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

By David Baggett 

In this last installment, I’ll wrap up what I have to say by way of a critical reflection on Shafer-Landau’s (SL) chapter on God and ethics in his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? I’ve resisted his caricature of theistic ethics in the form of an extreme voluntarist account that would render morality altogether arbitrary. In fact, I think instead an Anselmian God both makes good sense of and perfectly safeguards necessary moral truths and our pre-theoretic moral intuitions of the deepest ingression.

In SL’s view, in contrast, theists should embrace the horn of the Euthyphro dilemma that says God commands something because it’s already good or right. Again, in my view, this very distinction between the good and right is important, for DCT properly applies to the right, not to the good. On his view, however, he thinks that he’s shown that “even theists should resist taking up the view that God is the author of the moral law. God is constrained by the moral laws, in the same way that God is constrained by the laws of logic.”

SL notes that most theologians aren’t troubled by saying God can’t do what’s impossible, which is true enough, but he’s wrong to think his view is congenial to the classical view of theism. Here’s the difference: when I say God can’t do something, I mean to say it’s either impossible to be done (which hardly impugns his omnipotence) or it’s fundamentally contrary to God’s nature to do. The constraints on his behavior, in the latter case, are internal to his nature. This is exactly what SL denies, arguing that morality is autonomous and functions as an external constraint on what God does. This move is not needed, though, if the Anselmian is right about God’s essential perfection. The Anselmian view threatens neither God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, nor ontological primacy.

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Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

On my view, there’s likely a solid analogy between logic and morality after all in a certain respect. Each features a number of necessary truths, but since I think necessary truths have for their best explanation thoughts God thinks in all possible worlds, I see the necessary truths as reflective of God’s very own nature. This is how I generally would go about explicating the locus of goodness—in God’s nature, not his commands; but logic too likely reflects unchanging aspects of God’s perfect and essential nature. Perhaps the truths of mathematics, rationality, and even epistemology too. SL would doubtless be unconvinced, but the point is this: there are rigorous ways to lay out such a case, establishing a picture far more complicated than the simplistic caricatures he happily exposes for their flaws.

The crux of the difference on this score between me and SL can be seen in his suggestion that comes after his discussion: “I am suggesting that theists amend this traditional view to say that God’s omnipotence enables God to do anything, so long as it is compatible with the laws of logic and the laws of morality, neither of which are divinely created.” I happily concur God can’t violate the necessary truths of morality and logic, but their necessity finds its best explanation in God’s unchanging nature. The constraints are internal to God’s nature, not external, allowing room for the possibility that God functions after all as the better explanation and firm foundation of the truths of morality. SL has done nothing to undermine a nuanced, careful analysis of theistic ethics. He’s only defeated straw men.

It’s interesting to note that SL characterizes it as a piece of Socratic wisdom that we see actions as right prior to God’s endorsement of them—in light of the recurring claim Socrates made that he was under a divine mandate to engage in the reasoning he did. His skepticism was not about any ultimate God, but rather of Euthyphro’s pantheon.

SL concludes the chapter by suggesting that theists not take God to be the author of moral law, but rather assume that God perfectly knows, complies with, and enforces it. He says that if his criticisms of DCT are on target, this option is the preferable one for theists, and also carries with it the promise of objective ethical laws.

I agree with his view there is moral objectivity, and so sympathize with that goal. But this chapter of his pertained to God and ethics, and the way he cast the discussion—whether morality requires God—was, to my thinking, problematically strategic. It made the burden of proof for the theistic ethicist unreasonably high. It would be like my asking the atheist, “Is atheism necessary for morality?”

It stacks the deck too much in favor of the other view. The better question is whether there’s good reason to think that God functions at the foundation of morality. Or, does morality in its distinctive features point to a divine reality? Alternatively, what’s the better explanation of objective moral values and duties? Or something in that vicinity.

Finally, note once more that SL’s claim is that by knocking down the most simplistic version of DCT he’s thereby defeated theistic ethics, which is classic overreach, in my estimation.


