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Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

By Mark Linville

[Excerpt from a larger essay–my side of a printed debate on God and morality with Louise Antony–forthcoming in a new edition of Michael Peterson and Ray VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell). –MDL]
As a part of a larger project of defending an atheistic accounting of “robust ethics,” Erik Wielenberg has recently taken on such arguments and suggested a model for reconciling an evolutionary account of morality with his view that morality is objective (even “robust”).  One assumption of my argument so far has been that unless there is a direct connection between the reproductive advantage of our moral beliefs and their truth–so that their being true is responsible for their being fitness conferring–then we’ve no reason to assume their truth.  But as Nagel says, “value realism” is like an unattached spinning wheel.  It does no such explanatory work, and so we are left merely with the view that we have the moral beliefs we do because of their reproductive advantage–they have been fobbed off on us by our genes, as Ruse says.  Wielenberg instead posits an indirect connection that is routed through a “third factor”[1]— a set of evolved human cognitive faculties (e.g., reason).  It is plausible that certain cognitive faculties have evolved because they confer fitness upon their possessors.  Further, there is “wide agreement” that “if rights exist at all, their presence is guaranteed by certain cognitive faculties.”[2]  Suppose, then, that there are rights and that such rights are based upon those cognitive faculties.  It will follow that any creature with such cognitive faculties possesses rights, and any such creature who exercises those faculties to believe There are rights believes truly.  This, of course, is because having the cognitive faculties is both necessary for having the belief and sufficient for having the rights.

This is a neat way of explaining how evolution might ultimately be responsible for our having true moral beliefs, even if those beliefs are about non-natural truths.  Does it succeed?

Wielenberg is entitled to the assumption of rights due to the rhetorical context of his argument.  After all, I and others have argued that there would not be moral knowledge even if there were moral truths, and so his strategy–positing some moral truth and determining whether it could be known given the conditions laid down–is the natural way to proceed.  And his proposed model is, so far as I can tell, internally consistent.  After all, if our cognitive faculties are a product of our evolution, and if having such faculties is sufficient for having rights, then anyone capable of believing that there are rights is in possession of both the faculties and the rights.

But one wonders whether the assumption is safely lifted from the paper and transferred to the world itself.  Indeed, there are two assumptions at work: there are rights, and rights are based upon the possession of certain cognitive faculties.  Wielenberg cites “wide agreement” regarding the connection between those faculties and the possession of rights.  But the entrenched evolutionary skeptic might suggest that our belief in rights is just a part of that fobbed-off illusion.  When Bertrand Russell appealed to “wide agreement” regarding certain moral beliefs, George Santayana replied–no doubt with Darwin in mind–that such appeals are little better than “the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.”[4]  Further, given the background assumption of evolutionary naturalism, we might expect that such faculties themselves emerged as an evolutionary solution to the problem of survival and reproduction.  As such, they are of instrumental value as a means to such ends, much like opposable thumbs.  Can we rest the case for the intrinsic value of persons upon their possession of extrinsically valuable properties?  Human rationality is certainly good for humans just as arboreal acrobatic skills are good for rhesus monkeys, but beyond bald assumptions, does Wielenberg’s view provide the conceptual resources for thinking that it is a good in itself as would seem to be required for it to do the work assigned to it?

Wielenberg’s strategy may go some distance towards reducing the improbability of our possessing moral knowledge given the emergence of rational and moral agents who have both rights and a tendency to believe that they do.  But the model in itself fails to address a more astonishing cosmic coincidence to which Santayana pointed in his critique of Russell.  As an atheist and naturalist, Russell famously said, “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[5]   The forces of nature are not goal-oriented, and we should not think of the emergence of homo sapiens as the achievement of cosmic purposes.  We are here because nature “in her secular hurryings”[6] happened in at least one corner of the universe to throw spinning matter into the right recipe for things such as ourselves to form. But at the same time, Russell defended a view of morality that includes objective and intrinsic values–a form of Platonism not far from Wielenberg’s robust ethics. Santayana argued that these two commitments are mutually at odds.  As he saw, Russell’s moral philosophy implied that “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.”[7]  But Russell’s naturalism–and rejection of cosmic purpose–implies, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.”[8]   It would be marvelous indeed if, in the accidental world that Russell described, the very things that ought to exist should have come to be.  It would be as though among the eternal verities a special premium had forever been placed upon, say, conscious moral agents, and, despite the countless possibilities, and because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris.  Presumably, Beings with cognitive faculties have rights is a necessary truth–if a truth at all–and, as such, it was inscribed in the Platonic empyrean long before the Big Bang.  How astonishing it seems that such things with that “remarkable property” of being such that they ought to exist–should have appeared at all when the things responsible for their emergence had no prevision of such an end.  Did we win the cosmic lottery?  Santayana observed that at least Plato had an explanation for such things because the Good that he conceived was a “power,” influencing the world of people and things so that the course that nature has in fact taken is determined at least in part by moral values.[9] It is for such reasons that Thomas Nagel has posited the idea that “value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.”[10]  Nagel’s good is a power, unlike Russell’s, and as such it plays a role in explaining the moral shape that the world has taken.  But presumably no such moral guidance was at work in Wielenberg’s universe, seeing to it that portions of the material world should be fashioned and formed into moral agents.  Yet here we are!

I think this point remains despite Wielenberg’s further ruminations on whether Darwinian Counterfactuals are, in fact, likely or even possible.  He suggests that if physical law does not strictly require that emergent moral agents should have developed moral sensibilities something like our own, so that evolution would naturally narrow the range of possible outcomes, it is highly likely–at least “for all we know.”  Daniel Dennett has suggested that there may be certain “forced moves” in evolutionary design space.  For instance, given locomotion, stereoscopic vision is predictable.[11]  Wielenberg seems to be suggesting a forced move of his own.  But both moves are forced–if at all–only once certain conditions are in place.  Nagel has a relevant observation here on precisely the example Dennett cites.

Even if we think it likely that the evolution of moral agents such as ourselves should drop into a predictable groove, we are still left to explain why the natural world should be deeply structured in such a way that its natural processes and algorithms should produce such agents at all.  The whole thing is quite wonderful, and without the guidance of God, a Platonic demiurge, or Nagel’s guiding values, it seems an astonishing bit of luck.  It adds an additional epicycle of coincidence to the so-called “anthropic coincidences” in that not only have we beat astonishing odds simply by arriving on the scene–because of the mind-boggling improbability that the universe should have permitted and sustained life of any kind–but that it is also the achievement of ends eternally declared to be good and morally desirable by necessarily true but causally impotent moral standards. It is a called shot, but without a Babe Ruth to place it.  To base one’s argument on an assumption that defies such odds seems a bit like planning one’s retirement on the assumption that one will win the lottery.  One might suggest that Wielenberg help himself to the additional unjustified assumption of Nagel’s causally effective guiding values, for this would fill a void in his view, and anyone with the liberality to grant the one (i.e., rights) is likely to grant the other.



