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Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig (Part I)

Part II

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls were invited to participate in a panel discussion of their book Good God with Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offering some critique and feedback on their work. Baggett and Walls provide a concise summary of the book, which is a cumulative and abductive moral argument for theism, while Copan and Craig offer insightful analysis. If you are interested in better understanding the moral argument in general or its abductive version in particular, this discussion will be well worth your time.

In Part I, moderator Mark Foreman introduces the panelists and explains the context of the book. David Baggett provides a summary of their moral argument. Paul Copan offers what he thinks are the major highlights, a response to John Hare’s criticisms, as well as some criticisms of his own.





Download Good God panel discussion


Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 4

by Dave Sidnam

One of the reasons that I chose to investigate what Plato could tell us about morality is that he provides a great case study as to what can be discerned about God through general revelation. This thought goes back to the church fathers as this quote from St. Augustine demonstrates:

But we need not determine from what source [Plato] learned these things,—whether it was from the books of the ancients who preceded him, or, as is more likely, from the words of the apostle: “Because that which is known of God, has been manifested among them, for God hath manifested it to them. For His invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by those things which have been made, also His eternal power and Godhead.” From whatever source he may have derived this knowledge, then, I think I have made it sufficiently plain that I have not chosen the Platonic philosophers undeservedly as the parties with whom to discuss; because the question we have just taken up concerns the natural theology.[1]

In my previous post I looked at what Plato could tell us about moral motivation; in this one I’ll look at how this compares with Judeo-Christian thought on the subject.

Moral Motivation According to Plato

As discussed, Plato identified three levels of moral motivation:

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. We should be motivated to be good because the Good is worthy of our love and our desire should be to be like it.

The second form of moral motivation is that the pursuit of and adherence to the Good leads to the very best life: the good life is obtained by acting in accordance with the Good.

The third (and lowest) form of moral motivation is based upon rewards and punishment. Those who do good will receive good things in this life (possibly) and after this life (certainly). Those who do evil will reap the consequences of those actions in this life and also after this life.

Just as his four requirements for a truly objective morality aligned well with the Judeo-Christian perspective, I believe his three levels of moral motivation align equally well.

Moral Motivation in Judeo-Christian Theism

The love of God as the primary motivating factor in Biblical ethics is fundamental in both the Old Testament (Tanach) and the New Testament. This centrality is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This centrality is reiterated in the NT by Jesus as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the love of God is to be the controlling factor that frames every other concept—especially moral ones. The primary form of moral motivation for the Jew and Christian should be the love of God. We should want to be good because we love God—the source of all good—and want to be like Him. This love of God should spur us to “walk in His ways,” as Moses and Joshua frequently reminded the people (Dt. 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). In the center of one of his extended passages on Christian ethics, Paul tells us we ought to imitate God in our actions just like a loving child imitates her father (Eph. 5:1). If we truly have a love for God, this will extend not only to imitating the goodness of God, but also to obeying His commands (1 Jn 5:3). So, as with Plato, the best and highest form of moral motivation in Judeo-Christian theism is love of God/the Good.

The secondary motivation for morality in the Judeo-Christian world is that the life aligned with God’s character—that of godly wisdom—will bring about wellbeing, and that the life set against this—the life of folly—will bring death. Nowhere is this better seen in the Old Testament than in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs, the way aligned to God’s character is personified as Wisdom. She calls out to all who will listen:

And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.

Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord,

but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.[2]

On the other hand, the way of life not aligned with God’s character—personified in Proverbs as Folly—leads a person to personal disaster:

The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,

calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,

“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” And to him who lacks sense she says,

“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”[3]

But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Following the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament also teaches that those who align themselves to God’s character will do well and those who do not will harm themselves. James, in his epistle, contrasts what is brought about through the two different lifestyles—the one driven by heavenly wisdom (godliness), the other by natural wisdom:

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.[4]

In the Judeo-Christian world, godly living brings personal peace (even when outward circumstances are difficult), and ungodly behavior harms the soul (even if it is accompanied by all of the comforts of life).

