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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Introduction”


Summary by Jeff Dickson


Though most Christians concede that moral goodness is rooted in and revealed by God, these are also divided on moral theory, particularly as it pertains to how God communicates moral knowledge, anthropological conclusions, and how the body of Christ fits in the moral landscape. As a result, relatively clear distinctions can be drawn between moral theories depending on how they explain these considerations. These distinctions have established named ethical systems that Steve Wilkens believes deserve a properly nuanced introduction. Such introductions must be made before a compelling juxtaposition/debate between these general ethical systems can be entertained. This is the expressed purpose of the first chapter of this collaborative volume.

Virtue Ethics

Wilkens begins his introductions with virtue ethics and distills its essence down to that moral theory which is more concerned about achieving good character than good actions. According to Plato and Aristotle, virtue ethics is teleologically focused on reaching a moral and transcendent “Form” that is consistent with specific impeccable ideals (like moderation, courage, prudence, justice, etc.) in the context of the polis. The context of this enterprise shifted in the medieval period to the church and more divinely-rooted virtues (especially love) were introduced. However, in reaction to corruption within the church, many during the Renaissance wanted to return ethics to the secular and political world. These became more concerned about what was pragmatic for society building. In the 20th century, Anscombe and MacIntyre returned the moral enterprise to its transcendent and teleological foundations. Such foundations, according to Hauerwas and other more current Christian ethicists, are understood in the context of the church and, according to Zagzebski, appropriately rooted in divine virtue.

Natural Law

Like virtue ethics, natural law theory is teleologically focused. However, unlike virtue ethics, natural law theories are more concerned about adhering to an external and preexisting code than they are about developing personal character. Inasmuch as humans possess a nature, natural law is the guide leading to the highest good and subsequent flourishing. Though reason is championed as the way in which natural law is discovered and followed in the secular world, Wilkens acknowledges that natural law is arbitrary unless it is governed by an appropriate authority and people can be helped to it. Enter Aquinas and Suarez who argue (respectively) that God draws the human person to goodness via the laws that govern human life and serves as the originator of the natural law via his perfect will.

Divine Command Theory

Quite unlike virtue ethics and natural law, divine command theory, in one way or another, delimits morality to what is determined by the commands and prohibitions of God. What is moral depends on God’s sovereign will and this, according to Wilkens, is “opaque to reason and ,…most clearly known by revelation.” However, divine command theory must provide a cogent answer to the age-old euthyphro dilemma which tries to render the supposed commander either subservient to a higher moral code or capable of determining otherwise abhorrent acts moral by divine fiat. Thankfully, Wilkens highlights the work of Robert Adams which satisfies the charge of euthyphro in a way that preserves God’s sovereignty and staves off the criticism that his commands are arbitrary. Adams’ iteration of divine command theory argues that ethics is not grounded in God’s commands, but in his character. He and other more recent modified divine command theorists believe that moral law is a natural implication of God’s nature and, as a result, such a God would only command certain things.

Prophetic Ethics

The final introduction Wilkens makes involves what he calls prophetic ethics. The author concedes that while this particular ethical theory endorses the broadest range of expression, prophetic ethics does share several distinct characteristics. First, its foundation is built on ecclesiology and mission rather than divine commands (see divine command theory) or human flourishing (see virtue ethics and natural law ethics). Second, it pays closer attention to the problem of corporate sin than do the other theories represented in this work. Third, prophetic ethics is more interested in engaging the world, especially the world in need, than it is in theory and doctrine. The Anabaptist movement, the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, and liberation theology are mentioned as rough expressions of this ethical formula as each of these movements endorse these and other corresponding characteristics.51oNubO+DcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Inasmuch as this work is most interested in Christian ethics and the various theories appertaining thereunto, Wilkens is right to demonstrate how each of these systems finds support in the Scriptures. For instance, virtue ethics is consistent with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8 to dwell on that which is moral and the apostle’s call to mimic the character of Christ (see Phil. 2:5-11). That all possess at least some awareness of a natural law seems to comply with what Paul observes in Romans 2:14-15—“…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness,…”. Divine command theory appears to enjoy the broadest scriptural support given the copious commands and ordinances that proliferate both testaments of the canon. Even prophetic ethics enjoys support in passages where the needy and “least of these” are being cared for (Lev.19:9-10; 25:10) and where the standard of judgment is connected to one’s response to those less fortunate (Matt. 25:31-46).

The short introductions provided in this first chapter not only give the reader a brief understanding of the salient features of each position, they provide a brief history of the evolution each theory has endured, elucidate a current expression of these systems, and demonstrate how every one of them enjoys Scriptural support. In so doing, Wilkens is successful at setting a sophisticated table for four in which a robust debate can be had between representatives for each of these theories.



Image: By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain,

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, “Can We Deduce Morality from Human Nature?” Section 4.1.2: The Fittingness of the Law to our Nature

Summary by David Baggett

Recall Adams’ answer to the famous arbitrariness objection to DCT: God’s command is not arbitrary in the contemporary pejorative sense because it commands what is good, but it has discretion over which good things to require. To make this picture work we need an account of goodness. Chapter 1 suggested that a person who says a thing is good expresses that she is drawn or attracted by it and says that it deserves to draw or attract her in that way. But now we need an account of the criteria for this deserving. Adams proposes a single criterion for when “good” means “excellent”: a thing is good to the extent that it resembles God. But while this fits many kinds of excellent things, it does not fit all. In particular it does not fit the goodness of natural kinds. Take two different species of plant that are different; there is resemblance to God in life, but also in such differences, but the differences aren’t differences in likeness to God. There’s a different goodness in the way a particular plant within a species differs from another. This is what follows from Scotus’s picture that we get more perfection as we move from genus to species, and then yet more as we move from species to each individual member, to the haecceity. Resemblance to God does not seem well equipped to explain all this difference in the good.

Here are four plausible ways of thinking of the relation of this difference to God. First, God created it. This suggests not simply that God is the source, but that God delights in the variety; perhaps this is one of the reasons for the “very good” in Genesis 1. Second, these various beauties draw us to God. Chapter 1 claimed that what finally draws us and deserves to draw us is God and what draws us to God. This makes the account dynamic rather than static, and that is an improvement, because it connects better with the account of the meaning of “good,” which is based on the idea of being drawn. But the goodness of the variety does not reside only in its drawing us to God. It also does not reside only in its having been created by God, which would make the value too transparent to God and insufficiently intrinsic. The third way of thinking is metaphysically the most ambitious. Perhaps we learn about God from the creation in the same sort of way we learn about an artist from his or her work. It’s not that the features resemble him, but the work is, nonetheless, utterly characteristic. It manifests his aesthetic preferences and aesthetic personality, which is in a sense present in the work. Two different plant species might manifest God in slightly different ways. This is close to Adams, but different. Manifestation and resemblance are not the same because of this sense of God’s presence in the manifestation. A fourth picture might be that each kind of flower species, indeed each plant, is a part of the biotic whole, which God loves. This is different from the previous picture because it makes the value of the parts derive from the value of the whole. We can add that God intends a whole new heaven and earth, not just new humans as co-lovers, but a new creation. Perhaps non-human species have goodness in their destination just as individual humans do, though there are large difficulties with this view, such as dinosaurs.

hare god's commandThe moral law is good for humans because it fits human nature. Scotus says the precepts in the second table of the Ten Commandments are “exceedingly in harmony” with the first practical principles that are “known from their terms,” even though they do not follow from them necessarily. Scotus is saying that the second table fits our end, but is not deducible from it. He standardly describes this relation of “fit” in aesthetic terms. This account of goodness allows us to give some content to the way in which the good, at least the good for humans as humans, overridably constrains what we should take to be obligatory.

