Skip to main content

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.3, “Sharon Street”

 summary by David Baggett

In 2006 Sharon Street published an article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” which has been the subject of a considerable literature in reply. Her argument relies on the primary claim that our normative dispositions—that is, our dispositions to form certain normative beliefs rather than others—are (largely) selected because they have some natural property. For example, perhaps they contribute to reproductive success by promoting certain kinds of cooperation. But from the perspective of realism, accepting this claim defeats our epistemic entitlement to our normative beliefs, because we will come to be aware of the unlikely reliability of the processes that shaped those beliefs.

This is the Darwinian dilemma: the realist has either to deny the primary claim or to concede that her “normative judgments are, by her own lights, irrational.” She’s not arguing for skepticism or for the impossibility of ethical knowledge. Rather, she is trying to show that, if there is to be ethical knowledge, it has to be understood on an anti-realist model. Her point is that all that natural selection needs is our beliefs in the normative facts, not the normative facts themselves. If our normative and theological beliefs are largely the product of our evolutionary history, fitness-enhancing beliefs about morality and gods will be adopted, regardless of whether they are, in the realist sense, true or false. Even if a particular belief is false, it may promote genetic propagation.

This is the challenge. But there is a good response to it. Even if we grant that natural selection has given us normative belief-forming dispositions that are not truth-tracking, and that have in fact given us a mixture of “nasty” belief-forming dispositions and corresponding behaviors alongside other “nicer” ones, and even if we grant that therefore our normative beliefs are unreliable to the extent that they are given to us by natural selection, nothing follows about how many of our normative beliefs are formed in this way.

Consider the analogy with mathematical beliefs. To what extent do we have the ability to track truths about non-linear algebra? The point is that, even if we get our cognitive equipment from evolution, we can use that equipment to reach beliefs that are independent of adaptive value. It remains possible that cultural evolution has been operating to refine our normative stance in a truth-tracking way. If we use the phrase “cultural evolution” loosely, we can make the point that admitting a significant initial effect of biological evolution on belief formation does not license the conclusion that natural selection is the sole force in all our belief formation thereafter.

The initial effect of natural selection is still relevant, because, if we were given cognitive equipment that was hopelessly and permanently vitiated, then we could not hope to use this equipment to discriminate subsequently between the beliefs in the initial mixture that we should endorse and the ones we should reject. We would be, so to speak, fatally handicapped. But there is no reason to think our situation is hopeless in this way.

Are our current normative disposition all simply products of natural selection and not (partly or wholly) products of experience, reflection, and reasoning guided by moral reality as such? This is a metaphysical question, not one proper to science in its own domain. Ruse’s recognition of this separates him from Mackie. We need to distinguish the claims of science and the claims of “scientism,” which is the attempt, as Ruse puts it, to make science say everything. Metaphysical naturalism claims baldly that there is nothing beyond physical reality, but this is a claim that requires philosophical justification and is not within the proper sphere of science. Street’s argument does not give us any reason to believe that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Image: Australopithecus Afarensis, Lucy. C. Lorenzo. CC License. 

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

by David Baggett 

We’ve been considering Shafer-Landau (SL) and his effort to refute an argument from atheism for moral skepticism: Ethics is objective only if God exists, but God does not exist, so ethics isn’t objective. In replying to this argument from atheists, he doesn’t address the premise that says God doesn’t exist, but he tries to show atheists that they should reject the first premise. The main reason, he claims, that some atheists accept this premise is because they’re convinced that all laws require authors. He reminds them they believe in the laws of physics and mathematics without believing them to be divinely or humanly authored, so he suggests they do the same with respect to moral laws and reject the idea that they require, to be objective, a divine author.

In our last installment, we mentioned the possibility of important disanalogies between the descriptive laws of physics and the prescriptive laws of morality, which is in the vicinity of an objection that SL now anticipates. In his own words: “Here’s a reply you might be thinking of: while scientific laws may be authorless, normative laws—those that tell us what we ought to do, how we should behave—do require an author.” This would render the scientific laws relevantly disanalogous, definitely undermining the analogical argument he’s making.