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

By David Baggett

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

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

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

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

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Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

CoverSL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma

By Frederick Choo

In general, Divine Command Theory (DCT) says that “If God commands X, then X is a moral obligation for us.” I will limit my discussion of DCT to moral obligations and prohibitions, which are used synonymously with rightness and wrongness. These are deontic properties which is distinct from goodness, which is axiological. For example, something can be good to do, such as becoming a lifeguard to save lives, but we do not have a moral obligation to do so. So I will use DCT as a theory of rightness that presupposes a theory of the good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) is often raised against DCT. For example, in the case of rape Walter Sinnott-Armstrong asks, “Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.” In short, the ED says:


(1) God has no reasons for His commands,


(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

Embracing (1) leads to objections such as God’s commands being arbitrary which makes morality arbitrary. Furthermore, this means that God’s commands could possibly be what we consider abhorrent, such as commanding that we ought to torture babies solely for fun resulting in a moral obligation to do so. Any objection to this that says God has reasons is a move away from (1).

Embracing (2), shows that actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, making God at most an epistemic authority who is just conveying His perfect moral knowledge to us. However DCT proponents want God’s commands to explain moral obligations instead.

From the ED, I think a third option is clear, which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

God just needs good reasons to make an act morally obligatory. An act itself does not have the property of being morally obligatory prior to God’s command, but can have other relevant properties, such as being morally good or even “non-moral considerations ultimately based in God’s nature.” God’s commanding however adds certain properties that make the act obligatory. To use an analogy, let us think of other obligations. Consider a legal obligation not to smoke in a certain area when implemented by law. For the obligation to arise, there must be good reasons behind why it is implemented by law. Yet those reasons by themselves are not sufficient to give us legal obligations unless it is actually implemented by law. Hence a legal obligation arises because it is implemented by the law and there are good reasons for it being implemented. Likewise, DCT proponents say that a moral obligation arises because it is commanded by God and God has good reasons to command it.

One objection to (3) is based on a principle that moral properties strongly supervene on non-moral properties necessarily. Matthew Jordan says, “The doctrine of global moral supervenience, the uncontroversial thesis that any two possible worlds that are identical in all non-moral respects must be identical in all moral respects, implies that moral truths – at least the most fundamental ones – are metaphysically necessary.” So moral obligations are in some way determined and fixed by their non-moral properties. How exactly does moral supervenience amount to an objection to (3) exactly?

In “An Essay on Divine Authority”, Mark C. Murphy argues that DCT “must be false, for it, in conjunction with a very weak and plausible claim about God’s freedom in commanding, entails that the moral does not supervene on the non-moral.” To show this, he argues that according to voluntaristic versions of DCT, where God is free to choose what to command, there can be two possible worlds exactly the same in their natural features, but God gives different commands and thus we have different moral obligations in two possible worlds that have the same natural features. This seems to violate the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral, since two worlds with the same natural features should have the same moral obligations.

How may a proponent of a voluntaristic version of DCT reply? C. Stephen Evans points out that for the theist, non-moral properties can include both natural and supernatural properties. Supernatural properties are “properties possessed because what has the properties has a certain kind of relation to God,” such as “being commanded by God”, “being preferred by God,” or “being pleasing to God” or “being conducive to a better relation to God.” If an act is commanded by God, then it will have the further properties mentioned, such as “being conducive to a better relation to God” which is a non-moral property. These non-moral properties may even be linked to natural properties such as “being conducive to the agent’s happiness.” If a relationship with God is conducive to our happiness, and such a relationship requires that we follow what He commands, then the property of “being commanded by God” would be one that could alter the moral status of an act, especially for those who think that the moral status of an act is linked to whether the act is conducive to an agent’s happiness. Hence on DCT, it is both natural and supernatural properties that make up non-moral properties which moral properties supervene on. If so, then there can be two worlds alike in all their natural properties but differ in their supernatural properties, and hence moral properties can be different as it supervenes on both. So moral supervenience along with God’s freedom does not amount to an objection against (3).


Evans, C. Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jordan, Matthew Carey. ““Theism, Naturalism, and Meta-Ethics”.” Philosophy Compass 8, 2013, 373-380.

Miller, Christian B. “Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Murphy, Mark C. An Essay on Divine Authority. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality”, in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, edited by Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King, 101-115. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Image: “Socrates” by Oscar Anton. CC License. 

