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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VI

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) argues that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, though he doesn’t think this is a very good reason. For he thinks that laws come in various shapes and sizes, and that it’s plausible to think of some of them as lacking an author, human or divine. The laws of physics, for example. Certainly atheists are inclined to think this is so. For this reason he thinks that atheists should reject the idea that all laws require lawgivers, and that if they do so they have no other reason to embrace moral skepticism. I’ve expressed misgivings about aspects of this analysis in previous posts, but now I want to consider in greater detail the analogies he uses.

I’m inclined to think the existence of the laws of physics provides me little reason to doubt God functions at the foundation of morality. Since I think God created the universe, and think this for what I consider a number of principled reasons, I don’t see the operative laws of the physical world as wholly independent of God. I also tend to think such nomological laws are contingent and descriptive, rather than necessary and prescriptive, which constitute, to my thinking, relevant disanalogies with those of morality. SL sticks to his guns, though, insisting that the analogy between the laws of physics and morality holds. I disagree.

SL does recognize, though, that some readers might be more convinced by normative laws than those of science, so here too he emphasizes that not all normative laws require lawmakers. In his own words: “For instance, the laws of logic and rationality are normative. They tell us what we ought to do.” But since nobody invented them, we have an example of authorless normative laws. And thereby SL thinks he’s shown another reason to reject the notion that all laws require lawgivers and that moral objectivity needs God.

What should be said of this attempt? SL admits that the laws of logic or rationality aren’t moral principles, though they are normative ones. Atheists would naturally be inclined to see these as authorless, objective, normative laws that issue in a kind of (non-moral) oughtness. This is the import of their being normative or evaluative.

Should an atheist for this reason think that objective morality wouldn’t need God? It’s hard to say. Clearly SL is convinced they should, but plenty of atheists demur. They might think that this analysis fails to do justice to continuing relevant disanalogies between moral and nonmoral oughts. For example, we don’t tend to feel guilty for doing our best but making a rational or logical mistake. Perhaps we feel bad, morally speaking, for failing to work as hard as we should have, being as attentive as we should have been to the evidence, but we arguably don’t feel guilty for nonmoral failings. We may be ashamed or embarrassed, but it’s not likely we feel guilty.

This is plausibly taken to be a distinctive feature of the moral life, which seems to hint to us that we are morally responsible for our actions, and culpably guilty for our failures, not just before an impersonal set of principles, or ontologically odd sui generis moral realities inhabiting a Platonic heaven, but before something more personal than that. Obviously, this is just the slightest tip of the hat in the direction of the argument that would need to be fleshed out here, but it seems likely that plenty of atheists could well sense that morality, if objective, would lead in this direction. (Among some of them, perhaps, their very resistance to objective morality comes from just this concern.)

SL, though, thinks he’s made his case, adding, “Scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God does not exist. If God is claimed to be specially necessary for moral laws in particular, that will require some further argument, something that has yet to make its appearance.” Note, though, the nature of the claim: scientific and normative laws might be objective even if God doesn’t exist. In what sense has this been established? On the assumption of atheism, and in light of an unrefined account of laws, objective morality would be possible without God. But why assume atheism in the first place? Speaking of epistemic possibilities, atheism might be false. At bottom, all that SL has argued for is the bare epistemic possibility that God isn’t needed for ethics. True enough.

By the way, it’s also epistemically possible that God is needed for ethics. Where, however, does the evidence really point? The chapter still leaves me waiting for something on this score. Meanwhile, SL says he’s waiting in vain for an argument that God is especially important to moral laws. Well, as luck would have it, that’s what this site is all about. For a few years, week in and week out, we’ve been exploring just this question. Moral apologists of a broad variety of stripes have argued in numerous smart ways that the distinctive features of morality—from moral freedom to regret, from moral rights to an account of evil, from moral value to moral obligations, from moral knowledge to moral transformation to moral rationality—provide excellent reasons to think that God exists to undergird these realities. Perhaps SL has heard these arguments and found them wanting, and I respect that; I hope he’ll return the favor when I say that much of what he’s said in this chapter is something I find equally wanting.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss why SL finds problematic the theistic effort to identify God as the author of morality.

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

Berat Writes:

Hello,

Is there a post on the “ontological foundation of evil”? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can’t have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn’t have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God’s attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I’m highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God’s Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. In other words, we think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma I put in the mouth of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig (Part III)

Part I

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls were invited to participate in a panel discussion of their book Good God with Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offering some critique and feedback on their work. Baggett and Walls provide a concise summary of the book, which is a cumulative and abductive moral argument for theism, while Copan and Craig offer insightful analysis. If you are interested in better understanding the moral argument in general or its abductive version in particular, this discussion will be well worth your time.

In Part III, the panelists (Baggett, Craig, Copan, and Walls) field questions about the effectiveness of abduction, the consistency of the abductive moral argument, and a few more on the subject of Calvinism.

Image: By Internet Archive Book Images – The Prodigal Son. Creative Commons. 

Good God Panel Discussion Q and A

 

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part III

By David Baggett 

As we continue to examine Shafer-Landau’s (SL) case that ethical objectivity doesn’t require God, we turn directly to what he has to say about why most people—mistakenly, on his view—find compelling the notion that ethics is objective only if God exists. Personally, as I’ve said, I would prefer to argue less ambitiously that God provides the best explanation, or at least solid evidence, for God’s existence. The more deductivist-sounding “ethics is objective only if God exists” is devilishly hard to show, and it’s likely false in real ways. By raising the bar so high for his interlocutors, SL is lowering the bar for himself. This means, though, that by puncturing a hole in a case one might try building for so ambitious a claim, SL won’t have shown that God doesn’t function at the foundation of ethics. (It’ll be interesting to observe whether he draws only minimal and judicious conclusions; warning: he won’t.) The effect of his case might be to lessen confidence in certain formulations of the moral argument, but less-than-deductive versions don’t seem so much as touched or even remotely threatened. At any rate, let’s see what he has to say.

SL claims that, in his experience, people tie objectivity to God because of a very specific line of thought, namely, “that all laws (rules, principles, standards, etc.) require a lawmaker.” If there are any objective moral laws, then the lawmaker can’t be any one of us. Why? “Objectivity implies an independence from human opinion.” If objective moral rules aren’t authored by any one of us, but still require an author, they require a nonhuman creator. Enter God.

A word about criteria involved in theory selection. Not to belabor it, but the logic just described by SL is one among other ways to infer to God as the foundation of morality. SL’s language tends to favor casting God as the “author” of morality, which I’ve noted is likely strategic and not, to my thinking, anywhere near the best way to approach this. Here’s another formulation, and one I think is considerably better: what explains the existence of objective morality? In light its features, its authority, the personal nature of morality, the guilt we experience for failing to comply, etc., what would the best explanation of morality be? Here’s yet another formulation: in light of the evidence of morality, does such evidence render theism more likely than not? And here’s another formulation: in light of the evidence of morality, does such evidence render theism more likely than it would otherwise be? How we cast the question reveals something about our criteria for theory selection. Are we expecting the evidence in question to provide a nail-tight case? Or good inductive evidence? Are we trying to provide the best explanation of the evidence? Are we trying to show the evidence shows a hypothesis to be true? More likely than not? More likely than it would otherwise be?