[1] To illustrate, suppose we notice a strong–even exceptionless–correlation between chilly weather and the turning of fall leaves.  But suppose we are told that the chill in the air is not the cause of the colorful leaves.  But then we consider a third factor–the earth’s tilt from the sun resulting in both less light and colder weather–which is responsible for both the color (due to the light) and the chill.

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

[5] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine and Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 153.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] “Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.” Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p. 143.

[10] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Consciousness, p. 116.

[11] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

[12] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 60.


Image: “Evolution” by M. Bruneke. CC. License.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.4.3, “The Good Promise-Keeper”

summary by David Baggett

For human natural goodness, Foot gives the example of an anthropologist who made a promise to a Malayan native never to photograph him. Later he could get away with doing it, and the picture would have been valuable, but he had made a promise. Foot commented about this case that in giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that (though not absolute) the harmlessness of its violation does not annul. Breaking the promise would have been defective. She thought there was a “natural-history story” to explain why the disposition to break a promise is defective, just as much as there is a natural-history story to explain why it is a defect not to be able to walk or see. She used Anscombe’s story about the need for the institution of promising if we are going to be able to get each other to do the sorts of things that constitute the human form of life.

RMH, in contrast, argued that promising creates an obligation in this way: if a speaker says sincerely that all promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised, he must himself be expressing his own subscription to the rule of the institution of promising and thus stating a moral principle. There is no deduction, therefore, from a fact to an obligation. It’s characteristic of words like “promise,” which have meaning only within institutions, that they can be introduced into language only when certain synthetic propositions about how we should act are assented to.

Foot thought there was a deduction of our obligation to keep our promises from our human form of life. Keeping our promises is an instance of justice, she thought, and she said that justice is one of the virtues that is an “Aristotelian necessity.” Foot was not an absolutist about keeping promises. Apart from killing the innocent, torture is the only absolute prohibition she mentioned. Torture was also an absolute prohibition for RMH, who spoke out of his own experience as a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2.

At any rate, Hare thinks Foot’s deduction doesn’t work. She treats our nature too much as a single unified package, and she was too optimistic in her account of practical rationality as sensitivity to the reasons this package gives us. Consider things like the fact that humans lie, cheat, or steal. Are these Aristotelian categoricals? Can we rule them out as irrelevant because they are not directly or indirectly related to our survival and reproduction? The accusation here is not that Foot was trying to deduce moral goodness from biology or from the inclinations we supposedly share with the hunter-gatherers who formed most of our evolutionary history. Other philosophers have tried to do this and failed.

For example, Arnhart argued that the good is the desirable (as in Aquinas) and the desirable is what is generally desired by human beings. By “generally desired” he meant that these desires are found in most people in every society throughout human history, and he thought evolution had given us these desires because they enhanced our chances of survival and reproduction. He listed twenty such desires, and his framework principle was that if a desire is general in this sense, belonging to this list, then its fulfillment is good. He did not find disinterested benevolence among these desires, and he concluded that it is merely utopian, beyond the order of nature, and foisted on us by religion.

Hare thinks it instructive to compare Arnhart with Foot on these points. Foot said that there is the same form of inference for humans and for wolves, from the Aristotelian categoricals about a form of life to conclusions about goodness. Unlike Arnhart she pointed out that Wittgenstein said at his end that he had had a wonderful life, but she said that he was not, in any ordinary sense, happy. Happiness is the human good only if we think of happiness in the way we discussed in relation to the letter-writers earlier, for whom it was already too late for happiness. But this kind of happiness is an ideal, and there is the same kind of difficulty as we found with RMH’s treatment of ideals. Foot had a worked-out theory about moral goodness in terms of natural facts and then had trouble integrating into it the distinction between the natural traits we should admire and the natural traits we should not. She included among Aristotelian categoricals seeking justice, but not the desire for power over others. This is better than Arnhart, but there’s a price. We know with Arnhart where his conclusions come from, even if we disagree with them. He faced the nasty as well as the nice aspects of our nature, and he was consistent about how we should live. In the same way Aristotle was. For Foot, by contrast, there was a gap. The categoricals for plants and non-human animals are supposed to be reached by saying how for a certain species nourishment was obtained, how development took place, what defenses were available, and how reproduction was secured. Answers to such questions for humans come in terms of deception and coercion, just as much as the recognition of rights. Foot was right to want a different way to think about the human good. But she did not give us a method for doing so that is “naturalistic” in the way the claim about the same “form of inference” from categoricals to virtues implies.

Hare thinks one basic problem is that the four natural ends given by Hursthouse don’t cohere, which means that our nature is not harmonious in the way she needs and claims. She wants to reject the view that human nature is “just a mess,” because she thinks this leads to moral nihilism and despair. But she does not consider the possibility that we are not exactly a mess, but a mixture of the kind Kant describes. This means that we are, as she denies, a “battleground.” There’s a dilemma here for her. Either the Aristotelian categoricals need to be already screened by ethical principle, in which case we get a deduction from nature only by this screening. Or we can allow that any typical feature leading to the four natural ends is a virtue, but then we will not get the deduction of a conclusion about moral goodness or the good human life. It’s better to allow that most of what we think constitutes a good human life comes from our ideals, which are not deducible from the four ends at all, though these ends are constraints on our ideals.

Another way to put the dilemma is that Hursthouse has two theses that conflict, when conjoined, with her admission that much of the work in deciding how to live does not come from the four ends, and that there is no fifth end characteristic of human animals from which to derive these decisions. These two theses are, first, what Hare calls “virtue dominance” and, second, deductivism about virtue. If the virtues are to be deducible from our nature, then they ought to give us a great deal more content about how to live than the admission that there is no fifth end implies.

We should concede that our nature puts a constraint on what we should say about a good human life and therefore about obligation. Foot and Hursthouse are right that it makes sense to talk about a human specific good, at least in ordinary speech, and so to talk about the kinds of human goodness that contribute to it. Even so, such facts don’t obligate us. Hare thinks the one exception is that we have a self-evident obligation to love God and neighbor, but none of the more specific obligations of the second table follow.

For DCT, it is God’s command that obligates. We should have the faith, though, that God wants our good, and commands us to live in a way that will be conducive to this end. So, even though obligations are not (with one exception) deducible from facts about human nature, those facts can serve as constraints on what we should believe about how God has commanded us to live. Does DCT derive an ought from an is? Hare thinks not, but defending his view is subtle. It’s true that God’s commanding something makes it obligatory, and that this is the right criterion (according to DCT) for the judgment that we ought to live a certain way. But we have to make what is the criterion our criterion, by a decision of the will.

Practical rationality can give us contradictory maxims, both of which fit the facts of human nature, unless we’ve rigged those facts by incorporating ideals into their specification. It’s not silly to be torn on occasion, even torn apart. When we bring the interests of others into the picture, especially the interests of those not related to us by friendship or family, most of us in the richer parts of the world fail most of the time. We simply do not think about the impact our own lifestyles have on those who are suffering in the rest of the world. Foot was herself not blind in this way, but she was too optimistic about the rest of us.