As with Plato, the final form of moral motivation for Judeo-Christian theism is reward and punishment. This is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The Law of Moses is full of moral obligations and has specific punishments for those who do not follow them. And, even if reward tarries in this life, or if justice fails for the wicked, Daniel tells us everything will be made right in the next life:

At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.[5]

In the New Testament, Jesus confirms this eschatological teaching:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.[6]

Interestingly, for both Plato and the Biblical authors, while love for God/the Good is the highest form of moral motivation, they spend more words on the punishment and rewards aspect of moral motivation than on the love aspect. I believe this is because both Plato and the Biblical writers understood that most people would not attain to this level of motivation. Plato affirmed multiple times that only the true philosopher could reach this lofty goal and that there would be few who attain to this level. Jesus also stated that the road to life is narrow and that there are comparatively few who find it. This common problem, I believe, left both to focus disproportionately on the lowest form of motivation because (unfortunately) it is applicable to the greatest number of people. But the goal of each is to encourage as many people as possible to attain to the highest level.[7]


So once again, we see discoveries that Plato made which align nicely with the Judeo-Christian worldview, and this helps us, along with St. Augustine, to see some of the possibilities of general revelation. Plato not only discovered the characteristics of a truly objective morality, but also the optimal and pragmatic aspects of moral motivation.



[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 12.

[2] Proverbs 8:32-36.

[3] Proverbs 9:13-18.

[4] James 3:13–18.

[5] Daniel 12:1–3.

[6] Matthew 25:31–46.

[7] Another potential take on at least the Biblical emphasis on rewards and punishments is to construe the salient underlying truth along these lines: in a classically theistic world, there is a deep correspondence between happiness and holiness. Aligning ourselves with ultimate reality, God Himself, is the very way in which to experience our deepest joy; and to lose out on this ultimate fulfillment is to forfeit or lose something of infinite worth. This connection between virtue and joy, happiness and holiness, doesn’t render the moral life as mercenary, but rather makes morality fully rational, affirms that reality itself is committed to the Good, which is one of the evidential and explanatory advantages of classical theism over secular and naturalistic perspectives in which no such connection or correspondence is guaranteed, thereby rendering a commitment to morality less than fully rational. This is one piece of what this site often describes as the four-fold moral argument for God’s existence.

Image: “Wisdom 62/365” by Andy Rennie. CC License. 

The Possibility and Pursuit of Truth

By Andrew J. Spencer

Editor’s note: 

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics is a close second. In addition to blogging at, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

The Christian worldview is nothing if it is not true. John 14:6 records Jesus’ declaration of his truthfulness and the exclusivity of that truth claim: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Paul comments that the historicity––the truthfulness––of the resurrection is a foundation that Christianity stands or falls by in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.

The most basic question we need to strive to answer is not, “How does this make me feel?” Rather, we need to answer the question, “How do I know this is true?” Truthfulness is at the heart of Christianity. The entire Christian perspective is worthless if it isn’t true.

Recently I was struck by overlap between my overwhelming interest in truth and the perspective of someone with a very different view of life. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger announces something should be obvious but needs defense in the contemporary age: “Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.”

Dreger is an advocate for intersex rights (which deserves more nuanced attention from Christians) and a proponent of sexual ethics at odds with Scripture. However, the commonality in understanding between my worldview and hers is noteworthy. We both recognize that truthfulness has ethical implications that are essential for society to exist. We both believe that truthfulness will lead to justice.

And this is important methodologically in our discourse with unbelievers. Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 demonstrated that he was willing to start with where his interlocutors were at, complement them when he could, identify features of their worldview that resonated with his own, and even quote writers and poets that his opponents would recognize as their own and as potentially authoritative. In all of these ways, incidentally, Paul was following the well tread dictates of Greek rhetoric. Starting with shared ground in our evangelistic efforts is an impeccable bridge-building exercise and features a distinguished biblical pedigree and precedent.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life. We have access to truth, because of God’s illumination of his self-revelation in Scripture, in a way that secular thinkers and practitioners of false religions lack. This does not mean we possess a perfect objectivity—the ability to see things without bias—but it does mean we have access to truth and should strive for objectivity.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life.