Note that SL’s formulation of the question under consideration assumes for a salient criterion that theism must provide the only possible explanation of objective morality. For God to be “required” for moral objectivity, no nontheistic hypothesis would be possibly true. This is a very high standard to satisfy, to say the least, and it’s altogether unclear to me how one would even go about trying to establish such a case. I assume, for example, that Platonism is a living possibility—brute moral facts in existence somehow on a par, in the minds of many, with mathematical facts. I don’t know how to argue that this is impossible, but I still think, as theories go, it leaves a great deal less explained than robust theism does. On my lights, therefore, I would give the nod to theism over Platonism. But that’s a far cry from insisting I have reason to say Platonism and every other nontheistic account of moral objectivity is impossible. I suspect that just about every effort to make such a case will fail. And the attempt that SL is critiquing is sure to fall prey to devastating criticisms, but this in no way gives us reason to think that God is ontologically irrelevant to morality. His criticism is predicated on an overly narrow criterion for theory selection.

Admittedly, at times SL doesn’t sound like he’s trying to give a definitive refutation of theistic ethics as he’s simply instead trying to show that believers and unbelievers alike have good reasons to be moral objectivists. I resonate with this goal, but when he subtly shifts his argument to suggest that “ethics doesn’t need God,” disambiguating between a less ambitious epistemic point that’s right and an extremely ambitious metaphysical point that’s weak is vitally important.

At any rate, SL argues that theists and atheists should reject the “argument from atheism,” which goes like this: Ethics is objective only if God exists. But God does not exist. Therefore ethics isn’t objective.

CoverTheists would reject the second premise, of course, but atheists, he claims, should reject the first premise—the premise that ethics is objective only if God exists. And I largely agree with him that atheists should indeed reject this premise, for this reason: the evidence for morality is strong in and of itself. We needn’t settle the God question first, and the morality question later. We all of us should affirm the existence of objective moral duties and values. Once we do, we can then explore whether or not morality suggests, points to, hints at, intimates at, or provides evidence for God, or if it doesn’t.

I suspect that SL is conflating two very different questions: (1) Must one first believe in God to be rational to believe in objective morality? & (2) Does morality provide evidence for God’s explanatory relevance to morality? He and I would agree that the answer to the first question is no, but I would completely reject any suggestion that this shows God’s ontological irrelevance to objective morality. This questions remains an altogether open one. For the answer to the first question might well be no, and yet God might still be the best explanation of morality. In light of the fact that epistemic and metaphysical matters are distinct in a certain way, an answer of no to the first question wouldn’t even preclude God’s being the only explanation of morality. But again, how to establish so ambitious a case is a task beyond most of us. But the main point is that an answer of no to the first question doesn’t so much as broach the issue of the evidential significance of morality on the question of theism.

In the next installment, we’ll consider the reason SL gives for why atheists should reject the idea that moral objectivity requires God.

 

Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig (Part I)

Part II

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls were invited to participate in a panel discussion of their book Good God with Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offering some critique and feedback on their work. Baggett and Walls provide a concise summary of the book, which is a cumulative and abductive moral argument for theism, while Copan and Craig offer insightful analysis. If you are interested in better understanding the moral argument in general or its abductive version in particular, this discussion will be well worth your time.

In Part I, moderator Mark Foreman introduces the panelists and explains the context of the book. David Baggett provides a summary of their moral argument. Paul Copan offers what he thinks are the major highlights, a response to John Hare’s criticisms, as well as some criticisms of his own.

 

 

 

 

Download Good God panel discussion

 

Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part II

By David Baggett

Shafer-Landau (subsequently SL) starts this chapter by saying that most people “think that if moral rules are objective, then they must have been authored by God.” He notes that this includes theists, many of whom believe in God precisely because they believe in ethical objectivity, and see no way of defending that idea without God. It also includes those atheistic moral skeptics who think skepticism can only be escaped via God, whom they reject.

I’m not sure if SL is right in suggesting that most theists believe in God because they believe in ethical objectivity. The suggestion seems to be that the essential insight of the moral argument plays a central role in the theistic convictions of most believers. Although I find myself fond of this notion, whether or not it’s true is an empirical question to which I don’t know the answer. I imagine that lots of people would adduce lots of different reasons for their religious convictions—from religious experience to other arguments for taking God seriously. Some, no doubt, though, would cite distinctively moral reasons as the best evidence of their religious views, and as a moral apologist I think they’re generally on solid ground in doing so.

The fact that there’s also that group of atheists who embrace moral skepticism shows that they, too, accept roughly half of the moral argument for God’s existence. Of course such arguments come in lots of varieties, and it’s something of a misnomer to refer to the moral argument, as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere before. But for present purposes, for the sake of convenience, I’m subsuming them all under a general penumbral phrase as “the moral argument.” Generally such an argument identifies some moral phenomena and then proceeds to argue that it somehow points to God—abductively, inductively, deductively, or in some less discursive fashion. SL’s point about atheists who are moral skeptics exactly because they’re atheists shows that such people are inclined to think that objective morals would indeed point to God, find their locus in God (or however we might put it), and as a result, absent God, we lose our reason to believe in objective morality.

Notice with respect to this group of moral skeptics they don’t consider themselves rationally justified to believe in objective ethics, but they would accept the other half of the moral argument: that morality is a sign of God. Since they have already rejected the conclusion of God, they become skeptical of the moral premise. As mentioned in Part I, though, I think atheists clearly have excellent reasons to take moral objectivity seriously, reasons and evidence that should be taken seriously. If such thinkers were to stop indulging their moral skepticism and accept the evidence for moral objectivity that seems so obvious, they would actually have the tools to construct the moral argument: Morality is real, it points to God, so morality provides reasons to believe that God exists. (Obviously, this is just a rudimentary sketch of the logic here.) But alas, as SL points out, though such skeptics agree that objective morality would provide evidence for God’s existence, perhaps it’s their very concern about the direction morality is taking them which leads to their embrace of moral skepticism instead. (Of course, some of them might simply have taken, say, naturalism as obvious or even axiomatic for what they consider independent reasons, and then see objective morality with its distinctive features as incongruous with such a picture. But what follows will be a response to the first type of atheists.)

SL expresses such reasoning in the form of the “argument from atheism”: Ethics is objective only if God exists. But God does not exist. Therefore ethics isn’t objective.

One small observation at this juncture: what leaves me skeptical of this argument, among other things, is that it’s predicated on God’s nonexistence, which leaves me wondering why someone would feel confident using this as an obvious piece of evidence. The matter of God’s existence is a notoriously challenging philosophical question, with plenty of very smart people on both sides of the question. The problem of evil is often cited as evidence against God’s existence, and sometimes the problem of divine hiddenness. But on the other side, all manner of arguments have been generated—teleological, moral, cosmological, historical. One can brush all such arguments beside in derision, but this question is far from a no-brainer. If someone is sincerely convinced God doesn’t exist, for various reasons, that’s fine, but the obviousness of objective morality shines no less brightly as a result. And if these folks are skeptical of morality just because of their atheism, yet can see that morality, if real, would point to God, one is left to wonder if the evidence for their atheism is nearly as strong as the evidence for moral objectivity. Even the problem of evil can’t get off the ground without substantive moral claims, so what is the reason for their atheism? Presumably they think objective morality generally points toward God, not away, so the problem of evil isn’t likely to be the main reason for their atheism. So what nonmoral reason would they cite?