Hursthouse ends with the need for hope that we can flourish together, and not at each other’s expense, and she knows that this hope used to be called belief in (God’s) Providence. If we can’t rely on our nature to produce this ethical commonwealth, though, because our nature is a mixture of good and evil, then what is the ground of this hope? It must be something beyond our nature, and God’s sovereignty is an answer to be considered, as we did in the argument from providence in the first chapter.


John Hare’s God’s Command, Section 4.4.2, “Good Roots and Good Wolves”

summary by David Baggett

Hare admits that we should accept at least one central point from Foot and Hursthouse: there is a natural goodness that is conducive to the good life, or simply the good for both animals and plants. The roots of an oak tree are an example, which play a part in the life of the tree: they obtain nourishment. It matters in the life of the organism, and its absence would be a defect. This is an example of an Aristotelian categorical. Goodness in the roots is their ability to carry out this contribution to the life of the organism. We can deduce this goodness from this ability. Hare says this is an acceptable form of deductivism. This is not yet moral goodness, however.

RMH resisted any sort of deduction like this. But if we were to accept the notion of a primary goodness for, say, a tree, what would it mean to say a tree is good? We could say that something is good means one is drawn by it and to endorse the claim that the thing deserves to draw one in that way. Aquinas said goodness belongs to everything that is, and degrees of being and degrees of goodness are coextensive. So here would be a way to think of a tree as good: a tree is good because goodness belongs to everything that is. Another picture of goodness involves every kind of life created by God being good. Yet another, less theist, account of the goodness of, say, an oak tree says goodness consists in the range of features possessed by mature oaks that are flourishing, and this goodness is what the oak is aiming towards. (But this language of “aiming towards” is the language of final causation, and, while it is true that we make use of it continually for organisms, in both lay and professional talk, it is not clear whether it can be validated within the strict terms of the biological sciences.)

Can we make sense of the idea that animals have more value than plants in general, though this may not be true in all cases? Yes, Hare thinks, if there is value in the things animals can do that plants can’t. There are of course dangers with such a hierarchy, but Aristotle could be right about plants and animals and wrong to deny that all humans have the same basic value. On Hare’s view, all humans have the same basic value because they equally receive God’s call, not because they are now equally capable of valuable activities.

Even if we can give an account of the goodness of a tree, though, this is not what Foot was talking about when she said that the roots have a “function.” Foot tried to tie function to features that have to do, directly or indirectly, with self-maintenance or reproduction. Even so, the plants are in competition with each other, and not only with other species; there are strong specimens and weak, and just as many weak as strong. There is no deduction from a particular plant’s typical performance to its doing well or from the typical performance at a time for the set of members of a species to the species doing well.

Hursthouse has a corrective to this, conceding that on occasion it’s indeterminate whether an individual x is overall a good x, and that even an individual perfectly endowed in every relevant respect may still not live well given its circumstances. Survival, reproduction, pleasure or absence of pain, and the well-being of our social group are the natural ends against which we can measure whether some human life is a naturally good life, she claims. Hursthouse and Foot admit that these are value-laden and not simply statistical. But the picture leaves us without a way to say why some dispositions to pursue these four ends are good and some dispositions to pursue these same four ends are not. Even with plants, the result of Hursthouse’s corrective is to make the primary good of the oak frustratingly indeterminate.

Now we move to non-human animals. Foot characterizes a free-riding wolf as defective. RMH had resisted such deductions. What’s at issue here is the distinction between what Foot called “primary” and “secondary” goodness. A particular kind of pig or horse is useful to humans, for eating or riding, and this is secondary goodness. But the question is whether there is a kind of goodness for the pig or the horse in itself. RHM denies that ‘horse’ is a functional word like ‘screwdriver’ is. But Hare says this doesn’t show that there isn’t a primary goodness of horses. So far, Foot’s right.

A complication, though, is that RMH’s examples were of domesticated animals, which have been bred so as to serve human uses. Foot’s examples were of wild animals, the wolf and not the dog. For Foot, defect or natural goodness in an individual is relative not to the actual environment of the individual (like a zoo), but to the normal habitat of the species. Hare sees many difficulties here.

But the main case for the present chapter is the free-rider wolf. Is it defective? One reason this is important is that the cooperation of wolves is the kind of thing de Waal suggests is a precursor or requisite of human cooperation. On Hare’s view, in light of the contingency of the adaptiveness of a trait, there’s no determinate answer to the question of what the good incidence of the trait is within a species. The basic problem here, as Hare sees it, is that what Foot called Aristotelian categoricals work much better with an essentialist conception of species, like one Aristotle operated with.

Hare concludes that, in light of all this, we again need modesty about whether there are determinate answers in many cases to questions about whether an x is a good x, and indeed about the very notion of a species, since the different modes of classification are in part determined by different interests of ours. None of this bodes well for deductivism.

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.



[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Cosmos: “Moral Value,” Part I

Summary by Frederick Choo

Part 1

In chapter 4, Baggett and Walls focus specifically on intrinsic human value. Historically, religious perspectives played a role in forming convictions about human rights. On the Judeo-Christian view, human beings are not only creatures of God, but are made in the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that there is no plausible alternative to this religious framework to ground natural human rights. For example, some ground human rights in capacities like the power of reason, but this ends up excluding infants and those with mental disabilities who are often thought of as also having the same rights. Baggett and Walls do not want to say that respect-for-persons is supportable only on religious grounds. They make a more modest claim that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism compared to competing theories.

9780199931194First they consider egoism. Kai Nielsen’s proposal is that a respect-for-persons may be derivable from egoism (the view that one ought to act in one’s own self-interest). Based on this, he thinks that one ought to treat others well in order to be treated well himself. The first problem is that this fails to account for the moral standing of others; it is just a strategy to be treated well. As Baggett and Walls put it, “What does my acting in my interest have to do with you possessing intrinsic worth?” A second problem is that this fails to account for cases where not respecting others does not affect one’s self-interests. For example, one may be powerful and need not fear repercussions for treating people poorly. This results in having no reason for respecting others since it does not affect one’s self-interests. Hence egoism by itself cannot account for intrinsic human value.

Next, they consider utilitarianism/consequentialism. On this view, one ought to maximize utility. For example, some utilitarians say that one ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of utilitarianism, infamously said that the notion of intrinsic natural rights is nonsensical. Rights exist based on what is advantageous to society. Whether rights are protected or not is determined by social utility.

John Stuart Mill, another proponent of utilitarianism, likewise thinks that the sole reason for according rights to people is based on social utility. As Mark Linville notes, there is no necessary connection between an action’s maximizing utility and its being fair or just. On utilitarianism, in a case where someone is raped, the wrongness of rape is not because their right is violated, but is because of the generally injurious consequences for the community. So utilitarianism fails to safeguard individual human dignity and worth.

