand. But this assistance, though sufficient for all, is not efficient for all; that is to say, it does not bear the fruit of obedience in every human life. The grace offered by God to meet the divine command is not irresistible. [To me, if I’m understanding Hare here, this sounds more Arminian than classically Calvinist.]

A moral gap was recognized before Kant by Augustine, Luther, Aristotle, and the Neo-Confucian Chu His. But some Kantian details in fleshing it out are peculiar to him. He thought he’d identified the supreme principle of morality, which he called the “Categorical Imperative,” and he thought that this imperative was part of the content of the religion of reason, the inner circle. He sometimes suggested that this conception of the moral demand is present to all human beings at all times and places. Hare thought this was wrong, though empirical evidence does, Hare notes, suggest that at the beginning of human society hunter-gatherer groups had some sense of fairness, and this topic will return in a later chapter (8).

A tendency to repudiate is to reduce God’s grace to help in meeting the demands of the moral law. Kant is occasionally guilty of this (though it’s important to note where he is in his translation project), but he does make morality too important a part of the godly life, Hare thinks. In the next life, contrary to Kant, the moral law will probably not be relevant any longer. We’ll no longer be under the constraint of proscriptions; even the command to love our brothers and sisters will not have any longer the character of obligation. Even in the present life, there’s something unwholesome about the focus on the moral gap.

Here Hare echoes a theme in a similar way as does Jerry Walls at the end Jerry’s chapter in his recent book on heaven, hell, and purgatory; but I think, though there’s some insight in what they’re saying, they make the same mistake of failing to see that heavenly living isn’t so much leaving morality behind as the achievement of its ultimate purpose. That obligations are to be left behind for gift and sacrifice is not to say morality per se is left behind, unless we buy into Kant’s characterization of its sum and substance as bound up in duty, but that seems to be a huge mistake. Is not a selfless life of love in which motivation by duty has become a rarity a deeply moral life? Is not to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ the ultimate and appropriate limiting case of the holy life for which we were made?

Hare concludes this section by admitting that one might evade the argument by reducing the moral demand. One way to reduce the demand is to say that, unlike the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s parable, we should consider that we have obligations only to the people we know, who are related to us in special relations of family or friendship or community. But this is unacceptably parochial. (See the article on this site called Interstellar and Partiality for more reflection on this issue.)

Christianity does not require Kantian morality, and this is true also of the Abrahamic faiths as a whole. But there is, nonetheless, a congruity between Kant’s formulation and the Lutheran pietism in which he was raised. To the extent we lower the demand, we also lower the need for grace.

 

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, “Morality and Religion,” section 1.1: The Argument from Providence

By David Baggett 

The first argument by which to establish a dependence relation of morality on religion is that morality becomes rationally unstable if we do not have a way to assure ourselves that morality and happiness are consistent so that we do not have to do what is morally wrong in order to be happy; it concludes that we need belief in God to give us this assurance.

Kant is arguing not that a life committed to meeting the moral demand is impossible without belief in God, but that there is a certain kind of rational instability in such a combination—betraying a lack of rational fit.

What is the moral demand? What is moral obligation? Kant gives us, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, various formulations of what he takes to be the supreme principle of morality, namely the Categorical Imperative. Here are two of these formulations or formulas. The first states: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” A maxim prescribes an action together with the reasons for, or the end to be produced by, that action.hare god's command

Kant gives an alternative version of the first formula to make this point clearer: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.” Not a law of physical nature entailing loss of freedom—but nature has one feature that makes the analogy useful: nature is a system in which the same kind of cause produces the same kind of effect in a lawful way wherever and whenever it occurs. We can call any obligation that passes this universalizing test a “universal obligation.”

The second formula of the Categorical Imperative is the formula of the end-in-itself: “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.” Humanity should never be treated as a mere means. Kant is not forbidding using people, but we must never merely use. To treat another person as an end in herself is to share as far as possible her ends.

There is something common to the positions on the moral demand held by the Kantian, the Consequentialist, and any Virtue Theorist who takes impartial benevolence to be a virtue. The moral demand is that we treat each person as one, and no person as more than one, and we try to make the other’s purposes our purposes as far as we can, namely as far as the moral law itself allows. This account itself includes reference to the moral law in its final clause, and therefore does not explain the moral demand in a non-circular way.

Sometimes people who know Kant’s moral theory but do not know his moral theology wonder why he would bring in happiness at all, as the argument from providence requires. Doesn’t requiring a connection with happiness constitute a pollution of moral purity?

To reply to this worry, it’s helpful to see how Kant distinguishes his position from the views he attributes to the Stoics and Epicureans. The Stoics reduced happiness to virtue. The Epicureans held that virtue is simply what leads to happiness, and so in effect also reduced virtue to happiness. Kant objected to both, because we are not merely rational, but also creatures of sense and creatures of need. Our highest good is a union of virtue and happiness, which are two different things. Virtue is the disposition to live by duty or the moral law, and happiness is the satisfaction of our inclinations as a sum, or where everything goes the way we would like it to. (The Epicureans, in a real sense, fail to give us morality at all.)

Consider a case of conflict. Suppose I have an obligation to care for an aged parent even though I recognize it will detract from my happiness. Hare will argue later that not all the components of happiness are satisfactions of what Kant calls “inclinations,” and they are not all properly classified under the general heading of “pleasure.” So the difference between duty and happiness is not as stark as Kant pretends, but Hare will try to show that there are still basically two kinds of motivation for action, and not (as the Aristotelian proposes) finally only one.