Even Dreger argues for the importance of objectivity. She wryly comments, “Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de fact criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners.”

We may disagree with Alice Dreger about what the content of truth, but we should be able to agree with her that the truth is essential and the pursuit of objectivity is necessary if we are going to find truth. Often, our first step in reaching out to people with the hope of the truth needs to be making a case for the existence of truth itself.

I recently reviewed a book for the academic journal Environmental Ethics. In Religion and Ecology, a professor from Florida International University, Whitney Bauman, applies queer theory to ecology in an attempt to discover a planetary ethic. The book, at its heart, is trying to re-envision the relationship between “self-and-other beyond substance-based notions of identity.” Bauman is rejecting the foundational understandings of the existence of truth in search of something that “works better” for the environment.

In Bauman’s post-foundational approach, he rejects the possibility of objectivity in natural sciences because science necessarily begins with certain assumptions. As Dreger acknowledges, and I affirm, any human pursuit of truth is tainted with our own perspectives. However, Bauman calls for an abandonment of the quest for objective truth altogether, which creates enormous difficulties both in theory and in practice. A standard we can only asymptotically approach without ever being able to achieve perfectly is not evidence for its absence, nor grounds to suggest that more closely approximating it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

The end result for Bauman is a mishmash of experience, emotion, and knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, much less defend. His goal, it seems, is to find a unity by erasing distinctions between categories. This includes his contention “that atheism and theism are really like two sides of the same coin, as are reductionism and holism or relativism and universalism.” Such a rejection of differences is bound to make both the theist and atheist unhappy.

For Bauman, reconfiguring the means of gaining knowledge is necessary, and it allows him to conclude that the best solutions for contemporary environmental problems are “free” higher education, universal healthcare, and the promotion of leisure time. The book offers no explanation as to why those things are good for the environment, but that just illustrates the problem with Bauman’s approach to truth. The method undermines the possibility of a meaningful solution.

Both Dreger and Bauman are people in need of the truth, which is rooted in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the approach to engaging them––and people that share their views––is entirely different.

People who accept that truth exists and is an objective reality can be influenced by traditional apologetic arguments. They recognize the cogency of the world and are seeking to find a systemic understanding that has explanatory power.

Others, though, who consider belief in any truth to be naïve, are more difficult to engage. With palpable paradoxicality, their axiomatic belief is that foundational beliefs are inappropriate. This illustrates the circularity of the belief system, but breaking through the infinite regress is much more difficult. The first step here is more important and harder. It requires demonstrating that an objective truth is possible and necessary.

In the arena of moral apologetics, it’s harder to reach those who don’t believe in at least certain obvious moral truths. Fortunately this remains a distinctly minority position among secularists, but, if Nietzsche was right (and he may well have been), it’s a position that is likely to grow in popularity as the implications of naturalism sink in. Ours is a culture that still benefits from the effects of being steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as even recent events have shown, the Christian framework for apprehending reality is gradually losing its grip on the popular imagination.

As we reach into the world with the hope of the Gospel, there is more to the discussion than just memorizing an evangelism outline. We need to ask enough questions to be aware of the appropriate starting point and make the case that needs to be made. The Bible itself makes it clear that our outreach needs to be audience-sensitive. In Paul’s speeches in Acts, his sermons to Jews and God-fearers were filled with biblical references; but at Lystra or Athens he shifted gears, finding common ground elsewhere: in nature, in pagan poetry. Although his preaching on such occasions tapped into biblical truth, explicit references to the scriptures came to a screeching halt. One size doesn’t fit all. In some cases, in a culture increasingly relativistic, pluralist, and postmodern, the conversation will have to begin by explaining that there is an objective moral order in the universe and that such truth is both available and valuable.



Image:”What is truth” by Nikolai Ge – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Mailbag: The Devil Made Us Smarter?

By David Baggett 

A reader of the site asked for help responding to this:

“The devil gave humans critical thinking which God didn’t want us to have. God wanted us to not eat from the tree of knowledge so we could be thought-slaves for eternity, but the devil did us a favor and turned the tables there with a single conversation. The devil killed a grand total of 10 people in the Bible, while God killed somewhere around 2.3 million. He understands human nature but doesn’t judge you for being human. He accepts god’s unwanted children unconditionally.”

