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

By Jonathan Pruitt 

 (continued from part 1)

Objections to Teleology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objections to Eudaimonia

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

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

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

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

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

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

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

[7] Foot, 36.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.

Chapter 6, John Hare’s Moral Gap, “Reducing the Demand”

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

This chapter is focused on the other strategy to close the moral gap: reducing the moral demand. Namely, Hare will concentrate on attempts to claim that impartiality is not always required in moral judgment. These attempts can be seen as driving a wedge between two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative. Impartiality is a construal of the first formulation—of universal law. Hare uses “universalism” for this construal of the moral demand and the insistence that all moral judgments must be impartial in this sense. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is that we must always treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, as an end in itself, and never merely as a means.

Kant thought these two formulations were formulations of the same supreme principle of reality. But in this chapter, Hare will consider the possibility that we may be able to treat another person as an end in herself without being impartial in the sense required by the first formulation. Hare will explore the thought that we can make the ends of another person our ends not because she is a center of rational agency, but because she is related to us in some special way. If we allow this, have we reduced the moral demand? Hare will argue no.

Hare will consider objections to universalism in ethics made by feminists. He will distinguish four objections, claiming they are valid against some types of universalism, but not against the sort of universalism he will define. Then Hare will give a fifth objection that he claims to be valid against universalism as defined. If the objection is valid, we should accept the ‘particularist’ thesis that not all moral judgments are universalizable, but, nevertheless, this doesn’t after all reduce the moral demand.

The first objection is that moral judgments must often be specific, whereas the universalist requires them to be general. He cites Gilligan and Noddings here. Gilligan demurs from Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy by pointing to another equally valuable kind of moral thinking she dubs “care” thinking, where the rival claims are weighed not in the abstract, in terms of the relative priority of the principles behind them, but rather in the particular. She says this kind of thinking tends towards “the reconstruction of the dilemma in its contextual particularity.” Noddings says that if we care, what we do depends not on rules or a prior determination of what is fair or equitable, but on a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for. An ethic of caring, she says, won’t embody a set of universalizable moral judgments.

But Hare wants to make two distinctions here. First: between general and specific, and second: between universal and particular. A principle is universal if it is stated in purely universal terms, without singular reference. It’s particular if it’s not. A situation can be described in universal terms and still be described in minute and completely specific detail, though. There can also be general particular judgments, like the claim that all Americans are morally good. The distinction between specific and general is, unlike that between universal and particular, one of degree. In order to count as general a principle must abstract from some of the detail of the situation to which it prescribes.

Now contextual particularity, as Gilligan and Noddings describe it, seems to be a matter of specificity, of detail. But a maxim can be universal and yet concrete, in the sense of mentioning (in universal terms) anything that distinguishes this situation from any other. In this first objection there is, then, a valid point against any account of the moral demand that fails to acknowledge the need for sensitive moral perception of the relevant details in particular situations. It may be that the required sensitivity is not, itself, a rational capacity, in Kant’s sense. But we don’t yet have a valid objection against universalism as Hare’s defined it.

Now for a second objection: that caring requires taking on the perspective of the other person. Care must be a response to what a particular person actually needs or wants or what will serve a particular relationship. People must be perceived as having access to others in their own terms. As far as Hare can see, this objection doesn’t work against universalism as he’s defined it. To determine whether another person’s maxim passes the test of the categorical imperative requires an understanding of that maxim in the other person’s own terms. This may not be entirely possible to do, but universalism doesn’t preclude such considerations. Perhaps a version of universalism is susceptible to this challenge, but not to the version Hare’s laid out.

A third objection: universalism is not sensitive to the existence of divergent personal ideals. A moral particularity thesis allows certain individuating and defining features of an agent’s life to matter what they do in some cases in a way that is not universally generalizable. She has in mind that different people have different views about what is morally most important. Morality does not require the same responses from those facing the same sorts of situation. Margaret Walker pushes this line.

But is this inconsistent with universalism as Hare’s defined it? The key is what’s meant by the phrase “universally generalizable.” Walker seems to want to allow the moral agent discretion, but only within certain limits. Hare thinks this sounds right: an account of morality should not countenance any and every view about what is morally important. But this leaves us with a theory of moral permissions which apply to everybody and an area within these permissions which is discretionary. As far as Hare can see, this isn’t inconsistent with universalism. Kant himself distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. The only sort of universalism susceptible to criticism here is one that would say there’s one right answer to every question about what a person should do in a situation of a certain sort, where the situation was defined independently of the person’s own aspirations—not a plausible view.

Now Hare mentions a fourth objection, from the tension between universalism and close personal relations. McFall claims that universalism is incompatible with friendship and love. Friendship often requires unconditional commitments. These are identity-conferring, in the sense that they determine what counts for an agent as a reason for acting and they are not themselves justified by reference to other commitments. But this is inconsistent with impartiality, says McFall.

But Kant observes in The Doctrine of Virtue that it is no violation of impartiality to spend more time with the people we care about, or to look after them in circumstances or in ways in which we would not look after others. There is a version of universalism vulnerable: it might be said there’s not enough time to meet the commitments of friendship and to meet the moral demand of service to strangers. Hare thinks a distinction is needed between levels—like his dad’s between intuitive and critical moral thinking.

Next Hare wants to defend the thesis that there are moral judgments that are not universalizable—there are moral judgments from which singular terms are not eliminable. He calls moral judgments of this type “particular moral judgments.” He is going to discuss judgments that prescribe action, even though there are equally important moral judgments that do this only indirectly. He thinks it helpful to see particular moral judgments as intermediate between prudence and universalizable morality. They are like prudence in that they do not eliminate singular reference. But at the same time, note that what I prescribe for myself in prudence is standardly specified in universal terms, or at least can be. Particular moral judgments are like judgments of prudence in both these ways. They contain ineliminable singular reference, in this case to some other particular person as well as to myself, and what they prescribe I should do for that person is specifiable in universal terms. I ought, let’s say, go and visit my friend because he’s feeling wretched. And this gives me a reason, this time a moral reason, for my action. But particular moral judgments are also like universalizable morality, for they override self-interest in the interest of another person. They are, though not in Kant’s sense, treating another person as an end in himself.

At this point Hare distinguishes four positions within a prescriptive judgment, to see how universalization relates differently to them. The first two are the position of “addressee,” the person to whom the judgment is addressed, and the position of “agent,” the person whose action is being prescribed. These aren’t always the same. Third, there is the position of the “recipient,” the person to whom the action is to be done. Finally, there is the position of the “action,” which is what the speaker judges should or should not be done by this agent to this recipient. Now, it’s usual to think that universalizability has to be a feature of the terms in all four positions at once, but this is not so. It’s possible to replace a term with purely universal terms at some positions in a judgment but not others. Hare thinks the Ten Commandments are a case where the terms in the addressee and the agent positions are not universalizable. On the other hand, the term in the action position is already universal. The people of Israel are not to commit adultery at any time or in any place. Or take the greatest commandment, which features for the term in the recipient position something (God) not universalizable; the command isn’t prescribing that the believer should love anyone who is the same as God in universally specifiable respects.

So what Hare’s claiming is that there is a claim of moral judgments that are like judgments of prudence in the following respect: they are judgments in which the terms in addressee and agent and recipient positions are not, but the term in the action position is, necessarily universalizable. Why does Hare insist particular moral judgments are moral? For Kant they are not moral, because they are not universalizable. Hare makes three points against him. First, he’s not speaking for the ethical tradition as a whole; Aristotle for example thought moral relations are always to members of this family or polis. Kant’s claim is a recent one. Second, particular moral judgments can exemplify what seems to Hare paradigmatic of morality, namely, regard for another person for his or her own sake. To put it this way makes it seem like the two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative can diverge, though the second isn’t being construed here as in Kant’s original formulation. Third, it’s characteristic of moral judgments that they give reasons for action that treat others as ends in themselves. Since the term in the action position is universal or at least universalizable, we can talk of particular moral judgments giving reasons for action.

A moral judgment requires more than universalizable terms in the action position; it also expresses care or regard for another person for his or her own sake. In Kant, this is done when I respect his practical rationality. In Aristotle, I do so when I love his nous. But it may not be possible to say what it is about a person I care about when I care for her for her own sake. Why care about a daughter’s distress? To say it’s because she’s my daughter may be right causally, but it isn’t right phenomenologically. We simply care for the person’s own sake.