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

Perhaps they use the problem of evil despite their moral skepticism by suggesting that theists believe in such moral objectivity, so they are susceptible to the problem of evil after all. But this still seems strange to me, because they are also of the view that objective morality, all things considered, is consistent with theism but inconsistent with atheism. So even if the problem of evil provides some evidence against theism, a full-fledged analysis of the range of objective moral phenomena (of which evil in the world is just one aspect) provides a case for God, not against God. At any rate, believers are within their rights, if the problem of evil is raised on their terms, to use the full panoply of resources at their disposal to provide a hope for its ultimate resolution.

Well, back to SL’s response to the argument from atheism. He defers discussion of God’s existence to another occasion, and then zeroes in on the other premise by suggesting that “we don’t have to settle whether God exists in order to decide on the merits of ethical objectivism.” That much is true, if the point is an epistemic one. We needn’t know whether or not God exists to consider ourselves, and properly so, eminently justified, warranted, and rational to be moral objectivists. In fact, the moral argument for God assumes exactly this. But then SL writes, “Ethical objectivism can be true even if God doesn’t exist.” If by “can” he means merely epistemic possibility, then the claim amounts to saying, “For all we know, ethical objectivism may be true even if God doesn’t exist.” That claim may be right, though it’s fairly innocuous and unambitious. Truth be told, though, he’s probably making a more substantive claim like this: “It’s metaphysically possible that ethical objectivity obtain even if God doesn’t exist.” Even if that were true, it wouldn’t undermine the moral argument for God’s existence, at least in some of its versions. In an abductive version, for example, God is argued to be the best explanation of objective morality, which is in principle consistent with there being another, less good explanation of moral phenomena.

But is the stronger claim true? That’s a hard question, an exceedingly hard question. Here’s an easier one: what’s the evidence for the claim he adduces? That we don’t have to settle whether God exists in order to decide on the merits of ethical objectivism. But as I’ve said, I think that’s entirely right. The evidence for objective morality stands on its own, which is what makes it such an effective premise in a moral argument for God. But in no way does it thus follow that “ethical objectivism can be true even if God doesn’t exist,” which is a strong metaphysical claim that goes well beyond the less ambitious and appropriate epistemic point. Perhaps he’s right in his more ambitious assertion, but up to this point we’ve been given no reason to think he is. In the next post we’ll start delving into his case in more detail.

Grounding Ethics in God: Why God’s nature determines morality

By Josh Fountain

The classic apologetic argument from morality is that if God doesn’t exist then objective moral truth doesn’t exist. It’s often assumed in this argument that somehow God’s existence explains morality in a way that atheism cannot. However, this argument mostly focuses on why atheism cannot explain morality, rather than how it is that Christian theology offers a more compelling explanation.

What’s more the classic Christian response to the Euthyphro argument is to say that the “good”  is that which is like God’s nature and character (and because God is unchanging what is good will not change). But how is it that God’s character provides the moral foundation for what is good?

I want to suggest that it is the theology of man made in the image of God that not only grounds morality, but also underpins our response to the Euthyphro dilemma. Because we are made in the image of God not only do we have reason to be moral, but what is moral is also that which is like God. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

In Genesis God decides “let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”[1]. The traditional understanding of the image of God has been the one filtered through a Greek mindset. A concept which focuses on the abstract and tries to locate what it means to be made in God’s image in terms of some property of existence. However, in the last century there has been much study into the concept of the image of God in its original Hebraic context. The Hebraic understanding of man made in the image of God gives a much more functional, and in many ways fuller, understanding of what it means to be human.

Genesis 1 tells the story of God building a temple (the creation of the Earth).[2] It is in the context of this story, and the wider context of the Ancient Near East, that we have to understand what the Bible means in saying we are created in the image of God. Ancient temples would contain “images” of the god for whom the temple was built. Images of gods in temples, or kings in foreign lands, were “viewed as representatives of the deity or king”.[3] Kings in Egypt and Assyria were also considered “images” of their gods; meaning that they were ones who “acted on behalf of, and by, the consent of the divine.”[4] Middleton points out that typically it was only the king who bore the image of a god, and the concept of all of humanity being made in the image of a god was incredibly counter cultural at the time.[5]

The image of God in Western Theology has often been thought of in terms of a mirror reflecting God’s likeness back to himself, however a more apt description might be that of an angled mirror reflecting God’s likeness to the world itself. The hebraic concept of the image of God tells us that God puts mankind on the Earth as his representatives, that the purpose of man is to show the likeness of God to the world and to live in relationship with him. Obviously we are not successful at this and most of the time we do not accurately reflect God’s likeness, which is why  most theologians talk of the image of God in us being “marred”. The consequence of this, though, is that the closer we come to representing God the closer we come to fulfilling our purpose on this Earth.

As people created in God’s image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God’s character, when we act as God would act: according to his character.
As people created in God’s image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God’s character, when we act as God would act: according to his character. Most meta-ethical theories hold that what is moral is in some way or another what is best for us either individually or communally (either because of the actions themselves or the effects of those actions). So we can see that because we best fulfill our purpose when we reflect God then what it is to be moral is to be act most like God’s character. God’s character is revealed to us supremely in the person of Jesus: as Wilkinson puts it “Jesus is the decisive norm for both divinity and humanity.”[6] If we want to know how best to live as humans we need to look at God, and particularly his actions in Jesus.

This argument serves to do two things. Firstly, we have a simple reply to the so called “dilemma” posed by Euthyphro. Is something good because God commands it or does he command it because it is good. The answer is neither, the good is that which agrees with God’s character. And because God’s character is unchanging, what is good will also not change, and neither could God ever command anything that is evil.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that we as people are made in the image of God gives us a grounding for morality that atheism cannot. The traditional moral apologetic argument shows us that atheism cannot account for normative morality. However, we can do better than that. Not only can we say that atheism cannot account for morality, but we can show that Christianity can give us a solid foundation for morality. Furthermore, because we are made in the image of God we are living most authentically as humans when we reflect God’s character. And here we have a concrete link between what is moral and the character of God. If Christianity is true then not only is there a foundation for morality but we have a clear indication of what it is to be moral in the person of Jesus. What’s more Jesus not only shows us what it is to be moral, but by his Spirit he promises to help us in making us more like God. Although God’s image in us has been marred Jesus’s actions on the cross make a way for that image to be restored in us.

Image: “Beach Reflections” by Micolo J. CC License. 

Notes:

[1] Genesis 1:26 NIV

[2] Walton, John, “The Lost World of Genesis One”, IVP USA, 2009
Morschauser, Scott, “Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei”, Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 – p.2-3

[3] Wilkinson, David, “The Message of Creation”, Inter Varsity Press, 2002 – p.36

[4] Morschauser, Scott, “Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei”, Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 – p.2

[5] Middleton, Richard, “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, Brazos Press, 2005 – p.100

[6] Wilkinson, David, “The Message of Creation”, Inter Varsity Press, 2002 – p.37

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

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1 

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1 

Chapter 3, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Moral Realist, Either

Editor’s note: This essay comes from Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and Development edited by Mark Linville and David Werther. 