This suggestion is partly the same and partly different from the one Geach made in his famous article about the good. He distinguished “predicative” adjectives like “red” from “attributive” adjectives like “good,” on the grounds that the meaning of attributive adjectives can’t be detached from the meaning of the nouns to which they are applied. He held that “good” in phrases like “good human” is a purely descriptive term, and we know its meaning just by knowing the meaning of “human” and “human act” and so by knowing what humans and human acts are for.

Hare concedes that we do get a constraint on what we should take to be good for humans from knowing what humans are, and that this in turn constrains what we should take to be commanded by God. But Hare wants to make two points against Geach. First, the term “good” in “good human” and “good human act” has, in our ordinary language, more than a purely attributive use. For a Kantian a good human act is one that displays a good will, and this is defined in terms of the whole procedure of the Categorical Imperative. Hare thinks we should concede that “good” in “good person” is sometimes used attributively, and that in “good human being” it may be used both ways. Second, even the attributive use is more than merely descriptive. To ascribe a function to a chisel is normally to say how it is to be used, and to say that a chisel is to be used for cutting fine grooves in wood and is not to be used as a screwdriver is to make a prescription.

Adams’ DCT needs a constraint on what we should take to be commanded by God in order to overcome the objection from arbitrariness. If God’s command makes something obligatory, should we think that we might be commanded, and thus obliged, to fly a plane into a skyscraper? No, says Adams, for this could not be the command of a loving God. What counts as “loving” is settled by ordinary valuation, for Adams, but Hare thinks this seems wrong, for reasons he’ll give later. But a related idea seems right: we should probably not take something as commanded by God if it does not fit the characteristic kind of loving of God done by a rational animal. This would imply a presumption against taking an innocent human life, though it wouldn’t rule out such a command and at the same time God changing the circumstances. Also, recall various ways Abraham’s context is different from ours (no life of Christ to emulate, for example). At any rate, taking innocent life is inconsistent with the feature of our rational-animal agency that features each of us going through a particular trajectory.

This point comes helpfully into connection with the four Barthian constraints mentioned earlier. Our trajectories involve our being individual centers of agency, being in time, being free, and being language-users. This is often put in terms of our personal narratives. We don’t know in advance the good works God’s prepared for us, and God is free with respect to the route selected for each of us, and the duration of that route. God has discretion, but chooses in accordance with our good as pilgrims. But the question of what access we have to the nature of this good is a different one, though also an unavoidable one. It’s natural to assume the trajectory requires a full lifetime, so killing would be a premature termination, unless God were to indicate to the contrary.

This gives us one example of a constraint from our nature on what we count as good, if we are to be able to respond to the divine call to be co-lovers. There is a form of argument here that can be extended to other examples. The form of argument is transcendental in the Kantian sense; it argues from the conditions of possibility of some fact that is taken as basic. Thus the argument from providence is a transcendental argument from the “fact of reason,” that we humans (creatures of sense and creatures of need) are under the moral law. The present argument argues backwards from the fact that we are recipients of God’s call to conclusions about what we (and God) have to be like to make this possible. But then it reverses direction, and asks what constraints are placed on what we can take to be divine commands by the fact that we are this kind of people.

Now consider the proscription on bearing false witness. There is a plausible argument, this time from the last of the four Barthian constraints, that we are language-users. Our language is a system of external signs, used to communicate internal thoughts. But then we have to be able to assume that these signs are being used most of the time to communicate thoughts correctly. What is at issue here is not whether the thoughts communicated are true, but whether what is communicated corresponds to what is thought true. The plausible part of Kant’s argument is that the institution of language-using requires that we be able to trust that most of our fellow language-users are communicating what they believe to be the truth, or what they really want. So there is a presumption against telling a lie, because if anyone, anytime, with any degree of frequency, may lie, this undercuts the very institution of language, which is necessary for lying as well as for telling the truth.

In the case of lying, as in the case of killing the innocent, we are left with an overridable constraint. Consider by contrast the exceptionless kind of constraint offered by the “new” natural law theory, which proposes eight basic goods, as Porter puts it, “elemental enough to be regarded plausibly as self-evident to all and yet provided with enough content to provide an immediate basis for practical reflection.” The dilemma that Porter poses for this kind of theory is that either the list is sufficiently general to be self-evident, but then it does not have enough content significantly to guide action in the exceptionless ways the theory proposes, or it is specific enough to guide action in this way, but then it is not self-evident to all. To pose this dilemma, however, is not to deny that goods such as life and truth pose some constraint on moral obligation.


John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, “Can We Deduce Morality from Human Nature?” Introduction & Section 4.1.1: The Non-Deducibility of the Law from our Nature:

Summary by David Baggett

Introduction: Hare has been arguing that eudaemonism (in the four forms discussed) does not have a proper place for what Scotus calls, following Anselm, the affection for justice. The present chapter is about a different dividing question in moral theory: can morality be deduced from “natural” facts, or from statements about the “natural” properties possessed by people and actions? The term “natural” here is problematic. The first section of the chapter discusses Scotus’s view that the moral law can’t be deduced from human nature, but is exceedingly fitting to it. In the second and fourth sections the denial of deducibility from “natural facts” will extend to a dispute with contemporary theorists. The third section examines RMH’s take on natural facts. The second section looks at Adams’ attempt to deduce a way to fix the reference of “good” from facts about what most humans most of the time think is good. Hare calls this “consensus deductivism.” The fourth section looks at the attempt by Foot and Hursthouse to deduce conclusions about moral goodness from facts about the characteristic human form of life. Hare calls this “form-of-life deductivism.” No entirely neat separation between these two kinds of view is possible.


4.1.1: The Non-Deducibility of the Law from our Nature

Scotus rightly denies that the moral law can be deduced from human nature. Note, first, it is deducibility that is denied, rather than some weaker relation such as fittingness. Scotus accepts that the moral law, such as the second table of the Ten Commandments, fits human nature exceedingly well, but he insists nonetheless that this is natural law only in an extended sense, not in the strict sense, because God is free to command creatures with human nature otherwise. Natural law in the strict sense is “known from its terms” or deducible from what is known in this way.

Second, it is moral law that is denied to be deducible from human nature, and not goodness. His examples of moral law are from the second table of the Ten Commandments, though we should not assume that he intends this list to be exhaustive. Third, the term from which deducibility is denied is human nature. But this has to be understood in a way that is not already conceptually subsumed under moral law. If we define “human being” as “a being under moral law,” or if we make being under moral law essential to the kind “human being” (as Kant does), then there will be a trivial deduction from the premise that a being is human to the conclusion that it’s under the moral law. On the other hand, if we deny that humans are by nature under the moral law, then we have simply denied deductivism from the beginning and begged the question.

Here’s a third alternative. We can grant that human beings are by nature such that they are fulfilled, or they reach their end, by loving God. Scotus says our end is to be condiligentes, co-lovers, which is to say that we enter into the love that is between the three persons of the Trinity. This human love of God, however, is distinct from the way angels love God or God loves Godself; humans love God as rational animals. We can ask whether we can deduce the moral law from our end specified as being condiligentes.

hare god's commandOne prominent case Scotus gives is the commandment “You shall not steal.” Private property, he points out, is presupposed by the commandment but is not essential to human beings. There is no deduction of the proscription of theft just from human nature, and the divine command is to that extent contingent; there is no necessity here binding the divine will.

But stealing is not the most difficult case for someone who wants to maintain the contingency of the second table. What about killing? God could bring a killed person back to life, but perhaps more needs to be said. The question of whether the command not to kill is contingent tout court is not settled by the question of whether God could command otherwise given merely human nature. We can ask, “Could God command the killing of the innocent if not just human nature, but our circumstances stayed the same; in particular, if we stayed dead once killed?” In a later section Hare will take this up.