Utilitarians offer many responses. One reply is that we tend to be unreliable calculators of consequences, so it is better to always safeguard individual rights than not to. Still, the problem persists that no individual’s rights or dignity is beyond sacrificing if, by doing so, utility is maximized. A rule-utilitarian may say that one should follow the rules which maximizes utility. But still, this is far from saying that certain acts are categorically wrong. All that can be said regarding an act is that it is at most merely consequentially wrong. Angus Menuge has said that on utilitarianism, if a tyrant was more effective in brainwashing people or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right. Hence utilitarianism has problems accounting for human value.

Next, Baggett and Walls consider Philippa Foot’s virtue ethics that is based on a natural law theory. Foot’s book called Natural Goodness is an account of virtues based on how human beings are normatively structured, how we typically behave when it comes to those teleological aspects of our human functioning. Her book has three distinct parts. First is her argument against non-cognitivism (the view that moral statements do not express propositions that can be true or false). Second is her defense of naturalistic moral objectivity. Last, she handles objections from utilitarians and from Nietzschian nihilists.

Baggett and Walls focus on the second section. Foot argues that we make judgments of goodness and defect of living things by reference to a teleological account of the life form based on its species. Her account covers evaluative judgments of the characteristics and operations of other living things. What an animal should do depends on the kind of animal it is. Likewise, what we (humans) should do depends on our being humans. This means that moral defect is really just a form of natural defect. Vice is a form of natural defect while virtue is a form of natural goodness, rooted in patterns of natural normativity. Based on the kind of species one is, some behaviors simply conduce better to one’s flourishing than others.

Take for example the virtue of promise keeping. In giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that contains in its nature a prescription that harmlessness in neglecting does not annul. Some accuse her account of being utilitarian. She however says that utilitarianism (and other forms of consequentialism) has its foundation in a proposition linking goodness of action to the goodness of state of affairs. Her theory of natural normativity has no such foundational proposition.

While Baggett and Walls agree with many aspects of Foot’s work, such as moral cognitivism and moral realism, they have some significant reservations with her main account. The most significant is that her account does not answer whether human flourishing is of intrinsic value. While she affirms it, her account does not provide a foundation for it. First, Foot has to account for differences between pestilential creatures, animals, and human beings. If she wants to say that biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or tigers do not entail objective moral facts, then how does she go from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings?

Second, there is a problem of smart free riders. Why should one keep their promise if no damage is done? Foot says that there is still a moral duty to keep it to cultivate the sort of character of being trustworthy. But her reply still cannot account for a really smart promise breaker who is able and willing to get over her aversion to breaking promises when doing so is unlikely to detract from optimal species-flourishing.

Third is the problem of a deflationary analysis. Foot’s account is characterized as neo-Aristotelian, but Aristotle’s worldview was far from naturalistic. While Aristotle placed great emphasize on being human, his view wasn’t content with our being merely human.

Fourth is a transition problem. While she affirms good and noble human characteristics, she departs from a naturalistic, biologically grounded account of moral virtues. Furthermore, by limiting her resources to human flourishing, it seems unlikely she will have enough for the sort of thick account that virtue approaches to ethics tend to have as their distinctive strength.

Fifth, Baggett and Walls raise a normativity challenge. While they agree she is right, in one sense, to say that morality depends on our natures, this still leaves out an analysis of what that nature is exactly. Talk of telos (purpose) and human nature in a Godless world is difficult to sustain. Foot thinks that the designs of a Divine Mind are irrelevant to the natural-teleological descriptions of human beings. But if we have been created by God in His image, with his intentions in mind, then this is a relevant consideration.

Sixth is an epistemic challenge. Foot’s work does not address the contemporary challenge (in regards to moral knowledge) posed by evolutionary moral psychology.



Introduction and Summary of David Baggett’s and Jerry Walls’ God and Cosmos: Chapter 1, “Alone in the Cosmos”

Summary by Frederick  Choo

In their previous book, Good God, David Baggett and Jerry Walls defended their theory of theistic ethics. Their theory grounds rightness in Divine commands and goodness in the Divine nature. In this second book, God and Cosmos, they aim to address competing secular ethical theories and show that they ultimately fail to provide an adequate account of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation. Instead, God and cosmos together best explain the moral phenomena (hence the title). Their methodology is to begin with various moral data, and then look at the explanations to see which best explains the various data. In short, they advance a cumulative abductive moral argument for God. In doing so, they assume moral realism, the view that objective morality exists. Whether moral realism is true will be addressed in another book to be published. God and Cosmos is rich in philosophy and many philosophical terms; in my summary, I will try to simplify it to be more accessible to the lay reader and highlight the main points.

Chapter 1: Alone in the Cosmos

Naturalism or materialism is the idea that the physical world exhausts reality. This view is held by many intellectuals. In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss naturalism and its history. They start a historical sketch all the way from the ancient philosopher Thales. Their brief sketch is meant to make three points.

The first point is what they call the deflationary fallacy. This fallacy is when one attempts to co-opt and appropriate a thinker (or insight) to the cause of one’s worldview, despite compelling counter evidence. For example, some might cast the stoic philosophers as allies of naturalism. But this is difficult because their ethical thought was bound up in their theology as seen in many of their writings.

9780199931194The second point is to highlight the diversity among secular thinkers. While Baggett and Walls generally use words like “atheistic,” “secular,” and “naturalistic” interchangeably, they note that there is a need to disambiguate at certain points. For example, an ethical realist who believes that there is no God may believe that moral facts are not reducible to natural facts. He is an atheist and secularist, but not a naturalist. This is an example of the diversity among secular thinkers. One significant set of atheists, who stand in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, thinks that the death of God results in having no objective morality. The result is moral nihilism where there is no God and no objective morality. Another significant set of atheists think instead that without God, nothing much changes at all. On such a view, objective morality still exists. They however disagree upon which secular ethical theory is correct. Various secular theories need to be addressed differently. In this book, Baggett and Walls aim to address a range of different theories which affirm objective morality (and, again, will address those who deny objective morality in a later book).

The third point they wish to bring out is a third option beyond theism and naturalism. Their salient example is Thomas Nagel’s account. Nagel thinks that naturalism is bound up with problems, yet he remains an atheist, resisting theism, by offering another alternative. In his book, Mind and Cosmos, Nagel argues that various features of the human condition – value, meaning, cognition, consciousness, agency – are beyond the ability of naturalism to account for. In finding an adequate explanation of value, Nagel divides the question into the constitutive issue concerning what value is all about and the historical question of how it could come about that we could recognize objective value and be motivated by it. Nagel opts for a nonintentional teleological (purposive) explanation. He writes that “these things may be determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.” So Nagel thinks objective morality exists, yet naturalism cannot ground it, and yet he resists resorting to theistic foundations.