Since we are both rational beings and creatures of sense and of need, our highest good, Kant says, requires a union of virtue and happiness. Since our morality gives us this end, the highest good, we must, if we are to pursue the morally good life in a way that is rationally stable, believe that this highest good is really (and not merely logically) possible. But we don’t see that we have the capacity to bring this highest good about. Nature, Kant says, is indifferent to our moral purposes, as far as we can tell from our sense experience. In order to sustain our belief in the real possibility of the highest good, we therefore have to postulate the existence of a “supersensible author of nature,” who can bring about the conjunction of happiness and virtue, and thus “morality inevitably leads to religion.”

Though Kant was not a divine command theorist, he did say throughout the corpus that we have to recognize our duties as God’s commands, because it is only if they are God’s commands that we can rationally believe in the moral possibility of the highest good, which is the end that morality itself gives to us.

Kant thus subscribes to the scholastic picture of the three roles of God as sovereign, distinguishing God’s legislative, executive, and judicial authority. On this picture God promulgates the law by command, runs the universe in accordance with this law, and then judges our success in keeping this law.

Not only Kant, but also the classical authors of the utilitarian tradition, have endorsed a version of the argument from providence. Mill said we need hope with respect to the government of the universe, if we are to sustain the moral life. Sidgwick recognized that the only way to reconcile enlightened self-interest with aiming at the maximum balance of happiness for all sentient beings present and future, whatever the cost to oneself, was to bring in a god who desires the greatest total good of all living things and will reward and punish in accordance with this desire. Belief in such a god is necessary, though he didn’t say this was sufficient reason to believe. He did recognize, though, that incorporating this belief would be a return to Paley’s utilitarianism (which preceded Bentham’s).

We could escape the force of the argument by thinking morality absurd, but if so it would be hard to sustain our attempt to live morally. Evil might lead one to think the world absurd in this way. Kant’s “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy” condensed his thoughts on the problem of evil into this short monograph about Job.

We need to persevere past the negative to the positive content in this volume (like the 1st Critique). Kant offers a kind of “transcendental theodicy.” Kant’s objective is to “deny knowledge so as to make room for faith.” The faith he wants to make room for is faith in God as legislator, ruler, and judge. The problem of evil is a problem for the claim that there is a God like this. Kant goes through three traditional theodicies ‘proper’ for each of these three roles, and shows that all nine fail. (This resembles the way he dismantled the ontological and cosmological and physico-teleological proofs for the existence of God). But then Kant says not only do we have no proof within the limits of the three roles, we also have no disproof. To attempt a disproof would transgress the limits of our insight just as much as the attempted proofs. But if there is no disproof within theoretical reason, the need of practical reason for the postulation of the divine wisdom prevails. This brings us to Job.

Job’s friends speak as though they were ingratiating themselves with God. Job alone is frank and sincere. He does not hide his doubts, but he also does not deceive himself about his own guilt. What God does in the story is to reveal (out of the whirlwind) the wisdom of the creation, and especially its inscrutability. God shows to Job the beautiful side of creation, but also its fearsomeness. Job founded his faith on his commitment to the moral life, Kant argued. If we are sure that we are under the moral law, then we are entitled to believe in the existence of a ruler of the world who makes the evil in the world (which we can’t deny) subordinate to the good.

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part II

by Zach Breitenbach

Part I 

BIBLICAL ETHICS SUCCEEDS WHERE KANT FALLS SHORT

In comparing the three proposed biblical principles of ethics with Kantian ethics, it is evident that both Kant and the biblical principles attempt to achieve many of the same objectives despite having different foundations to ground morality. Kant’s ethic, however, proves to be less plausible when his justification for objective morality, his requirements for moral worth, and his argument that humans possess inherent value are compared with a biblical view of ethics.

Kant departs from the first biblical principle by grounding objective morality in the “good will” that is produced by reason in every rational creature. In accord with the Enlightenment ideals of human autonomy and reason, humans can legislate morality apart from God. Assessing the philosophical merit of Kantian ethics versus the biblical ethic on this point deserves careful attention because both views stand or fall with the ability that their intrinsic “good” has to ground objective morality.

The classic problem that confronts any moral system that claims some absolute standard as the ground of objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. This dilemma, which goes back to the time of Plato, questions whether God’s commands could really determine what is good (or “pious”). The dilemma is stated: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”[1]

Both horns of the dilemma are a challenge to any proposed absolute standard of goodness. For any purported standard of objective morality, one can ask whether that standard merely recognizes goodness (i.e., goodness is external to the standard) or whether that standard determines goodness arbitrarily. Consider first whether the biblical ethic is able to defend that the Christian God is plausibly the ground of objective morality in the face of this challenge. It will not do for objective morality to be arbitrary (if good is merely what God says), and God cannot ground objective morality if there is a standard of morality outside of God (if God simply affirms what is independently good). Fortunately for biblical ethics, there is a third alternative—God Himself is the “Good.” The third alternative is that “God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value.”[2] So God is the Good. God’s will and essentially holy nature are fused such that God only wills that which consistently flows from His nature. God is not an arbitrary “stopping point” for morality’s foundation, as there are “principled reasons to think that God’s existence is necessary and that God functions as the very ground of being.” If God is the “primordial good of unsurpassable value,” then goodness is anchored in an unchanging, personal, and necessarily perfect source.[3] It is reasonable that the ground of objective morality would have these properties; morality seems to be essentially bound up with personhood, and anything that would ground objective morality would have to be unchanging and beyond human opinion.