The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 2 of 5)

By Jonathan Pruitt

Part 1

The Foundations of Virtue

Given the goals of this thesis, the first and most important task is to establish just what virtue ethics is and what it entails. A survey of the literature will show that the field of virtue ethics is both broad and deep. Its history extends back to the Homeric epics and into current, cutting-edge moral philosophy. There is also a wide variety of virtue ethics. There are Aristotelian, feminist, and “agent-based” virtue ethics, among many others.[1] Each of these accounts of virtue has slightly different and often apparently contradictory conceptions of what virtue is. So while the amount of information about virtue ethics is not lacking, the vast number of voices in the field does create another problem: discovering what is universally true, if anything, about virtue ethics.

Contemporary virtue ethicists are quick to give broad definitions of virtue ethics. For example, Hursthouse says that

Virtue ethics has been characterized in a number of ways. It is described (1) as an ethics which is ‘agent-centered’ rather than ‘act-centered’; (2) as concerned with Being rather than Doing; (3) as addressing itself to the question, ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question, ‘What sorts of action should I do?’; (4) as taking certain areteic concepts (good, excellence, virtue) as basic rather than deontic ones (right, duty, obligation); (5) as rejecting the idea that ethics is codifiable in rules or principles that can provide specific action guidance.[2]

Schneewind adds that virtue ethics is a theory of ethics that “requires an acceptable view of the human good which will enable us to show how morality can be explicated in terms of character traits that are indispensable or useful for the attainment of that good.”[3] Unfortunately, these definitions are too broad for the purpose of this thesis. The terms they use are largely, often intentionally, undefined. Schneewind’s definition only raises the question, “Acceptable to whom and under what criteria?” while Hursthouse’s definitions highlight just how important the construal of “agent” or personhood (and the ideas presupposed by the concepts) will be to a virtue ethic. While these broad definitions help to give the contours of virtue ethics, in order to test both Buddhism and Christianity for their compatibility to a virtue view, what is essential to virtue must first be drawn out. In order to get a first approximation of the core of virtue ethics, it makes sense to start with Aristotle, who was one of the first virtue ethicists and still widely considered “its finest exponent.”[4]

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethic

Examining Aristotle’s writing on the virtues, and in particular the Nichomachean Ethics

(NE), it is clear that he had at least three key concepts in his ethic: virtue (ἀρετή), moral wisdom (φρόνησις), and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία).[5]  Aristotle begins the NE with a discussion of teleology. He argues that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[6] He takes this same line of reasoning and applies it to man, saying that just as all things aim at some good, so does the life of man. The aim of man’s life is to achieve and maintain eudaimonia. Thus the telos of man is eudaimonia. 

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” which is unfortunate because that only confuses his meaning. In contemporary culture “happiness” is something subjective, totally dependent on the state of mind a person at a given time. However, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, is not a subjective state, but an objective one with clearly defined criteria.  To possess eudaimonia is to be a certain kind of person and living within a certain kind of society.[7] A person who possesses eudaimonia is a person who embodies the virtues “throughout an entire lifetime.[8]”  The telos of man for Aristotle was not an end of man, in the sense that the life of man ended when he achieved eudaimonia. Instead, it was the goal and purpose (the aim) of man. Eudaimonia is an active and continuous state where man continues his life, but fulfilling his telos. Further, for the state of eudaimonia to be complete, this person must live within a society of people who are also practicing the virtues and who are also moving toward their telos.

Virtue, for Aristotle, is bound up in his teleology. He views “the acquisition and exercise of the virtues as means to an end,” but, the virtues are not merely a means.[9] Eudaimonia itself is a continuation and perfection of the virtues so that when one practices a virtue, he is not only brining about a desired end, but also participating in the good in a more immediate sense. If Aristotle is right and there is some “chief good” at which all things aim, then he must also be right that an act is good in itself whenever it corresponds to that chief good. For example, when a solider practices the virtue of courage, his action corresponds to the chief good so that in the moment he is courageous, he participates in the good and also helps to bring about a state of eudaimonia for himself and the society he lives in. In this way, the virtues are both a means to an end and good in themselves.

Another implication of the relationship of eudaimonia and virtue in Aristotle’s system is that in order for a person to achieve eudaimonia, he must actually possess the virtues as states of his character, “The virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.”[10] This means that he must have a certain kind of character, a character that has been transformed by the practice of the virtues to the point that he is spontaneously generous or courageous.

The final element of Aristotle’s virtue ethic is moral wisdom (φρόνησις). Moral wisdom has two aspects: “the rational choice (prohairesis) on which a person acts, and the process of

deliberation or reflection by which a rational choice is formed.” [11] Essentially, moral wisdom is the ability to choose the best action in light of the circumstances by drawing on one’s experience. For example, a person might have the virtue of generosity, but lack moral wisdom. Such a person might give his fortune away to an unworthy cause, like a fraudulent TV preacher for example. If a person possesses both moral wisdom and generosity, then he will take into account that TV preachers are often frauds, and even though they have apparently good intentions it would be best to give his money to some other cause that has a proven record of integrity and effectiveness. Hutchinson provides an excellent summary here: “All in all, practical wisdom is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”[12]

Given this brief sketch, it is clear that there are already certain assumptions lurking in the background of Aristotle’s thought. For example, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia presupposes that there is, in fact, a chief good for man, that man has a particular function or purpose. Man has a certain function (ergon) that he is meant, in some sense, to fulfill and this function is morally good so that it grounds the virtues. How eudaimonia itself is good is an important question and part of the solution for Aristotle seems to be that “the supremely happy life is the life which most closely imitates God’s life.”[13]  Aristotle’s conception of the virtues further presupposes a certain view of man, namely that individuals exist as unified persons over at least the period of their lifetime. In fact, Aristotle thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [14] Moral wisdom also presupposes that humans are certain kinds of moral agents. It supposes, for example, that a person has access to past experiences in order to make the best decisions.  In short, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deeply imbedded within his own worldview.

A Universal Account of Virtue

Given all the presuppositions mentioned here, as well as others that are not (like

Aristotle’s metaphysical biology) it is clear that his account of virtue will not translate easily into other cultures or worldviews. On the surface, Aristotelian virtue ethics and Buddhism appear to be irreconcilable because Buddhism strongly denies the commonsense understanding of a self, something critical to Aristotle’s system.  But it is not fair to discount Buddhist virtue ethics at this point because there might be ways of understanding virtue ethics that are compatible with Buddhism. Besides, many modern accounts of virtue ethics try to avoid making the kinds of assumptions Aristotle does. Slote, for example, specifically states that he wants a virtue ethic distinct from Aristotle’s, an ethic that is totally agent-based and avoids some of the Aristotelian ontology.[15] Such a move brings up an important question: is a virtue ethic only possible within an Aristotelian framework? Clearly, philosophers have answered this question negatively, but if the Aristotelian framework is not necessary to virtue ethics then the next step is to discover just what is necessary. What is needed is to separate virtue ethics, as much as it possible, from the components that are only cultural artifacts or only contingent to virtue and find out what is necessary for a successful account of virtue. In order to test different worldviews for their compatibility with virtue ethics, there must first be a way to understand virtue ethics that can be more universally applied.