By Mark Linville

So long as he is content to assume the reality and authority of the moral consciousness, the Moral Philosopher can ignore Metaphysic; but if the reality of Morals or the validity of ethical truth be once brought into question, the attack can only be met by a thorough-going enquiry into the nature of Knowledge and of Reality. –Hastings Rashdall, 1907

Bertrand Russell was not a Christian, and he bothered to tell us, in some detail, why he was not. At the time of the writing of “Why I Am Not a Christian,” his moral philosophy was a variety of emotivism. But this was not always so. At fifty, Bertrand Russell reflected upon the early days of his philosophical career and wrote, “When the generation to which I belong were young, Moore persuaded us all that there is an absolute good.” Indeed, for a period of nearly a decade, Russell defended a robust version of moral realism. His 1902 essay, “A Free Man’s Worship” touts a human vision of the Platonic Good as the one saving grace in a world where all human aspiration and accomplishment is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” Through our knowledge of the Good we may retain our dignity and find meaning despite the “omnipotence of death” and the utter indifference of the cosmos to all that we hold dear.

Just a few years later Russell published his Philosophical Essays (1910), which originally included “A Free Man’s Worship” as well as his essay, “The Elements of Ethics.” The latter offers an account of moral philosophy that is taken, with little alteration, straight from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica. Russell maintains that goodness is the fundamental moral concept and resists analysis into other terms, moral or non-moral. And moral properties resist identification with properties of any other order. Further, they are “impersonal” or objective: if a thing is good, then it is such that “on its own account it ought to exist.” Hence, “the object of ethics, by its own account, is to discover true propositions about virtuous and vicious conduct, and … these are just as much a part of truth as true propositions about oxygen or the multiplication table.”

Russell appealed to intuition.

In the case of ethics, we must ask why such and such actions ought to be performed, and continue our backward inquiry for reasons until we reach the kind of propositions of which proof is impossible, because it is so simple or so obvious that nothing more fundamental can be found from which to deduce it.

Thus, this “backward inquiry” arrives at “premises which we know though we cannot prove them,” and these become the starting ground for moral reflection. Moral beliefs ultimately receive their sanction through “immediate,” i.e., non-inferential, judgments. The final court of appeal is to “ethical judgments with which almost everyone would agree.” In short, the younger Russell was a stark raving moral realist.

But in the years between the publications of Philosophical Essays and Mysticism and Logic (1918), Russell’s confidence in the objectivity of morality had begun to erode. The latter collection included “A Free Man’s Worship,” but “The Elements of Ethics” was omitted. In the preface to that collection, and in reference to his views in “A Free Man’s Worship,” he confessed, “I feel less convinced than I did then of the objectivity of good and evil.” By the time of the 1929 edition, his abandonment of moral realism was complete: “I no longer regard good and evil as objective entities wholly independent of human desires….” He added, “It was Santayana who first led me to disbelieve in the objectivity of good and evil by his criticism of my then views in his ‘Winds of Doctrine.’”

George Santayana thus seems to have argued Russell back out of the moral realism of which Moore had earlier persuaded him. To my knowledge, Russell never bothered to elaborate on the specifics of Santayana’s arguments that he found compelling. There is some speculation on this. Harry Ruja, for instance, suggests that Russell’s moral realism was but a short-lived and halfhearted interlude between periods when he embraced varieties of anti-realism. According to Ruja, it took little more than a nudge to dislodge Russell from a view that he never found all that compelling. And the brutalities of war may have played a role. Be all of that as it may, our chief interest here is in Santayana’s arguments themselves and not whatever propensities caused Russell to change his mind. Are any of them any good?

Moral Faith in an Accidental Universe

Santayana’s criticisms of Russell’s “hypostatic ethics” are many. Some are specific counters to particular Russellian arguments. Two of his arguments are much grander in scale. On the one hand, Santayana argues that the requirements of moral realism per se are incoherent. In fact, he offers a number of arguments that seem to foreshadow those that would be marshaled in defense of non-cognitivism in the following decades. Space does not permit discussion of these interesting arguments. And a century of space-time is filled with discussions of similar arguments.

My chief interest is with Santayana’s second argument, which I believe has received but scant attention. According to Santayana, the conjunction of Russell’s moral philosophy with his naturalist metaphysics forms an unstable compound and thus lacks cohesion. In fact, Santayana thinks the combination is reduced to absurdity. Harry Ruja thinks this is Santayana’s “most telling criticism,” and I quite agree.

On the one hand, Russell’s moral philosophy implies, “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.” Russell’s language echoes that of Moore, who was concerned to show that some things “are worth having purely for their own sakes.” In Principia Ethica, Moore had argued against Sidgwick that some values—beauty in particular—obtain even if forever unappreciated by any conscious mind. Moore’s thought experiments using his method of “absolute isolation” were designed to discern what sorts of things are of intrinsic value. Generally, things have intrinsic value just in case “if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we should yet judge their existence to be good.”

On the other hand, given Russell’s naturalism, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.” In the very essay in which Russell found solace in the human vision of the Platonic Good, he asserts that “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.” But in such an accidental world it would be marvelous indeed were the very things that ought to exist should have come to be. It would be as though among the verities a special premium had forever been placed upon something—featherless bipeds, say—to the exclusion of all other possible forms (feathered monopods?), and, despite the countless possibilities and, because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris. The cosmic lottery seems not only to have turned up Moore’s beautiful world, but also a Fink-Nottle to gush over it: “People who say it isn’t a beautiful world don’t know what they are talking about”

Moral Scepticism and Animal Faith

Further, if human hopes and fears, loves and beliefs are, as Russell affirmed, “but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” it would be especially surprising to learn that, by fortuitous circumstance, and with no direction or influence from any heaven above, the emergent human conscience, to which Russell appeals, is a reliable indicator of eternal moral truth. Indeed, Russell observes a bit later in “A Free Man’s Worship” that it is a “strange mystery” that nature, “omnipotent but blind” should, in her “secular hurrying,” have “brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.”

At this, G. Dawes Hicks wrote in his 1911 review of Philosophical Essays,

Strange mystery indeed! But why should we be called upon in the name of science  complacently to admit such occult and incredible mysteries? The alleged miracles of former days were at least ascribed to a cause that could conceivably have wrought them.

The trouble with Russell’s overall position is that he has latched upon one set of possible values to the exclusion of the rest, and has done so by appeal to “intuition,” but he lacks any sort of background account, in the form of a supporting metaphysic, that would warrant his taking “felt values” as any indication of moral truth. As Santayana puts the point in Platonism and the Spiritual Life,

The distinction between true goods and false goods can never be established by  ignorant feeling or by conscience not backed by a dogmatic view of the facts: for felt values, taken absolutely and regarded as unconditioned, are all equally genuine in their excellence, and equally momentary in their existence.

If Russell thought that there are immediate judgments, “which we know though we cannot prove them,” Santayana replied, in effect, that their very immediacy is grounds for thinking that they do not constitute knowledge. Russell maintains that moral properties are mind-independent, and endeavors to justify his assertion by appeal to moral consensus, or something near enough. At this, Santayana complains,

Mr. Russell … thinks he triumphs when he feels that the prejudices of his readers will  agree with his own; as if the constitutional unanimity of all human animals, supposing it existed, could tend to show that the good they agreed to recognise was independent of their constitution.