It appears these lines come from Martin Ristov, although I’m unfamiliar with the person. It appears to be motivated by a fair bit of anger at the biblical God, similar in invective and spirit to the New Atheists. The idea seems to be that, in a moral comparison between God and Satan, the devil wins. Satan is responsible for giving us critical thinking, liberates us from being thought-slaves, has done comparatively little damage (killing just ten folks in the Bible), doesn’t judge people for being human, and accepts those God rejects. God, in contrast, wanted us to be thought-slaves, killed millions, judges us for being human, and is conditional in his acceptance.

The comparison with the New Atheists is ironic in a sense, since the New Atheists claim not to believe in God, whereas this person doesn’t seem to deny God’s existence, but rather his love and character. Still, certain adamant secularists seem mad at God at the same time as denying His existence. C. S. Lewis is well known for admitting, post-conversion, that as an atheist he both denied God’s existence and was very angry with God.

I think much of what’s going on here is attributable to looking at theology from the outside. Christians are inclined to believe God is loving; in fact, love isn’t just what God expresses, it’s who He is. God has expressed His love most clearly through Christ, and the whole of salvation history culminates in Him. Jesus went to the cross while we were sinners in order to save us. God’s love is His most important attribute, and every part of biblical revelation should be understood through this guiding hermeneutic. If, instead, one reads the Bible through a different lens, a very different conclusion can be drawn; but to read it in such a way is to wrongly divide the word of truth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn’t denied the first people, on this skewed and exegetically deficient reading, because of the importance of avoiding defining good and evil for oneself in whatever subjective way one wanst, but rather because God wants to keep us from knowledge. Rather than Jesus being the Logos and the foundation for all clear thinking, critical thinking gets cast as a gift from the benevolent hand of Satan. We are thus furnished with a stark example of what incommensurable paradigms look like, and how far afield eisegetical, prooftexting mishandlings of the biblical text get us.

A comparison and contrast between God and Satan also sounds much more dualistic than Christianity actually is. Unlike, say, Zoroastrianism and certain other theologies, Christianity doesn’t put God and Satan into equal and opposite positions. Satan is a creation of God. There’s only one God, one locus of value, one Creator of the world, one Sustainer of all that exists, one Being who exists a se. Much of what often gets rejected is not classical theism, but some diminished demi-god, like the finite and morally impoverished gods of the Greek pantheon. The idea that Satan is really the good guy after all shows that the person speaking has some rather big misunderstandings, either inadvertent or intentional. The force behind systemic evils and gross injustices and all manner of cruelty and corruption is actually the good and benevolent force? The one animating the actions of Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross was the good guy? This strains credulity to the breaking point, and raises a serious question about conversational cooperation.

The one who willingly suffered for the salvation of the world, who took our sin upon himself, who was willing to endure the shame and punishment that we rightly deserved—and to do so out of His great love for us—drinking death and shame to its dregs that He might effect ultimate victory over evil and set the world to rights—He’s the bad guy? The one who offers to each of us the experience of ultimate goodness that can make all the temporal sufferings of this fleeting life pale into insignificance in light of the eternal glory to come—He’s the real devil? I suspect this is a paradigmatic instance of what was prophesied: that the day would come when good would be called evil, and evil good.

Image: By Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.



Saving Wasted Virtues: Heaven and the Ground of Morality

By Jerry Walls


At the outset of his chapter “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton made the ironic observation that the modern world, in some ways, is far too good.  Indeed, the modern world, as he saw it was “full of wild and wasted virtues,” an inevitable result when a religious scheme is shattered.[1]  When this happens, it is not only the vices that are let loose and create havoc.