Fortunately, MacIntyre tackles this precise problem in After Virtue. He examines a wide array of different accounts of virtue ethics, from those of Homer to Benjamin Franklin. Each of these accounts is just as embedded within a culture or worldview as Aristotle’s. MacIntyre points out that at first glance each account of the virtues is contradictory to the next. After his initial survey of these many systems, he asks, “Are we or are we not able to disentangle from these rival and various claims a unitary core concept of the virtues of which we can give a more compelling account than another of the other accounts so far?”[16] MacIntyre responds: “I am going to argue that we can in fact discover such a core concept.”[17]

MacIntyre suggests that in order to understand the virtue ethic of a particular culture or worldview, it must be examined against three background factors: the concept of a practice, the concept of the narrative order of a human life, and the concept of a moral tradition.[18] Each of these factors is related to and dependent upon the previous factor so that MacIntyre’s conception of a “practice” becomes foundational to his account of virtue. Of course, by “practice” MacIntyre means something largely different than its common meaning:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. [19]

Key to understanding this definition is the concept of “internal goods.” MacIntyre uses the practice of chess playing as an example. Goods external to playing chess might be a monetary reward earned in a tournament or the notoriety gained from being an exceptionally good chess player. These goods are contingently related to playing chess and could be achieved by other means. Goods internal to chess are “the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity.”[20] These are the sorts of goods that can only be achieved by playing the game of chess or some other game that is sufficiently similar. Further, these goods are both utilitarian and teleological. They are utilitarian in the sense that possessing these goods will help one to excel at the practice. They are teleological in the sense that possessing these goods constitutes what it means to be excellent at chess. In this way, goods internal to a practice both help to achieve the aims of that practice and constitute excellence within the practice.

The other key component of MacIntyre’s definition of a practice is his contention that a practice must be a “socially established cooperative human activity.”  By this, MacIntyre means that to enter into a practice is to enter into a community with established rules and standards of excellence.[21] For example, a painter will be subject to the standards and rules of excellence within the artistic community. Being an excellent painter will mean meeting the expectations and standards of the artistic community.

The second background issue for MacIntyre is the narrative order of a human life. MacIntyre suggests that it is only when a particular action is understood within the context of a single, unified human life that the action becomes intelligible. An agent’s actions are understood only when the reasons for his actions are understood.[22] Simply describing an agent’s actions is not sufficient for understanding her behavior.  MacIntyre argues that “behavior is only characterized adequately when we know what the longer and longest-term intentions invoked are and how the shorter-term intensions are related to the longer.”[23] An accountant entering information into a spreadsheet may, in the short term, only be trying to finish his current project. In the longer term, he may be trying to get a promotion. In the longest term, he is trying to make sure his family is well provided for. The only way to make sense of his action is to examine it within the narrative order of his life. Further, the narrative of human life has an ideal “genre:” the quest. According to MacIntyre, the good for man, the teleology, is to live his life as quest for the good.

The last piece of background information MacIntyre says is needed is an account of a moral tradition. Unless there is a kind of telos that “transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.”[24]In a sense, what MacInytre means by a moral tradition is simply an extension of what he means by the narrative order of a single human life. A moral tradition is the context within which the good for a human life must be understood: “Within a tradition, the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.”[25] What this suggests is that, as the individual has a telos, so does society itself. It is in society’s moving towards its telos through traditions that the good for man is to be found.  It is only within a society aimed at its telos that “the virtues matter.”[26]

With these background features explained, MacIntyre’s preliminary definition of virtue makes sense: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[27] However, he argues that such a definition introduces too much arbitrariness and that the foundation of virtue must extend beyond mere practices. A full definition of virtue must account for all three of the background factors: an account of practice, the narrative unity of a human life, and an account of moral tradition. When such factors are considered, MacIntyre’s definition of virtue becomes much more nuanced. A virtue is more than a human possession enabling one to achieve goods internal to practice; virtue is the both the means and the end to the good for man and for society as a whole.  Further, when

one practices the virtues, he is participating in not only the narrative of his own life, but the narrative of his tradition. By practicing the virtues, one both participates in the telos for himself and society as a whole; he helps to bring about the good.

The goal so far has been to arrive at conception of virtue ethics that goes beyond the broad, vaguer definitions of virtue ethics.  The account that MacIntyre offers is unique in that it provides a substantive way of understanding virtue ethics that is not bound to a particular culture or worldview. Such an account is exactly what is needed to allow for fair analysis between Buddhist and Christian conceptions of virtue. However, before moving into that analysis, what this account presupposes in terms of a worldview ought to be drawn out. There are at least two presuppositions underlying this account of virtue: a particular view of man and a particular view of the world.

Virtue ethics is an agent centered ethic. The result is that, as Smith points out, “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[28] Further, any account of virtue ethics will require a certain kind of self, a conception of self that has several minimum criteria. MacIntyre’s account requires that the self must be able to “learn, acquire knowledge, be rational or irrational, understand concepts… and even co-author their own narratives.”[29] If there is a self with these abilities, that self must further be able to “maintain their personal identity through time and change, since they, and not someone else are the subjects of their own ongoing narratives.”[30] This unity of a single human life is critically important to a theory of virtue ethics. MacIntyre argues that apart from this unity, the actions of a moral agent become utterly meaningless.

In MacIntyre’s account, the narrative unity of a person’s life allows the agent to ask,

“How ought my story to turn out?”[31] Essentially, this is the same question Aristotle asked, “What is the good for man?” [32] only framed slightly differently. The unity of a human life allows for the actions within that life to have significance and to be directed to a certain teleological end. On this point, he remains compatible with Aristotle. Aristotle strongly emphasized that the good for man, eudaimonia, was something that must persist throughout an entire lifetime.[33] Aristotle further thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [34] Both MacIntyre and Aristotle believe that for virtue ethics to succeed, a human life must be understood as a whole and aimed at particular end. This confirms that a substantive account of self will be required of any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic.

The telos for man also presupposes that man has certain ontological features. In particular, it presupposes that he actually does have a particular function or purpose. Man is meant for something. While Aristotle argues that the telos or purpose is eudaimonia, MacIntyre suggests the good for man is to participate in a certain kind of quest, a quest for the good.  He argues that “the good life for man is spent in seeking the good life for man.”[35] This is not in contradiction to Aristotle, who saw eudaimonia as a state of affairs, that even when attained must be continually pursued. Both MacIntyre and Aristotle agree that the good for man is not a static end of virtue, but the continuation and perfection of virtue.  The significance here is that man’s telos does not constitute a fundamental change in the nature of man, but rather the ideal realization of it. Therefore, the telos of man in any account of virtue should preserve man as he essentially is, only in a perfected or ideal state.[36] Such a conclusion is in line with the criteria Devettere gave for the end of man:

We can note that virtue ethicists emphasize three major defining characteristics of happiness: (1) happiness in life is mostly, perhaps totally, a result of our choices, (2) happiness thus requires deliberation and reasoning so we can make good choices, and (3) happiness also requires good character because only people of good character are able to reason well and make good choices.[37]

If moral value is essential to human nature, the telos ought to be a context where man, as essentially man, continues and perfects his moral nature so that the virtues are practiced in their most excellent form once telos is attained.  Further, this kind of good for man that is presupposed by MacIntyre and Aristotle must possess intrinsic value so that it is worth pursuing for its own sake; it must serve as a kind of ground for moral value. It must also exist in an objective way, that is, it cannot be something subjective–it must actually exist. Thus any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic must have the sort of metaphysics that allow for concepts like objectivity, intrinsic goodness, and ultimate value.

Another way that the unity of a human life is important is in how it incorporates Aristotle’s concept of phronesis or moral wisdom.  For Aristotle, moral wisdom “is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”48 With his concept of narrative unity, MacIntyre introduces the same idea. A person should act in light of the [38]narrative of her life. Doing so, a person will take into account her past experiences (her narrative past) as well as the possible future outcomes (her narrative future).

Even the concept of character, a key element in virtue ethics, presupposes the unity of a human life. The virtues are understood as human possessions or qualities that modify or develop one’s character towards it telos.[39] The only way it makes sense to talk about “development of character” is if the character of an individual is identical (in the strict, logical sense) to the character possessed in the past and will be identical in the future. If there is no unity of human life, then it remains to be seen how the virtues can be intelligibly practiced.

