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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. 

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. 

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 2

By Dave Sidnam

In my last post, I looked at Plato’s Republic and the standard he set for a truly objective moral foundation, one that can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism. In particular, I highlighted four items that he asserted were necessary: 1) a transcendent standard; 2) a standard that is recognizably good; 3) a standard people can know; and 4) a standard people are able to adhere to. For Plato, if any of these items is missing, nihilism wins. I also argued that, while Plato’s understanding of the requirements for a foundation for ethics was correct, his details for them were not. Instead, classical theism (in general) and Judeo-Christian theology (in particular) can provide a solid foundation for morality, hopefully in a way that Plato would have appreciated. In this post, I’ll take a look at how Judeo-Christian theism meets Plato’s four requirements for a truly objective morality.

1) God – The Transcendent Standard

In significant strands of Judeo-Christian thought, God is the Good. Like Plato’s Form of the Good, God is the ontological source of everything else. Goodness is established in His character and grounded in His immutable nature. Being loving is good because it is God’s unchanging nature to love. Grace, mercy, honesty, and patience are all good because they are eternal character traits of God. The Christian Platonic theistic ethicist who has made this case most powerfully in recent decades is, of course, Robert Adams, in his seminal Finite and Infinite Goods.

Unlike Plato’s Form, however, the Judeo-Christian God is a rational, personal agent; God is the type of substance that can actually bear moral qualities. This fact overcomes a major problem with Plato’s system: how can things that appear to be characteristics or qualities actually be substances? John Rist explains this aptly:

God and God’s nature, Platonically understood, are the successors of the evaluative Forms and of the Good itself, and not merely are they successors, but they indicate metaphysical progress, for goodness looks like a quality, though Plato, as Aristotle realized, needs his forms to be substances. Unless goodness is substantiated in and as some sort of “good thing,” it appears to be an ungrounded quality, and hence incapable of doing the philosophical work for which it was proposed.[1]

Augustine ties the conceptual worlds of Plato and Judeo-Christian theism together nicely:

There is, accordingly, a good which alone is simple and, therefore, which alone is unchangeable—and this is God. This good has created all goods.[2]

There’s another theoretical advantage here. If there is such a thing as “the Good,” God’s being the Good makes sense of “the Good” being good, morally and metaphysically, unlike any merely abstract object—causally inert, impersonal, and unable to be good. “God is good,” then, obtains, both as an “is of predication” and “is of identity.” Another way to put it is in terms of the de re / de dicto distinction. “God is good” obtains both de dicto (the proposition is necessarily true in virtue of the requirements of the office of Deity) and de re (God himself is good—necessarily, essentially, perfectly).


2) God as The Good – A Recognizable Standard

The famous dilemma in Euthyphro—Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?—was no dilemma for Plato; for him, the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[3] Likewise, the Good was loved by the gods because they recognized that it is good.  For Plato, if you could see the Good directly you would immediately recognize its goodness:

In the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything.[4]

In Judeo-Christian theology, the same is true for God: If we could see Him as He is, we would immediately recognize his goodness. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Isaiah:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him…and one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

From Isaiah, we see the biblical perspective that rational creatures in God’s presence immediately recognize (and constantly proclaim) that He is good (which is one aspect of being holy). Along with this rational response, we also see emotional responses: the unfallen angels adore and worship God for His goodness and fallen man immediately realizes that he fails to meet this perfect standard of goodness.

This is not to say that God’s goodness will always be easily reconcilable with our clearest moral intuitions. Old Testament conquest narratives, for example, can be difficult on occasion to square with such intuitions. But difficulty is not the same as impossibility, and even the difficulty may not be as bad as many think, as Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan have argued persuasively in Did God Really Command Genocide? (chapters of which are summarized, one per Monday, on this site).


3) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Knowledge

For Plato, man, as rational animal, had the right faculties to know the Good (at least theoretically). Through recollection, right opinion, or through the hard work of philosophy, man has the ability to seek and comprehend the Good. In the Judeo-Christian world, it is the Imago Dei (image of God) that gives men and women the power to know God/the Good: God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27) The image of God in man provides the foundation for us to be rational agents.

Interestingly, both Plato and Judeo-Christian theism agree that while mankind has the ability to know God/the Good, this knowledge is generally limited and corrupted. For Plato, the process of the rebirth of the soul into a new body makes one forget what one has learned in the spiritual realm. This knowledge must be reconstructed via recollection, or right opinion must be converted to true knowledge via philosophy. As we can discern from the training Plato required for the guardians in The Republic,[5] this is an arduous task that requires proper conditioning and training from a very young age.