Suppose a mother whose part of a cause is torn between staying with her daughter and contributing to the cause. There’s a conflict, and in principle the universalist analysis might suggest she should go to the meeting. But Hare wants to suggest that privileging the daughter may well be the right moral decision, despite that it’s not derivative in its moral value from justification at the critical level, as the universalist describes. Hare knows of no way to deny this except by begging the question in favor of the universalist.

Nonetheless Hare now makes three points against “extreme particularism” that denies we have obligations toward everyone. Noddings is an extreme particularist. Caring is only possible for an agent within a comparatively small group of people, so she rejects the notion of universal caring. Even if this is true, though, Hare says it doesn’t allow us to violate the rights of people who are outside the caring relationship. Not just negative duties, but positive duties apply; but Noddings denies universal caring. So for Hare’s three points: First, the institution of morality we are familiar with does include fully universalizable obligations. We use ought language in this way. Second, consequences of the disappearance of fully universalizable morality would be serious. Many feel like responding to needs of strangers is the human thing to do. Partiality is justified, but has limits. Unconstrained it can lead to a reduction of the number of people who can be adequately protected by partiality. Third, special relations, like those of friendship and family, are liable to certain kinds of internal corruption from the lack of the sense of justice. Dividing up morality into ‘care’ for the private and ‘justice’ for the public sphere damages both spheres. Relations within families or between friends need regulation by justice of an impartial kind. Take a mother who cares for her children and family so much she neglects herself. Or a mother who neglects to teach her child not to expect privileged treatment.

Hare thinks particular moral obligations don’t lessen moral obligations overall. Hare doesn’t think particular and universal requirements tend to conflict very much in any significant way. Particular moral obligations don’t do away with perfect duties, just adds new ones. Part of the difficulty nowadays, exacerbating the perceived tension between the universal and particular, is that the world has shrunk and we’re more aware of needs around the world, without intermediate social arrangements between family and large-scale bureaucracies of government or national church. But we can still belong to communities that make organized outreach to the needy more possible and workable. The Bible would seem to counsel to do so.


Podcast: Chad Thornhill on the Doctrine of Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Part 1

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this second part, we discuss problems with moral culpability and the character of God that may be raised by certain views of election.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License.


On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics


Editor’s Note: The whole video is well worth watching, but you can find Wood’s comments about the moral argument around 23 minutes into the video. Also, we would like to thank The Gospel Coalition for highlighting Wood’s story

By David Baggett 

When David Wood was a boy, his dog was hit by a bus and died. Although his mother was terribly upset, he was not. He figured it was just a dog, now it’s dead, end of story. A few years later when a friend of his died, his response was largely the same. He didn’t feel any particular regret or remorse, but at the same time, largely owing to the very different responses of others, he sensed that maybe he should. Not everyone emotionally impaired in such a way turns violent, but he did. In years to follow, he extended his emotionally dead and unempathetic take on those around him by engaging in some horrifying acts, like brutally attacking his father with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t). Wood was convinced that right and wrong were fictions to be discarded at will and that the apathetic universe couldn’t care less how anyone acts.

The absence of empathy that Wood seemed to exhibit as a young boy is often indicative of psychopathy or sociopathy. Although sometimes these categories are treated interchangeably, some insist that there are crucial clinical differences between them. For example, some (like Chris Weller) suggest that, though both psychopaths and sociopaths tend to lack fear and disgust, sociopaths are more likely to be found holed up in their houses removed from society, while a psychopath is busy in his basement rigging shackles to his furnace. Psychopaths are dangerous, violent, cruel, and often sinister. Showing no remorse, they commit crimes in cold blood, crave control, behave impulsively, possess a predatory instinct, and attack proactively rather than as a reaction to confrontation.

In contrast, upbringing may play a larger role in a child becoming a sociopath than those diagnosed as psychopaths. Sociopaths project an appearance of trustworthiness or sincerity, but sociopathic behavior is actually conniving and deceitful. Often pathological liars, sociopaths are manipulative and lack the ability to judge the morality of a situation—not for lack of a moral compass (like we find in psychopaths), but because of a greatly skewed moral compass. Despite their differences, both psychopaths and sociopaths can wreak quite a bit of havoc and do much damage in people’s lives.

Since Wood was (1) remarkably unempathetic from such a young age, (2) seemingly lacking a sense of right and wrong rather than having a merely skewed sense of morality, and (3) engaging in extremely antisocial and violent behavior, perhaps this would suggest that he was more a psychopath than a sociopath. Since this is not my area of specialty, though, I am doing nothing more than offering my untutored guess. Yesterday the Gospel Coalition posted an article about Wood called “What Sociopaths Reveal to Us about the Existence of God.” For present purposes, we needn’t worry with the exactly right psychological diagnosis, but it bears pointing that, if anything, Wood seemed to be riddled with the more congenital, more entrenched, more debilitating of the two mental disorders, which is instructive. Wood wasn’t at all inclined to believe he should refrain from hurting others for fear he would thereby violate their “intrinsic value,” since this was a notion he scoffed at as a young man, thinking people were just biological machines for propagating DNA inhabiting a speck in a vast, empty, meaningless universe. For Wood was also, as a young man, an atheist, but this piece is not about his atheism. It’s rather about this mental phenomenon of psychopathy/sociopathy and its bearing on moral apologetics—and vice versa.

What does any of this have to do with the moral argument for God’s existence? Atheists Sam Harris and Erik Wielenberg, both well-known and outspoken atheists, think that the existence of psychopaths, in the clinical sense of the term—by some estimates making up as much as one percent of the population—poses a challenge to theistic ethics generally and divine command theory more particularly. In Sam Harris’s debate with William Lane Craig, Harris pointed out one potential connection between psychopathy and moral apologetics, but we can dispense with it fairly quickly. (Harris also devotes a section of his book The Moral Landscape to the issue of psychopathy, thinking it provides a case study of dissection of conventional morality.) In the debate Harris pointed out that psychopaths manifest an inability to distinguish between true moral claims and commands from authority. They tend to think that moral rules are just arbitrary impositions by someone in charge. Interestingly, Wood himself now admits that for years this was his own view—that for years he was willing to give up everything for the sake of a false freedom from the control of others he despised. At any rate, casting a moral theory of obligations as rooted in divine commands as an arbitrary morality of “authority,” Harris ambitiously argued that there is a psychopathic core to divine command theory—not a compliment to his theistic interlocutors.

As this site has emphasized repeatedly, divine command theory, rightly understood, is not at all an effort to render morality arbitrary, nor does it unintentionally accomplish such a feat de facto. Of course there is the occasional radical voluntarist (sometimes dubbed an Ockhamist, though writers like Lucan Freppert and Marilyn Adams have argued this is unfair to Ockham), but most mainstream divine command theorists don’t embrace anything so scandalous. No, God has reasons for the commands he issues—reasons tied to the nature and telos he’s given to us and, most ultimately, to his own perfect and essentially loving character.

Setting aside that arbitrariness misunderstanding, though, the even more egregious misstep of Harris’s is the suggestion that submitting to moral authority is psychopathic for equating morality with a presumed authority. This is a rookie mistake. Morality, particularly moral obligations, is authoritative—this is what Anscombe pointed out when she talked about the verdict- and law-like nature of moral obligations, what Richard Joyce means when he refers to the punch and clout of moral duties, what Mackie was pointing to when discussing the “queerness”’ of morality; part of what it means to reject objective morality is to deny that such prescriptively binding obligations exist. This shows there’s nothing question-begging about insisting on this aspect of morality; someone can deny objective morality, but such authority is precisely part of what they are denying. Psychopaths are not denying that morality possesses such authority, but rather insisting that morality, invested with such authority, doesn’t exist. Clearly such authority just is part of morality classically construed—whether morality is real or not. So acknowledging such authority is no evidence that those doing so are mentally unstable; such authority is rather one of those important moral facts in need of adequate explanation. The moral argument, especially in its long (abductive) game, wishes—carefully, patiently, and systematically—to make the principled case that theism, better than the plethora of secular moral theories on offer taken individually or in any particular combination, can provide the better explanation of such authority. The recognition of a true and legitimate authority hardly qualifies as psychopathic. Harris’s charged rhetoric here is strategically hyperbolic and borders the conversationally uncooperative.