In addition to the unity of a human life, MacIntyre’s account further presupposes a certain kind of a world: a world that contains multiple, distinct selves that relate to each other in meaningful ways and that itself possesses a telos. MacIntyre constructs his account of virtue ethics in three stages. The first stage concerns the role of activities within the life of a person. The second stage concerns the relationship of a person’s actions within the whole of that person’s life. The final stage explains the relationship between a person’s life and a historical community.[40] It is only when the individual human life is placed within the larger context of a society that a human life becomes intelligible.  MacIntyre further argues that the virtues themselves will depend on society: “One of the features of the concept of a virtue which has emerged with some clarity from the argument so far is that it always requires for its application the acceptance of some prior account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which it has to be defined and explained.”[41]

In light of all of this, there are at least two sorts of criteria for any possible account of virtue ethics. First, the account itself ought to conform to the expression of virtue that MacIntyre has developed. That is, it should be able to be expressed in terms of practices, narratives, and moral tradition. If it cannot be expressed in these terms, then there ought to a reason why other accounts of virtue, whether Aristotle’s, Homer’s, or Eyre’s, fit MacIntyre’s account but not this particular account. Second, the worldview assumed in the account should be able to accommodate the presuppositions about man and the world he inhabits. If the account of virtue fails either of these criteria, it is not an adequate account of virtue.



[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[2] 12  Rosalind Husrthouse, On Virtue Ethics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26.

[3] 13  J.B, Schneewind, “Virtue, Narrative, and Community: MacIntyre and Morality” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 11,  653.

[4] Peter Simpson, “Contemporary Virtue Ethics and Aristotle,” in Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, ed. Daniel Statman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997),  245.

[5] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 27.

[6] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross.

[7] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 9.

[8] D.S. Hutchinson, “Ethics,” in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 203.

[9] Alasdair MacIntryre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007) 147.

[10] Book II, Nichomachean Ethics

[11] 21  Sarah Broadie Ethics with Aristotle (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991), 179.

[12] 22  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[13] Howard Curzer, “The Supremely Happy Life in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Aperion 24 (1991), 51.

[14] Stephen Clark, Aristotle’s Man: Speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology (Toronto: Clarendon, 1983),  26.

[15] Michael Slote, “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1995): 20.

[16] 26  Macintyre, After Virtue, 149.

[17] 27  Ibid.

[18] 28  Ibid., 178.

[19] Ibid., 187.

[20] Ibid., 179.

[21] Ibid., 180.

[22] 32  Schneedwind, “Virtue,” 656.

[23] MacIntyre, After Virtue,  192-3.

[24] Ibid., 203.

[25] 35  Ibid., 222.

[26] 36  Greg Pence, “Virtue Theory,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 251.

[27] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 221.

[28] R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[29] Smith, Virtue, 148.

[30] 40  Ibid., 148.

[31] Shneedwind, “Virtue,” 657.

[32] 42  Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[33] 43  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 203.

[34] 44  Clark, Aristotle,  26.

[35] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 219.

[36] There could be an objection here that man, in his current state, finds himself in a state where he is estranged from who he essentially is. However, it is rather inelegant to suggest that at any point man could be separated from what is essential to man. To make such a separation would be the end of man.

[37] Raymond Devettere, Introduction to Virtue Ethics: Insights of the Ancient Greeks (Washington, Georgetown University, 2002) 53.

[38] Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[39] Hursthouse, “Virtue,” par 3.

[40] Schneewind, “Virtue,” 655.

[41] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 179.

Summary of John Hare’s God’s Command: Chapter 1, Introduction

Summary by David Baggett 

God’s Command

This new book by Yale philosopher John Hare defends the thesis that what makes something morally obligatory is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong is that God commands us not to do it. (Hare writes in a footnote that, strictly speaking, there is an exception to this principle, namely God does not make it obligatory, by commanding it, to obey God’s command, but this is because the principle that God is to be loved, and  so to be obeyed, is “known from its terms.” He takes this issue up again later.) The Abrahamic faiths have made the connection between religion and the foundations of morality through the idea of God’s command. They have had to integrate two kinds of experience: The first is that God tells us to do something, or not to do something, and the second is that we have to work out for ourselves what to do and what not to do. None of these faiths have been able to dispense with either claim.

hare god's commandThe difficulty has come in reconciling them. The concern of this book is that we remember to love God’s law and God’s command. Christians, in particular, must recall that the law and the command are the groundwork for the rest of the narrative of redemption. Psalm 119 is an extended expression of the gratitude of a people who would otherwise, without heeding God’s revelation, go astray like lost sheep. The relationship between this revelation of the law and command and our human nature is not that we should deduce how we ought to live from how we are by nature inclined to act, for our natural inclinations are a thorough mixture of what we should follow and what we should not. But God’s command to us fits our nature very well in the sense that it guides us in discerning which of these inclinations found in our nature we should embrace and which we should not. We also need discernment about what to take as a divine command. This book will tackle such issues by looking first not at abstract principles independent of religion, but at the narratives internal to the three Abrahamic faiths about what God and humans are like.

In Christian reflection on this, two main traditions have emerged: divine command theory and natural law theory. The book will, for the most part, conduct its argument in reference to the theories of particular philosophers and theologians rather than using those general terms like “divine command theory.” It’s not clear what we would be accountable to if we were discussing “divine command theory” unless by stipulation. There is no canonical text for the theory. It is better to be content with building up an understanding of how the various thinkers in these two traditions have held views partly similar to each other and partly different.

The first chapter proceeds by identifying three arguments by which we can establish various kinds of dependence relation of morality upon religion. They’re not original, and versions of them are pervasive in the literature. The first chapter takes versions directly or indirectly from Kant. The second chapter discusses what kind of thing a divine command is, and what its species are. The third chapter is about one typical disagreement between divine command theorists and natural law theorists. This is a disagreement about eudaemonism, the view that all our choices and actions are properly aimed at our own happiness. This is relevant for divine command theory because, if we make our moral choices for the sake of happiness, we do not need divine command as an answer to the question why we should choose what is morally right; we should do so in order to be happy. The fourth chapter is what Hare calls “deductivism,” the view that we can deduce our moral obligations from facts about human nature. This is relevant to divine command theory because, if we can deduce our moral obligations from facts about human nature, we do not need divine command to give us the content of the moral law. The fourth chapter has three sections: one on Scotus and his rejection of deductivism, a second on rejection of a form of deductivism in Robert Adams, and the third on the dispute about deductivism between R. M. Hare and Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse. In sum, the first half of the book is largely concerned with laying out a version of divine command theory and defending it against alternative theories.

The second half of the book relates the theory outlined in the first half to four new areas, the first three to theological accounts in the three main Abrahamic faiths. Chapter 5 is on Karl Barth, focusing on three themes: his particularism (his view that the paradigmatic divine commands are to particular people at particular times and places), his account of human freedom, and his discussion of how we know what divine command is being addressed to us. Chapter 6 is on DCT in Islam, Chapter 7 on DCT in Judaism, and Chapter 8 on evolutionary psychology, defending the claim that thinking of our moral obligations as produced by divine command helps us see how a moral conscience could develop in a way that is evolutionarily stable.

What ties this wide discussion together is the notion of God’s command. What emerges is that DCT and natural law are closer than one might expect. There remain differences between them, but the two are in many respects complementary. There is nothing incongruous in a divine command theorist saying that God’s commands fit human nature, or in a natural law theorist saying that God’s commanding is a necessary condition for a moral obligation. Nonetheless, the form of DCT defended in this book remains different in some key respects from the most familiar forms of natural law theory in the literature.