Although the biblical grounding of objective morality in God’s holy nature appears to survive the Euthyphro dilemma, Kant’s “good will” does not fare as well. Kant may seem to split the horns of the dilemma by claiming that the good will is intrinsically and necessarily good. The problem, however, is that there is no reason why the good will must be good “without qualification” in the way Kant says it is. Louis Pojman raises the problem that the good will itself—the rational faculty that recognizes the CI as the supreme moral principle—could potentially be “put to bad uses.” Although the good will seems to be a good, Pojman insightfully recognizes that it is “not obvious” that the good will is necessarily good or that it is “the only inherently good thing” since a “misguided do-gooder” could act in accordance with what he believes is good and yet carry out what most of us regard as bad actions. Perhaps the good will is a “necessary condition to any morally good action,” but it does not seem to be sufficient.[4]

Ultimately, for Kant, the good will is intimately tied to the principle that it produces—the CI and its requirement of universalizability. The problem is that universalizability is unable to stand as the ultimate moral criterion. For one thing, Kant does not adequately specify parameters for the characteristics of a maxim that is appropriate to universalize as moral law. Aside from the limitation that a maxim must not violate the Principle of Ends, Kant “provides no guide for determining what features must be included in the maxim.” This leaves open the door for morally problematic actions “to be based on a maxim that a person would universalize.”[5] Also, it is highly dubious that reason necessarily produces the same conclusions in all rational beings. For example, one could justifiably will to universalize the maxim that “one should always tell the truth no matter what consequence might come about as a result.” Indeed, Kant believed that reason demands the acceptance of this maxim. Yet many would argue that reason demands the acceptance of the maxim that “one should tell the truth unless doing so would harm others.” It is unclear which maxim is necessitated by reason, and both positions have defenders. This example also highlights the difficulty the CI has in handling moral conflicts.[6]

If, however, God’s unchanging and necessarily good character is the intrinsic “Good,” then there is no concern about disagreements among rational human persons as to what should be universalized—that is, what is good. Only God, out of His necessarily holy nature, stands as the ontological ground of goodness, and conflicting human beliefs are irrelevant to the existence of objective morality. With biblical ethics, the existence of moral values and duties (moral ontology) does not depend upon the conclusions we reach as we try to know what these moral values and duties are (moral epistemology). What happens when two maxims that appear to be legitimately justifiable according to our best human reason disagree with each other? If objective morality is rooted in God, then such a situation is irrelevant to moral ontology.

In addition to providing a better foundation for objective moral values, having a biblical ground of ethics can adequately justify moral duties while the Kantian ground of ethics cannot. Since biblical ethics grounds objective morality in God, God’s commands are justifiably our moral duties because they are derived from His essentially holy nature.[7] Biblical ethics is able to sustain itself as a truly deontological ethical system. On the other hand, although Kant would deny it, significant voices have charged that Kant’s good will is unable to produce true moral duties without appealing to a more subjective consequentialist justification for them. The famous utilitarian ethicist John Stuart Mill, for example, claims that the CI does not avoid seemingly “immoral” actions on purely logical grounds; rather, he says Kant merely shows “that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.”[8] Mill has a valid point. Some seemingly immoral maxims do not lead to any obvious contradiction if universalized, though we can see that the consequences of universalizing it would be morally bad and may produce a negative result. For example, consider the maxim that “two consenting adults who are not already in a committed relationship should always have sex with each other if they desire to do so.” The universal acceptance of this maxim would not in any way lead to a logical contradiction that would undermine the very practice of the maxim, and it is not obvious that the Principle of Ends is being violated since both individuals are consenting and may well have a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the other person; however, one can reasonably will that this maxim should not be universalized because of the consequences it would have. Such promiscuity is known to carry a heavy emotional weight for those who engage in it, and it also raises the likelihood of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Such behavior also makes it more difficult to form meaningful committed relationships, which one can reasonably argue have significant value. In fact, there are actually “Kantian consequentialists,” such as R. M. Hare[9] and David Cummiskey. Cummiskey argues that Kant’s ethical system “is consistent with and supports a consequentialist normative principle” even though Kant sought a fully deontological ethic.[10] If that is the case, then it is hard to see how Kant’s good will allows for objective moral duties; however, because God Himself is the necessary “Good” and His nature produces moral truth that is essential and binding upon us, moral duties transcend humans, and their existence does not depend upon our own assessment of what actions will probably produce “good” consequences. It is not clear that Kant’s CI is able to account for the full range of objective duties that are binding on us and that it can do this without recourse to subjective human considerations of consequences.

Moreover, the authority and bindingness of moral duties seems to be much stronger and more plausible if the source of these duties is a person rather than something impersonal, such as “reason.” Merely “acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Moral obligation carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.”[11] When we fall short of our moral duties, we sense that we are guilty in a sense that goes beyond simply violating a principle of reason. Locating the source of moral authority in an essentially holy personal God better explains the objective guilt that seems to accompany violating one’s moral duty. In view of all these considerations, the biblical ethical principle that the standard and basis of all goodness is found in God is quite plausible, and this fact is highlighted by the apparent problems that Kant’s system has in establishing the good will as the one intrinsic good that grounds objective morality.

Moving to the second principle of biblical ethics, Kant’s insight in agreeing with the biblical principle that moral worth depends on our motives as well as our actions has been noted; however, Kant’s view of moral worth proves to be too narrow when compared to the biblical assessment of moral worth. As Joseph Kotva points out, Kantian ethics and all ethical theories that are based strictly upon “rules or duty” are at a disadvantage in accounting for the biblical recognition that the moral life is more than rules. Kant fails to see that life is a “race” that requires ongoing character development. While Scripture goes beyond virtue ethics, it captures its insights. We are constantly to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” as we model ourselves after Jesus (Heb 12:1-2). Paul emphasizes the need to develop such virtues as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), and he exhorts others to grow in character by following his example as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). While Christian ethics certainly has a strong deontological component, Kotva rightly points out the biblical emphasis on developing virtues and constantly struggling for moral growth in order to become a person of greater character.[12]

The key shortfall of Kant’s view of moral worth is that he does not credit moral worth to a person who grows in character such that she no longer does an action out of rational duty but out of modified and improved inclination. We have seen that Kant is clear that there can be no moral worth involved when an agent is “so sympathetically constituted” that she performs kind acts out of the pure joy of doing them rather than a sense of duty.[13] While biblical ethics would applaud someone of such character who enjoys doing virtuous things, Kant does not recognize such a person as morally praiseworthy. He thus fails to capture the value of moral growth and the fact that one should strive both to “will and act” according to what is good (Phil 2:13). While feeling joy from doing what is good should not be our sole moral motivation, “normal healthy human considerations of self-interest are a perfectly legitimate part of moral motivation.”[14]

Therefore, although Kant is certainly right that duties such as the command to love others should be done regardless of inclination, loving others is something that we ought to work towards wanting to do so that the duty does not have to be against inclination. Finding joy in doing what is good is a mark of moral development and personal character, and the Bible more completely captures this. Such character is exemplified in Jesus, who, though He dreaded it, even found joy in sacrificing Himself on the cross for others (Heb 12:2).