Russell finds sympathy for his intuitions, not because they are self-evident, but because his reader is “the right sort of man.” And even if the sympathy were found to be universal, this would only demonstrate that his readers were members of the right sort of species.

Taking certain considered moral beliefs for granted, Russell proceeds in a forward direction to the construction of a moral philosophy. After all, one cannot reasonably demand that such intuitions themselves be inferred from yet more primitive moral beliefs. But, according to Santayana, Russell’s vision is “monocular” where a “binocular” perspective is required.

The ethical attitude doubtless has no ethical ground, but that fact does not prevent it   from having a natural ground; and the observer of the animate creation need not have much difficulty in seeing what that natural ground is. Mr. Russell, however, refuses to look also in that direction.

Russell spoke of a “backward inquiry” that terminates when and only when one has run out of grounds of a moral nature, but, Santayana thinks, the sequence continues into natural, physical and even animal grounds that reveal the conditioned nature of Russell’s would-be ethical axioms. Though Santayana agrees with Russell that “the good is predicated categorically by conscience,” a “glance back over our shoulder” will reveal that conscience itself is conditioned and has its basis “in the physical order of things.” Hence, “Ethics should be controlled by a physics that perceives the material ground and the relative status of whatever is moral.”

Given the implications of Russell’s “naturalist philosophy,” it is “no marvel that the good should attract the world where the good, by definition, is whatever the world is aiming at.” Nor is it any marvel that the dictates of human conscience should share such a trajectory. “Felt values reconcile the animal and moral side of our nature to their own contingency.” They arise out of “a substantial harmony between our interests and our circumstances.” When that harmony is achieved, there is a propensity to hypostasize the resulting “home values” into “a cosmic system especially planned to guarantee them,” and Russell’s very philosophy is just the outworking of this propensity. Russell’s good is but “natural laws, zoological species, and human ideals that have been projected into the empyrean.” Where Russell envisions the human intellect attracted by, and ascending to, a fixed and eternal Good, Santayana sees the vision of contingent and relative goods emerging in consciousness as the product of actual natures placed in actual circumstances.

Thus “good” and “bad” are understood in reference to “constitutional interests”: “The good is relative to actual natures and simply their latent ideal, actual or realized, is essential to its being truly a good.” Though the life of an oyster may not be the good life for anyone capable of reading philosophy, it suits the oyster. And while the human constitution and human society may set a premium upon the ideal of a “universal sympathy,” “the tigers cannot regard it as such, for it would suppress the tragic good called ferocity, which makes, in their eyes, the chief glory of the universe.” Either way, ethical absolutism is but a “mental grimace of passion” and thus “refutes itself by what it is.” “Human morality … is but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.” The outcome of Moore’s thought experiments or Russell’s poll regarding “ethical judgments with which almost every one would agree” are predictable given the fact that they employ “an imagination which is exclusively human.”

Darwin’s Descent of Man cannot have been far from Santayana’s elbow as he wrote. According to Darwin, human morality is ultimately rooted in a set of social instincts that conferred fitness upon our remote ancestors given the circumstances of the evolutionary landscape. Some behaviors (feeding one’s babies, fleeing from large predators) are adaptive, and others (feeding one’s babies to large predators) are not. Any predisposition or prompting that increases the probability of the adaptive behavior will thus also be adaptive. The circumstances of early hominid evolution were such that various forms of altruistic behavior were fitness conferring. For instance, members of a cooperative and cohesive group tended to have greater reproductive success, since the group itself would tend to fare better than competing, discordant groups.

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of  patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Assuming that the spirits of patriotism, sympathy and so forth are heritable, the predisposition for such behaviors will be passed from patriotic parent to obedient offspring.

Of course, there is more to the moral sense than the instincts that Darwin had in mind. All social animals are possessed of such instincts, but not all are plausibly thought of as moral agents. According to Darwin, conscience is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any   animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

Santayana may be right in thinking that ferocity is the chief glory of the universe for the tiger, but your average tiger is not given to reflection on the matter. Were he graced with intellect alongside his ferocity, he might be found guilty of hypostasizing ferocity in just the way that Russell has projected his own ideals. Were he to employ Moore’s method of absolute isolation the results would be radically different, dominated, as he is, with an imagination that is exclusively tigrine. He might think Russell eloquent on the topic of oysters, but only because he is the right sort of cat. Tigrine morality is, after all, nothing but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.

Russell’s vision is monocular, then, in that he takes the deliverances of conscience as his point of departure but fails to consider the conditioned nature of conscience itself. He assumes that the moral sense is truth-aimed, with objective moral truth as its object, when, in fact, “moral truth” proves simply to be whatever it is that human conscience projects. If there is indeed anything “inevitable” about the “hygienic bias” that is human morality, it is only a hypothetical necessity, conditioned upon a radically contingent set of circumstances. Had the theater in which human evolution has played out been different in any of countless ways, either we might never have been among the cast at all, or we might have played an entirely different role. There may be some “forced moves” through evolutionary design space, as Daniel Dennett has observed. But if there are such inevitable engineering solutions, the set of predispositions out of which human morality has emerged, according to Darwin, seems not to be among them. Consider what I’ll call “Darwinian Counterfactuals.”

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can   hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

This “inward monitor” that is the source of moral belief thus appears to be fitness aimed in that it directs the creature towards whatever behaviors are adaptive given the contingent circumstances in which it has been placed. But—and this is Santayana’s central point—there is no reason to suppose a connection between a conscientious belief’s being adaptive and its corresponding to whatever is eternally inscribed in the moral heavens. To paraphrase Santayana, natural selection is blind to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.

Metaphysical Underpinnings

Russell has divorced the realms of nature and morality and, in a way reminiscent of Mark Twain’s quip about naked people, has left morality with little or no influence in the world. He manages, with Moore’s help, to disentangle values from natural facts, but then sends morality to “fly into the abyss at a tangent,” leaving the earth in moral darkness. The result is an “impotent dogmatism on high.” Russell’s trouble, at bottom, is that he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates; his good is not a power.”

According to Santayana, Russell and Moore erred by isolating one element of Platonic morality—the hypostasis of the Good—to the exclusion of two others that are essential to its overall cohesion: the “political” and the “theological.” By the former, Santayana has in mind a theory of human nature holding that human happiness is to be achieved only in the appropriate relation to the good. He develops this idea more fully in Platonism and the Spiritual Life.

Life … has been kindled and is alone sustained by the influence of pre-existing  celestial models. It is by imitating these models in some measure that we exist at all, and only in imitating, loving, and contemplating them that we can ever be happy. They are our good.

The “theological” element constitutes the metaphysical underpinning for the conviction that something or someone is actively working all things together for the good. On such a scheme, that something just so happens to be the Good itself. Indeed, Santayana thinks that a conception of the good as an influential power is the “sole category” that would justify Russell’s hypostasis of the good.

The whole Platonic and Christian scheme, in making the good independent of private  will and opinion, by no means makes it independent of the direction of nature in general and of human nature in particular. For all things have been created with an innate predisposition towards the creative good and are capable of finding happiness in nothing else. Obligation, in this system, remains internal and vital. Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.