The first topic, then, is three arguments by which we can establish that morality depends on religion. Hare calls them the argument from providence, the argument from grace, and the argument from justification. The first two come directly from Kant, and the third only indirectly from Kant, but Hare’s argument is independent of him. Kant is not a major topic in remaining chapters, but his arguments are often good ones and he remains a key figure in moral philosophy.

Summary of Second Half of Chapter 3, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations

Summary by David Baggett

In the latter half of this chapter, Evans explores whether divine command theories of obligation are consistent with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics (or theory—thus VT), understood broadly, is an ethical theory that emphasizes the central role played in ethics by long-term dispositional states of character of moral agents. Evans points out that it’s easy to answer the question of consistency if he’s right to have argued that DCT is consistent with a natural law ethic, since the greatest natural law theorist, Thomas Aquinas, was himself also a virtue ethicist. If A is consistent with B, and A entails C, then B must also be consistent with C. If a natural law ethic is consistent with a DCT, and a natural law ethic logically requires a virtue ethic, then DCT is consistent with virtue theory.

Of course there are some versions of VT that clash with DCT. Hursthouse, for example, describes VT as an alternative to ethical theories that emphasize moral rules or principles and ones that emphasize consequences. In some cases it’s not clear whether a particular thinker sees VT as an alternative to an ethic of duty—like Stanley Hauerwas. Arguably, though Hauerwas has focused almost exclusively on issues of character, his target is not the existence of moral obligations, but the claim that an ethic of obligation by itself captures all that is important in the ethical life.

What kind of VT constitutes a genuine alternative to the kind of DCT Evans is defending? One such variant of VT would deny the importance of moral duties, as prescribing or forbidding types of actions, altogether. Such a view is linked to some versions of “moral particularism.” Moral particularism emphasizes the idea that moral judgments are a response to the particular features of a situation, rather than being derived from general principles, and it comes in different forms. A strong form of moral particularism would be one that claims that there are no true moral duties that are general in form; at best a principle that we regard as expressing our moral duty gives us only a general guide or rule of thumb. But we can never deduce what we should do in an actual situation from such a general rule. This comports well with VT idea that correct moral judgments will be those made by virtuous people, people who possess “practical wisdom.”

Evans thinks this view is mistaken. It’s one thing to maintain that good judgment is required to apply moral principles correctly; quite another to assert that moral judgments do not rely on principles at all.

But there are weaker versions of moral particularism that are much more plausible. For example, one might suggest there are some moral situations in which moral principles do not determine any unique right answer, and there are some moral situations in which it may be unclear how to apply our moral principles and thus difficult to apply them. Both situations would imply that there are some particular judgments that can’t simply be deduced from general principles. DCT can admit this. Some situations do fall outside the scope of the principles of duty, and sometimes moral principles are hard to interpret and apply. In any case, VT need not be committed to the strong version of moral particularism. Aquinas, for example, doesn’t seem to have been committed to it. Only the strong version conflicts with DCT.

The second way a virtue ethic could come into conflict with DCT is by claiming that moral obligations can be adequately explained in terms of the virtues, thus making any appeal to God’s commands unnecessary. Michael Slote, for example, has defended a VT that he calls “agent-based,” as opposed to being simply “agent-focused,” which is the kind of view associated with Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. According to an “agent-based” ethic, it is the fact that a virtuous agent would act in a particular way x that makes it true that x is actually the correct way to behave. Slote pretty  much leaves reference to moral duties out of his theory altogether, preferring talk of “caring” instead.

Linda Zagzebski appears to argue that our moral duties are simply those types of acts which a virtuous agent would feel guilt or shame for not doing. The type of VT that Slote and Zagzebski defend is one in which the virtuous agent is the “truth-maker” for normative truths. Evans thinks this inverts the way things actually are. We don’t regard courage as a good thing because it is the kind of trait we find in virtuous people. Rather, we believe courage is a good thing, and so when we find someone who is courageous we have a reason to think that this person is virtuous, at least in that respect.

Another possible version of VT offers an epistemic relation between duties and virtuous persons. On this view, it’s by looking to exemplars that we come to know what our duties are—epistemically speaking. So far as Evans sees it, though, a proponent of DCT could affirm this.

So, on Evans’ view, giving an account of moral duties and giving an account of the characteristics of virtuous people are both important but they are answering different questions about different aspects of our ethical lives. Yet there remain vital links between them. First, our moral duties may include duties to cultivate various virtues. Many of God’s commands are commands to acquire or cultivate particular virtues, such as the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Indeed, it is arguable that the fundamental commands of God are, at least in part, commands to acquire virtues—loving God with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. From the other side, an account of the virtues may be valuable in giving us an understanding of what motivates moral agents to live in accordance with their duties. If DCT is right, fulfilling our moral duties can be at the same time an expression of devotion to God, thus linking the life of duty to such “theological virtues” as hope and faith. To live morally is not to be done with gritting of teeth, but joyously. This is a recurring biblical theme—and tied to the recurring biblical motif of blessings that accompany loving God.

Finally, the deepest link between virtues and duty requires us to reflect on the telos of duty. Kant thought that duties apply to human beings but not God, because God has a “holy will,” and thus there’s no possibility that God will ever follow any principles that are wrong. But Evans pushes this point to suggest that the more perfected a saint becomes, the smaller a role duties play. Moral duties might have as part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such persons, or at least to move in this direction. Kierkegaard seems to suggest this in his Works of Love. After spending a lot of his time focusing on the moral law rooted in God’s authority, he discusses the command to love, nothing that eventually it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t need to be commanded, once someone becomes at one with the commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the law—which is far beyond doing duty for duty’s sake. It is radical transformation—the goal of the moral life. So Slote’s right in a sense—there is a life that goes beyond duty. But he’s wrong to think we can go straight there without a process of transformation first, that may well require obedience to duty. Kierkegaard saw duty as a “schoolmaster” helping us to be changed and transformed. But we’re still in need of this transformation at this point, rendering leaving duties behind too quickly a mistake.

Find the other summaries of this book here.

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week’s podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Image: “Icarus.” by Rogério Timóteo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Equality, Human Value, and the Image of God

 by Paul Rezkalla

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These timeless words penned by the Founding Fathers declare a simple, yet profound moral maxim: All humans are equally valuable and ought to be treated as such. This has come to be known as the Principle of Equality (or Equal Treatment).

Almost all societies throughout history have accepted this truth and lived by it. Jeremy Bentham pointed out that any ethical system must begin with the presupposition that “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” We share a strong intuition that all human persons ought to be treated equally, prima facie. Interestingly enough, the pro-slavery South accepted and lived by the Principle of Equality. Even modern-day racists might accept the Principle of Equality as the most basic moral maxim.[1] A racist, however, will seek to redefine the term “human” or “person” to exclude a group of people that he deems unworthy of rights or value. Hence, the racist can happily affirm that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally, and yet disagree on who to include in the category of “people.”

Most rational people today will recognize that racism is wrong—it is evil. However, the problem arises when we seek to ground the Principle of Equality. Why is it that all people are equal? Why is it that all people are born with unalienable rights? Why is it that all people are inherently valuable as ends in and of themselves? In other words, what makes the Principle of Equality really true rather than merely a clever and effective tool to keep society in check?

As it turns out, answering this question is not as easy as it might seem. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[2] Our task is to figure out some common property or set of properties that all human beings share that can bear the weight of substantiating the intrinsic value of the human person. Some potential candidates for grounding human worth and equality might be rationality, intellect, or our capacity for moral reflection and deliberation. Peter Singer argues that all three of these fail. With regard to rationality and intellect, “we can have no absolute guarantee that these abilities and capacities really are evenly distributed evenly, without regard to race or sex, among human beings.”[3] In other words, it’s implausible that all humans have the same intellectual capacity; many people are born with severe mental handicaps. Does their diminished ability to function make them less human? Of course not. Does their inability make them less valuable? Of course not. Singer goes on to say, “it is quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of facts.”[4] The facts of human intellectual ability, moral capacity, strength, and the like cannot serve as the basis for human value for two reasons:

  1. These abilities are not evenly distributed among all people. Some people are strong, some are weak. Some people are bright, others are not.