Let’s turn now to the more serious objection to moral apologetics on the basis of psychopathy that Erik Wielenberg raises. He broaches the topic of psychopathy in his book God and the Reach of Reason. In the context of discussing C. S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence, Wielenberg writes, “Perhaps more problematic for Lewis’s argument than variation in the deliverances of conscience is the fact that some people apparently lack a conscience altogether. Psychopathy (sometimes called ‘sociopathy’) is a personality disorder characterized by, among other things, the absence of the capacity to experience various emotions, including empathy, love, and guilt.” An interesting characteristic of psychopaths, experts tell us, is that they know the difference between right and wrong in some sense. Or they at least recognize that others view certain acts as right or wrong and can use such language appropriately. But such words hold no purchase for psychopaths, because they don’t care about morality. Wielenberg quotes psychologist Robert Hare, who’s studied psychopathy for over a quarter of a century: “They know the rules but follow only those they choose to follow, no matter what the repercussions for others. They have little resistance to temptation, and their transgressions elicit no guilt. Without the shackles of a nagging conscience, they feel free to satisfy their needs and wants and do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Wielenberg notes that there may be an odd individual here and there who doesn’t know the moral law, just as we find a few people color-blind or tone deaf. Robert Hare, too, uses color-blindness to explain psychopathy:

The psychopath is like a color-blind person who sees the world in shades of gray but who has learned how to function in a colored world. He has learned that the light signal for “stop” is at the top of the traffic light. When the color-blind person tells you he stopped at the red light, he really means he stopped at the top light. . . . Like the color-blind person, the psychopath lacks an important element of experience—in this case, emotional experience—but may have learned the words that others use to describe or mimic experiences that he cannot really understand.

Wielenberg argues the existence of psychopaths poses a problem for Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence. Lewis argues that human conscience is a tool that God uses to communicate with us. “More precisely,” Wielenberg writes, “conscience is a tool that God uses to get us to recognize our need for Him.” Christianity tells people to repent and promises forgiveness; Lewis thus writes it “has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.” Since psychopaths are unable to feel they need forgiveness—and psychologists estimate that about four percent of human beings are psychopaths (at least in the West)—Wielenberg asks where this leaves roughly one in twenty-five human beings? Has God abandoned them? This is how Wielenberg argues that the phenomenon of psychopathy undermines the premise of Lewis’s argument that says “the Higher Power issues instructions and wants us to engage in morally right conduct.” Why would God allow so many to lack the emotional equipment essential for engaging in morally right conduct? Wielenberg admits this may not be a decisive objection, owing to the possibility of a justification for psychopathy that lies beyond our current understanding, but he suggests it’s a phenomenon that does not fit very well with Lewis’s overall view.

In response to Wielenberg, I would point to the rest of Wood’s story. If his story were unique, this tack could be accused of being merely anecdotal, but it is one of many stories of remarkable personal transformation. Constructing his worldview to correspond with his flat and lifeless emotional perception of reality, Wood began to think that all of life was pointless. At the same time, he would try to hold his worldview together whenever occasional doubts crept in, until he finally realized that if life was pointless, so too was his effort to hold it all together. And then, he says, life offered him an alternative. In prison he ran into a Christian who was willing to defend his convictions rather than cower in silence or run for cover when Wood issued his usual barrage of insults and challenges. And the believer, named Randy, challenged Wood in return, forcing him to articulate his convictions, at which point Wood recognized something for the first time: “Things that made perfect sense when unquestioned seemed silly when questioned.” Questions of why the disciples would risk death to testify to the resurrection of Jesus or how life could emerge from lifelessness now began to plague Wood’s mind.

In an effort to refute Randy’s faith and consolidate his own, Wood began reading the Bible. He was refraining from eating at the time—long story—and found in scripture that Jesus was the bread of life. He wanted escape from his imprisonment, and read that the Son of God can set us free. He was painfully sick at the time, and read that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Over and over again he was startled to find Christ to be the answer he was seeking. He spent time reading the books on apologetics Randy had given him, and gradually his secular worldview began to crumble. The design argument and the argument for the historicity of the resurrection began to make more sense to him, and then the moral argument began to speak to him as well. Heretofore he’d held two beliefs at the same time—that humans are meaningless lumps of cells, AND that he was the best, most important person in all the world—and the realization dawned on him how inconsistent these were. A best person, he began to see, required an objective standard of goodness. He went from thinking himself the best person in the world to the worst, and then realized that if his earlier assessment of morality was wrong and there really was an objective standard of goodness and rightness, he was in trouble.

At this point he recognized, without anything much emotional going on in him, what John Hare calls the “moral gap.” Either he was irremediably selfish and sick and there was no hope, or there was someone, or Someone, who could help. He knew he, riddled with his psychological, spiritual, and moral maladies, couldn’t help himself. Who could? Gradually he came to think that only God could do it, and Jesus, the One God raised. Eventually, beaten down, desperate, barely able to know how, he prayed for forgiveness. His was a dramatic conversion, which happens on occasion. Instantaneously, no longer did he want to hurt anyone, and, perhaps even more importantly, he had the strange sense that he’d known the truth all along.

Wood’s moral sense was damaged but not beyond repair. The grace of God and the use of his other faculties (like that of reason) enabled him to understand that he did indeed have moral obligations after all. So perhaps the feelings that psychopaths lack are not necessary in order to recognize the reality and authority of morality. A psychopath is a person who doesn’t feel appropriately about his actions, but reason still leads to moral law. So psychopaths are not incapable of recognizing the moral law, they just lack the right emotional responses to it. Thus they are disadvantaged, but not in a way that precludes knowledge of the moral law. So Wielenberg may be operating on a mistake, namely, the conviction that to be morally responsible one has to have the right moral feelings. Perhaps having moral feelings is not a necessary condition for being morally accountable and that having these feelings is just a gift from God to aid in the moral life. Wielenberg, therefore, may be treating conscience in an overly narrow sense. Perhaps he thinks of conscience as morally appropriate feelings that guide us to right action, but why not include among the faculties of conscience the deliverances of reason? In which case, if our feelings fail us, we are not without a conscience, but just without some of the faculties a healthy conscience would have.

Today Wood runs an apologetics ministry (Acts 17 Apologetics), and he says that, though God created the universe, he created human beings in a special way, imbuing them with his image. Wood realizes now that true freedom is deliverance from his earlier desire to turn against his Creator. Echoing C. S. Lewis, he says he now believes in Christianity as he believes in the Sun—because by it he can see everything else. Wood perhaps didn’t have the advantage of most: a well-functioning conscience and active capacity for empathy, which God can indeed and often does use to draw people to himself. Lewis was right about that, but perhaps overstated the case, because God has other resources besides. People don’t fall through the cracks if God is a God of love. Augustine once wrote that God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him. In an important sense, we are all morally sick to the core and in need of healing that only God can provide; we all need to become not just better men and women, but new men and women. Contra Wielenberg, despite his deficiency Wood was still able to apprehend the truth, recognize the possibility he was wrong, throw himself on God’s mercy, and emerge from the darkness into the light. And for a person who underwent such radical transformation, these words from Ezekiel 36:26 seem poignantly apt: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Photo: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. 

Summary of Chapter 5 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

By David Baggett 

Summary of Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 5

Summary of Chapter 6

This chapter will continue to discuss the problems in the current philosophical literature that arise from failing to recognize the existence of what Kant called “radical evil.” It will focus on a “the strength-of-desire principle.” This is the principle that we can satisfy the requirements of justice by giving initial preference in moral discussion to the stronger of two desires, independently of whose that desire is. Hare begins by raising an objection to the principle, namely, that it can’t account for the importance we give to the centrality of a desire in a person’s life. Then he’ll discuss responses to the objection. He won’t answer the objections beyond trying to show that they don’t account for radical evil.

According to the strength-of-desire principle, if two people are in competition for some good, and the first desires the good more strongly than the second, the good should be awarded to the first, other things being equal. Singer embraces such a view. Hare wants to propose that it’s unfair to give this weight to how much a desire is felt. There are some people who simply feel their desires very intensely. Hare calls them “Triggers.” Others know at least roughly how important it is to their lives as a whole and that their various desires be satisfied, even though they are felt less strongly. Hare calls these “Eeyores.” The principle discriminates in favor of Triggers. The principle encourages people to have as many strong desires as possible, which means that it encourages the development of the kind of person who makes life less happy for other people.

The first utilitarian response is “minimalist” in taking “strength” in the strength-of-desire principle to be a measure of either intensity or the tendency to action. “Intensity” is taken phenomenologically, as a matter of internal experience. Hare’s assuming a correlation between intensity of desire and tendency to action (though he realizes it doesn’t always obtain). Sometimes the principle’s application seems eminently fair. But sometimes it is unfair, but the minimalist can say we need to look at the whole set of desires that each party has. So perhaps one person’s desire is weaker, but more integrated with other desires. Some less intense desires may be central in the sense of being backed up by higher order desires; and some more intense desires may not be so central. The minimalist can give greater weight to desires that have purchase over other desires in the way central desires do.