Finally, Kant’s ethic falls short of the third biblical ethical principle in terms of justifying the idea that humans possess value. We have seen that Kant attempts to ground the intrinsic value of humanity in our rationality. Kant argues that pure reason forces us to the conclusion that humans must have value because nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing. In contrast, biblical ethics holds that humans have value in virtue of being made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). Human value is based on “the relationship for which we were created” rather than because of any “distinguishing characteristic” that is found in human capabilities.[15] This is attractive; for if human value is rooted in a capacity like reason or rationality, then how can the value of babies or the brain damaged be upheld?[16] The reason that the biblical justification for the value of humans is superior to Kant’s follows from the earlier point that God is a far more credible “stopping point” for objective morality than the good will.

If God truly is the ultimate “Good,” then perhaps human rationality is an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good. Rather than agreeing with Kant that the “rational nature” of humans is itself sufficient for regarding humans as “ends in themselves,”[17] it may be that rationality functions as an instrumental good in so far as it allows us to have a relationship with the one true source of ultimate value—God Himself. If that is the case, then Kant is correct in valuing rationality but wrong in thinking that it has intrinsic value.

Beyond the automatic implications that locating objective morality in God has for human value, careful consideration of the question of human value by itself reveals that humans, if they are to justify having truly objective value, must justify their value by appealing to something outside of themselves. If humans consider themselves intrinsically valuable merely because they value themselves, then how can David Hume’s is-ought problem be avoided? Just because it is the case that humans tend to ascribe value to their own lives and the lives of other people does not mean that we necessarily ought to do so.

Finally, there is a sort of argument from contingency that points to God as the proper justification for human value and dignity. Kant and many others have claimed that we are the sort of beings who have intrinsic value.[18] But even if Kant were right that our rationality provides a basis for intrinsic human value, this would not negate the fact that God is necessary for us to have value because “relationality and intrinsicality are neither at odds nor mutually exclusive.”[19] If there is no possible world in which beings like us could exist apart from God, then there is no reason in principle why our value could not come from both our relationship to God as well the intrinsic qualities God has given us. Paul Copan argues that morality and value are “necessarily connected” with personhood. Since an essential attribute of God is that He exists necessarily and is the ontological ground of all other persons, morality and value would be impossible without God.[20] Using this logic, it is plausible that the source of intrinsic value can only be found in a necessarily existing person. Thus, in response to Kant’s view that the mere possession of rationality endows all rational creatures with intrinsic value, one must ask on what basis humans persons exist to have rationality. God, if He does exist as Kant himself believed, is the only reason that there is rationality. Even if it were true, as Kant claims, that rationality brings about value, God is the source of rationality. Ultimately, in view of these considerations, the biblical justification for human value appears more plausible and legitimate than Kant’s justification.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The three biblical principles of ethics proposed in this paper appear to be eminently plausible when held up to philosophical scrutiny. Because Kant, without grounding morality in God, sought to achieve many of the same goals that these biblical principles accomplish, Kantian ethics serves as an instructive litmus test of the plausibility of biblical ethics. Morality must be objective and universal if it is to avoid the total collapse that relativism ensures. Kant is undoubtedly correct in recognizing this. Furthermore, we have seen that objective morality—to be truly objective—must have a plausible absolute standard of intrinsic value and goodness that grounds it. Biblical ethics provides a philosophically justifiable basis for accomplishing this by identifying God as that source. In contrast, Kant is unable to legitimize the “good will” as being “good without qualification” and able to produce moral principles and binding duties that are defensibly objective and have an ontological basis that is fully independent of humanity. Biblical ethics also legitimizes the attractive conviction that humans really do have intrinsic value. Kant is right to recognize the truth that humans are “objects of respect” and should be “treated as ends,” but he is unable to objectively ground this apparent truth in a justifiable source. God Himself is the ultimate standard of goodness and value, and it is only by way of our relationship with God that we, as creatures made in God’s image, can have intimate connection to the ultimate source of value and can ourselves be endowed with objective value.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sources Cited:

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

Copan, Paul.  “A Moral Argument.”  In To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview.  Edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Craig, William Lane.  Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.  3rd ed.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Cummiskey, David.  Kantian Consequentialism.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Driver, Julia.  Ethics: The Fundamentals.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Gert, Bernard.  Morality: Its Nature and Justification.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Grenz, Stanley.  The Moral Quest.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Hare, John E.  The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Pure Reason.  In Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication.  2nd ed.  Translated by F. Max Müller.  London: Macmillan, 1907.

——–Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

——–.  “What is Enlightenment?”  In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?  Translated by Lewis White Beck.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Kotva, Joseph J.  The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996.

Lewis, C. S.  Mere Christianity.  San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001.

Mill, John Stuart.  Utilitarianism.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906.

Moreland, J. P., and William Lane Craig.  Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003.