A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Chapter 2

Summary by Robert Sloan Lee

Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Chapter Two: C. Stephen Layman, “A Moral Argument for the Existence of God”

In this chapter, Layman unfortunately ignores most of the debate between William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz, but he does present an interesting argument for the existence of God (or an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded) based on the idea that there are necessary moral truths which serve as reasons for our actions.  However, his moral argument addresses the issue from a different angle.  Specifically, while Layman argues that the existence of morality requires the existence of God or a certain sort of afterlife, he judiciously clarifies that he is not arguing that this is the case simply because morality is somehow dependent on God (even if that turns out to be the case).

Layman’s Overriding Reasons Argument

To motivate his argument, Layman makes two points concerning our reasons for doing or not doing something.

laymanFirst, Layman observes that many moral philosophers hold that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – and that that these reasons are more important than the non-moral reasons that a person may have for not doing that thing (where, for instance, those non-moral reasons are reasons of inconvenience or self-interest).  In short, moral reasons always override non-moral reasons.  For example, suppose one had promised to meet one’s friends at a specific time and was late for no good reason.  One has a moral obligation to be honest as to why one is late, and this obligation overrides the embarrassment that one might feel in admitting to one’s friends that there was no good reason for being late, even if lying would allow one to avoid the embarrassment.

Second, Layman introduces the claim that if there is no God and no life after death, then it is not true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are always the moral reasons for doing that thing.  In other words, if it is in one’s self-interest to do something immoral (and there is little chance of getting caught or little chance of greatly harming others in doing it), then the non-moral reasons for doing something wrong can override the moral reasons for not doing it – at least if there is no God and no afterlife.  However, that would mean that it is false to say that we always have overriding reasons for doing the right thing rather than doing the wrong thing.  The insight and force of Layman’s argument resides in pitting concerns about self-interests against concerns about morality.  If God does not exist and if there is no afterlife, then we face the possibility that “humans have overriding reasons to behave immorally.”  This is a suggestion that “people who take morality seriously” find “profoundly disturbing,” because it means that there can be cases in which “doing one’s duty would (at least sometimes) be irrational in the sense that it would involve acting on” what we normally take to be “the weaker reasons” – and this is supposed to be seriously problematic even if those cases are relatively rare.

The example that he gives to illustrate his argument involve a Ms. Poore who has lived many years in restrictive (but not life-threatening or health-threatening) poverty.  She has an opportunity to steal a large sum of money (without getting caught) that would permanently deliver her from poverty – and she knows that the persons from whom the money is stolen are wealthy enough that they will not be greatly harmed by the theft.  Further, if she does not steal the money she has reason to believe that she will remain in poverty for the rest of her life.  Layman says that stealing might not be wrong in every case, but if there is neither a God nor an afterlife, then Ms. Poore has stronger reasons for stealing the money than she does for doing the right (or moral) thing – and then it follows that moral reasons are not always overriding reasons that trump reasons of self-interest.

Further Considerations

Layman says that it is hard to see how we know that it is true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – he calls this the “overriding reasons thesis” or ORT.  However, he indicates that it is at least as reasonable to believe this claim as it is to believe other claims that we commonly accept (though we do not seem to know how it is that these others are true) – specifically:

(a)  The future will be like the past.

(b)  It is rational to trust one’s sense experience unless one has special circumstances showing them to be unreliable.

In the case of (a), any attempt to justify (a) by appealing to past experience to certify what our future experience will be like the past will simply assume the truth of (a) rather than proving it.  Again, with (b), any appeal to sensory experience to certify that (b) is true will just end up assuming the truth of (b) rather than demonstrating the truth of (b).  Most philosophers simply accept the truth of (a) and (b), and Layman thinks that something similar can be said about the principle of overriding reasons (or ORT).

To state Layman’s argument precisely, we get the following:

  1. If God does not exist and there is no afterlife in which virtue is rewarded, then it will not always be true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing.
  2. It is always true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing. (ORT)
  3. Therefore, either God does exist or there is an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded – or both. (from 1 and 2 by modus tollens and DeMorgan’s Law)

An Objection to Layman’s Argument

Layman then goes on to consider some objections to his argument and how he would reply to those objections.  One objection (and perhaps the most interesting objection) is that the argument does not establish that morality is dependent on God.  In this respect, it would seem that Layman’s conclusion may be more in line with Kurtz’s views than Craig’s (despite the former being an atheist and the latter being a theist).  Layman responds to this objection by agreeing that morality may not be dependent on God.  He writes:

I’ve not suggested that God by fiat (or otherwise) lends moral reasons their force.  Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that moral reasons have whatever force they have independent of God.  Nevertheless, what a good God can do is guarantee that moral reasons (requirements) are never trumped by other sorts of reasons.  Unfortunately, moral reasons can be trumped assuming naturalism is true.  [emphasis mine]

However, since Layman thinks that moral reasons can never be trumped by non-moral reasons, he believes that naturalism is false, and this leads to his conclusion that either God exists (in such a way as to connect self-interest and morality) or that there is some other sort of afterlife in which virtue is always rewarded.  So, whether or not morality can be grounded in God’s commands or God’s nature, the fact that there are necessary moral truths should (according to Layman) have certain consequences for what we believe about the existence of God or the afterlife.

Parting Thoughts

One aspect of moral truths that sometimes goes unmentioned is that such truths are necessary (if true at all), and one can appreciate that Layman does not overlook this intriguing feature of moral truths.  Given this, explanations of morality that appeal solely to contingent features of the world – features that could have been otherwise (such as our evolutionary history, our environment and education, or our genetic predispositions) – simply do not appear adequate to the task.  Further, if these necessary moral truths can exist independently of God (a possibility which Layman concedes – at least for the sake of argument), this would appear to run counter to Craig’s position that an objective morality must be dependent on God.  One hopes that Craig would address this issue in his response to these essays (as it constitutes a particularly interesting point on the relationship between the ontology of theism and the ontology of ethics).  So, while Layman does not analyze the debate between Craig and Kurtz, some of the issues he raises are pertinent to it, and his own variant of the moral argument is an intriguing one.

Image:By Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) –, Public Domain,





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 4, Part II, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the last four objections discussed.

The Prior Obligations Objection

Wainwright calls this objection the Cudworth objection, since it can be found in the writings of Ralph Cudworth. It’s rooted in the worry that DCT is too narrow and does not account for all genuine moral obligations. A full-fledged DCT holds that all moral obligations are divine commands. The prior obligations objection argues that there must be some moral obligations that are not grounded in divine commands because they hold antecedently to or independently of divine commands. Specifically, the claim is that humans have a moral obligation to obey God. This obligation is not itself grounded in God’s commands. There’s a prior obligation to obey God that explains why God’s commands can create new obligations. So there must be some moral obligations other than those that are created by God’s commands.

Defenders of DCT could say that these “prior obligations” to obey God are not actual obligations but just hypothetical ones: To say that we have a prior obligation to obey God is just another way of saying that we are obligated to obey God if God issues commands, but there is no actual obligation until a command is issued. The conditional proposition itself can be understood as simply spelling out the meaning of the claim that God has moral authority. To say that God has moral authority is just to say that he has the right to issue commands that ought to be obeyed. The sense of prior oughtness should not cause the DCT’ist worry, Evans thinks.

Notice, too, that this objection could apply to any moral theory, but such objections are wrongheaded. But the critic might object and suggest there is nothing hypothetical about the fact that we ought to obey God. It’s a standing obligation, not a hypothetical one. But to this Evans replies by reminding readers of his earlier distinction between sorts of ought statements—not all of them are moral obligations. We may even have moral reasons to obey God without those reasons constituting moral obligations.

One final reply Evans offers is this, which can supplement what’s already been said: perhaps, since the Bible does command us to obey God, God can convert the antecedent fact that humans ought to obey God’s commands into an actual moral duty, in what Evans calls a “bootstrapping” manner. On this view it is both true independently of God’s commands that one ought to obey God, but also true that “one ought to obey God” is in fact a moral obligation, because God has commanded us to keep his commands.

At worst, the objection would show that some obligations aren’t rooted in God’s commands, whereas others may be.

The Supervenience Objection

Murphy offers a version of this objection. It’s directed against an identity version of DCT, according to which God’s commands just are moral obligations. God’s prerogative in issuing commands, combined with an identity version of DCT, Murphy argues, entails the falsehood of the supervenience of the moral on the nonmoral. The idea behind this notion of supervenience is that the moral properties of things are supposed to be fixed by their non-moral properties. Moral properties, such as being obligatory, do not “float free of their other properties. So it can’t be the case that two actions are exactly alike except that one of the acts is morally obligatory and the other is not obligatory. Evans agrees with Murphy on this, and that if DCT entailed the falsehood of supervenience, that would be a problem for DCT.