Nagel’s recurring theme is also that the mind must be central to the story of reality, something that somehow guided the process form the start. However, Nagel is skeptical about theism for a few reasons. First, Nagel rejects theism because it does not seem to be a live option for him. He says while others may find it so, he has not been blessed with the sensus divinitatis (a sense of the Divine). Second, in finding an adequate explanation, he is committed to antireductionism and that certain things cannot be explained as merely accidental. The most important is “the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unified everything on the basis of a set of common elements and principles.” Nagel thinks that accepting the Divine mind as the stopping point leaves the explanation incomplete. Theism on his view “amounts to the hypothesis that the highest-order explanation of how things hang together is of a certain type, namely intentional or purposive, without having anything more to say about how that intention operates, except what is found in the results to be explained.” He further thinks theism and Cartesian dualism (the view that there exists a non-physical mind and physical body) fail to achieve a single natural order. For example, by appealing to miracles, one attempts to explain features of the world by appealing beyond the world. Hence he thinks that theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world and fails to explain intelligibility from within the world. The only kind of theism that Nagel may accept is a non-interventionist one, where God created the world in such a way that it was henceforth self-sustaining and self-regulating.

Baggett and Walls offer a few replies. First, the fact that Nagel himself does not personally have a sense of the Divine is no evidence against theism. There is still the question of whether the arguments for theism are good ones. Second, Baggett and Walls argue that theism can meet Nagel’s aesthetic bias in favor of an integrated worldview. They note that C. S. Lewis himself seemed to have anticipated such an objection, where people find miracles intolerable. The reason why they find it intolerable is because “they start by taking Nature to be the whole of reality. And they are sure that all reality must be interrelated and consistent.” Lewis agrees with the aesthetic constraint for an integrated worldview but points out that the problem is taking nature to be the whole of reality. If God is real, then miracles still fulfill the aesthetic constraint. Lewis also addresses the concern that miracles are irregularities or arbitrary interventions. He says that if miracles have occurred, it is because they are the very thing this universal story is about; it is where the plot turns. Atoms, time, and space are not the main plot of the story. So miracles are not arbitrary or ad hoc interruptions. Lastly, Lewis also argued that if naturalism is true, we have no reason to trust our convictions that nature is uniform. But if theism is true, then it is plausible that our convictions are generally reliable, yet it also entails that miracles are plausible and are part of our world alongside the uniformity of majority of events. So theism can meet Nagel’s aesthetic constraint for an integrated worldview, and Nagel’s rejection of it is premature.



A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Editor’s note:  “Sloan Lee has been one of my [David Baggett] dearest friends since we attended graduate school together at Wayne State in the 90s. He’s as passionate as he’s brilliant when it comes to philosophy and we’re thrilled to welcome him to as a contributor.”

by Robert Sloan Lee

book coverIn 2001 William Lane Craig and the late Paul Kurtz met at Marshall College (in Huntington, West Virginia) to debate the question: Is goodness without God good enough?  Craig argues “no” and Kurtz argues “yes.”  The transcript of that debate serves as a jumping off point for scholars of various persuasions to weigh in on the issues and offer some analysis of the original exchange between Kurtz and Craig.  The outcome is a book edited by Nathan L. King and Robert K. Garcia entitled Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, Maryland, 2008).

While we will not deal with every issue raised in the debate, we will address some of the critical points – and other issues will be explored further when examining the responses to the debate by the other authors.

Chapter One: Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig, “The Kurtz-Craig Debate”

Opening Statements

kurtzPaul Kurtz interprets the question of the debate as asking: Can someone without belief in God behave morally?  Can they be a moral person?  He mentions a number of historical individuals who rejected belief in the existence of God, but who were nevertheless moral.  Unfortunately, he gets some of his facts wrong.  As it turns out (despite what Kurtz says) Hume, Kant, and Socrates all believe in the existence of God (and Immanuel Kant even makes the supposition that God’s existence is a requirement for the rationality of ethics).  Further, the founders were not all deists as Kurtz suggests (though a few of them were), given that most of them were devout Anglicans.  He says that while a great many non-believers have lived moral lives, we are told by propagandists for religion that atheist and skeptics must be immoral (but he doesn’t say who these propagandists are).  He then turns from a defensive strategy to an offensive strategy by raising a number of questions and objections to the idea that belief in God is needed to be a good person.  He says that people who believe in God disagree as to what things should be considered moral and what things should be considered immoral (e.g., on the issues of divorce, polygamy, contraception, and abortion).  Further, he suggests that basing morality on an unchanging and inflexible religious authority is not well suited for a world that is rapidly changing and creating new moral problems and dilemmas.  He adds that secular humanists are aware of their moral responsibilities and that the best way of solving moral problems is the method of ethical intelligence – and that we should not rely on ancient religious books to help us think about moral issues.  Unfortunately, he neither says anything about this method in the debate (not that one expects a full exposition of the method in a debate format) nor why one cannot learn moral truths from a book just because it happens to be ancient.

craigWilliam Lane Craig begins by agreeing with Kurtz.  He says that those skeptical of God’s existence can (and often are) impressively moral people – but that the question of importance is not whether one has to believe in God’s existence in order to be moral, but whether there is such a thing as goodness without God.  In short, he is saying that non-believers are moral, and that their morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (because there would be no foundation for morality if God did not exist).  More specifically, Craig advances two central claims.  Craig’s first central claim is laid out in the following proposition:

[A] If theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Theism gives us a basis for objective moral values (because God’s nature, he contends, is the source of objective moral values).
  2. Theism gives us a basis for objective duties (because God’s commands – stemming from God’s nature – constitute our duties).
  3. Theism gives us a basis for moral accountability (because God will ensure that evil is punished and that righteousness is vindicated).

Craig’s second central claim is expressed as follows:

[B] If theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Atheism gives us no reason to think that humans are the basis for objective moral values (because without God, there is nothing special about humans and no reason to think that humans are any more moral than other animals – and what we call “morality” is just a method adapted as a survival strategy and nothing more).
  2. Atheism undercuts the idea that there are objective moral duties (because mere animals attempting to survive have no obligations – and it doesn’t matter what you do for there is no objective right or wrong).
  3. Atheism undermines the notion of moral accountability (because, given the finality of death, harming or helping others will neither be punished nor rewarded).

Kurtz and Craig’s First Rebuttals

Kurtz highlights Craig’s concession of his first point – namely, that skeptics about God’s existence can (and often do) live moral lives.  He adds that such individuals have lives which they take to be personally satisfying and meaningful.  Unfortunately, while all this is correct, it misses Craig’s point – namely, that there are no objective grounds for living a moral life on those terms.  Therefore, while a person may choose to live a moral life, there is no objective obligation to do so.  Further, while a person might find their own life satisfying and meaningful, there is no objective sense in which their life is significant or meaningful.  Kurtz’s argument strikes closer to home when he points out that Craig has not explained how the theist is supposed to choose between the many different religions or between the many different conceptions of God.  Further, even if we determine which God is the right God, we still have the difficulty of trying to determine what that God commands.  The fact that God exists, says Kurtz, doesn’t solve the problem of moral disagreements – even where everyone involved in that moral dispute agrees that God exists.