But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly,

and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the

old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues are gone mad because they

have been isolated from each other and are wondering alone.[2]

A generation later, in The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis echoed this point in criticizing those who depart from traditional morality (which he called the Tao) and offer new systems or ideologies in its place.  All such new systems, Lewis maintained, “consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”[3]

While Lewis’s diagnosis is similar, his prescription for moral health and integrity is significantly different.   He prescribes a dogmatic belief in objective value and a commitment to the Tao as having absolute validity.  Indeed, the principles of the Tao must be accepted as obviously rational, just as one takes the axioms of geometry to be self-evident.[4]  Most interesting, for our purposes, is that Lewis goes on to emphasize that his argument does not depend on theistic assumptions.  Though acknowledging his own Christian convictions, he made it clear that he was not offering an indirect argument for Theism.  He insisted that he was “simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the values of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed.”[5]   While leaving open the possibility that morality implies a supernatural origin, Lewis was prepared to hold that morality can be sufficiently grounded for anyone who can see the obvious rationality of the principles of practical reason.

Lewis’s fully developed argument has considerable force, but I do not share his confidence that traditional morality can stand alone without Theistic grounding. And here I claim Chesterton for an ally.  He suggests a different solution to the moral confusion that results when “wild and wasted virtues” are let loose in our society.   At the end of the chapter I cited above, he observes that Joan of Arc combined in her person virtues advocated by figures as diverse as Nietzsche and Tolstoy.  While they were “wild speculators” who did nothing, she actually did something.  “It was impossible” Chesterton remarked, “that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.”[6]

His thoughts inevitably turned to a larger figure, namely, Christ Himself, and Chesterton noted that Christ combines virtues that moderns can only see as opposed to one another.  Most interestingly, he observed, altruists denounce Christ as an egoist whereas egoists denounce his altruism.  Chesterton concluded with the following memorable line

There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect the

fragments.  There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and leg

walking about.  They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labelled

egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.  They have parted His garments

among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was

without seam woven from the top throughout.[7]

Chesterton’s example here is particularly well chosen, for the dilemmas posed by egoism and altruism have been particularly troublesome for moral philosophers for over a century now, and remain vexing to this day.  In what follows I want to argue, following Chesterton’s suggestion, that we need the resources not only of Theism to resolve these difficulties, but distinctively Christian doctrine as well, particularly the doctrine of heaven.



Although the problem of egoism and altruism emerged much earlier,[8] let us begin our examination of it with a landmark in moral philosophy by one of Chesterton’s contemporaries, namely, The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick, a work that went through seven editions between 1874 and 1907.  Sidgwick identified as the greatest moral problem of his time what he called the “Dualism of Practical Reason.”[9]  This dualism arises because of a possible conflict between what may serve the happiness of a given individual, on the one hand, and what would serve the happiness of the larger universe of sentient beings.   As a utilitarian, Sidgwick believes the ultimate good is happiness, or what he also calls desirable consciousness for sentient beings.

Consider the case of an individual who is called upon to sacrifice his own happiness, perhaps even his life, for the happiness of others.  Now if we judge it to be a reasonable thing for him to do so, then it might be argued that we are assigning a different ultimate good for the individual than for the rest of sentient beings; whereas their good is happiness, his ultimate good is conformity to reason.  While Sidgwick admits the force of this argument, he nevertheless maintains that it may actually be reasonable for an individual to sacrifice his own good for the greater happiness of others.  It is at this point that Sidgwick identifies the Duality of Practical Reason in his footnote.  There he acknowledges that it is “no less reasonable for an individual to take his own happiness as his ultimate end.”

Sidgwick goes on to observe that in earlier moral philosophy, particularly the Greeks, it was believed that it was good for the individual himself to act sacrificially even when the consequences as a whole are painful to him.  While he attributes this belief partly to certain confusions, it is also important to recognize that he also recognizes it is partly due to a “faith deeply rooted in the moral consciousness of mankind, that there cannot be really and ultimately any conflict between the two kinds of reasonableness.”[10]

Sidgwick returns to this unresolved difficulty in the final pages of his book.   Significantly, he identifies one clear way of resolving it that he rejects, namely, by assuming the existence of God and divine sanctions that would be sufficient to assure it was always in our best interests to be moral.  He rejects this assumption, defended most notably in the modern period by Kant, because he does not believe it is strictly required to ground “ethical science.”  In his view, later adopted by Lewis, the fundamental intuitions of moral philosophy are as independently self-evident as the axioms of geometry, and therefore need no grounding from theology or other sources.  But while our moral duty is intuitively obvious, it is, unfortunately, not equally evident that the performance of our duty will be suitably rewarded.  Admittedly, we feel a desire that this be the case not only for ourselves, but for all other people as well.  However, our wish for this to be so has no bearing on whether it is probable, “considering the large proportion of human desires that experience shows to be doomed to disappointment.”[11]