In Judeo-Christian theology, the fall of man has left him with rational faculties through which he can know God, but, by default, that knowledge is superficial and subject to corruption. Humankind can increase its knowledge of God both through general revelation[6] and special revelation (the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, in Judaism, and the Old and New Testaments for Christianity). While God can only be known in detail through special revelation, general revelation is enough to provide mankind with a rudimentary knowledge of God and of morality.[7] For both Plato and the Judeo-Christian theist, knowledge of The Good is possible, but it requires effort both rationally and emotionally to acquire and apply.


4) The Image of God – The Foundation for Moral Ability

For Plato, the tripartite nature of the soul gives humans the ability to be moral (or immoral) agents. The head (rational element) allows people to know the right thing to do and the chest (spirited element/will) provides the power to do what is right. If these two are aligned in a just fashion, then people can and will act in a moral way. If however, the belly (bodily desires) becomes the guiding source for the chest instead of the head, then men will act in carnal and unjust ways.

In Judeo-Christian theology, it is the Imago Dei and God’s grace that impart the ability for us to be moral agents as well as rational agents. Through reason, man has the ability to know the good. Through the will, with God’s assistance, man has the (theoretical)[8] ability to do the good. God’s transformative grace can enable us not just to live morally, but to become new creatures, to be inwardly transformed, and ultimately to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ. If God commands us to do something, He will give us the grace, if we avail ourselves of it, to obey the command. Clement of Alexandria helps us to connect all of these concepts together:

Further, Plato the philosopher says that the end is twofold: that which is communicable, and exists first in the ideal forms themselves, which he also calls “the good”; and that which partakes of it, and receives its likeness from it, as is the case in the men who appropriate virtue and true philosophy.[9]



Plato was an amazing philosopher, and he had a deep understanding of the requirements for a truly objective morality; however, the details of his view on how these might actually be fulfilled were flawed. Classical theism provides a foundation for objective morality that arguably meets Plato’s four criteria in a way that would have both felt familiar to him, while also serving as a needed corrective on certain key issues his worldview was not able to address. Judeo-Christian ethics rests on a foundation that is transcendent, recognizably good, knowable, and that humans, with God’s assistance, can obey. This is obviously just a sketch of such an argument, but if it works, classical theism can defeat Thrasymachean nihilism in a way that other systems, especially naturalistic ones, cannot.

But, given this foundation, why should people be moral? In the next posts I’ll look at Platonic moral motivation and its corollaries in classical theism.

Part 3


[1] John Rist, Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality, p. 38.

[2] St. Augustine, The City of God, Chapter X.

[3] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[4] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 517c.

[5] If you are not familiar with The Republic, Plato spends a great deal of time talking about what type of education is required for the guardians and philosopher kings. This starts in their early youth as they are conditioned to love the right kinds of things and continues for decades with training in music, gymnastics, mathematics, and other subjects. Without this extensive and arduous training it is doubtful that one can come to know the good in the necessary way. This helps us see that the ultimate Good includes but is not exhausted by the Moral Good.

[6] See Romans 1:18-20.

[7] As discussed in the first post in this series and fortified here, Plato is an excellent source for seeing how much man can determine about God and morality solely from general revelation.

[8] Precisely how much ability mankind has is obviously a matter of debate. In the Judeo-Christian world there is a range of opinions on how much moral ability humans actually have. I think that most would agree, however, that most people in a certain circumstance can choose to either do or refrain from doing particular moral acts based upon their moral knowledge. Editor’s Note: This site is firmly committed to the view that God’s grace is operative in all (prevenient grace in the case of unbelievers), that such grace is resistible, and that such grace is needed to do good. We affirm total depravity, but reject unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book II, Chapter XXII.

Image: “Plato, Bibliotheca Universitatis” by Attila Brunner – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG#/media/File:Plato,_Bibliotheca_Universitatis.JPG

Grounding Ethics in God: Why God’s nature determines morality

By Josh Fountain

The classic apologetic argument from morality is that if God doesn’t exist then objective moral truth doesn’t exist. It’s often assumed in this argument that somehow God’s existence explains morality in a way that atheism cannot. However, this argument mostly focuses on why atheism cannot explain morality, rather than how it is that Christian theology offers a more compelling explanation.

What’s more the classic Christian response to the Euthyphro argument is to say that the “good”  is that which is like God’s nature and character (and because God is unchanging what is good will not change). But how is it that God’s character provides the moral foundation for what is good?

I want to suggest that it is the theology of man made in the image of God that not only grounds morality, but also underpins our response to the Euthyphro dilemma. Because we are made in the image of God not only do we have reason to be moral, but what is moral is also that which is like God. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

In Genesis God decides “let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”[1]. The traditional understanding of the image of God has been the one filtered through a Greek mindset. A concept which focuses on the abstract and tries to locate what it means to be made in God’s image in terms of some property of existence. However, in the last century there has been much study into the concept of the image of God in its original Hebraic context. The Hebraic understanding of man made in the image of God gives a much more functional, and in many ways fuller, understanding of what it means to be human.