But Hare says this move by the minimalist to accommodate the sense of unfairness of applying the principle fails. Adolescents are living through a period of maximum potential desire-satisfaction and aversion-avoidance. Contrast them with the “fifty-year-old” whose motivational structure has this feature: the desires and aversions are flattened out but connected with each other into a more coherent pattern. There can still be strong commitment, but it is more to the structure as a whole than in an adolescent, with more tolerance for the frustration of individual desires. Hare thinks that if we could wave a magic wand and accommodate all the desires and aversions of the adolescent or fifty-year-old, the minimalist would say we must prefer the adolescent. The adolescent’s aversion to boredom, for example, will be far greater than the fifty-year-old’s. The very connectedness that provided the initial minimalist response about centrality also makes boredom for the fifty-year-old more tolerable.

The fifty-year-old also recognizes that there are many different kinds of links between lower-order and higher-order desires, so is more able to tolerate the frustration of a number of desires because of the link with her higher-order desires. This again leads to privileging the adolescent’s perspective, but it wouldn’t be fair to discriminate against fifty-year-olds in this way.

The minimalist might say that the fifty-year-old’s desires should trump after all because the adolescent desires tend to be so frustrated. But Hare says that even if this is right it’s only because of contingent features of the adolescent’s situation. Hare wants to draw a distinction between desires I identify with and desires I do not. The apostle Paul distinguishes between two sets of desires he has: there are the desires produced by sin, and the desires which he identifies as what he wants. One way to make the distinction is to point to the difference between authority and power. Those with authority are entitled to obedience even if they do not receive it. Those with power do receive it, even if they are not entitled to it. The person I want to be and thus the desires I want to have can be authoritative for me, even if they are not the most intense or the most likely to lead to action (the most powerful). The law of sin may still have some power, but it no longer has authority—there’s been a decisive shift from the old man to the new man, even though there may still be habits left over from the old way of life.

So here is one way to characterize what it means to identify with a desire: regarding the desire as sinful. Sin is a nature, a large-scale pattern of desires. In the fifty-year-old, potentially anyway, there’s a coming to terms with oneself—which can be seen as a measure of wisdom and maturity. Recognition of good and bad. The bad can be recognized without being endorsed. She sees herself more as a whole more than she once did. She doesn’t blame faults on isolated desires or traits of character but on the whole package turned in the wrong direction. Because she sees more of the connections between her desires, she can see how complicated and pervasive are the influences of both sin and good. So there’s such a thing as (1) acknowledging desires, (2) endorsing them, and (3) identifying with desires. To identify with desires is to acknowledge them and not want to change them or have them changed. It’s stronger than acknowledging but weaker than endorsing it.

Hare’s point so far is that the minimalist can’t rescue the strength-of-desire principle from the charge of unfairness by appealing merely to the distinction between higher-order desires and lower-order ones. We need an account of what it is for a desire to be central. Even if we could provide an account of identification and endorsement, we would still not know what centrality meant; for centrality requires, in addition, that one find the object of the desire important to life as a whole. We can’t get to the idea of importance simply by adding up the number of decisions controlled. That would be more a measure of power than authority.

Decision theorists have a variety of ways to get a person’s preference ordering, by asking, for example, what she would sacrifice for what else. But this alone doesn’t make for centrality, either. There are too many different ways in which people prefer things.

The second view Hare considers is what he calls “the naturalist view,” because of its reliance on a view of human nature. Griffins’ Well-Being is an example. On this view we should assess the strength of desires not in the sense of felt intensity, or tendency to action, but in a sense supplied by the natural structure of desire. Griffins starts with a list of what makes human life good. He sets up a list of prudential values, which he calls the “common profile.” Autonomy, deep personal relations, accomplishment, etc. arranged in some hierarchy. The strength of a desire can be measured by the relative place of the desire in this hierarchy, which can be described as the natural structure of desire and the informed preference order. Hare thinks this preserves the strength-of-desire principle (interpreted in the naturalist way) and overcomes the objection from unfairness.

But he thinks there are objections, including that the list is parochial, or if expanded incoherent. Too much left out, like communal values and religious ones, or power and prestige. If the list is added to, the possibility of conflict arises.

The second objection: The list is too benign. It omits goals we actually have and which control much of our behavior, but which are not consistent with living morally. Power and prestige, for instance. We have all sorts of ignoble motivations. We shouldn’t be misled in constructing the list of prudential values by the names that people offer for them. Consider for example the abusive relations that have been tolerated in the name of deep personal relations. The root problem is the naturalist approach that reads these various values off our nature—some might be good and some bad, and radical choices might be called for. But how is this possible? (The question we saw earlier in the book.)

The third view Hare considers is the Rationalist View. Hare says we need a view that allows centrality to be considered in moral decisions alongside strength of desire in the minimalist sense, but which does not depend on too benign a view of human nature. Central desires need to be given weight independently of the desires’ intensity or tendency to lead to action, if we are going to avoid discriminating against Eeyores. But nature as the naturalist construes it doesn’t give us the notion of centrality we need. Here Hare wants to focus on a view of centrality that focuses on identifying with a desire (one of the three ingredients mentioned earlier). His interlocutor is the rationalist view of Susan Wolf (in Freedom within Reason). On this view, there is a kind of “deep” identification with a desire, or ownership of it, which allows us to hold a person responsible for an action which comes from such a desire, and thus enables us to apportion deep praise or blame to the action. We can apportion such praise and blame if we can determine whether the person whose desire it is possesses the ability to act in accordance with Reason.

Acting on a desire that bypasses my will is an example of not acting on a desire deeply mine. Hare here relies on the Humean (and Calvinist) compatibilist tradition, which distinguishes between necessity and compulsion. To value something, on the view that deeply identifying with a desire requires its going through one’s will, is to think it good or to think there is some reason to want it. Alternatively, to value something is to endorse the desire for it. Not all desires are endorsed. Endorsing or valuing is more than acknowledging a desire. We can value things inauthentically in some sense, so more needs to be said. The rationalist makes this move: She says that the agents in such cases of inauthentic valuing are not able by their own powers to act or choose in accordance with Reason. Reason means this: whatever faculty or set of faculties are most likely to lead us to form true beliefs and good values. The idea is that an agent is responsible for a decision if it is made in light of all the reasons there actually are for doing and for not doing it. The rationalist could say that an agent deeply identifies with a desire if the object of the desire is something she values and at the time of her valuation she is able to act or choose in accordance with Reason in this sense.

Hare’s contention is that the rationalist’s account does not allow for radical evil. Wolf exaggerates our natural capacities to live a moral life. Wolf tweaks her view to suggest that what is necessary for being responsible is that we recognize and appreciate a set of reasons sufficient to show which action or choice would be right. (But I’m still not responsible if the reasons I entertain for an action are not sufficient to show the action would be right.)

Note, Hare says, that the failures allowed on this account are cognitive failures or deficiencies of time. Hare’s already suggested that cognitive failures can be a product of moral failures. An agent’s own moral failings can cause her to be blind to certain moral considerations (or reasons for action). What considerations a person is open to depends in part on what sort of person she has allowed herself to become. The rationalist position is that a person is responsible for an action only if at the time of performance she possesses the ability to act for the sake of the reasons there are in favor of the action and against it. But a person can get into bad habits; and when she does, she can become insensitive to some of the considerations there are against an action. She gets used to seeing things the way it becomes in her interest to see them. But Hare insists she’s still responsible, and she’s owned those desires. This is true, he says, despite her inability to do otherwise, that she “can no longer act or choose on the basis of the reasons there are against her pattern of action.”

And there aren’t just failings from deterioration. Some failings start at the beginning. We may have grown up ignoring certain considerations. Considerations of cultural blindness should be a cause for hesitation about our moral capacities—think slave owners a few centuries back. Kant, contra these rationalists, would say we can’t overcome evil propensities on our own, despite faintly hearing the call of the moral law. On Kant’s view, we can nevertheless hold people responsible even if they can’t themselves overcome the desires which obscure the call of duty. They deeply own their desires. How to combine realism and accountability? The rationalist insists that the responsible agent must be able to act and choose by her own powers in accordance with Reason. But this is too optimistic, Hare says. What we need is a theory which both allows that morality is possible for us, and does not exaggerate our natural capacities. One theory of this kind is that the morally good life is possible for us, but not by our own devices.