This Platonic hypostasis without the underlying metaphysic and theory of human nature is merely “half-hearted.” It is a Platonism “stultified and eviscerated.” Russell, like a number of “modern moralists” attempted to retain much of the substance of such an account of morality “without its dogmatic justification.”

Thus, on both classical Platonism and Christian theism, “The Platonic ideas, the Christian God, or the Christ of devout Christians may be conceived to be the causes of their temporal manifestations in matter or in the souls of men.” As Robert Adams has put it in a work that appeals to a theistic and Platonist framework for ethics,

If we suppose that God directly or indirectly causes human beings to regard as  excellent approximately those things that are Godlike in the relevant way, it follows that there is a causal and explanatory connection between facts of excellence and beliefs that we may regard as justified about excellence, and hence it is in general no accident that such beliefs are correct when they are.

However, there is no place for such teleology on Russell’s naturalistic philosophy. Russell’s morality seems to Santayana a “ghost of Calvinism,” except that the deity has “lost his creative and punitive functions.”

Santayana thus seems to have thought that moral realism is tenable only within the scaffolds of a theistic metaphysics. Given what Russell affirms in his “Free Man’s Worship,” one is left with an undercutting naturalistic explanation for the human propensity to form moral beliefs. Even if Russell’s heaven of ideas exists, we cannot know it, for the simple fact that the only apparent evidence for supposing that it does—our considered moral beliefs—is given an explanation on naturalism that in no way requires the truth of such beliefs. The more plausible view,  Santayana thinks, sees morality as relative to the personal or constitutional beliefs of creatures. If Moore thought that “good” was like “yellow” in being indefinable. Santayana adds that both are secondary qualities as well.

Ethical Naturalism Redux

Charles Pidgen notes that even after Russell came to abandon Moore’s moral realism “… he continued to believe that if judgments about good and bad are to be objectively true, non-natural properties of goodness and badness are required to make them true. It is just that he ceased to believe that there are any such properties.” In the century that has followed, Moore’s refutation of ethical naturalism has come to be widely rejected, probably for good reason.

Moore assumed that the identity of any two properties entails the synonymy of the terms by which they are designated. Given this assumption, he could argue that pleasure is not the good on the grounds that “X is N ” (where N is any natural or descriptive property) and “X is good” obviously do not mean the same thing, as is demonstrated by the Open Question Argument.

We have splendid reason for rejecting the claim that identity entails synonymy. Gold just is that element with the atomic number 79. But the meaning of “gold” was fixed long before talk of the atomic structure of this metal. And it is surely an open question for one to ask, “I know thar is an element of the atomic number 79 in them thar hills. But is thar gold?” John’s disciples surely knew that John baptized with water, and could have explained the difference between water baptism and, say, baptism in fish oil. But if any of John’s contemporaries knew that water just is H2O, they seem to have kept it to themselves. The discovery would have to wait another 1700 years. And once the discovery was made, the headline, “Water is H2O!” was informative in a way that “Water is water!” would not have been.

This, along with a number of other considerations, has reopened the possibility that some variety of ethical naturalism may be true after all. The ethical naturalist will maintain either that moral properties are identical to natural properties, or that they are constituted of and thus supervene upon them. If this is so, one may affirm the identity of the moral with the natural without being committed to the claim that there is synonymy of meaning. “Hitler was depraved” might be true in virtue of some set of wholly descriptive properties that he possessed. These might include his low regard for the value of human life, his monomania, his will to power and his anti-Semitism. I suppose that one may sensibly say, “I know the man thinks nothing of killing people, hates people simply because of their ethnicity, and wants to force the entire world to its knees, but is he depraved?” But this no more stands in the way of supposing that some such set of natural properties constitutes depravity than open questions about water suggest the possibility that the lakes are filled with anything other than H2O.

The ethical naturalist does not posit the “abhorred dualism” of the Platonist, and so there seems little risk of the moral flying “off into the abyss” and little need for a demiurge to ensure that it does not. Moral properties are home grown and terrestrial according to this view, being constituted of garden variety facts discoverable through ordinary means. If justice just is equitable treatment under certain circumstances, then coming to believe that a given arrangement is just would seem to be no more problematic or mysterious than coming to believe that it is equitable and that those circumstances obtain. Does ethical naturalism thus survive the arguments of both Moore and Santayana that, in their turns, convinced Russell? I think not. With a bit of fine-tuning, Santayana’s arguments—or at least an insight central to them—are equally effective against ethical naturalism.

Darwinian Counterfactuals

That “look over the shoulder” that Santayana recommends reveals that the direction that the human moral sense has taken is determined by factors apparently oblivious to the notion of moral truth, even if there were such a thing. The mechanisms responsible for the production of human moral beliefs are fitness-aimed, and, unless we’ve some reason to suppose a connection between their being fitness-aimed and their being true, such beliefs would seem to be unwarranted.

Sharon Street has recently advanced an argument that capitalizes upon these features of the Darwinian account. The core of her paper is her “Darwinian Dilemma” that she poses to “value realists.” Our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also truth-aimed? Either there is a fitness-truth relation or there is not. If there is not, and if we suppose that evolution has shaped our basic evaluative attitudes, then moral skepticism is in order. If there is a relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the “tracking” relation), or we have the moral beliefs that we have simply because of the fitness that they conferred (the “adaptive link” account).

But the adaptive link account suggests some variety of non-realism, such as the constructivism that Street endorses. The realist requires the tracking account in order to provide an account of warranted moral belief. Here, fitness follows mind-independent moral truths. But the tracking account is just implausible from a scientific standpoint, which is important given the fact that ethical naturalists are keen on assimilating their theory within an overall scientific approach. While there is a clear and parsimonious adaptive link explanation of why humans have come to care for their offspring—namely, that the resulting behavior tends toward DNA-preservation—the tracking account must add that basic paternal instincts were favored because it is independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Why not just say that our ancestors who had a propensity to care for their offspring tended to act on that propensity and thus left more offspring—particularly when we witness such propensities among non-human animals? Do dolphin mothers care for their daughters because they ought to do so?

A consideration of Darwinian Counterfactuals helps to strengthen the point. If, as Darwin supposed, human conscience might have been radically different had the circumstances been different, this strongly suggests that conscience goes whither fitness goest. And it is hard to see just how the ethical naturalist should assess such counterfactuals. Masked boobies, for instance seem wired for siblicide. A female will typically lay two eggs. The first to hatch frequently kills its smaller and weaker sibling, often with an assist from the parent. On the one hand, two eggs are better than one for insurance purposes. But one hatchling is better than two, as the probability that either will survive is decreased if both remain. And so the diminished reproductive value that results from the death of one offspring is outweighed by the advantage that is had in the increased likelihood of the survival of the elder sibling. Siblicidal behavior is thus selected for its reproductive advantage.

So consider “Booby World” —that possible world in which the conditions of reproductive fitness in the evolution of humans (or creatures of similar intelligence) were the same as those of boobies. Here, Cain kills Abel and is met with approval, and his mark is a badge of honor. Here, booby people regard siblicide and infanticide as “sacred duties,” as Darwin puts it. Such moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also true? Is killing certain of one’s offspring in fact obligatory and even meritorious in Booby World?