Now even if this desire is doomed to disappointment, this gives us no reason to abandon morality according to Sidgwick, but it does mean we must give up the hope of making full rational sense of it.  Our moral duty is still binding on us despite the fact that it makes no rational sense how this can be so when duty conflicts with self-interest.   In his final paragraph, Sidgwick tentatively offers some brief epistemological reflections on whether we might be rationally justified in believing in the ultimate convergence of morality and self-interest even if this belief cannot claim philosophic certainty.  But what is still clear at the end of the day is that the issue remains unresolved for him.

What Sidgwick recognized as the profoundest problem of moral philosophy in his day has only intensified in later generations.  In much twentieth century moral philosophy, the conflict was stated in terms of egoism versus altruism, and morality was often defined in terms that exclude egoism.  Moreover, this view remains widespread as moral philosophy advances into the twenty-first century.  As a representative of twentieth century moral philosophers, consider the words of John Rawls in his widely influential work A Theory of Justice: “Although egoism is logically consistent and in this sense not irrational, it is incompatible with what we intuitively regard as the moral point of view.  The significance of egoism philosophically is not as an alternative conception of right but as a challenge to any such conception.”[12]

While this conflict has been taken for granted for some time now, it is important to reiterate that it is sharply at odds with how morality has been conceived by most moral philosophers in the greater part of human history.  As David Lutz has observed, it was the view of “the multitude” or “the many” that virtuous living might be in conflict with self-love, but moral philosophers forcefully argued just the opposite.  But now, the view of “the multitude” has become the view of most moral philosophers.  As Lutz sees it, “this change in how we think about our lives is both significant and regrettable.”[13]

Surely the consequences for how we live our lives and for society at large are significant indeed.  The issues here are too pressing to be confined to the halls of academic debate, because they touch on all aspects of our common life.  It is no surprise that these debates have worked their way into popular culture and conversation.  A vivid instance of this occurred in the late 1980’s, a tumultuous time in American cultural history, during which a series of highly publicized scandals rocked a number of American institutions including government, business, the military and the church.  Time magazine did a cover story on ethics the title of which was simply, “What’s Wrong.”   In the concluding paragraph of the article, the author noted a profound ambivalence in the American soul, even as the nation aspired to restore some sense of moral integrity: “the longing for moral regeneration must constantly vie with an equally strong aspect of America’s national character, self indulgence.  It is an inner tension that may animate political life for years to come.”[14]  The tension that the author notes is, of course, another variation on the unresolved problem Sidgwick bequeathed to his successors.    Moreover, events since that time, only the most notorious of which involve the Clinton administration, have certainly vindicated the prediction that this tension would continue to animate political life for years to come.

In an accompanying essay, Time probed the roots of our moral disarray.  Again, it is interesting that the essay ends by grappling with the familiar issue of the relationship between morality and self-interest.  After citing ethicists who believe that it is possible both to be ethical and to get what we want at least most of the time, the essay observes that this is an optimistic solution which only lays bare the heart of the problem, namely, the nature of human desires.  The final sentences of the essay leave us with this prospect for moral renewal:

If Americans wish to strike a truer ethical balance, they may need to re-examine the values that society so seductively parades before them: a top job, political power, sexual allure, a penthouse or lakefront spread, a killing on the market.  The real challenge would then become a redefinition of wants so that they serve society as well as self, defining a single ethic that guides means while it also achieves rightful ends.[15]

The question this obviously raises is what could motivate such a redefinition of wants.  Some convincing account needs to be given of goods that clearly surpass things like top jobs, political power, sexual allure and so on.  The question is what sort of goods would not only be of surpassing value but would also be such that in choosing them one is not forced to decide between one’s own ultimate interest and that of others.