The rationalist’s strategy for understanding responsibility is to move back from desiring to valuing (because not all desiring is deeply owned), and then to move back from valuing to Reason (because not all valuing is deeply owned). Hare thinks the rationalists have stopped too soon, for the faculty that leads us to form our beliefs and values doesn’t reliably track the True and the Good. Even if such a thing as Reason exists, our access to it is unreliable. Even in those in which a faculty for Reason survives, we shouldn’t go on to say that for these folks accountability means that they can by their own devices act and choose in accordance with it. This does not fit with the experience of the overwhelming difficulty, even in the best of circumstances, of leading a morally good life.



Podcast: Dr. Chad Thornhill on Election, Moral Performance, Culpability, and the Character of God

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this first part, we discuss the nature of human freedom and some questions related to moral performance and the moral argument.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 1)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License. 

Summary of Chapter 4 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

By David Baggett 

Summary of Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 5

Summary of Chapter 6


This chapter marks the beginning of the second part of the book, dealing with human limits and various attempts in contemporary moral philosophy to make sense of morality given these limits. The first part of the book asked, with Kant, how we can become other men and not merely better men? Kant refused to exaggerate our powers or reduce the moral demand to fit our powers. This chapter (and the next) will deal with the first of these strategies: exaggerating our powers. This chapter will look at some recent utilitarian writing to illustrate this strategy of puffing up the capacity. To eliminate the gap some utilitarians puff our capacities to godlike proportions to live the moral life. Shelly Kagan does this in The Limits of Morality. He makes the claim that if all our beliefs were vivid, including especially our beliefs about the interests of others, we would tend to conform to the impartial standard that utilitarian morality requires.

For a utilitarian, the moral demand is that we are to perform those acts which can reasonably be expected to lead to the best consequences overall, impartially considered. The moral demand, Hare wishes to stress, is far higher than most people are comfortable with. On utilitarianism, a great deal of the expenditure entailed by our current standard of living would be forbidden. The price of a movie ticket, given to famine relief, could do much more good. Some might think that this construal of the moral demand is too great for human nature to bear. This aspect of the utilitarian demand concerns the demand for impartiality between persons, but there are other demanding features of the utilitarian principle, like the need to resist the human tendency to give more weight to the agent’s own interests than the utilitarian principle allows.

Kant put such a point negatively: our initial condition (before the revolution of the will) is one of preferring happiness to duty. In our initial condition, our own interests tend to have more motivational force for us than the utilitarian principle allows. We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than we should, on utilitarianism. Now, if it’s the case that I ought to do something, it must be the case that I can do it. This does not mean merely that I must be able to do it if I want to do it, but that I must be able to want to do it. Kant thinks we’re under the sway of our desires as a whole (before the revolution of the will), so the desire to do my duty will not have the requisite force to overcome my other desires. It’s not clear, then, that I am able to want most of all to do my duty; at least, it is not clear that I am able to do so regularly. If it’s not the case I can, it’s not the case I ought, and Practical Reason, which prescribes a life of duty, will not be practical or prescriptive for me. Impartiality, for the utilitarian, is in the same predicament as Practical Reason is for Kant.

How might a utilitarian reply? One reply is to say that humans do in fact have the resources to empower themselves to live by the moral demand. Hare calls the proponent of this view “the optimist.” The optimist points out that prudence counsels that we not (generally) privilege what we want now over what we’ll want in the future. The optimist claims that I can be moved by the thought of what prudence would prescribe, even if I am not presently moved equally by the future interest. By attending to the future interest, I can make the belief about it more vivid. The optimist then returns from prudence to morality, saying we can say the same thing about morality. We have a bias towards our own interests, but morality is still binding on us. We can be motivated by the thought of what we would be motivated by if our beliefs about the interests of others were as vivid as our beliefs about our own interests. The optimist makes a counterfactual claim: If my beliefs were vivid, I would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.

Hare, though, asks if this counterfactual is true. The optimist claims it is. It’s easier to sacrifice my own interests for others as I acquire more vivid beliefs about their interests. This can be true, for example, when I form a close and long-lasting relationship with someone. And we can be moved towards our duty by imagining in detail the plight of the people we are affecting by our decisions. There’s moral power in vividness.

But Hare doesn’t think the counterfactual true. Vividness might capture the idea of degree of clarity and distinctness attending a belief we hold. Or it might pertain to the degree of wholeheartedness with which we care about the belief, or the degree of importance we attach to it. We can be quite clear about someone’s pleasure, but not care about it much at all. The counterfactual is about cognitive shortcomings. Increased tendency towards impartiality doesn’t necessarily result from greater clarity, and even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily result in an overall tendency towards impartiality. It’s not just an increase that’s needed, but that the tendency to impartiality becomes greater than half. And this is supposed to apply to everyone, but there are misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Love of power, envy, fear, resentment are often operative even in families where awareness of the needs of others is great. Often, too, there’s a willful blindness; folks choose not to be vividly aware of the need for, say, famine relief. Another strategy is rationalization in terms of some normative principle which takes the appearance of objectivity, but derives its motivational power for him from its convenience as a disguise for self-interest. Induced crisis might be yet another strategy. There may be an underlying bias which has numerous techniques of self-persuasion at its disposal. And if we stop thinking of vividness as a cognitive matter, but a matter of caring, one may simply not care about morality enough, even if one recognizes that morality calls for a certain response.

How would the optimist respond? He might stress that most of us have some motivation to overcome our bias towards our own interests. Most don’t endorse the pull to self-interest. But Hare thinks this inadequate. For there may be an endorsement by the agent to the pull of self-interest after all. We may convince ourselves we’re being altruistic or something like that without actually being so. Second, can we try to do what we know we will never be able to do by our own efforts? Nothing more than marginal improvement may be able to be realistically envisioned; there has to be a point in trying. But impartiality as it is construed by the utilitarian principle requires no bias towards the agent’s own interests. This is like trying to jump to the moon, and recognizing this we see it’s futile to try to do it if more than marginal improvement is the goal.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to achieve it? The Christian tradition counsels perfection after all. But this is possible by God’s gift of grace, not by our striving to achieve it. So utilitarianism has a problem if it’s suggesting an exaggeration of human capacities. Hare adds this at the end: “Utilitarianism could be construed as a theory, like Kant’s theory in the Groundwork, about what our lives would be like after such a revolution [of the will]; but then the theory needs a supplement about how human beings can get to the position in which the demand of the utilitarian principle can be lived.”

The (Social and Political) Wages of Naturalism

By Stephen Dilley, PhD

Department of Philosophy

St. Edward’s University

Austin, TX 78704


Author’s note to readers: This paper was written for a panel presentation, “Finding the Theistic Foundations of Morality,” at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Because my presentation is the last of the panel—allowing me to elide a number technical issues and nuances already covered and, instead, to focus on ending the panel on a provocative note—I have opted to write in a manner more punchy and less technical than normal.



In this paper, I argue that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm as objectively good or superior any social or political desiderata. They also cannot defensibly condemn any social or political harms as objectively bad or inferior.[1] In addition, I contend that practically living out naturalism may be classicist and corrosive, especially with respect to the vulnerable members of society.

Before turning to the body of the paper, a few definitions are in order. While naturalism isn’t the easiest view to define,[2] I think it is safe to distinguish between ‘narrow naturalism’ and ‘broad naturalism.’[3] Narrow naturalism holds that (a) nature is all that exists and (b) nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. Broad naturalism also holds that nature is all that exists but that nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the natural and human sciences—not just physics but psychology, sociology, and the like as well. It thus affirms the emergent reality of consciousness, intentionality, valuing, and so on.


Ontological foundations

Having established some basic definitions, I now turn to the body of the paper. I’ll first focus on the ontological resources of naturalism. Since my colleagues have already done the heavy lifting, I’ll limit myself to a summary of some main ideas from my point of view. While there are a variety of ways to think about the matter, one way is to observe that, on narrow naturalism, nature itself is typically regarded as amoral because there are no ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ particles or forces (or groups of particles or forces). There are no ‘oughtness’ particles or forces (or groups) either. There are just brute particles and forces—fermions and bosons—describable by physics. As one narrow naturalist puts it, “In a world where physics fixes all the facts, it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.”[4] As such, there are no objective moral facts (or ‘moral values,’ as I will call them). That is, there are no real, intrinsic, mind-independent moral values—about fairness, justice, equality, etc.—which are irreducible to, or not identical with, physical facts.