It is clear how Santayana would answer. These are moral duties in the only sense in which there are duties in any world. “Obligations … presuppose a physical and social organism with immanent spontaneous interests which may impose those obligations.” But, “As the spirit is no respecter of persons, so it is no respecter of worlds.” His “spirituality” involves the full recognition and embrace of the contingency of existence and of whatever values are discovered in the world in which we happen to find ourselves. He describes “spirit” as a “disenchanting and re-enchanting faculty … of seeing this world in its simple truth.” Disenchantment is a matter of deconstructing absolutist morality and whatever dogmas have been erected for its support. Re-enchantment occurs when one sees things as they are in their contingent and relative nature, but fully values them as one’s own. Thus, he can write, “What folly to suppose that ecstasy could be abolished by recognizing the true sources of ecstacy!” Sugar is no less sweet, nor does salt lose its savor, once we realize that those qualities are not “objective” but depend, in part, upon our own constitution. We do not thereby unweave the rainbow. And so, “spirit has no reason for dwelling on other possible worlds.”

Would any of them be less contingent than this one, or nearer to the heart of Infinite Being? And would not any of them, whatever its character, lead the spirit inexorably there? To master the actual is the best way of transcending it.

His first question is rhetorical. No possible world is closer to the heart of “Infinite Being,” because it “includes all worlds.” And spirit would be led “inexorably” to embrace whatever values it discovered in those counterfactual circumstances. “Good” and “evil” are world-relative. All such values are world-bound. It is thus “provincial” and a kind of “animal arrogance” to exalt the values that obtain in this world to the exclusion of those that might have been. Our cosmos has turned up one set of “ambient values” which we hold dear as our own. But when in Booby World, do as the boobies do.

This is not the sort of answer that we should expect from the ethical naturalist, who wishes to affirm that moral facts or properties are mind-independent. According to the ethical naturalist, moral properties are either identical to or at least supervene upon natural properties. Consider supervenience, the weaker of the two claims. On a standard account, any two things that are indiscernible with respect to their natural properties N are also indiscernible with respect to their moral properties M. And this is usually seen as metaphysically necessary so that if there is any world W in which X has N then, for every world W*, if X has N in W*, then X has M in W*. It follows that if Hitler is depraved in virtue of the set of non-moral properties mentioned above, then there is no possible world in which anyone has precisely that set but is not depraved. And if it was wrong for Cain to kill Abel, then that wrongness is in virtue of certain natural properties of the act.

Suppose that the natural properties and circumstances involved in Booby Abel’s slaying are identical to those that were instanced and obtained when Cain killed Abel, but for the fact that in that world the act enjoys the approbation of both conscience and consensus. If moral properties supervene upon natural properties, then, presumably, we should conclude that Booby Abel’s slaying is murder, despite it’s being hailed as a sacred duty in that world.

But if the human moral sense, with its verdict regarding siblicide, is in place ultimately because it was adaptive given actual but contingent circumstances, why suppose that it has any legitimate authority where those circumstances do not obtain and it is not adaptive? Santayana compares such universal judgments to “…the German lady who said that Englishmen called a certain object bread, and Frenchmen called it pain, but that it really was Brod.” They seem to be instances of what Judith Thomson has called metaphysical imperialism. To illustrate, in seeking the reference of “good” as used in “this is a good hammer,” Thomson suggests that the natural property that best serves here is “being such as to facilitate hammering nails in in manners that conduce to satisfying the wants people typically hammer nails in to satisfy.”

She opts for this property as opposed to the more determinate properties of “being well-balanced, strong, with an easily graspable handle, and so on” Even though we may find that this familiar set of properties coextends with those that “conduce to satisfying the wants that people typically hammer nails in to satisfy,” there are all sorts of “odd possible worlds” in which people typically have quite different wants for which deviant hammers come in handy. There are worlds in which “large slabs of granite” do the best job in this regard. And so we are metaphysical imperialists if we presume to impose our nail-hammering wants upon the counterfactual carpenters of those worlds.

Thomson thus fixes upon a property that is less determinate than those that characterize hammers of earthly goodness: it is good insofar as it answers to wants or is useful. Let’s say, then, that usefulness is the natural property upon which the evaluative property, being good supervenes. And the usefulness of the hammer supervenes, in turn, upon those more determinate features that fit this or that hammer to its purpose. Since the uses vary from world to world, so may the particular features that render hammers useful—and thus good—vary.

Should the ethical naturalist follow her lead in the case of siblicide in that Darwinian world we are imagining? Sure, in both worlds, the victim was a fully sentient person with a desire to live, ends of his own, and no intention of bringing harm to his killer. But perhaps the actual supervenience base for such acts is less determinate than such a set of properties. Might this permit one to say that the acts of both worlds are right?

In fact, as we have set things up, both familial love in the actual world, and siblicide in the counterfactual world, are adaptive from the standpoint of reproductive fitness, just as Estwing hammers and chunks of granite are both useful, despite sharp differences between the features that render them useful. Perhaps, then, the sacredness of infanticide is in virtue of the fact that it is conducive to fitness, so that truth tracks fitness, so to speak. A perhaps seeming advantage of this suggestion is that we have now been afforded a guaranteed link between fitness and truth. What reason have we for thinking that moral beliefs that are adaptive are also true? Why, because being adaptive is the very thing that makes them true! But this seems an overly convenient way of replying to Street’s Darwinian Dilemma; it does so by conflating the “adaptive-link” and “tracking” accounts. And it calls to mind Santayana’s quip about the good being, by definition, “whatever the world is aiming at.” All archers are equally good marksmen when the mark is determined by where the arrow happens to fall. But where this is the case, there can be no such thing as a poor marksman. Nor can any be better or best. And then one is left to wonder whether it is meaningful to call any of them “good.” Santayana’s tongue-in-cheek remark was offered in the service of his view that the good is not objective at all, but, rather projective. But on the suggestion that we are presently considering, this proves to be a distinction without a difference. Edward Wilson and Michael Ruse once suggested that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.” But now we know that, by definition, genes never fob.

One might suppose that what is needed is an appeal to natures. Thus, actual human nature being what it is, familial affection and reciprocal kindness commend themselves as virtues. But in the sorts of worlds that Darwin imagines, the creaturely natures are different, and so it is no surprise that virtue and duty should assume quite different forms. Since Darwin is imagining beings with natures different from our own, the fact that those counterfactual moralities come out so different has no bearing upon the objectivity of our own.

Now, assuredly, there are possible worlds in which natural differences are sufficient for various sorts of acts to differ with respect to their moral properties from the same acts performed in our neck of the logical woods. Here, it is a fairly serious matter to shoot off a person’s head. But it might amount to little more than an annoying prank in those worlds where heads are quickly regrown. But we are imagining counterfactual heads that do not grow back, and counterfactual owners of heads who wish very much to retain their titles. If the appeal to differences in “natures” amounts merely to the observation that, here, we think it wrong to kill babies, but there, they do not, what is this if not just to rephrase the suggestion above regarding fitness? We should allow that this difference in the moral sense is sufficient by itself for sorting justified from unjustified homicide only if we think that killing in the actual world is permissible so long as the killer can sleep nights and no one else, save the victim, seems to mind.