Plato.  “Euthyphro.”  In The Trial and Death of Socrates.  3rd ed.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

——–Plato’s Republic.  Translated by George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

Pojman, Louis.  Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong.  6th ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

Porter, Burton Frederick.  The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics.  3rd ed.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Smith, R. Scott.  In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Tiffany, Evan.  “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?”  Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 524-546.

Wielenberg, Erik.  Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Additional Sources:

Craig, William Lane.  “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality.”  Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5175 (accessed February 12, 2016).

Kant, Immanuel.  “Critique of Practical Reason.”  In Great Books of the Western World.  Vol. 42.  Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.  Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

McElreath, Scott.  “The Inadequacy of Kant’s View of Moral Worth.”  Philosophical Writings, 19-20 (Spring/Summer 2002): 23-42.

Ritchie, Angus.  From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of Our Ethical Commitments.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

 

Notes:

  1. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 11.
  1. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 491.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.
  1. Pojman, Discovering Right and Wrong, 127.
  1. Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 306.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 167.
  1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 182.
  1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 5.
  2. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap, 18-19. Hare notes that R. M. Hare is a Kantian who believes he is consistent with Kant in applying act-utilitarianism to Kant’s CI to determine whether an act should be universalized.
  1. David Cummiskey, Kantian Consequentialism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 176. This quote is in the context of showing a limitation of Erik Wielenberg’s secular approach to ethics, but this particular criticism applies to Kantian ethics as well.
  2. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 156.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 14. Kant believed happiness must result from moral living for us to press on in the moral life, but our motivation to be moral must be duty and not happiness. See Hare, The Moral Gap, 76-78.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 266.
  1. Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 217.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 117.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 46.
  1. Erik Wielenberg, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83-84. Wielenberg, a secular moral realist, contends that rooting human value in God devalues the intrinsic human value that common sense tells us we have.
  1. Baggett and Walls, God and Cosmos, 286.
  1. Paul Copan, “A Moral Argument,” in To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and James Porter Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 113.

How Kantian Ethics Helps to Demonstrate the Attractiveness of Biblical Ethics: Part I

by Zach Breitenbach

INTRODUCTION

Few ethical systems have been as influential or as hotly debated in Western philosophy as the one proposed by Immanuel Kant. Kant, living when reason was king in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, proposed what he considered to be the one true ethical system—a system rooted in pure reason, without recourse to grounding morality in God, that sought to explain universal moral truth.[1] This paper will argue that Kant’s ethical system, despite grounding morality purely in reason and in light of its own philosophical failures, contains significant insights that serve to illuminate the philosophical attractiveness of key biblical ethical principles.

To accomplish this, I will highlight three important objectives of Kant’s ethical view and compare them to three critical principles of a biblical ethic. Kant emphasizes (1) the existence of objective and universally-binding moral values and duties that require an intrinsic “Good” to ground objective morality; (2) the principle of “moral worth” that incorporates insightful appeal to the role of motive in ethics; and (3) the belief that humans have inherent value. Kant’s justification for these three contentions will be juxtaposed with the rationale for the biblical ethical principles that (1) God Himself is the intrinsic “Good” that grounds objective morality; (2) moral worth is found in honoring God by willing and acting in accordance with God’s will; and (3) God provides a superior basis for ascribing value and respect to human beings.

After briefly explaining Kant’s ethic, I will first show how Kant, in spite of his exclusion of God from morality’s foundation, offers several key insights that help to establish the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical principles. Then, I will demonstrate how Kant’s ethic fails to accomplish his own desired objectives and how a biblical ethic succeeds. Note that, for the purposes of this paper, a “biblical ethic” refers to a general Christian ethical approach that draws upon the Bible and minimally includes the three biblical principles identified above. Certainly there are a variety of nuanced positions that a Christian ethicist might hold, but this paper will defend these three particular ethical principles that are widely recognized as biblical.

 

KANT’S ETHICS

Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Germany, and he lived there until his death in 1804. A crucial influence on Kant that was especially formative to his ethical thought is the Enlightenment thinking that was occurring in Europe. The Enlightenment, at its height in Europe during Kant’s lifetime, led to an explosion of scientific progress that brought about a wave of confidence in human reason, and this spilled over into philosophy. Kant was a staunch defender of the Enlightenment ideal of human autonomy and the lofty capabilities of human reason.[2] He viewed the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred tutelage.” By “tutelage,” Kant means “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.”[3] He encouraged people to stop blindly following the traditions of others and claimed that the “motto of enlightenment” is: “Have courage to use your own reason!”[4] Indeed, as we will see, autonomous human reason (i.e., our ability on our own to use the mind’s conceptual schemes to generate knowledge) is the very foundation of Kant’s ethical theory.

For Kant, reason exists in the human mind prior to and independent of experience, and it ultimately produces the basis for objective moral truth. Kant spurned the idea put forth by empiricists like David Hume that all synthetic knowledge is a posteriori. While empiricists were arguing that morality is a human construction based entirely upon human experiences, feelings, and desires, Kant was insisting that “there really exist pure moral laws which entirely a priori (without regard to empirical motives, that is, happiness) determine the use of the freedom of any rational being, both with regard to what has to be done and what has not to be done.”[5] These “pure moral laws” that reason produces are “imperative” and “in every respect necessary” because they are rooted in reason and not contingent upon human experience.[6]

But how does pure reason produce “necessary” moral laws that are objective and universally binding? Kant’s answer is that reason alone produces an intrinsic “good” that serves to ground objective morality—the “good will,” which is the rational faculty that recognizes moral duty. This “good will” is not an instrumental good that merely produces other goods; rather, “it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself.” Even if circumstances should not allow the good will to be put to use, it would still be intrinsically good and would “sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself.”[7] The good will is the only good “which could be called good without qualification.” As such, the good will is able to discern what Kant considers to be the “supreme principle of morality”[8] that serves to generate our moral duties—the categorical imperative (CI).