  2. It is not clear what it is about these properties that makes them the grounds for inherent human worth. There is nothing in the human capacity for rational reflection that explicitly bespeaks the intrinsic worth of every human being and can serve as its ontological grounds.

Singer finally concludes his argument with a profound point and a concession, “There is no compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged equality among human beings: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”[5] Singer looks at the different attempts to ground human worth and finds them all lacking. He concedes that there is no description of humanity that justifies or substantiates the principle of equality, and yet we still ought to treat humans as if we are all equal. For Singer, the Principle of Equality has no basis in reality, but it is a useful fiction and we should still aim to live by it.

Singer’s candid concession is honest and laudable, for on his naturalistic position, there is no such property or set of properties that seems likely to bear the weight of Singer’s challenge. What could serve as the foundation for intrinsic human value? It is at this point that the theist has the advantage. The theist can take any number of viable approaches in answering this question.

The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos.
The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos. Every person from the weakest to the strongest—from the least-known to the best-known—has this property. We carry the Image of God. The theist can also ground human value in God’s intentions for humanity. God has created human beings with certain ends in mind so that any disruption of those intentions is a disruption of the way God made humans and intended for us to interact. These two options, moreover, are not mutually exclusive by any means. Theists can happily affirm both of these options in answering Singer’s challenge. God, as both our Source and End, having created us and imbued us with our telos, provides the robust ontological foundation for intrinsic human worth and moral standing. These approaches take the burden off various human capacities; even when human beings suffer handicaps or lack certain faculties, their ontological status has not diminished one iota. On this view, God has created all people as inherently valuable. All people regardless of race, sex, age, ability to function, sexual orientation, or location are ends in and of themselves—priceless, precious, and loved by God.

While the naturalist can see the need for grounding the Principle of Equality, the theist can offer a viable set of solutions. A Principle of Equality that hangs suspended in mid-air is both ineffective and dangerous. A robust understanding of what ties us all together and validates the notion that all humans are intrinsically valuable is vitally important, now more than ever. It would seem that theism offers a fuller account of the descriptive and prescriptive components of the Principle of Equality than does naturalism.

For further reading on this important issue, including a systematic critique of various secular efforts to ground moral standing and intrinsic human worth, see Mark Linville’s “Moral Argument” available online here:



[1]    James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2015), p. 79-80

[2]    Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p. 77

[3]    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975), p. 4

[4]    Singer, p. 4

[5]    Singer, p. 5


Image:”Scaffolding & First Amendment Of The Constitution Of The United States Of America, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot. CC License. 

Podcast: Mark Foreman on Faith, Reason, and Natural Law

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman is a professional philosopher who specializes in both Christian apologetics and bioethics. The main topic of this episode is theism as a natural law ethic. Dr. Foreman will explain what a natural law ethic is, why we should prefer it, how it can be applied in moral dilemmas, and  how to use it in apologetics. But before we get to that, we’ll also get to hear some thoughts from Dr. Foreman on the relation of faith and reason.


The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 2 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt 

 (continued from part 1)

Objections to Teleology

One of the main concerns is the role that teleology plays. According to Foot, individuals have a telos; they are meant for thriving as a member of a certain species. But it is unclear what this really could mean in a naturalistic world. To say something has a telos means it has a purpose essentially. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that insofar as a virtue ethic is teleological, it requires “at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”[1] Having a purpose, and having it essentially, means that a thing has a purpose by its very nature. One obvious way to say that teleology is both genuine and morally significant is to say that a thing was made by a person with certain intentions and purposes. An artist might design and paint a picture with the intention of bringing happiness (a moral good) to others. It is the artist’s intention that gives the painting moral significance. But the naturalist cannot say that humans are relevantly like paintings.  It does not make sense to say that nature “intended” an animal for something any more than it makes sense to say that a puddle of water was intended to fit in the hole it finds itself. This is because we normally think of teleological properties like being meant for X or being intended for Y as irreducibly mental properties. And the only thing we know that can have intentions or meanings is a mind. However, human beings are not the product of any mind, on naturalism, but of matter and the laws of physics. The same amount of intentional care that went into making puddles fit holes went into making us biologically fit for life; granted, there is more sophistication to the latter, but, on naturalism, the amount of intentional care is the same. That being the case, it stretches language beyond the breaking point to say that, on naturalism, we are intended or meant for anything.

Perhaps this objection can be turned back by means of clarification. What then does Foot mean when she says there is a way humans should be? To get that answer, we first have to know what she means by “human” and, second, what she means by “should.”

In responding, the naturalist faces an immediate difficulty. The naturalist cannot even say “there is a way humans are” without controversy because such a statement presupposes certain views about the nature of the category of species and thus what the term human actually means. Specifically, Foot argues that “human” is a real metaphysical category.[2]  Species in general must refer to real metaphysical categories if Foot’s system is going to work because it is by appeal to these categories that she can say what counts as specifying conditions. If the category of species were only fictional, contingently assigned to living things by human animals, then no meaningful norms can be grounded in them. So then, Foot needs there to be a genuine “human nature” to ground her theory. However, David Hull thinks naturalism cannot provide a way to account for this. Hull argues that in light of the impersonal, atomistic world of naturalism, there is no space for metaphysically robust concepts like “human nature.”[3] He says,

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of “natures” to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo Sapiens as a biological species. If Homo Sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one’s claims about “human nature.” Perhaps all people are “persons,” share the same “personhood,” etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin’s theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate “Homo sapiens” from “human being,” but the result is a much less plausible position.[4]

The upshot of this is that even having the term human refer to a class of things which share the same nature will not work on naturalism. Human only refers to a nominal way of grouping animals by their traits. However, by human Foot means a real metaphysical category. The trouble is that there is no way for naturalism to ground that meaning.

This also undermines Foot’s normative concept of “should.” To see why, let us consider what Foot means by the locution “should.” It is worth quoting her at length on this:

What, then, determines the truth of the teleological propositions…? We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be: the Aristotelian categoricals give the ‘how’ of what happens in the life cycle of that species. And all the truths about what this or that characteristic does, what its purpose or point is, and in suitable cases its function, must be related to this life cycle. The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young.[5]

Thus, by should Foot means individuals ought to exhibit the features which constitute the ideal for their species. But, the argument above has been that Foot can only consistently use species in a nominal way. Species do not really exist, on such a worldview; therefore, there is nothing to make teleological propositions true. From that it follows that there is no way a thing should be. All that naturalism allows for is descriptions of how things are. There is no such thing as a categorical moral “should.” (There are instrumental shoulds, presumably.)

Objections to Eudaimonia

But for the sake of the argument, let us grant Foot that humans have a telos so that there is a way a human should be and that moral evaluations follow from that. Still, what constitutes the ideal is a complete accident of physics. The ideal is further contingent on some arbitrary selection of a specific moment of time in human evolutionary history. What is ideal now could change in the future and it will change if Darwinism is correct. The result is that what is morally repugnant now may not be in the future. This is the view that Angus Ritchie calls “strong evolutionary ethics.”

The fact that the good is contingent on a species also leads to other puzzles. For example, if we suppose that Star Trek’s Borg were a real species, we could not disagree that their assimilation of other species was good for them as Borg, even if it were bad for us as humans.[6] Or, as Angus Ritchie has pointed out, the good for a cancer cell is in direct conflict with the good for a human. In cases of Borg and cancer, there are contradictory goods. And if the survival of cancer cells isn’t an intrinsically good thing, why is the survival of human beings, on this analysis? The fact that Foot distances herself from utilitarianism makes the challenge all the more pressing.