Kurtz then turns his attention to the claim that God exists.   He claims that the problem of suffering is the “Achilles heel of the classical notion of an omnipotent and beneficent God” and that theism is riddled with “contradictions.”  More formally, Kurtz’s argument can be presented as follows:

  1. If God exists, then there would be no suffering in the world.
  2. There is suffering in the world (for example, the 3000 people that died in the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11).
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. [from 1 and 2]

The problem with Kurtz’s argument against the existence of God here is that he did not keep up with the philosophical progress on this issue – specifically, Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).  There, Plantinga shows that it is at least possible that God have a good justifying reason for permitting evil to occur.  So, instead of saying that God would permit no suffering in the world, the theist can say that God permits no unjustified suffering in the world.  Given this, the theist does not have any reason to think that premise (1) of Kurtz’s argument is true.  Those who want to know more about advances made on this issue should consult Daniel Howard-Snyder’s anthology, The Evidential Problem of Evil (Indiana University Press, 2008), or the more accessible work of Michael L. Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction To The Issues (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998).

Kurtz concludes by returning to the theme that humanists have obligations in terms of their relationships to other people and that they can “abhor” inhumanity and refuse to treat others in degrading ways – and that, further, Craig is wrong to say that humans would act like “despots” without the existence of God.  However, this misses Craig’s view completely, because Craig neither said that people would act like despots without God nor did he say that people would treat each other in degrading and inhumane ways if God did not exist.  What Craig said was that we have no objective grounds for choosing to behave morally without God – given that wickedness can go unpunished and that righteousness can go unrewarded (and given that there are no obligations beyond what we arbitrarily choose).  Craig, again, did not say that we would lack “moral sensibilities” without God.  Instead, he holds that those sensibilities would have no objective grounding.

Craig’s rebuttal consists in reiterating just these points – namely, that Kurtz has apparently not given us any objective account of morality or moral obligations on humanism.  So, what we are left with is nihilism (that is, the view that there are no enduring and objective values upon which we can base our lives).  Craig also goes on to point out that they are not debating the existence of God.  So even if Kurtz is right (when he incorrectly suggests that suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of God), that will have no bearing on Craig’s claim that the nonexistence of God entails that there are no grounds for objective obligations.  In short, Craig is arguing that objective morality is simply an illusion (at best), if there is no God (and that this is true whether or not God exists).  Craig says much the same thing concerning the question of how one decides which conception of God is correct – namely, that this is a secondary issue to his central claim (and that one can try to figure out which view of God is correct at some later point).  He concludes that while there may be standards that are relative to human desires, on Kurtz’s view, there are no “unconditional, objective, categorical moral principles or standards…” – and just as evolutionary processes have produced no “guinea pig morality or horse morality,” those processes are incapable of producing an objective morality for humans.

Kurtz and Craig’s Second Rebuttals

In his second rebuttal, Kurtz claims that how we know what is right or wrong is a question that comes before the question of what the objective grounds of morality are.  In short, moral experience must precede moral ontology.  This is an interesting claim, but one would like to see it developed further and its impact on the debate made explicit.  Beyond this, Kurtz simply repeats the questions and claims of his first rebuttal when he asks Craig which version of theism should be endorsed.

Craig responds by saying that the question of which account of God is correct “is not the question of the debate.”  In short, it is off-topic.  He says that he is happy to come back to Marshall College again to face Kurtz in a debate on the existence of God but that this is not the debate they are currently conducting.  Unfortunately, Craig does not respond specifically to the claim that Kurtz makes concerning moral epistemology being prior to moral ontology. (Ed.–Craig could have replied that such epistemic priority does nothing to undermine the ontological primacy of God; this site has explored such issues before in explicating the way the order of being can be different from the order of knowing.)

Kurtz and Craig’s Concluding Statements

The concluding statements add nothing new – with Kurtz saying that many who deny the existence of God live exemplary moral lives, and Craig responding that this is not the point.  Instead, Craig says, atheistic humanism is a “noble lie” that helps those who hold it avoid the nihilism that unavoidably and undesirably follows from that view.

In the following installments, we will examine how various philosophers respond to the claims made by Kurtz and Craig.  Fortunately, both Craig and Kurtz were also provided with the opportunity to reply to these essays at the end of the book.  Joseph Joubert made a telling point: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it” [Pensées of Joubert, edited by Henry Attwell (London: George Allen, 1896; page 35)].  Whether or not Craig, Kurtz, and the other authors settle the issues broached in the course of this discussion, they at least do us the service of engaging the debate.


Image: “Milk Way goodness” by Leo Vaha. CC License. 

Chapter 5, Part I, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Alternatives to Divine Command Theory”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

In this chapter Evans looks at metaethical views that some will see as a rival to a divine command theory (DCT) to see what strengths and weaknesses they have. Some aren’t really competitors, and for those that are Evans will try to show that they face serious objections that a DCT does not face. He will try to select examples of each view that are prominent and representative, without claiming that such views exhaust the territory.


J. L. Mackie was well known for his moral skepticism and “error theory” in ethics. Ordinary morality, he thought, is best thought of as a kind of “folk theory” that turns out to be false. Mackie presents a number of arguments for this view. First, he thought a subjective account of morality accounts for the relativity and variability in moral beliefs and practices. Second, objective moral value would be “queer” in the sense of being peculiar; they have no foundation in the world as described by science. Third, it’s hard to see why moral values should supervene as they do on natural features of the world. Fourth, it’s hard to see how such objective values could be known even if they are real. Finally, a reductive explanation of beliefs about values undermines any claim to objectivity.

How should a DCT’ist respond? Well, she can join her voice with various other ethicists (Kantians, natural law theorists, utilitarians, and the like) to argue for the objectivity of ethics. Beyond that, though, she can show that several of Mackie’s arguments work well against naturalistic theories. Values and other moral properties are indeed queer in a naturalistic world, but not a theistic one. Likewise it would be strange in a naturalistic world that humans have cognitive capacities that give them understanding of the good and the bad, of right and wrong, but not in a theistic one. Interestingly, Mackie himself imagined how God could play a role in ethics much as Evans envisions. Mackie didn’t subscribe to the view, but he thought it coherent and could see how it could defuse the Euthyphro objection.

Nietzsche, another atheist, similarly saw ethics as connected with God. His scathing critique of secular ethics was based on the way it tended to assume objective morality is possible without God, which he thought ludicrous. In this way he offered the testimony of an “unfriendly witness” that objective moral obligations require God and make sense only, or at least the most sense, if God exists.


Expressivism as a metaethical theory comes in a variety of forms, from the emotivism of Ayer to the sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn. What they hold in common is “non-cognitivism” or “anti-realism”: the rejection of the idea that moral propositions express objective truths. Instead moral statements express emotions (Ayer), attitudes (Stevenson), prescriptions as to how one should behave (Hare), plans to which one is committed (Gibbard), or perhaps a complex mix of such subjective states (Blackburn).