Although Kant considers the CI to be one cohesive principle, it comprises three formulations. The first formulation is the Principle of Universal Law. It states: “I should never act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should be a universal law.”[9] If reason dictates that we could will that a maxim should be applied universally, then it becomes our moral duty to act on that maxim; conversely, if we could not rationally will to universalize a maxim, then it is our duty not to act on it.

It is important to see that Kant’s CI is intended to generate duties that are morally obligatory and not optional or contingent upon the desires of any person. Kant contrasts the idea of a “hypothetical” imperative with his concept of a “categorical” imperative. A hypothetical imperative “says only that an action is good for some purpose,” but the CI “declares the action to be of itself objectively necessary without making any reference to a purpose.”[10] Kant provides a number of examples to illustrate how the Principle of Universal Law reveals to us our moral duties independent of desire. In one example, Kant describes a man who needs to borrow money but does not have the means to repay what he needs to borrow. The man is considering accepting the following maxim: “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know I shall never do so.” Kant argues that when the man applies the Principle of Universal Law to this maxim, the man will discover that the maxim cannot be universalized and is, therefore, morally wrong. It cannot be universalized, Kant says, because that would make “the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.”[11] Thus, regardless of what the man wants to do, reason dictates that his objective moral duty is to reject that maxim and not make the lying promise. If everyone in such a situation made a lying promise then a contradiction would result because the man’s goal of obtaining a loan would not be possible. Kant wants to say that it is this contradiction and not the consequences of undermining loans that makes reason demand the rejection of this maxim.

The second formulation of the CI is called the Principle of Ends. It states: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Kant upholds the inherent value of humans on the same basis that he argues for objective morality—pure reason. Kant argues that humans, as “rational beings,” are by nature “ends in themselves” and “objects of respect.”[12] This is because every person “necessarily” thinks of himself as a valuable end in himself because he has a “rational nature” that grounds value—nothing can be valued without rational beings to do the valuing.[13] This argument of Kant is sometimes called the “regress” argument because “by regressing on the condition of value, it is possible to derive the intrinsic value of rational nature itself.”[14] The second formulation of the CI ensures that no maxim that devalues a rational person can be acceptably universalized.

The third formulation of the CI is the Principle of Autonomy. It states: “Never choose except in such a way that the maxims of the choice are comprehended in the same volition as a universal law.”[15] Given the first two formulations, it is clear that Kant’s theory has no need for a transcendent being to generate moral law for humanity. In this final formulation, Kant emphasizes that the good will of a rational being is sufficient for determining absolute moral law. Humans have the autonomous ability to legislate moral values and duties. In fact, Kant holds that God Himself, along with all rational beings, can only be good by adhering to the CI. He declares, “Even the Holy One of the Gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before He is recognized as such.… But whence do we have the concept of God as the highest good?  Solely from the idea of moral perfection which reason formulates a priori.”[16]

Another concept that is especially critical to Kantian ethics is “moral worth.” For Kant, “moral worth” means moral praiseworthiness. An agent’s action has moral worth if it is in accordance with duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of duty. This means that the motivation of an agent is critical, and Kant even asserts that an action done out of duty that is contrary to one’s natural inclination results in the “highest”[17] moral worth of all. Kant regards it as unthinkable that subjective feelings could have any bearing on moral motivation. While Kant thinks God, who lives up to the moral law perfectly, gives us hope that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled, he at the same time does not allow such hope to be our motivation for being moral. Rational duty must be our motivation in order for our action to have moral worth.[18]

Having briefly surveyed the core points of Kant’s ethic, we will now examine how the three key principles of a biblical ethic identified previously are plausible by comparing them to Kant’s ethic. We begin by seeing how Kant’s ethic offers positive insights that support the tenability and attractiveness of these biblical ethical principles.

INSIGHTS OF KANT’S ETHICS

Kant’s ethical system offers a number of insights that help to reveal the soundness of a biblical ethic. Consider the first biblical principle that objective and universal moral values and duties exist, and that God is the intrinsic good that grounds their existence. This traditional view sees God as the basis of objective morality such that the truths of morality are found in God and are fully independent of all human opinions and beliefs. The Bible portrays God as the very foundation and standard for universally-binding morality. Support for this concept can be gleaned from numerous biblical passages. We are commanded to be holy because of God’s holy character (Lev 19:1-2). God is maximally holy (threefold repetition of “holy”) and exposes our sinfulness (Is 6:1-5). Jesus states that “no one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). God alone is the standard. Although Kant rejects the idea that God grounds morality, he does correctly recognize the reality of objective morality and the need for an intrinsic “good” that must provide some ontological basis for it.

There is great wisdom in Kant’s passionate rejection of all ethical systems that cast morality as a human construct that is relative to the desires of individuals or the whims of culture. Morality must be objective and universal to be truly normative, and normativity is a seemingly necessary feature of any adequate ethical system. Moral relativism, if true, would make moral criticism impossible such that morality would fall apart. Kant recognizes this and harshly condemns ethical relativism for making morality out to be a “bastard patched up from limbs of very different parentage, which looks like anything one wishes to see in it.”[19]

Kant appears to be correct that objective morality must be grounded in an intrinsic “good” that has “its full worth in itself.”[20] He saw that if there is no objective good that serves as the incorruptible standard of moral perfection, then the subjectivity that unacceptably destroys the prescriptivity of morality cannot be avoided. As C. S. Lewis rightly argues, “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard…. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.”[21] Plato recognized this as well when he postulated the idea of a “Good” form that serves as the objective basis by which anything can be called good. Plato saw that the “Good” must exist independent of all appearances and human conventions. Recounting the words of Socrates in Plato’s cave allegory, Plato writes of this “Good” as that which is the ultimate “cause of all that is right and beautiful,” even though we often see it in only a distorted way in this world.[22] As long as morality is truly an objective reality, as it apparently must be, then both Kantian and biblical ethics are correct in affirming an intrinsically good moral standard as a foundation.