Genesis 1 tells the story of God building a temple (the creation of the Earth).[2] It is in the context of this story, and the wider context of the Ancient Near East, that we have to understand what the Bible means in saying we are created in the image of God. Ancient temples would contain “images” of the god for whom the temple was built. Images of gods in temples, or kings in foreign lands, were “viewed as representatives of the deity or king”.[3] Kings in Egypt and Assyria were also considered “images” of their gods; meaning that they were ones who “acted on behalf of, and by, the consent of the divine.”[4] Middleton points out that typically it was only the king who bore the image of a god, and the concept of all of humanity being made in the image of a god was incredibly counter cultural at the time.[5]

The image of God in Western Theology has often been thought of in terms of a mirror reflecting God’s likeness back to himself, however a more apt description might be that of an angled mirror reflecting God’s likeness to the world itself. The hebraic concept of the image of God tells us that God puts mankind on the Earth as his representatives, that the purpose of man is to show the likeness of God to the world and to live in relationship with him. Obviously we are not successful at this and most of the time we do not accurately reflect God’s likeness, which is why  most theologians talk of the image of God in us being “marred”. The consequence of this, though, is that the closer we come to representing God the closer we come to fulfilling our purpose on this Earth.

As people created in God’s image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God’s character, when we act as God would act: according to his character.
As people created in God’s image we are most fulfilled when we reflect God’s character, when we act as God would act: according to his character. Most meta-ethical theories hold that what is moral is in some way or another what is best for us either individually or communally (either because of the actions themselves or the effects of those actions). So we can see that because we best fulfill our purpose when we reflect God then what it is to be moral is to be act most like God’s character. God’s character is revealed to us supremely in the person of Jesus: as Wilkinson puts it “Jesus is the decisive norm for both divinity and humanity.”[6] If we want to know how best to live as humans we need to look at God, and particularly his actions in Jesus.

This argument serves to do two things. Firstly, we have a simple reply to the so called “dilemma” posed by Euthyphro. Is something good because God commands it or does he command it because it is good. The answer is neither, the good is that which agrees with God’s character. And because God’s character is unchanging, what is good will also not change, and neither could God ever command anything that is evil.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that we as people are made in the image of God gives us a grounding for morality that atheism cannot. The traditional moral apologetic argument shows us that atheism cannot account for normative morality. However, we can do better than that. Not only can we say that atheism cannot account for morality, but we can show that Christianity can give us a solid foundation for morality. Furthermore, because we are made in the image of God we are living most authentically as humans when we reflect God’s character. And here we have a concrete link between what is moral and the character of God. If Christianity is true then not only is there a foundation for morality but we have a clear indication of what it is to be moral in the person of Jesus. What’s more Jesus not only shows us what it is to be moral, but by his Spirit he promises to help us in making us more like God. Although God’s image in us has been marred Jesus’s actions on the cross make a way for that image to be restored in us.

Image: “Beach Reflections” by Micolo J. CC License. 


[1] Genesis 1:26 NIV

[2] Walton, John, “The Lost World of Genesis One”, IVP USA, 2009
Morschauser, Scott, “Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei”, Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 – p.2-3

[3] Wilkinson, David, “The Message of Creation”, Inter Varsity Press, 2002 – p.36

[4] Morschauser, Scott, “Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei”, Theology Matters, Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec 1997 – p.2

[5] Middleton, Richard, “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, Brazos Press, 2005 – p.100

[6] Wilkinson, David, “The Message of Creation”, Inter Varsity Press, 2002 – p.37

Podcast: Dr. Brian Scalise on the Doctrine of God and the Ethics of Love in Islam and Christianity

This week on the podcast, we are continuing a discussion with Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise has written his dissertation on the different views of God in Christianity and Islam. Important differences for our view of love and ethics follow from the different views of God in each religion. When we build a worldview from the notion that God is absolutely one with no distinction, as in Islam, we get a deficient ethic and view of love. The Christian trinity, on the other hand, provides a robust foundation for a substantive morality and understanding of love. Since God is one nature with three persons, it turns out that God essentially loves others. And it is this key difference that we will be exploring this week. Dr. Scalise will help us see the implications of this difference by pointing out that the highest command in Christianity is to love the Lord while, in Islam, the highest command is to submit to Allah. We’ll also touch briefly on Islam and the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Photo: “Islam” by E. Musiak. CC License.

Podcast: David Baggett on 7 Important Distinctions for the Moral Argument

On this special IHOP (yes, as in “International House of Pancakes!”) edition of the podcast, we sit down with David Baggett who helps us understand seven important distinctions to make when articulating and defending the moral argument. There’s a lot going on in this podcast, so here is a handy chart from Good God that will help make it more clear:



We’ll be unpacking this chart piece by piece in the podcast.


Photo: “PANCAKES” by hedvigs. CC License.