The strength of the expressivist view is that it appears to account for why morality matters, and why moral claims can motivate as they do. It links to our actions. But Evans wants to raise a question about whether it links morality to behavior in the right way. The question he wants to raise is not whether moral judgments can motivate, but whether on expressivist views such judgments can have the kind of authority morality ought to have.

Many early criticisms of the view were based on the claim that such views do not seem to do justice to moral disagreements and arguments. Relatedly, Geach said it couldn’t make sense of moral propositions figuring in logically valid arguments. This led to more sophisticated accounts. At the heart of such views lies the idea that even though moral statements do not express propositions with genuinely objective truth values, there is a natural human tendency to “project” our emotions, attitudes, prescriptions, plans, etc. onto the objective world. This projective theory gives a reductive explanation of why moral language has the features it does that enable moral statements to mimic propositions that have genuine representational content. Blackburn and others have in turn developed accounts of the “logic” of moral statements that explain how it can be that these statements mimic the properties of genuinely representational propositions, even though they actually don’t refer to anything.

Evans thinks the real difficulty with the view lies with the way that expressivism, even in its projectivist, quasi-realist form, undermines the authority of moral judgments, especially judgments about moral obligations. Take emotivism, for example. Why should Mary care about the approval of James? One might think the problem is that the James doesn’t mean enough to Mary, but that’s not really the point. The challenge is to account for moral authority. The more sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn may appear to help with this problem, but the help is illusory. For in the end moral judgments merely mimic statements that can be true or false independently of the stance of the person making the judgment.

Blackburn doesn’t think his view makes truth relative, because if we “step back into the boat,” as it were, and put back the lens of a sensibility, there’s nothing relativistic left to say. Evans replies, though, that for the person who has awakened to the truth of projectivism, even this will be difficult to do or even impossible for some. How can we get back into one particular boat and believe that it’s the “right” boat, when we know there’s no such thing as the right boat?

If we could segregate our beliefs about normative ethics from our metaethical beliefs, perhaps Blackburn’s view would work, but it is not easy to wall off our beliefs about morality from our actual moral convictions. In the end, quasi-realism is a form of moral skepticism, only Mackie’s theory is transparent and honest, while the skepticism on Blackburn’s part is disguised by the fact that he continues voicing some elements of his own moral stance as if they were objectively true judgments. But the truth on offer seems a pseudo-truth, a “semantic shadow” of the attitudes and stances taken by ordinary people.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 


Image: “testament closeup” by J. Kramer. CC License. 


Summary of Chapter Two of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin

In the second chapter of Keith Loftin’s God and Morality: Four Views, philosopher Michael Ruse presents a case for what he calls naturalist moral nonrealism. This is a metaethical view that combines atheism with a form of moral subjectivism. On this view, all facts are natural facts, there is no supernatural reality, and moral principles depend on what people believe.

Ruse first argues that there are connections between natural selection and altruism. Our brains are subject to genetically determined rules. Related to this, we are social beings who must get along with one another in order to survive. As Ruse puts it,

“What evolutionary biologists believe, therefore, is that nature has given our brains certain genetically determined, strategic rules or directives, which we bring into play when dealing with new awkward situations. Rather like a self-correcting machine…we humans can adjust and go in different directions when faced with obstacles to our well-being. The rules are fixed, but how we use the rules is not” (p. 60).

This leads to a discussion of the origin of morality. Some of the rules that we’ve inherited from our ancestors are moral rules. We take them to be moral norms. For example, the belief that we ought to help one another is such a rule, and is genetically determined. Substantive moral beliefs, then, are adaptations. Non-human animals have similar adaptations, insofar as they exhibit altruistic behavior related to kin selection. An animal’s relatives share the same genes. Given this, altruism serves as reproduction by proxy. There is also “reciprocal altruism,” where help is given in expectation that it will be returned.  And these mechanisms are also at work in humans.

Ruse, then, is an advocate of evolutionary ethics, but rejects the traditional view that includes belief in the progressive nature of evolution. He accepts ethical skepticism, which is the view that there is no justification for our moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely “psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness” (p. 65). He contends that this follows from his views about evolution. We could have evolved a very different set of moral beliefs, and for him this is a challenge to those who argue for objective morality.

The upshot is that morality can be explained, but it cannot be justified. Yet morality is such a strong impulse in human beings, and is very difficult to ignore. We think that morality has an objective basis because this is evolutionarily advantageous, but it is still not true. It seems to be objective, but it simply is not. Interestingly, Ruse states that like Hume, he will forget about his skepticism when he goes back into the real world.

Ruse also argues that Christians must be careful when appealing to God as a justification for their metaethical views, because of the well-known Euthyphro problem. He does discuss a natural law reply to Euthyphro, stating that

“The Christian says that loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by God…The Darwinian says loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by natural selection” (p. 73).

There are several criticism worth considering related to evolutionary ethical skepticism. First, it is unclear to me how “reciprocal altruism” is genuine altruism, given that it is given in order to get something in return.

Second, there is a vast discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma, with many options on offer for Christian theists that are intended to resolve it. I take the natural law response as described by Ruse to be one of the weaker theistic replies. The replies given by William Alston and Robert Adams, for example, are much stronger.[1]

Third, moral realists, naturalistic or theistic, will be dissatisfied with the views espoused by Ruse in this chapter. They will agree that for Ruse, as Keith Yandell puts it, “[t]here are no obligations, only feelings of obligation. Such feelings have no more relation to reality than a strong sense of being surrounded by unicorns” (p. 82). There is no correspondence to reality here, only groundless moral feeling that is selected for via Darwinian processes. Morality is merely an adaptive feature of our evolutionary history.

This leads to a serious problem. Yandell points out that on this view, no set of morals is better than any other:

Better and worse, insofar as they have any sense, are relative to the propensities built into the survivors. If the propensities lead to murder and rape, then our mores will come to favor these, and in no objective sense will this be any worse than if the propensities led to love and peace” (p. 85).

Finally, Mark Linville points out in his reply that Ruse ends up saying that he believes something (morality) that he knows is not true. Once you know that morality is not true in any objective sense, why continue to follow it, especially when it frustrates other desires you possess? There are reasons, good reasons, to be moral. But Ruse’s view does not possess the resources to ground a robust form of moral motivation. This is one of the many serious flaws it contains.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

[1] See my “Divine Command Theory” at


Image: “Evolved” by thezombiesaid. CC License. 


Mailbag: A Question on Prior Obligations to Divine Command Theory

By David Baggett 

A reader of the site sent this question:

In reading a review on NDPR of C. Stephen Evans’ book God and Moral Obligations (, I found the author’s (Terrence Cuneo) argument to be strong ones against Evans’ proposed solutions to the “prior obligations” objection to DCT. It seems that even on a DCT, moral obligations still seem to have some unconditional “oughtness” about it. 