Kant also provides perspicacity concerning the second principle of biblical ethics by affirming that moral worth depends on our motives and not just our actions. As discussed previously, Kant only allows for an agent’s action to have moral worth if the action is in accordance with moral duty and the agent is motivated to do the action out of moral duty. Similarly, the Bible indicates that God is concerned not only with our actions but also our motivations and our will. God does not merely base the moral worth of a person’s action on whether the act itself is in accordance with His commands; rather, the motivation of the agent to act in a God-honoring way is also critical. For example, the Apostle Paul writes that God wants us to “will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). The scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be noticed by men,” and Jesus condemns this motivation (Mt 23:1-12). Even good works, such as prayer, must not be done with a wrong motive (Mt 6:1-6). All food is acceptable to eat, but if one is convinced that eating a certain food is wrong and does it anyway, he is morally guilty (Rom 14:14, 23). So, in Scripture, the action done by a person is not the only thing that is significant in terms of moral praiseworthiness; one’s motivations and reasons for acting matter greatly.

Louis Pojman rightly points out that the benefit of an ethical system that accounts for motive is that “two acts may appear identical on the surface, but one may be judged morally blameworthy and the other excusable” depending on the motive of the agents carrying out the acts.[23] Kant captures this truth, and he realizes that one’s commitment to his moral duty will sometimes require him to contradict his natural inclinations. For example, Kant’s contention that “love as an inclination cannot be commanded” is theologically insightful and attractive.[24] While some critics find such dutiful love to be cold and uncaring, Kant is surely correct that love for others must be more than a feeling that we are either inclined or disinclined to have if love is truly a moral duty.[25] In the same way, biblical ethics involves the command to love others—even one’s enemy—regardless of inclination (Matt. 5:44).

Finally, Kant’s agreement with the third biblical principle that humans are inherently valuable and deserve respect is also intuitively attractive. Although the next section will explore the difficulties Kant has in justifying the value of humans independently from God, Kantian and biblical ethics share the advantage of being in accord with the nearly universal sense most people have that human life is valuable. As Burton F. Porter notes, it is “difficult, if not impossible,” to deny our moral sense that there is something valuable about human life, and denying that human value is an objective reality “runs counter to our most basic feelings.”[26] While this widely-held moral sense that humans have value does not prove that humans really are valuable, any ethical theory that is in accord with such a prominent aspect of our moral experience is to be preferred. With these insights of Kant in mind, let us now examine how the shortfalls of Kant’s ethic highlight the greater tenability of the three specified biblical principles of ethics.

 

Notes: 

  1. John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). Though it is not clear, Hare thinks Kant might have believed traditional Christian doctrines (see pp. 38, 48). God is important to Kantian ethics in that He ensures that virtue and happiness align and that the moral law can be perfectly fulfilled; however, for Kant, we will see that moral law springs from reason. God is not its source.
  2. R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 94.
  1. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 85.
  1. Ibid.
  2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: In Commemoration of the Centenary of its First Publication, 2nd ed., trans. F. Max Müller (London: Macmillan, 1907), 647.
  1. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 647.
  1. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment?, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 10.
  1. Ibid., 8-9.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 18.
  1. Ibid., 31-32.
  1. Ibid., 40
  1. Kant, Foundations, 46-47.
  1. Ibid., 47.
  1. Evan Tiffany, “How Kantian Must Kantian Constructivists Be?,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 540.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 59.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 25. Kant sees the “highest good” as the conjunction of virtue and happiness. Notably, he thinks only God can bring about such a condition; however, God is only good by perfectly living up to the CI as demanded by reason.
  1. Ibid., 15.
  1. David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford: University Press, 2016), 265-266.
  2. Kant, Foundations, 44.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001), 13.
  1. Plato, Plato’s Republic, trans. George Maximilian Anthony Grube and C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 189.
  2. Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 11. For example, it seems that a man who helps an elderly lady across the street to impress his friends should be judged as less morally praiseworthy than a man who does this same action out of a sense of moral responsibility.
  1. Kant, Foundations, 16.
  1. Julia Driver, Ethics: The Fundamentals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 86.
  1. Burton Frederick Porter, The Good Life: Alternatives in Ethics, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 85.

Summary of Part 2 of Robert Adams’ “Moral Faith” chapter of Finite and Infinite Goods: Faith in Moral Ends.

Summary by David Baggett

Finite and Infinite Goods

The second kind of moral faith we need pertains to the value and attainability of what we might call “moral ends.” Kant saw that moral commitment must set itself a certain end for whose attainment it aspires or hopes, yet that this end is only to a very limited extent within our power, so the possibility of the result for which the moral agent must hope depends on there being a moral order in the universe, which can only be reasonably supposed to exist through the action of a God, in whom we are therefore rationally obliged to believe, if we seriously aim at the end that morality sets as the comprehensive goal of our striving.

One place to begin thinking about faith in moral ends is with the question of whether human life is worth living. Whether your life is worth living. It’s morally important for morality to believe that other people’s lives are worth living. If your friends are going through hard times, they may or may not be tempted to despair. Either way it’s likely to be important to them to have your support as a person who believes in them and in the value of their lives. Having that faith might be essential to being a good friend, and not having it might be letting the other person down in a particularly hurtful way.

What does it take to have faith that a friend’s life, or one’s own, is worth living? It’s closely connected with caring about the person’s good, the friend’s or one’s own. It’s caring the person should be spared suffering pain. Caring more constructively about a person’s good involves taking that person’s life as a project that one prizes. If I care about your good, I add myself as a sponsor of the project. And this I can hardly do without believing that your life is worth living. To have faith that a person’s life is worth living will involve a certain resistance to reasons for doubting the value of that person’s life. Few judgments are more dangerous morally than the judgment that another person’s life is not worth living, or not worth living any more.

