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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 VIII

By David Baggett

We’re discussing Russ Shafer-Landau (SL), and his critique of theistic ethics. He started with the Euthyphro Dilemma, and then uses analogies to make his point better. He asks us to envision a referee at a sporting match. A good referee is good in virtue of following the rules of the game, rather than making up new rules willy-nilly. A good referee can cite reasons for his calls, and reasons that aren’t merely ad hoc, made up on the spot, lacking rationale.

He admits it may sound odd, or mildly blasphemous, to liken God to a sports referee, but he doesn’t think there’s much harm in it. “The Divine Command Theory has us picture a God who controls our game in its entirety, making up all the rules, perhaps continually, and having no need to cite any reasons on their behalf.” For what other reasons could there be? “If there are not moral rules or reasons prior to God’s commands, then there is nothing God could rely on to justify the divine commands. So any choice is arbitrary.” Had God chosen differently, “we’d be saddled with a morality that encourages torture, pederasty, perjury, and all sorts of other things we now recognize to be evil.”

Recall, though, that on a view like that of Adams’, God typically commands something that’s good. He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it, and the additional motivation for us that the command would provide is another, and those are just two examples. DCT makes an action right, not good, to the thinking of leading DCT’ists today. Presumably, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, God has compelling reason to issue the command, rendering an already good action morally obligatory. But this is not to say that he couldn’t have done otherwise, at least on some occasions. It’s plausible to many, including me, that at least some of God’s commands are contingent. Not all of them follow ineluctably with necessity from his nature; he retains, at least with respect to certain actions, to command them or not to command them. The goodness of the action isn’t affected, but rather whether it’s obligatory or not. Perhaps God might even speak to me personally, commanding me to perform an action, that otherwise wouldn’t be obligatory—like help a particular homeless person. It becomes my duty once he issues the command.

Another important point to remember here is that if we’re dealing with a God of perfect love, there are some things God simply would never command. They would be inconsistent with his character. To say God is essentially loving, for these words to retain their meaning, is to suggest that some actions—those that are irremediably hideous and treacherous, for example—are ruled out. The ascription of love and goodness to God has determinate content, ruling some things out. So though God may retain a measure of divine prerogative in issuing various commands, there are still some commands outside his character he would never command. In fact, it’s right to say he can’t, in the sense, to put it into the terms of modal logic, there’s no metaphysically possible world in which he does issue such a command. As the delimiter of possible worlds, on an Anselmian conception, there are likely worlds and states of affairs we can vaguely conceive of or imagine that nevertheless don’t constitute genuine possibilities.

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

Now, when we say God is good, SL thinks the only sense we can make of such an ascription is that God follows the moral rules. But this is where the long tradition of analogical predication in the history of the Christian church may prove handy. When we say God is good, we’re not saying God is good in exactly the same sense that we attribute goodness to people. Human beings may be good to one degree or another, but God is, on a view like that of Adams’, goodness itself, the paradigm, the exemplar, the archetype of the good. Ultimate goodness is a person, not a set of principles. In fact, there’s something deeply intuitive about making persons the locus of goodness. States of affairs may be pleasant or unpleasant, but aren’t morally good or bad. People are. It makes sense to think of persons as the primary subjects of goodness, but no merely human person is perfectly good. God, though, almost by definition, is perfectly good. Whether we predicate perfect goodness of God or identify God with goodness, or both, God’s goodness is nonnegotiable on Anselmianism. But his goodness isn’t univocal with our own; ours is the imperfect wheel; his is the perfect circle. There’s relevant resemblance, but also infinite distance, as God is perfect and we are far from it.

So this isn’t equivocation, but analogical predication, with which we can still meaningfully, in a sort of analogically extended sense, ascribe goodness, indeed perfect goodness, to God. If A. C. Ewing was right—and I think he was—this is also consistent with God functioning at the foundation of ethics, for the source of the good is also most plausibly taken to be perfectly good. Obviously, though, all of this is a far cry from SL’s simplistic and minimally charitable analogies and caricatures.

SL anticipates that some will object and say God’s command of rape or torture is impossible. “A good God would never allow such a thing.” Right enough, SL replies. “But what does it mean to be good? If the Divine Command Theory is correct, then something is good just in case it is favored by God. But then look what happens: to say that God is good is just to say that God is favored by God.” That’s not very informative, and in fact wouldn’t preclude a self-loving being from issuing hideous commands.

True enough, except note that SL is offering a DCT account of goodness, having earlier confined it to rightness. This may not have been intentionally duplicitous; he may have just used rightness as a generic term for morality, a penumbral term under which falls both goodness and rightness. But for present purposes, the distinction is a crucial one. DCT nowadays is nearly always delimited to deontic matters, rightness rather than goodness. For extended accounts of how and why God is aptly thought of as good, see the work of Evans, Hare, Adams, etc.