This at least seems like a problem. Intuitively, we think that the good is a trans-species thing. Part of the problem is that the term “good” is so slippery. In one sense, it is obvious and uncontroversial that if there is such a thing as Borg nature, then there is a good for Borg. But our intuitions about the moral good are such that this good cannot be totally determined by the way a species is. This good is supposed to be objective and necessary. It does not depend on anything, especially accidents of nature. So if the good for Borg or cancer is a real, moral good, it is because it stands in the proper relation to the moral good.  Foot thinks the intuitive problem is due to confusion about what we mean by “the good.”[7] According to her, goodness can only be determined by references to species; there is no good outside of that. However, the Borg and cancer puzzles show that there are real problems with identifying the good with the biology of a species.

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

Another problem with virtue in Foot’s theory arises from the conjunction of the role of the virtues and the implications of her naturalist ontology of human persons for human freedom. Aristotle says virtues are those practices that we “choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”[8] Virtues both lead to happiness and constitute it, but they are also intentional practices, chosen for good reasons.  Aristotle’s concept of the virtues presupposes a certain view of human persons, namely that they possess at least the power of rationality and volition.

But is such a view at home in a naturalist worldview? Perhaps not. There have been serious challenges to the naturalist’s ability to have confidence in human reason. For example, Alvin Plantinga has powerfully argued that the conjunction of naturalism and atheistic evolution undermines the possibility that humans actually have reliable cognitive faculties. Evolution, after all, is not aimed at producing reliable ways of knowing, but only survival through replication. But there are also concerns about the naturalist account of volition or human freedom. Mark Linville and Angus Ritchie have given similar arguments more delimited to moral cognition in particular.

One view of human freedom is called libertarianism. On this view, a person has the power to choose between alternatives. If presented with the choice of eating either Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran for breakfast, Susan, by her choice, determines which cereal she will eat. The word determines is important here. The libertarian thinks that humans actually act upon the world; they are the ultimate cause of their own actions. (Source theorists assign primacy to this aspect of free choices—that the agent in question is the source of the action—rather than the ability to do otherwise; on occasion, such as after an individual has formed a good enough character, choosing not to help someone in need might become a practical impossibility, without the agent’s freedom being impaired; a source analysis would make good sense of this.) So if Susan chooses Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran (the only rational choice!), the cause of the choice is Susan herself. However, this view of human freedom is problematic for naturalists precisely because a libertarian free will is generally thought to require an immaterial soul.[9] John Searle says that “our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical [libertarian] freedom.”[10] And naturalist John Bishop admits, “Agent causal relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective.”[11]

Instead of thinking as humans as unified, immaterial souls, naturalists tend to hold that humans are (highly complex) collections of atoms and molecules. There is nothing special about the parts that make up humans. The laws of physics that operate in the world operate the same way on the parts a human body. This is why Daniel Dennett says, “according to naturalism, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth.”[12] Susan’s choice of Lucky Charms is determined by the physical interactions of the parts that make her up, and environemental factors functioning deterministically, and not by Susan herself—in the sense that would satisfy most source theorists. In fact, Dennett thinks that though most people imagine they have a libertarian free will, there is no “I” that steers a human; “the little man in the brain” is illusory.[13] Along these same lines, Sam Harris says, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”[14]

However, some naturalists think that despite the fact that our actions are determined by physical laws, human freedom still exists. The view that determinism and free will are consistent is called compatibilism. Usually “freedom” is not understood to mean “to exercise volition between two alternatives,” but “to do what one desires.” A free action is still caused, but in the right sort of way. Susan desired Lucky Charms and so she does what she desires to do, even if she could not have done otherwise except in a counterfactual sense. Or, as naturalist Sam Harris puts it, to say one could have done otherwise “is an empty affirmation.”[15]

Now let us return to what Aristotle said about the virtues. He said that a person will practice the virtues because they are judged to be good and to bring about a desired end. This works easily with a libertarian, common sense understanding of free will. But it is more difficult to say that a person practices the virtues because she thought it was a good idea on naturalism. She may indeed think it was a good idea to do, but such thinking plays no causal role in her action. Harris and Dennett think that we tell ourselves a fictional story about why we make the choices we do (I chose to exercise because I think it is good for me), but these are only stories, useful fictions. The real reason has only to do with brain chemistry. Other naturalists speak in terms of reasons as causes, and wish to retain room for what they dub genuine deliberation—but to my thinking this is rather difficult to square with the deterministic implications of a naturalistic world, at least at the macroscopic level. At any rate, onsider what it  means for a virtue ethic if naturalists like Dennett and Harris are right. It follows that persons cannot direct their lives toward a certain end. Instead, they are only directed by nature. Practicing the virtues may be a good thing to do, but we cannot be any more (or less) virtuous than nature has determined us to be. It is also difficult to see how a person could be held deeply culpable for failing to be virtuous or be deeply praised for being virtuous. After all, she could not have done anything besides what she in fact did. Ascriptions of praise and blame, at least intuitively, seem to require that a person could have done otherwise, at least most of the time. Deterrence and rehabilitation are categories that can be explicated on naturalism fairly well, but not anything like retributive justice or giving people their just desserts.

Such reflections do not show that a virtue ethic and naturalism are, in fact, incompatible. However, they raise questions about how comfortable the fit really is. If we want to be virtue ethicists and naturalists, we will have to lower our expectations about what counts as virtuous activity. It cannot be, as Aristotle said, an action chosen by an agent for good reasons that is both a means and end of human flourishing. (Indeed, most naturalists have already abandoned conceptions of formal and final causes so central to Aristotle’s paradigm.) Instead, we must incorporate the compatibilist idea that humans are determined by nature so that they could not do otherwise. Then virtue ethics becomes more about describing what happens to lead to happiness, rather than actually pursuing it. Ethics becomes predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive. This, to my thinking, seems a rather deflationary kind of ethic. If we want to retain Aristotle’s more robust ethic, we will likely have to adopt a worldview besides naturalism that better explains the role of the virtues.


Earlier I said that for a virtue ethic to be successful it must  explain three facts: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues. In light of the objections raised above, it seems that a virtue ethic requires a set of metaphysical commitments that naturalists do not have the resources to make. Therefore, the NVE is not well grounded. If you want to be an intellectually satisfied virtue ethicist, you should look for a more promising worldview than naturalism.


[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 69.

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

[3] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

[6]  Gary Watson expresses a similar objection: “An objective account of human nature would imply, perhaps, that a good human life must be social in character. This implication will disqualify the sociopath but not the Hell’s Angel. The contrast is revealing, for we tend to regard the sociopath not as evil but as beyond the pale of morality. On the other hand, if we enrich our conception of sociality to exclude Hell’s Angels, the worry is that this conception will no longer ground moral judgment but rather express it.” See Gary Watson, “On the Primacy of Character,” in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 462-3.

[7] Foot, 36.

[8]Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7. W.D.  Ross translation.

[9] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imgao Dei. 44. There are other, non-theistic ways, of trying to explain how a human can have libertarian freedom. One possibility is pan-psyhcism. On this view, the universe itself has latent mental powers. When put in the right combination, minds occur. Another option is emgergentism. According this view, an entirely new substance emerges from certain physical arrangements. These theories, if true, might allow for libertarian freedom. But, it is not clear that either one deserves the title of “naturalism.” Both are also highly controversial, and for good reasons, such as their relatively obscurantist elements.

[10] John Searle as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 44.

[11] John Bishop as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 46.

[12] Daniel Clement Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991). 33.

[13] Daniel Clement Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 30.

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.