When this choice is forced upon us, that is, when altruism is pried apart from self-interest, it is very revealing to note that it is inevitably distorted in the process.  Indeed, here is a graphic illustration of  “wild and wasted virtues” isolated and wandering alone. Consider two extreme claims about the nature of self-sacrifice that are current in contemporary thought.  On the one side are those who maintain that the only real gift is one that expects nothing in return.  Thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida hold that the highest gift is a sacrifice of one’s life for others, a sacrifice that is ultimate and uncompensated.  Indeed, it is the very finality of death that endows morality with seriousness and makes it truly possible.  The hope of life after death on this view is problematic for ethics.  As John Milbank concisely describes this view, “Death in its unmitigated reality permits the ethical, while the notion of resurrection contaminates it with self-interest.”[16]

On this view, altruism has been stripped of any vestige of human self-interest and raised to truly heroic proportions.  This account of altruism takes moral sacrifice far beyond anything that traditional moralists imagined could be required or reasonably expected of human beings.  These thinkers demand that humans be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice without the support of the sort of moral faith that more traditional moral philosophers, such as Kant, thought necessary to make sense of morality.

By sharp contrast, there is another very different view of altruism current in contemporary thought, namely, that of some influential sociobiologists and evolutionary theorists.  These thinkers attempt to account for altruism in terms of naturalistic evolution, where it poses an obvious problem.  The problem stems from the notion of natural selection, which maintains that traits that reduce reproductive advantages will be eliminated.  Altruism is a double-edged sword in this regard, for not only is it a disadvantage to those who practice it, but it is also an advantage for those who are on the receiving end of it.  So it seems that those who are altruistic would sacrifice themselves out of existence in the unforgiving competition for survival and reproductive advantage.  And yet, altruistic behavior of various kinds continues to be exhibited and highly admired in the human race.  The question of how to account for this fact remains.

Sociobiologists have developed a number of different theories to meet this challenge, some of which can explain at least certain forms of altruistic behavior with a fair degree of plausibility.[17]  It would take us too far afield to discuss these in detail, but one thing in particular is striking about some of these theories, namely, the role that deception plays in them.  One such theory focuses on the recipients of altruistic behavior and suggests that behavior of that sort is produced by the skillful manipulation of those recipients.   Altruistic actions such as adoption, organ donation, and even radical human sacrifice have been explained in terms of manipulation of various social instincts by those who benefit from such activity.

In a similar vein, altruism is also explained as a matter of elaborate self-deception.  This account begins with the recognition that reciprocity is central to human society and the further observation that the optimal position is to cheat the system for personal advantage when one can get away with it.  Successful cheaters, however, must obviously avoid detection.  And one way they can do this is to engage in impressive displays of sacrificial behavior.  When cheaters are detected, ever more creative and costly exhibitions of altruism must be invented to persuade others of one’s sincerity.   Here is where self-deception enters the picture.  If we are to be successful in our self-serving manipulations, we first need to deceive ourselves into believing that we really do care about others and that morality rightly obligates us to do so.  Otherwise, we would never treat others well enough to accomplish our purpose of manipulating them.  Moreover, we will be most persuasive in this regard if our real intentions never enter our minds as conscious thoughts.   Thus, our altruistic displays mask our real purposes not only from others but even from ourselves.

Writing from a similar perspective, Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson maintain that nature has made us believe in a disinterested moral code according to which we are obligated to help others.  “In short, to make us altruistic in the adaptive biological sense, our biology makes us altruistic in the more conventionally understood sense of acting on deeply held beliefs about right and wrong.”[18]   Since we have been wired by evolution to believe in moral obligation, we are not being insincere or hypocritical when we endorse it.  It is because we consciously believe in morality in this sense that it works as well as it does and serves it reproductive purposes.  But the element of deception remains, as the following remarks by Ruse and Wilson indicate.

In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed of on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.  It is without external grounding.  Ethics is produced by evolution but not justified by it, because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance.[19]

The illusion lies in the fact that we are naturally inclined to believe morality has an objective grounding and this illusion is what makes morality effective.  The illusion also explains why ordinary people do not view morality merely as a means of survival, or the promotion of our genes, or worse, as an elaborate form of manipulation and self-advancement.