SL is convinced he knows exactly from what an ascription of goodness to God must derive: “A good God, like a good referee, is one who plays by the rules. When we speak of God as morally good—indeed, as morally perfect—what we really mean is that God cannot fail to uphold and respect all moral rules.” SL seems to be operating on the assumption that a perfect God either is perfect in virtue of following all the moral rules or is a vacuous conception because it means he can change the moral rules at will. But surely those don’t exhaust the alternatives. Recall the earlier point that God indeed can’t change the moral rules at will; there are indeed constraints on his behavior if he’s perfect; it’s just that the constraints happen to be entirely internal to his character. They’re a feature of his perfection. A God who could commit suicide, deny himself, or lie would be imperfect. The constraints don’t threaten his omnipotence or sovereignty, but help reveal it. Recall that on an Anselmian picture God possesses all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree, which admit of intrinsic maxima.

SL is convinced the analogy is close between referees and games, on the one hand, and God and morality on the other. But I am not. SL’s insistence is on a God who is not the ultimate reality, but distinctly secondary. He refuses to acknowledge relevant disanalogies between human referees and the divine, and he thinks that constraints on God’s actions necessitate that morality doesn’t find its foundation or locus in God. He does much of this by illegitimately assuming the only theistic ethic on offer is a radically voluntarist version of DCT, and he ignores the illuminating good/right distinction in the process.

Again, he argues that if the moral character of torture is fixed prior to God’s reaction to it, then God is not the author of the moral law. But the moral character of an action is not just based on divine commands. Its goodness or badness traces to a different foundation (on Adams’ view, and that of most DCT’ists). The action may already have lots of moral features to it besides being obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. Its moral hideousness, for example, might already obtain. And God’s command against an action in certain cases, I’ve argued, isn’t contingent, but necessary, meaning such commands couldn’t have been otherwise. This actually makes good sense of necessary moral truths even in deontic matters—and a better explanation of them, to my thinking, than what (nontheistic) nonnaturalists can offer. This resonates nicely with Plantinga’s suggestion in “How to be an Anti-Realist” that the necessary truths can offer an insight into God’s unchanging character.

In the next blog, at long last, I’ll wrap up my response to this chapter of SL’s.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

By Jonathan Pruitt

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Cover for Gods Command Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705275

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.

Mailbag: The Science of Morality?

Question

Hello professor, I hope you are doing well. I have been looking at some of your work and I think you could answer a question I have in regards to ethics. If you have time that is. If you don’t have the time you can just ignore my email. My question has to do with an article I have been reading recently that is titled the science of morality. In the article the author states that morally good is identical with flourishing well being and the morally bad is identical with misery. I read some reviews of the articles and other scholars state that the author was just redefining moral goodness with well being and argument was circular. But why believe that objective goodness cannot be identical with flourishing of human well being? What makes the argument invalid?

Thank you for your time,

Bill

Answer

Hi Bill,

This is a deceptively hard question! The topic of goodness is quite complicated. Usually when we say that someone is morally good, we’re talking about traits of character and various virtues the person shows. Somehow the goodness inheres in the person. We speak secondarily of various states of affairs being good, but it’s almost a misnomer to call a state of affairs morally good. This is why Kant was of the view that the only truly good thing is a good will–an attribute of a person.

We might come across an awful state of affairs, but what’s morally bad is, most likely, the person or persons (if there is such a person or are such persons) culpably responsible for bringing it about. To say a hurricane is bad is not to say it’s morally bad. It just is what it is. Calling it morally bad is anthropomorphism. Of course it’s nonmorally bad, in that it produces, potentially, a range of undesirable consequences, but you asked about moral goodness in particular. Often when goodness gets contrasted with bad, the focus is on nonmoral considerations that pertain to things like pleasure and pain; but when good gets contrasted with evil, the distinctively moral features come into view.

So flourishing is a perfect example of something that’s nonmorally good. But it doesn’t get us to the heart of moral goodness. The effort to define moral goodness by appeal to human flourishing is a rookie mistake. It’s a deflationary attempt by folks who want to domesticate the concept to reduce moral goodness to something other than itself. It’s thus an attempt to define moral goodness in terms that aren’t moral at all. But moral goodness can’t be reduced or explained away in such a manner. The effort falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy, for one thing. For another, it just leaves too much out.

Suppose you are asked a question and risk being shot to tell the right answer. The morally good thing to do, you’re convinced, is to tell the truth. But still, you tell the truth and immediately get shot. How on earth can an appeal to human flourishing be adequate to account for the moral goodness of your choice in such a situation? Rather than conducing to survival and flourishing, it ensured your immediate death.

Now, just because there’s not an analytic reduction of “moral goodness” into “human flourishing” doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them. To the contrary, I think there’s an airtight (synthetic) connection between the two, but that’s quite different from saying moral goodness just is human flourishing. Ultimately, on a Christian worldview, moral goodness comes about by way of right relation with and transformation by God entirely into the image of Christ–a righteous and holy life–and with such a life will come complete fulfillment and satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean morality and happiness are the same thing; they’re not. But a good God can and will ensure their ultimate correspondence.

Best,

djb