It’s also important to believe that distant lives, such as those that are lost to famine in Somalia, or to genocide in Bosnia, are worth living, or would be if they could be preserved.

Other instances of a need for faith in moral ends may be sought in connection with the question of whether the moral life is worth living. It’s hard to deny the moral importance of believing that the moral life will be good, or is apt to be good, for other people. For it is part of moral virtue to care both about the other person’s good and about the other person’s virtue. Morality requires that we encourage each other to live morally. But while few doubt that it is generally advantageous to have the rudiments of honesty and neighborliness, it is notoriously easier to doubt that some of the finer fruits of morality are good for their possessors, when all the consequences they may have are taken into account.

Another question about the value of the moral life is whether it is better for the world, or at least not bad for the world, and not too irrelevant to be worth living—that devotion to justice won’t result in futility. This trust is severely tested by both the failures and unforeseen consequences of moral efforts. Yet it does seem important for morality to believe that living morally is good for the world, or if not, then to believe that the moral life is of such intrinsic value that it is worth living for its own sake.

In these questions Adams has assumed that we can at least live moral lives. But that too can be doubted. Who, after all, emerges unscathed from a morally rigorous examination of conscience? We all have real moral faults, and yet it’s crucial for morality that we believe that moral effort can be successful enough to be worth making. For one can’t live morally without intending to do so, and one can’t exactly intend to do what one believes is totally impossible. Moral philosophers, with the notable exception of Kant, have paid less attention to this problem than they ought.

Adams mentions one more item of faith in a moral end. We might call it faith in the common good. It’s a matter of believing that the good of different persons is not so irreconcilably competitive as to make it incoherent to have the good of all persons as an end. If we can manage to view the problems of fairness and conflicting interests within the framework of a conception of human good that is predominantly cooperative, then we may still be able to take a stance that is fundamentally for everyone and against no one. What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else. With such a view it would be impossible to include the good of all persons among one’s ends. It’s probably more tempting to endorse such a view more with nations or groups than with individuals.

Much of the temptation to doubt or abandon our beliefs in moral ends arises from the fact that these beliefs are concerned not only with ideals but also with the relation of ideals to actuality, the possibility of finding sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are. Even if there’s a good philosophical answer to evil, it’s unlikely to silence the doubts.

This is the point at which Kant connected morality with religious belief. A belief in a moral order helps, but Adams rests content to have argued just that we have a moral need to believe in more particular possibilities of moral ends, as proximate objects of moral faith.

Adams then mentions a few objections to his argument, just one of which I’ll summarize here. It’s this: that the beliefs Adams demands are more high-flown than morality needs. It may be suggested that our beliefs about actuality will provide sufficient support for morality as long as we believe we’re doing pretty well within the moral system, that honesty is the best policy, that laws will be enforced against us, and so forth.

Adams responds like this: such low-flown beliefs may sustain minimal moral compliance, but won’t sustain moral virtue. Adams’ concern is with moral faith as a part of moral virtue. The attitudes of mind that morality demands are surely not limited to those involved in minimal moral compliance. Morality could hardly exist, indeed, if all or most people had no more than the attitudes of minimal moral compliance. There must be many people who have more virtue than that, for the morality of the merely compliant is largely responsive to the more deeply rooted morality of others. True virtue requires resources that will sustain it when society is supporting evil rather than good, and when there is considerable reason to doubt that honesty is the best policy from a self-interested point of view. Thus virtue requires more moral faith than mere compliance may.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: The Portals of Paradise by L. OP. CC License. 

Lying and Reasonable Expectation

By Randy Everist

Here’s a simple question: What is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it casts some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence would likely count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or a ‘right’) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we are not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry that jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. This definition of lying also includes lying by omission.

The “reasonable expectation view” also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). There are some who vigorously defend the “yes” position, perhaps because of a Kantian influence. Kant is notorious for claiming that lying is always wrong, because it is always predicated on a maxim that cannot be universalized or consistently willed to become a universal law. This is also called the “categorical imperative.” A good example is lying to secure a loan. Knowing you cannot pay it back in a timely fashion, you lie to get the loan anyway. If everyone in such circumstances did so, the very institution of truth-telling, promise-keeping, and money-lending would disintegrate. Kant would say what makes lying wrong is not the bad consequences of what would happen, but rather the implication that one’s beliefs or desires are in contradiction. If we were to universalize the maxim in question—that it is permissible to lie about repaying a loan in a timely fashion—the result would be the destruction of the loaning institution, or the very thing that makes money-lending possible. So one both wants the institution to be there and, in virtue of following such an unworkable maxim, does not want the institution to be there.

The matter, however, is not that easy. For it is not clear at what level of generality the maxim should be cast. This matters because, depending on how the maxim is cast—ranging from “It’s okay to lie whenever one wants” to “It’s permissible to lie when doing so is the only way to avoid a grave injustice”—sometimes the maxim can be universalized and sometimes it cannot. Kant’s sweeping conclusion, then, that lying is always irrational and immoral seems unwarranted.

Contra Kant, most typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them. So my solution to the conundrum is not to say that lying is sometimes justified, but rather that withholding the truth or even projecting a falsehood on occasion is not lying at all.

A worry arises here about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that persecution of the Jews is a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it is because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does the Nazi have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this to a biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The professor noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I did not think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it is the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. Perhaps some of the more difficult biblical passages in which non-truth-telling and/or deception seem to be endorsed may benefit from this account of lying in their interpretations, and show that the Bible is not ethically mistaken after all!

Notes: 

[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.

Image: “fingers crossed” by DGLES. CC License.