Perhaps there is some other natural, subvenient property that is common to both earth and all such Darwinian worlds and is that in virtue of which the various acts described have the property of moral rightness. Presumably, this would be some natural property that is common to both equitable and inequitable social arrangements and to both the nurturing and the strangling of babies. There are, of course, such common natural properties. Random acts of kindness and random acts of violence share the property of being an act. But this will hardly serve as a plausible right-making property of acts. (The Decalogue might have been reduced to one precept: Thou shalt do something.) Presumably, we seek something a little more determinate, but not so determinate as to exclude counterfactually evolved moralities. But whatever we settle upon, the natural properties upon which justice and injustice or depravity and saintliness supervene are not equity or inequity, cruelty or kindness, but something that serves as the genus for these seemingly opposed species of moral properties.

One unhappy result here is that those more determinate natural properties that are favored by reflective equilibrium would prove to be merely accidental and coextensive features of morality. If there is some natural property N that is common to both equitable and inequitable bargaining outcomes, and upon which justice supervenes, then N, and not equity, defines the essence of justice. This would appear to be the metaethical equivalent of the suggestion that water is whatever fills a world’s oceans, so that earthly H2O and Twin-Earthly XYZ both qualify as water. But then being H2O is not the essence of the stuff that we call “water.” One might thus offer a functionalist account of moral properties. Perhaps, for instance, “justice” picks out whatever natural properties tend toward societal stability. We happen to live in a world in which equity has this effect. But there are worlds in which inequity does the trick. In addition to signaling a significant departure from the sort of account that ethical naturalists appear typically offer, such a move would seem a precarious footing for any robust account of moral realism. It is, in fact, a recipe for relativism.

It is hard to see how a metaphysical naturalist after the order of Russell can afford to reject a Darwinian reckoning of human morality. Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success. Early ancestors who lacked the impulse to care for their offspring or to cooperate with their fellows would, like the celibate Shakers, have left few to claim them as ancestors.

And it is hard to see how ethical naturalism can be reconciled in any plausible way with the contingency of human morality as implied by a standard Darwinian reckoning of things as understood within the framework of metaphysical naturalism. Whether the claim is that moral properties are identical and reducible to natural properties, or that they are constituted by and supervene upon them, the relation should be fixed across worlds in order to anchor the realist element. In fact, on a standard account, moral terms function in much the same way as natural kind terms in that they rigidly designate natural properties and thus track those identical properties across worlds. But it seems that this will either end up asserting an unwarranted form of metaphysical imperialism, or it will require the identification of some natural property (or set of properties) that is common to and right-making across widely divergent Darwinian worlds. Among other things, one might wonder how such a property could seriously be set forth as one empirically discerned or as playing the sort of explanatory role that is claimed for moral properties on ethical naturalism.

In principle, as a Platonist of sorts, Russell could avoid the charge of metaphysical imperialism. If the Good exists, then there is a fixed, transcendent standard in virtue of which we may evaluate the moral beliefs and practices of our own world as well as those of others. But, as we have seen, neither Russell nor naturalists in general have reason to believe that we have epistemic access to the Good even if it does exist. The ethical naturalist may avoid the charge either by allowing, for instance, that familial love and siblicide are equally right, or by offering some account as to why the human moral sense succeeds in acquiring moral truth where the booby moral sense fails. But in the absence of the sort of teleology that is precluded on naturalism, such an account seems not to be forthcoming. And the suggestion that there is some natural property that is common to all of the possible moralities countenanced on the Darwinian scheme is just implausible. Thus, the trouble that we have been documenting arises not out of neither ethical non-naturalism nor ethical naturalism per se, but from the attempt to combine any variety of moral realism with metaphysical naturalism. Given the metaphysics of at least Russell’s brand of naturalism, one lacks the “dogmatic justification” required in order to suppose that the “felt values” with which moral reflection begins constitute knowledge. The point is similar to one raised by Norman Daniels in his discussion of reflective equilibrium. Before one may proceed with confidence, one requires “ a little story that gets told about why we should pay homage ultimately to those [considered] judgments and indirectly to the principles that systematize them” (Daniels 1979, p. 265). Russell, like any metaphysical naturalist, lacks such a story because he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates.”

Epilogue: Lotze’s Dictum

I am inclined to think that Santayana’s argument succeeds in showing that Russell’s Moorean moral philosophy is unwarranted given his worldview. As Harry Ruja puts it,

In his eagerness to establish the good’s objectivity, Russell has separated values from  man and man’s will so emphatically that there is no way to reunite them. He may proclaim “ought to exist” as often as he wishes, but if no one is moved to take on the role of the demiurge, the eternal and potential ideals will remain remote from depraved reality.

But Santayana viewed the positing of some such “demiurge”—or, more generally, a “dogmatic justification” for this moral vision, in the form of the requisite metaphysics—as nothing more than a “gratuitous fiction” that can hardly be taken seriously by any modern critic. The only reasonable position, he thought, was a conjunction of naturalism and some sort of moral skepticism.

In the same year that Santayana published Winds, W.R. Sorley delivered the first of his Gifford Lectures. There, Sorley defended and developed what he termed, “Lotze’s Dictum,” after the 19th century German philosopher Rudolph Hermann Lotze: “The true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics.” Sorley observed that “the traditional order of procedure”—business as usual in metaphysics—was to construct an interpretation of reality—a worldview—that drew exclusively upon non-moral considerations, such as the deliverances of the sciences. Not until the task of worldview construction was complete did one “go on to draw out the ethical consequences of the view that had been reached.” Sorley thought it likely that such a method would result in an artificially truncated worldview, and that moral ideas would be given short shrift. And the exclusion of our moral experience was simply arbitrary. “If we take experience as a whole, and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.”

I do not know about those “modern critics” who were Santayana’s contemporaries, but now a century later Sorley’s suggestion may enjoy enhanced plausibility. It is widely recognized that we must approach each and every field of knowledge, including the sciences, with some fund of beliefs that we just happen to have. Since all theorizing has these same humble origins, how can one non-arbitrarily single out a particular domain of beliefs for suspicion? To use an example from recent discussions, a scientist’s belief that a proton has just passed through a cloud chamber might be explained (away) merely by appeal to her background beliefs and theoretical commitments. For example, her theory has it that the appearance of a vapor trail is evidence of proton activity, and so, of course, when she sees, or believes that she sees, a vapor trail, she forms the belief in the proton. But here we are required to be realists about protons only if we have assumed that the scientist’s theory is “roughly correct.” But, again, why extend this courtesy in these cases while being decidedly discourteous in the case of morality? Certain of my moral beliefs seem to have a greater degree of epistemic security than any of the various empiricist principles that would cast doubt upon them. Why reject the moral beliefs for the sake of such principles unless there is a splendid reason for doing so?

Given Santayana’s metaphysics, moral properties turn out to be metaphysically queer. But, then, so is the phenomenological property of redness, which some philosophers do not admit, and the rest do admit, but also admit that they cannot explain it. Chesterton said that he took pleasure in the fact that the rhinoceros does exist, though it looks as though it does not. There is redness and there are rhinos, and if my philosophy does not admit them, then perhaps it is time to get a new philosophy. Might the same thing go for rightness?

Photo: “Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell” by Bassano Ltd. CC License. From National Portrait Gallery