Now, why does supervenience appear to be threatened? Because if God has discretion in his commands, then there could be two possible worlds exactly alike in their natural features, but in which God gives different commands. If moral obligations are determined by God commands, then it follows that actions in one of those worlds will be exactly like those in the other except for being morally obligatory. But this violates the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral.

It is true there’s a difference in the two situations: in one world God issues one command, and in the other a different command. But if God’s commands are moral obligations (on the identity thesis), the difference is a moral difference, but there’s no difference in nonmoral or natural properties, and thus a violation of supervenience.

Now, one response might be to reject divine discretion here, but Evans isn’t willing to do that. A second possible reply is to appeal to weak supervenience rather than strong supervenience. According to strong supervenience, “property x supervenes on property y” = a claim that in any possible world whatever has property y will also have property x. On weak supervenience, instead, “property x supervenes on property y” = it is necessarily the case that anything that has property y in some particular world will also have property x in that world. Since weak supervenience confines its requirement to a single possible world, Murphy’s transworld constraint is removed and supervenience is easier to satisfy. But Evans doesn’t go that route, opting instead for a way to satisfy both strong and weak supervenience.

To do so, Evans points out the distinction between non-moral properties and natural properties. There may be non-moral but supernatural properties: such as the property of being pleasing to God—in each situation, what it pleases God to do might be different. So there might be a difference in nonmoral properties after all, and supervenience is thereby preserved.

Consider two situations identical in all their natural properties, but God commands X in one of them but not the other (either in different worlds or in the same world). The command/noncommand is a moral property, but other supernatural properties are non-moral, such as: “being pleasing to God” or “being preferred by God.” This preserves the supervenience intuition: “no difference in moral properties without some difference in non-moral properties.”

Mysterious Relationship Objection

What is relation between divine commands and moral obligation? Three possibilities are:

  1. God’s commands are the cause of moral obligations.
  2. Moral obligations supervene on God’s commands.
  3. God’s commands are identical to moral obligations.

Having discussed identity and supervenience variants of DCT, Evans considers a causal version. Murphy argues that the problem with a causal version of DCT is that such a view does not allow for God’s commands to be at least partially constitutive of one’s reasons for actions. It’s true that if God commands us to do X, then we are obligated to do X, and thus have reason to do it. But it’s not God’s command that gives us that reason. A bully who threatens to beat you up unless you do X gives you a reason to do X, but the bully doesn’t have moral authority over you.

In reply, Evans suggests that the proponent of a causal version of DCT should say that it is the fact that God has the requisite authority that gives him the causal power to establish moral obligations. The special sort of causation at play is the authority of God that makes God different from the bully.

Promulgation Objection

Recipients of God’s commands, according to some critics, must know that the commands come from God; otherwise no obligation is generated. I may be obliged to loan a car to my friend to whom I owe a favor, but an anonymous note saying to leave my car with its keys available produces no duty to do so. Likewise with God’s commands if we don’t know where they came from.

How does Evans reply? He rejects the idea that for God to successfully communicate a command to humans, he must communicate the command in such a way that it is obvious that the command comes from God. Two helpful distinctions can be brought to bear here: (1) We must distinguish between the recognition of a moral obligation and the recognition of the moral obligation as a divine command; and (2) one must distinguish a recognition of a moral obligation from an explanation of the existence of a moral obligation.

Believers and unbelievers alike can recognize various moral obligations. It might be a function of God’s grace for God to conceal that he’s behind obligations initially in order to mitigate judgment on those who disregard them.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

Image: “Inside Pieterskerk, Leiden” by Canadian Pacific. CC License. 


Chapter 4, Part I, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

Summary by David Baggett

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the first three objections discussed; following posts in the series will cover the last four objections.

The Euthyphro Problem

From an early Socratic dialogue the question came, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Either way we seem to have a problem: either the gods are arbitrary or holiness is independent of the gods. We can extend the dilemma to morality and ask if God approves what’s moral because it’s moral or if something is moral because God approves it. If the latter, this leads to two undesirable results: it looks as if things like hatred and cruelty would be good if God approved of them, and it looks as if it will be impossible meaningfully to praise God as good, since goodness is whatever God says it is.

Evans thinks the Dilemma poses a problem for a universal voluntaristic ethical theory that tries to base all ethical properties in God’s commands or will, but not his theory that delimits DCT to moral duties based on some theory of the good, in his case a natural law conception. For then God’s commands aren’t arbitrary, and God can be rightly praised for his goodness.