SL is not convinced, doggedly insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, which he thinks he has shown is wrong. He’s skeptical there’s any other reason, or at least any good one. But let’s pause for a moment. Note his claim here. Earlier he had said that, in his own experience, people tie moral objectivity to God because of a specific line of thought: that all laws, principles, standards, etc. require a lawmaker. Now he’s suggesting that the reason he’s witnessed most people adducing for their conviction that objective ethics needs God is also the best reason on offer, perhaps even the only one. This now makes more sense of why he would earlier conclude that dispensing with the notion that laws require lawmakers leaves one with no reason at all to think that objective moral rules require God’s existence.

Again, however, it strains credulity to think this is the only or best reason for an atheist to think that morality find its locus in God. Moral properties might simply strike some atheists as ontologically odd entities, and not likely to exist in a naturalistic world. Or perhaps they think that it’s likely, at the macroscopic level, that naturalism entails loss of meaningful agency, without which moral norms don’t make sense. How can we obligated to do actions we may well be physically determined not to do? Perhaps they consider moral convictions a vestige of a supernatural myth they have left behind. And there could be plenty of other reasons besides those. The likelihood is that they’re not necessarily thinking in a tight, carefully reasoned, airtight discursive format; it may be a more intuitive matter for them, an issue of probabilities and likelihoods rather than a deductive inference.

CoverA moment’s reflection, too, would seem to undo the course-grained analysis that dictates that no non-authored laws exist. Here SL’s point is good: there are mathematical laws, and the laws of physics, yet atheists don’t think those to be “authored.” So, yes, an unnuanced acceptance by an atheist of the claim that all laws—irrespective of disanalogies—have to be authored seems worthy of rejection and susceptible to refutation. Again, though, are there many atheists who make this mistake? It seems unlikely.

It bears repeating at this point, though, that SL’s point is a very small one. What he has accomplished is just this: for an atheist who makes no distinctions between laws—be they mathematical, physical, or moral—he shouldn’t accept the idea that all laws require authors. What he hasn’t accomplished, remotely, are the following things: Shown that morality doesn’t have its foundation in God; shown that atheists are right to think there are nonauthored laws; shown that morality is relevantly analogous to physics or mathematics; shown that atheists with other reasons for thinking morality finds its locus in God are mistaken. In short, he has yet to show, as he claims to have shown, that there is “no reason to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

But he’s not through, so let’s continue to listen to what he has to say. Recall that he’s anticipated the objection that morality and physics are not relevantly analogous. He disagrees, insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws do. He thinks this, presumably, because he must put quite a bit of stock in the analogy, which, we’ll see, is no doubt true. When it comes to the laws of physics, though, which merely seem to describe how the physical world operates, it seems to many of us that the disanalogy with the authoritative prescriptions of morality, which we egregiously violate on pain of deep guilt, is a large and relevant disanalogy that undermines his argument.

Physicists can explore how space and energy and matter can feature stable laws of operation; but where would authoritative moral dictates and deliverances come from in a purely natural world? SL himself doubts they do, for he’s not a naturalistic ethicist, but a nonnaturalistic one, thinking moral properties are sui generis, not reducible to aspects of the physical world. On that we’re agreed. But the question of which explanation is better—some version of Platonism or some version of theism—remains an important question. And it’s arguable that the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its guilt-inducement for violation, its universality, etc.—find a better explanation in supernaturalism than nonnaturalism. I’m not making that case here, but noting that so far he hasn’t done anything to undermine the supernatural case—in a chapter, recall, called “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?”

In the next installment, we’ll continue considering the import of relevant disanalogies between the laws of morality, on the one hand, and those of physics, mathematics, and rationality, on the other.

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.