Broad naturalism, on the other hand, affirms the emergent reality of values, including moral values like fairness, justice, social stability, and the like. As such, humans’ subjective experience of good, moral, and right values are not reducible to, or identical with, say, the complex biochemical and structural features of the human brain. On typical formulations of this view, the human mind is something qualitatively different than the human brain. The human mind emerges from the complexity of the brain; one emergent complexity is the ability to form, maintain, communicate, and apply values. However, on this view such values are not ontologically independent of the human brain. In a real sense, their existence depends upon the existence of a physical brain. If human brains ceased to exist,[5] so would moral values. Thus, on this view moral values are not objective—that is, they do not exist independently of human brains and minds. While subjective experiences of valuing are real enough, objective moral values themselves are not. I might be passionate about a state that protects civil liberties, but the value of liberty is itself no more real than the tooth fairy.


Political Implications

In light of this result, it follows that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm any political state or political philosophy as objectively good (or superior), nor can they defensibly condemn any political state or political philosophy as objectively bad (or inferior). For example, naturalists cannot reject Hitler’s Third Reich as objectively wrong and affirm representative democracy as objectively superior. Recall that according to narrow naturalism, there are only physical particles and forces, all of which are amoral. So, one elaborate arrangement of fermions and bosons—say, a social and political system organized according to Nazi principles—is no more or less moral than another array of fermions and bosons, including one arranged according to the principles of democracy. These two (collective) states of affairs are distinguished exhaustively and exclusively by the spatio-temporal differences of their constituent particles and forces. Neither is ‘good’ and neither is ‘bad.’ Neither is ‘morally better’ nor ‘morally worse.’ Fermions and bosons just are.

In the case of broad naturalism, on the other hand, persons may value representative democracy more than Nazism. Nonetheless, democracy is no more objectively good than Nazism. On broad naturalism, it’s true that people’s experience of valuing democracy is qualitatively different than the corresponding subvenient physicality of their brains. But without any mind-independent status to morality, their experience of valuing democracy is no more objectively correct than someone else’s experience of valuing Nazism. Even if every person past, present, and future valued democracy over tyranny, this valuing would not count one iota toward the objective moral superiority of democracy over tyranny. Quite simply, there are no objective values. Accordingly, broad naturalists, like narrow naturalists, cannot affirm a ‘good’ political order as objectively superior to a brutal order.

The implications of this result are troubling. For example, naturalists who lean towards political conservatism, such as political scientist Larry Arnhart, have no real basis to affirm universal human desires—for things like friendship and justice—as the objectively correct basis for social and political order.[6] So, too, naturalists who favor a Rawlsian approach have no real basis to affirm the objectivity of the “principle of equal liberty” or “the principle of difference” nor the legitimacy of the veil of ignorance or the original position.[7] The same is true about negative judgments: Rawlsians have no grounds to attack conservatives, and vice versa. Something similar can be said for any naturalist who wishes to affirm the objective correctness (or objective wrongness) of the core normative principles of Locke’s Second Treatise or Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s Social Contract or even James Carville’s It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! Thus, from the right to the left, naturalism decimates the objective moral status, positive or negative, of any political system or philosophy.

This result holds not just at a macro-level of political states or philosophies, but also at the micro-level of particular social and moral causes. Narrow and broad naturalists cannot affirm that women have reproductive rights, the rich ought to pay higher taxes, gays and lesbians have the right to marry, and that climate change ought to be countered. Likewise, naturalists cannot condemn rapacious capitalism, marriage inequality, pro-life legislative coercion, systemic racism, and so on. Naturalist Alex Rosenberg drives this point home: “We have to acknowledge…that many questions we want the ‘right’ answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.” We may want answers but, as Rosenberg concludes flatly, “There are none.”[8] In the end, none of a naturalist’s favored positions are objectively correct or superior to their opposites. And no views are objectively bad or inferior, either. All that’s left standing are either particles and forces or subjective experiences.


An Objection

Of course a critic might point out that broad naturalists, at least, can still affirm, say, democracy over fascism as a matter preference. As long as this is true, they can live out meaningful, good lives supportive of democratic principles even if they have no objective basis to regard democracy as (in fact) superior.

By way of reply, it is true that any naturalist can live a certain lifestyle that most of us would regard as good and virtuous, say, one supportive of democracy. But so can a person who thinks he’s an eggplant but that all eggplants have special abilities as well as moral obligations to support representative government. Nearly anyone can live a good life in the limited sense of consistently acting in ‘good’ ways. But that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether naturalists have—on their own grounds—any ability to hold that, say, one political system is objectively better (or worse) than another, and that people ought to support the superior system. They do not have such grounds. Indeed, even a broad naturalist (who has more resources than a narrow naturalist) is in a pickle when he says he can live a good life. He can’t coherently call his life “a good life” in any objective sense. All he can really say is that he lives a certain way that he prefers, and this way happens to be preferred by a number of others.[9] That’s it. Like turtles, it’s just preferences all the way down.

Before closing, I have two more brief notes about living out naturalism in a practical way. The first is an observation; the second, a criticism. First, it is arguable that living this worldview may be a classist luxury, by and large. That is, this lifestyle is viable only for those of privilege. Because naturalism does away with objective moral values, living this view means that one must not take traditional moral and social norms as given but rather substitute one’s own personal perspective (or the prospective of one’s self-identified group). Doing so generally includes complex assessments of social expectations (not obligatory norms), combined with personal introspection and discovery of “what I really want” (or what my group “really wants”), which are negotiated and re-negotiated with one’s friends, peers, colleagues, associates, sub-cultures, and culture. All of this requires leisure time, wealth, verbal ability, education, and the like. But those who lack wealth, education, leisure time, and so on often do not have the wherewithal to engage in such negotiations. A single mom working two jobs, taking care of two kids, slaving through housework, struggling to parent, and collapsing on the couch at night simply doesn’t have the bourgeois luxury to spend two hours over cocktails with a cadre of professional friends discussing just how to maintain her “independence” in the face of archaic social expectations. Practically living out naturalism is, by and large, a plaything of the wealthy and privileged. Again, this is not a criticism per se but an observation. It is noteworthy because some naturalists who see themselves as marginalized or as fighting established powers—“check your privilege,” they tell us—don’t seem to realize just how fortunate they are.

Second, by way of a criticism: practically living a naturalistic view may be corrosive, primarily to the vulnerable. (By ‘the vulnerable,’ I mean those in the bottom tier educationally, economically, politically, socially, professionally, and/or psychologically—individuals, say, who never finished high school, are poor, come from deeply dysfunctional families, have drug addictions, ongoing depression, or the like.) Naturalists who constantly chip away at traditional social and moral norms end up helping to erode the very moral and social capital that traditionally help the disadvantaged. For example, in part under a ‘progressive’ assault, the sacred bond of marriage has become weaker (or less valued) over time. But marriage not only helps single, poor women, it also helps children.[10] Kids who are born out of wedlock, victims of divorce, or raised in single-parent homes are more likely to suffer from a range of difficulties than kids raised in two parent homes.[11] In trying to fight ‘those on top,’ naturalists inadvertently harm ‘those on bottom.’

In conclusion, then, narrow and broad naturalists cannot defensibly affirm or deny the objective goodness or superiority (or the objective badness or inferiority) of any political state, political philosophy, or position on any social or moral topic. And, as I have just noted, living out this view seems to be a classicist privilege and a corrosive stance against the vulnerable. None of this is to say naturalism is false, of course, but only that it comes at a very high cost indeed. Thank you.



[1] I assume throughout the paper that, for a person (or persons) to defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior’ or to defensibly condemn social or political harms as ‘objectively bad or inferior,’ there must be actual (or real) objectively good or superior (or objectively bad or inferior) social and political desiderata (or harms). (See below for my informal definition of ‘objective.’) But for those who disagree with this assumption, I can make a similar argument easily enough—namely, that, on naturalism, there simply are no objectively good or superior social or political desiderata nor are there any objectively bad or inferior social or political harms. The end result is much the same. My fundamental claim is metaphysical (there are no objective moral values given naturalism) although for stylistic reasons, I highlight epistemological elements (naturalists cannot defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior,’ etc.). I trust the reader will understand my (metaphysical) meaning throughout the paper.

[2] In fact, Michael Rea claims that “there is no clear answer to the question of what it means to be a naturalist.” Michael Rea, “Naturalism and Material Objects,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 110.

[3] Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008). Cf. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

[4] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: Norton, 2011), 94-95.

[5] Or, the brains of some other physical creature of sufficient cognitive complexity.

[6] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998). Larry Arnhart & Ken Blanchard (ed.), Darwinian Conservatism, second edition (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009).