Since Evans opts for the divine discretion thesis, he thinks God has some latitude in the commands he issues. Does this reintroduce arbitrariness? Evans doesn’t think so, since the commands would provide a special test of devotion to God, and perhaps be especially conducive to practices that would nourish such devotion.

Evans concludes that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for a DCT of his type.

The Horrible Acts Objection

Another objection is that DCT violates deep moral intuitions about what’s morally right. If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so, for example. The standard response to this charge is that God is necessarily good. It follows from this that God could not possibly give commands to do what is morally horrible because of the intrinsic badness of such acts. Louise Antony is mistaken in claiming that this move abandons DCT.

Recently some critics have extended the argument by saying that if, counterfactually, God were to issue such horrible commands (even if he never actually would or could), DCT would entail our obligation to engage in such horrible acts. Such critics provide no logical semantical theory to explain and justify these claims, but rather seem to rely on intuitions. But Evans plays along and says there’s no problem here, because (following Pruss on this score) such an argument would apply to any and every moral theory. For example, if the categorical imperative required us to torture innocents, it would be morally obligatory to torture innocents (on that theory). Someone might say the categorical imperative never would or could require us to do any such thing, but of course the DCT’ist says the same of DCT. Perhaps in fact the impossibility of God making such a command would be even more intuitively obvious than the impossibility of deriving an obligation to torture innocents from the categorical imperative.

The Autonomy Objection

Other critics object that a DCT of moral obligations is objectionable because it undermines the autonomy of humans as moral agents, and they believe that such autonomy is essential to morality. In one form, the charge is that morality, to be recognized as morality at all, must be based on reasons or arguments that humans can recognize for themselves. James Rachels argues this. For him DCT doesn’t even qualify as a moral theory. Other critics admit DCT is a moral theory, but argue it’s a bad one, because it infantilizes humans, conceiving of us as childlike creatures incapable of deciding important matters for ourselves, needing to be told what to do.

Let’s start with the claim that DCT does not even count as a moral theory because a genuine moral theory must ground morality in principles and/or arguments that an agent can recognize as true and/or sound for herself. Evans’ first point is that his DCT does not have to recognize a moral obligation as a divine command in order to have knowledge or at least justified belief that he or she has the obligation. Such people recognize their moral obligations, presumably in the same ways as other people, and it is hard to see how the fact that those obligations are really divine commands could undermine their autonomy, since they are ignorant of that fact.

So Rachels’ argument must be intended to show that it is coming to believe that one’s moral obligations are divine commands that undermines authority. But why should this follow? If one supposes that an individual has come to accept a DCT on the basis of a philosophical argument, then it is hard to see how this could undermine the moral agent’s autonomy. Rachels’ requirement that the individual form moral beliefs on the basis of reason and/or arguments that the individual has considered for herself would seem to be met.

Maybe Rachels or someone else could push the point by insisting that following the dictates of another person would not count as following moral principles at all. But sometimes following the dictates of human persons does result in moral obligations (think of an air raid warden during wartime). In God’s case, Evans has argued that he has genuine moral authority which enables his commands to create moral obligations. This is perfectly consistent with autonomy in Rachels’ sense.

Now consider the second version of the autonomy objection, which does not claim that divine commands are incompatible with the kind of autonomy a moral agent must have, but rather that following divine commands would be a kind of childish version of morality. Evans admits that even if God gives us commands, by giving us freedom to obey or disobey his commands he treats us as moral beings who have the opportunity freely to follow his principles.

Beyond that, though, Evans thinks it’s easy to show that God does not necessarily infantilize humans by giving them commands as to how they should live. Whether something like that is true would depend on the nature of the commands God gives. Perhaps if God gave humans detailed instructions on a minute by minute basis for every detail of their lives then this criticism would have weight. For in that case human persons would not need to use their rational faculties or develop them in order to know how to live. The task would simply be to listen to God’s continuing instructions and follow them. But if we assume that God does not give such commands, but rather gives humans commands that are at least somewhat general in nature, this would not follow. God’s commands need to be interpreted and applied, and their implications thought through. God might well decide to give commands of just this nature so as to require humans to develop the capacities he has given them.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

Image: “The Ten Commandments” by Walt Jabsco. 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.