I always thought that the strength of a DCT versus a non theistic robust ethic view (perhaps like Wielenberg’s) was that a DCT was able to explain the unconditional “ought” of moral obligations. For if moral obligations were brute facts, then the question “why should I love my neighbor” is answered by “because it’s simply the right thing to do,” and then if someone were to ask, “why is it the right thing to do?”, the final answer would be: “because it just is.” I thought the advantage a theist has is that he can say that an action is right because God commands that it is right, which on the surface sounds like it provides a wider explanatory scope compared to the “it just is” answer. However, the prior obligation objection seems to ask the question “Why should I obey God’s commands” and it would seem like we have a separate obligation (apart from the Will of God), to obey his commands (as the reviewer points out). Thus, it would seem like a theistic component to explain moral obligations might not be better off than the robust ethicist’s view.

What are your thoughts on this? I understand that you’ve been reviewing Evan’s book on the website. I’ve found the site to be encouraging BTW, thank you so much for contributing to the body of Christ!


Great question, thanks for sending it along! You are not the first to point to this part of Cuneo’s review and to express concern about this aspect of divine command theory. Evans’ book is fantastic, and the prior obligations objection to DCT is indeed interesting, although it doesn’t, to my thinking, pose an intractable objection. I’ll try to explain why.

On the surface there’s certainly an issue to deal with. If DCT provides an exhaustive theory of moral obligations, and we have an obligation to obey God, then our obligation to obey God to obey God comes from our obligation to obey God. This is circular, so something has gone wrong. What should we say about this?

Two of this site’s contributors, friends Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan—who collaborated on a terrific book entitled Did God Really Command Genocide?—deal with this objection (pp. 165-67). They note the objection goes back to Mackie and, before him, Cudworth. They note a few problems with the argument. First, they note, it generalizes, and as such would apply “to every account of moral obligations within any given ethical theory, secular or theological.” One example they adduce is social contract theory. “According to a social contract view, moral obligations are those requirements that rational, impartial persons in a society would agree to. But Cudworth (and Mackie) could argue that one is morally obligated to such a contract only if there is already an obligation to follow such hypothetical agreements. So the hypothetical agreement can’t itself be the source of moral obligations.” See their point? I think this is an excellent insight. In this way we could say the objection, if it were to hold, would show too much.

What do they think has gone wrong with the argument? They think it equivocates between these two claims:

1 If God commands X, then we have an obligation to do X, and

2 There is an obligation to do what God commands.

Only the second proposition affirms an obligation to obey God. 1 makes the conditional claim: IF God commands X, THEN we have an obligation to do X. 1 is consistent with there being no obligations at all. But if God issues a command, what God commands is rendered obligatory. DCT only requires 1, whereas the prior obligations objection requires 2. As Matt and Paul put it, “[T]he divine command theorist need not hold that there is a prior obligation to obey God. All he needs is that God jointly possesses various characteristics or traits such that his act of commanding is sufficient to constitute moral obligations,” which is just the sort of thing that one like Robert Adams does in Finite and Infinite Goods and elsewhere. Jerry Walls and I similarly argued in Good God that, among God’s qualities that give him moral authority to issue binding commands, are his perfect knowledge, love, and power. (See pp. 122-23.)

Even if we don’t have a prior obligation to obey God’s commands, that wouldn’t mean we don’t have moral reasons to obey God. Not all moral reasons are duty-related. Something being morally good, for example, gives us moral reason, perhaps even compelling moral reason, to do it, even if we don’t have a moral obligation to do it. This is one among several other sorts of replies one can give. Among others Evans mentions include that God does actually command us to obey his commands, after he’s established his moral trustworthiness; or, even if the objection were to work, divine commands could still be sufficient to general moral obligations without being necessary; or that the prior obligation to obey God’s commands is a nonmoral ought.

It seems to me that the robust realists generally water the whole concept of moral obligations down, so in a face-to-face battle between theistic ethics and secular robust realism, what’s often getting discussed are two different conceptions of moral obligations. Wielenberg, for example, talks about moral obligations arising from enough compelling normative reasons to perform a particular action. To my thinking such a conception of moral duties is a watered-down, domesticated view of what a moral duty is, and insufficient to do justice to what Evans calls the Anscombe intuition—the notion that a moral obligation carries with it a binding prescriptive power and authority that can’t be reduced merely to compelling reasons to perform an action. Cuneo, the same fellow who pressed the prior reasons objection to Evans, also raises an objection against Wielenberg similar to what I’m suggesting here. He writes this:

Consider Wielenberg’s own view concerning moral reasons. According to this view, when an agent has decisive moral reason to act in some way, then that agent is morally obligated to act in that way (7; cf. 52). In one place, Wielenberg claims that “to have an obligation just is to have decisive reasons to perform a certain action” (57).

There are two ways to understand this position. According to the first — call it the unqualified view — a limited range of normative facts, such as moral and prudential facts, favor or justify responses of certain kinds. If this view is correct, when a moral fact favors or justifies the performance of an action, then there is a moral reason to perform that action. However, under this view, the term “moral reason” does not designate a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that a moral fact bears to a response of a certain type. Rather, it designates a state of affairs in which there is a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response (or, alternatively, it designates a moral fact that bears the favoring relation to a given type of response).

Now distinguish two variants of the unqualified view. According to the first variant, moral obligations determine moral reasons. This variant, however, cannot be the view that Wielenberg accepts, since his position is not that moral obligations determine moral reasons but that moral reasons either determine or are identical with moral obligations. According to the second variant, moral obligations just are decisive moral reasons. This variant of the view avoids the problem just stated. … But it is not easy to understand. This view implies that the state of affairs that consists in some moral fact M decisively favoring a response is a moral obligation. But M cannot itself be a moral obligation, for no complex state of affairs could have M as a constituent and be identical with M. It is not apparent, however, what other sort of moral fact M could be.

Now consider the second understanding of Wielenberg’s position. Under this position — call it the qualified view — the term “moral reason” designates a special type of favoring relation, namely, the moral favoring relation that something could bear to a response of a certain kind. This relation is just one of many such relations. In fact, according to this view, every system of norms generates and entails a correlative set of reasons: norms of etiquette generate etiquette reasons; norms of chess generate chess reasons; norms of the Mafia generate Mafioso reasons; norms of morality generate moral reasons, and so on.

If this view were correct, it trivially implies that if we are morally obligated to refrain from acting in a given way, then there is a moral reason for us to refrain from acting in that way. Unfortunately, this position also trivially implies that if we are “Mafioso required” to refrain from a given action, then there is a Mafioso reason to refrain from performing it. While this position might be able to explain how moral obligations are grounded in (or are identical with) moral reasons, it implies nothing regarding the normative weight of these reasons and the obligations they determine (or are identical with). Instead, it invites us to ask the higher-level question whether we have reason to act on the qualified reasons we have.

In brief, I see no compelling reason to think the prior obligations objection should be construed as evidence that (secular) robust realism provides as good an explanation of objective moral obligations as does classical theism and divine command theory.

Image: “hate mail” by T. Johnston. CC License.