[7] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Belknap Press, 2005). “The principle of equality” holds that each person is to be granted the greatest degree of liberty harmonious with a  similar level of liberty for everyone. “The principle of difference” holds that practices producing inequality among individuals are acceptable only if they work to the advantage of disadvantaged people, and that positions of privilege must be open to everyone.

[8] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide, 96, emphasis added.

[9] Undoubtedly, a number of others disagree with his preferences. All that’s left to settle the matter is force, fraud, or moving away.

[10] For example, Emma Green, “Wealthy Women can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can’t,” The Atlantic, January 15, 2014. As for children: Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (June 2011): 487-511. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. N. Glenn, S. Nock, and L. J. Waite, “Why marriage matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences,” American Experiment Quarterly 5 (2002): 34–44. G. E. Weisfeld, D. M. Muczenski, C. C. Weisfeld, and D. R. Omark, “Stability of Boys’ Social Success among Peers over an Eleven-year Period,” In Interpersonal Relations: Family, Peers, Friends, edited by J. A. Meacham (New York, NY: Karger, 1987). B. Defoe, Why There Are No Good Men Left (New York: Broadway Books, 2003). G. R. Weitoft, A. Hjern, B. Haglund, and M. Rosen, “Mortality, severe mortality, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: A population based study,” Lancet 361 (2003): 289–95. S. Rhoads, Taking sex differences seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004). W. B. Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences. A Study from a Team of Family Scholars Chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011). P. Wilcox Rountree and B. D. Warner, The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project, 2011). M. Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003). S. R. Aronson and A. C. Huston, “The mother-infant relationship in single, cohabiting, and married families: A case for marriage?” Journal of Family Psychology 18 (2004): 5–18. P. Fomby and A. J. Cherlin, “Family instability and child well-being,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 181–204. M. Gallagher and L. Waite, The Case for Marriage (New York: Random House, 2000). J. T. Cookston, “Parental supervision and family structure,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 31 (1999): 107–27. Some of the data: “Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school. Kids whose parent’s divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile. Because the custodial parent’s income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents. Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families…. They are also more likely to suffer child abuse. Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress. And the emotional scars of divorce last into adulthood.” See Amy Desai, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” available at See also Jann Gumbiner, “Divorce Hurts Children, Even Grown Ones,” Psychology Today, October 31, 2011. For an opposite view, see Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” Scientific American, vol. 24, no. 1. Yet even Arkowitz and Lilienfeld conceded that kids of divorce are more likely to suffer a range of difficulties than kids raised in two-parent homes. LaVar Young reports on children born out of wedlock: “Fragile families [in which parents are not marriage at the time of the child’s birth] are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior. Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.” LaVar Young, “Fragile Families: Most Children Born Out of Wedlock Aren’t OK,” Huffington Post, June 6, 2011.

[11] Ibid.




Photo: “Dachau Nazi concentration camp’s main gates reading “arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “through work one will be free”. Dachau, Germany” by Zoriah. CC License. 



Summary of Chapter 3 John Hare’s The Moral Gap

By David Baggett 

Summary of Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 5

Summary of Chapter 6

Chapter 2 dealt with one sort of moral faith—that virtue is possible—and Chapter 3 now deals with another: that virtue and happiness are deeply consistent. This is another moral gap that needs to be closed. This faith makes it possible for a person to combine her built-in desire for her own happiness with a commitment to morality. It requires that we postulate the existence of a being “who assigns not only the proper outcome to our good conduct, but also to our good dispositions whatever reward seems adequate to His good pleasure.” Hare notes there are two parts to this idea.

First, we believe that this being orders the world in such a way that we are often enough successful in our attempts to do good to make it worthwhile persevering in the attempt. Second, we believe that this being rewards our fundamental orientation to the good with happiness, so that we do not have to do evil in order to be happy.

This introduces the antinomy of practical reason—the apparent contradiction that the highest good is possible and that it isn’t. But what is the highest good? Happiness proportional to virtue; the more virtue, the more happiness, and the less virtue, the less happiness. What is virtue? For Kant, it is “the firmly grounded disposition strictly to fulfill our duty.” What is happiness? For Kant it’s lives as wholes that are happy or unhappy. Happiness for Kant is the maximum satisfaction as a whole of our needs and desires as rational but finite beings, creatures of need and not merely rational or moral agents.

Hare notes two interpretations of the highest good. The first, the less ambitious sense, is a world with a system in place in which virtue results in happiness. The second, the more ambitious sense, is a world in which everyone is virtuous and everyone is happy. Hare will try to argue that living morally requires believing in the possibility of the highest good in the more ambitious sense, and the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense.

Is the highest good even coherent? If the good is to be motivated solely by respect for the moral law, why should happiness come in at all? If our end is not just virtue, but virtue conjoined with happiness, is not the purity of our respect for the moral law corrupted? Here Hare suggests a parallel in the Christian life, where following Christ should be done for its own sake, even though doing so is also recognized as conducing to our deepest joy.

Hare’s supposition is that it’s possible that some things can be pursued both for their own sakes and for their beneficial consequences. Perhaps I need to be able to foresee my own happiness as consistent with everything I desire, but not that I have to desire everything else at least partly as a means to my own happiness.

What is all-important to Kantian morality is whether the incentive provided by the agent’s happiness is subordinate to the incentive provided by the moral law, or vice versa. It’s okay for an incentive for happiness to be there, but it must take a back seat to the primary call of duty. (It may well be unavoidable that an incentive for happiness is there, emotional and finite creatures that we are.)

Hare thinks that the moral life requires believing in the possibility of the highest good. Hare think this follows from a number of assumptions necessary for a fully reflective living of the moral life.

Assumption #1: The moral good aimed at by action is possible.

Assumption #2: The moral good I am aiming at is a possible result of my attempt to produce it.

Assumption #3: It is possible for me know that the moral good I am aiming at is produced, when it is produced, by the means I have planned.

Assumption #4: I myself can will what is morally good.

Assumption #5: (Concerning everyone else) The moral good they aim at is possible. (social analogue of #1)

Assumption #6: The moral good they are aiming at is a possible result of their efforts to produce it. (social analogue of #2)

#7: It is possible for them to know that the moral good they are aiming at has been produced by the means they have planned. (social analogue of #3)

#8: It is possible for them to will what is morally good. (social analogue of #4)

Hare notes three ways to derive the social analogues:

  1. Assume that what makes things reasonable for me makes them reasonable for everyone.
  2. Morality requires equal respect, and equal respect requires the assumption that all other human beings are capable of willing the good.
  3. Because of the social obstacles to virtue, there are social conditions for the attainment and maintenance of virtue. Possibility of individual virtue requires the possibility of virtue-building and virtue-sustaining congregation.

From 1-8 Hare infers Assumption #9: Possibility of what Kant calls “the Idea of self-rewarding morality,” which says morality does its own rewarding. A world filled with people pursuing virtue and concerned with the welfare of others would be a world filled with happiness.

The highest good in the ambitious sense is a possibility, Hare argues: A world in which righteousness and peace kiss and people are not merely happy, but desirous of things consistent with the moral law.

What about the highest good in the less ambitious sense? Here the new assumption is simply that the virtue of a person results in that person’s happiness. Believing in the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense requires me to believe that my virtue will be rewarded whether (roughly) everyone else is virtuous or not.

Hare wants to argue that we do ordinarily think that we will be happiest if we try to be moral; or that we at least think that being moral has a higher chance than any other strategy. Does this require others to be moral? No, Hare says. For the belief that being morally good is consistent with long-term happiness has been held by people who lived in societies in which they were persecuted and exploited.

Whatever else I desire, as a human being I am bound to desire my own happiness, and I will need to be able to foresee this happiness as consistent with my basic choices. As a human moral agent I have to believe that my continued well-being is consistent with my living a moral life as best I can.

If we are to endorse wholeheartedly the long-term shape of our lives, we have to see this shape as consistent with our own happiness. In a world in which there are many rational agents who have willed not to live by the moral law, I can’t rely on the virtue of others to get me from my virtue to my happiness. So I have to believe that there is in operation a system in which my virtue is rewarded without it.

The antithesis says the highest good in both senses is inachievable. Why might we think the highest good in the less ambitious sense is not rationally thought to be true? One reason: consider that experience suggests that the world seems not to reflect in any way the good man’s striving to bring about goodness in it. Another reason: lack of fit between virtue and happiness is not something we could confirm or disconfirm by experience. (So not knowable a priori.)

Because of so many people trying to be virtuous and yet overwhelmed by evil, a case can be made that life is tragic and human life just is vulnerable to evil. What’s Kant’s solution? He brings in the possibility that the relation between virtue and happiness is mediated by an intelligible Author of nature. Our failures to understand what is happening to us do not license the conclusion that the impact of chance is uncontrollable. Kant rejects the inference from our limitations to the denial of a moral order. He’s “limiting knowledge to make room for faith.”

Hare suggests that belief in moral order is needed; whether this requires moral orderer is another question. A moral argument for the existence of God needs to examine whether there are other ways to back up a moral order.

Those who think the problem of evil is intractable often lose moral faith. But Hare notes that many go through painful ordeals without losing faith in either morality or God. Hare: “The structure of the moral argument is that as long as reason in its theoretical employment cannot rule out the legitimacy of moral faith, reason in its practical employment requires it. If moral faith is possible, then it is necessary.”

Hare wraps the chapter up with these two points: (1) Moral faith is consistent with some doubt about whether your continued well-being is consistent with your trying to live a morally good life; and (2) Moral faith does not require believing that all your present preferences for the future will be secured if you try to live a good life.




Summary of Chapter 2 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

By David Baggett 

Summary of Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 5

Summary of Chapter 6

This chapter is entitled “God’s Supplement,” and Kant will appeal to God’s assistance to close the gap between the high moral demand and our limited natural capacities. As a pure rationalist, Kant uses Christian doctrines, but tries to translate them within the “pure religion of reason.” Hare will eventually argue that this translation project fails.

Kant thought revelation can be held to include the pure religion of reason, but at least the historical part of revelation can’t be included in the pure religion of reason. Hare sees a parallel with Kant’s treatment of ethics here: the pure religion of reason, because it is universal like the pure principles of morality, has to be shorn of all reference to individuals and particular times and places.

Kant himself was not closed to special revelation; the pure rationalist can accept special revelation; nevertheless Kant did not think its acceptance is without qualification necessary to religion. We can and should believe various religious propositions, Kant thought; we just can’t claim to know these things. It wasn’t that Kant was, in the ordinary sense, an agnostic about God. He thought there are good moral grounds for theistic belief—Kant had a narrow sense of knowledge as “grasping the infinite through the senses.”

Kant thought a person who already understands the claims of duty will find the teachings of Christianity worthy of love, even though they are not objectively necessary. “[Christianity] is able to win itself the hearts of men whose understanding is already illuminated by the conception of the law of their duty.”

Perhaps owing to his Pietistic background, Kant shows in his work a primacy on practice over theory in the life of faith, a distrust in natural inclinations, and a vision of a world-wide moral and spiritual renewal. In this light, perhaps his polemic was against what he saw as a corruption of Christianity rather than against Christianity itself. Hare counsels to avoid hearing Nietzsche in Kant’s work louder than Luther.

For Kant a “mystery” was an object of reason that can be known from within adequately for practical use, and yet not for theoretical use. Theoretical reason can’t give him what he needs in order to make sense of the moral life, and the central Christian doctrines in their traditional forms are beyond his reach as a philosopher, in his estimation. Among things inscrutable are the original predisposition to do good, the subsequent cause of the propensity to evil, our re-ascent from evil to good, the divine assistance which makes this possible, and how the ethical commonwealth is translated into actuality. There’s thus inscrutability in creation, fall, redemption, and the second coming.

Kant tried an experiment of seeing whether he could use the doctrines about these focal points as mysteries, that is, as capable of being known from within adequately for practical use. It’s an experiment of translating items in the outer circle of revelation into the language of the moral concepts. The overall aim is to make ‘scrutable’ as much as he can the core of the traditional faith. We may have to believe that supernatural assistance is available, even though we can’t use this belief in theoretical or practical maxims.

Why is belief in divine assistance necessary? The problem is this that we encounter: how can be become other men and not merely better men—as if we were already good but only negligent about the degree of our goodness? Kant was profoundly skeptical we can do away with out sinful inclinations on our own. The problem is too deep.

A revelation of the will is called for. All of us, on Kant’s view, start off with our wills subordinate to the evil maxim which tells us to put our happiness first and our duty second. We are thus corrupt in the very ground of our more specific maxims, all of which take their fundamental moral character from this one. Our happiness comes first, duty second; this needs reversal, which we can’t effect on our own.

If such a revolution is our duty, it must be possible, since ‘ought implies can’. But it’s not possible on our own, since a propensity to evil is radical and inextirpable by human powers, “since extirpation could occur only through good maxims, and cannot take place when the ultimate subjective ground of all maxims is postulated as corrupt.” The result is an antinomy, an apparent contradiction, which is solved by appeal to a “higher, and for us inscrutable, assistance.”

Kant divides divine assistance into work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. Each person of the Trinity answers to a different difficulty arising within practical philosophy. Singular reference is removed by thinking of God the Son as humanity in its moral perfection, the Holy Spirit as the good disposition which is our comforter, and God the Father as the Idea of Holiness within us.

Regarding God the Father, three things must be held together: first, God is just and not indulgent; second, rational but finite beings never reach, at any point in their infinite progress, to holiness of the will; and third, God gives us (rational finite beings) a share in the highest good which is only justly given as a reward for holiness. How can they hold together?

Kant appeals to the world of experiences versus the world of things in themselves. After the birth of the new man, the heart, as seen by God, is “essentially well-pleasing to him”—even though all we can ever experience is gradual improvement, infinitely extended. God judges us as a completed whole “through a purely intellectual intuition.” Intellectual intuition in Kant’s doctrine is productive—God isn’t passive, he makes it so. When God looks at us, he sees his Son, because he is imputing to us his Son’s righteousness. Luther’s influence on Kant on such scores is obvious.

God the Son is translated as humanity in its moral perfection and God the Father as the Idea of holiness (the idea of a morally perfect life). The work of God the Spirit concerns primarily our present experience, while the work of God the Father concerns our fitness for future reward. Hare thinks Kant was attempting to provide a doctrine of the assurance of salvation. As we can’t see our disposition directly, we can see it only indirectly via actions. If there’s an improvement in those, we can hope there has been a revolution in our inner disposition.

Another troublesome triad arises; consider the tension between these three propositions: (1) God is just, not indulgent; (2) We humans have all lived under the evil maxim; and (3) God gives us a share in the highest good which is justly given only as a reward for holiness in an entire life.

Kant’s solution maintains all three, once more, by means of the distinction between the world of experience and the world of things in themselves. Vicarious atonement plays an important role in the Christian account, but two problems attend it before it can enter the domain of reason. The first is the objection to historical reference, and the second is that there is no transmissible liability for evil, which could be handed over to another person like a financial indebtedness. Hare will take up the second point in a later chapter.

What Kant does is translate God the Son as the new man, humanity in its complete moral perfection. The new man suffers sacrifices (remorse, self-discipline, reparation) vicariously, on behalf of the old man, who properly deserves them. It is thus, as in the traditional doctrine, the innocent who suffers. What God sees (by intellectual intuition) is revolution; what we experience is reform. We can’t see by introspection into our own hearts. We experience merely the outworking of the revolution in a gradual process of reformation which, Kant thought, we will not at any time experience as complete. We are still sinners so we’re still capable of subordinating duty to the inclinations, even though we’re moving in the direction of not being able to do so (which is holiness).

Hare considers Kant’s translation project a failure overall. Hare thinks it doesn’t give Kant “mysteries” which allow him to solve the antinomy within practical reason produced by the moral gap. In large part Kant’s failure pertains to his affirmation of the Stoic Maxim, which says a person must make or have made herself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, she is to become. But this stands in rather obvious tension if not patent contradiction with the other part of Kant’s moral system that said supernatural assistance is needed. His failure was to show how we can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory, and in particular given the Stoic maxim. He had to show that he can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory. This is what he failed to do.

One illustration of the failure can be seen considering the work of God the Father. If the notion of extra-human assistance is retained, now Kant has additional resources to show the possibility of a revolution of the will, but can’t continue to insist on the Stoic maxim. If divine assistance is rejected, how can our fundamental disposition come to be characterized by the Idea of holiness as instantiating humanity in its moral perfection? How is this possible given the radical evil of our nature?

The reason for Kant’s failure? When he came to the project of seeing whether the doctrines of Christianity lead back within pure rational religion he carried this out in a way that does not make reference to extra-human assistance. This was true of all of these things: election, call, atonement, justification, assurance, and sanctification.

The incoherent result? Kant’s own account within the pure religion of reason assumed that we can by our own devices reach an upright disposition; but Kant was not justified, in his own terms, in supposing that we can do so. What produces this result is that Kant has subtracted from the traditional understanding of God’s work in salvation any mediating role for anything that is not already human.