Now then, let us turn to consider how distinctively Christian resources can help us save these wild and wasted virtues.  To get right to the heart of the matter, let us note that Sidgwick’s “Dualism of Practical Reason,” which fossilized in the twentieth century as the conflict between egoism and altruism, is simply dissolved on Christian premises.  Indeed, it is an impossible dilemma from a Christian standpoint.  The fundamental reason for this is that the ultimate good for all persons is an eternal relationship with God.  To enjoy this relationship, we must trust and obey God, even when it is costly and difficult.

At the forefront of what God requires of us is that we love others selflessly, but paradoxically, our own self-interest is best served when we do so.  We should distinguish then, between self-interest and selfishness.   One is acting selfishly when he promotes his interests at the unfair expense of others.  Christian morality, like most secular morality, would reject this sort of behavior as wrong.  But there is nothing wrong with acting out of self-interest since all rational creatures naturally and inevitably desire their own happiness and well being.   To love another person is to promote his happiness and well being.  The same thing that makes it right to promote these for other persons makes it right to desire these for oneself as well.  For all human beings share essentially the same nature and are alike valuable to God as creatures he loves.

Learning to love selflessly is what transforms us and prepares us to enter the fellowship of the Trinity.  So as we love in this fashion, we are being prepared to experience our own highest joy and satisfaction.  Consequently, the conflict between acting for our own ultimate good and that of others simply cannot arise.  But this assumes that the highest goods are not those mentioned above in the Time article, namely, things like a top job, political power, sexual allure, a lakefront spread, and so on.  Recall that that article suggested that we needed a redefinition of our wants so that they would serve society as well as self.  Well, I am arguing that the only sorts of goods that will fit the bill in a convincing fashion are heavenly ones.  If naturalism is true, the goods of this life are the only ones available, and it is a Utopian dream to think that we can consistently act in such a way as to promote these goods both for ourselves and for others.

Recognition of this reiterates the point that selfless actions are not easy on the Christian account of things.  For it requires profound faith in God to resist the seductive temptation to believe that the only goods, or the most desirable ones, are those of this life.  To sacrifice such goods for the sake of others is to trust that Trinity is ultimate reality, that giving is reciprocal and mutual in the end.

Because Trinitarian love is the deepest reality, the notion of altruism as ultimate sacrifice with no expectation of compensation is at best a distortion of the aboriginal truth about reality.  At worst, the notion that such utter disinterest represents a higher or more admirable standard is pagan hubris.  As previously observed, this view is represented in current thought by such writers as Levinas and Derrida.  Similar notions were expressed by the Stoics in antiquity, and in the modern period Kant is no doubt the high water mark of philosophers who worried that morality would be contaminated by any element of self-interest.  While Kant believed we must postulate God and immortality to make rational sense of morality, as noted above, he insisted, incoherently in my view, that this could not affect our motivation without corrupting its moral value.

In Christian thought, resurrection and immortality are not afterthoughts, nor are they  postulates to salvage morality from irrationality.  They are integral to the grand claim that ultimate reality is reciprocal love.  Christ’s resurrection, no less than his giving his life as a sacrifice for our sins, is a picture for us of the eternal dynamic of divine love.  It is life, not death–as Levinas and Derrida contend–that gives morality substance.  As John Milbank puts it, “resurrection, not death, is the ground of the ethical.”[20]

Consider in this connection the book of Hebrews, which presents a theologically rich account of how Christ offered his life as a sacrifice to save us from our sins.   In two passages particularly relevant to our current discussion we are informed not only that Christ yielded obedience to the one who could save him from death, but also that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.[21]   Thus, the consummate sacrifice that gives meaning to all others according to the book of Hebrews gives no credence whatever to the pagan notion that the finality of death is necessary for ultimate sacrifice.  To the contrary, the ultimate sacrifice in human history, the sacrifice that saves the world, was given in faith that joy will triumph over death.

In commending Christ as a model in this regard, this passage is encouraging Christians who suffer for their faith to do so with confident hope that the God whose nature is love will reciprocate their costly obedience.  Self-interest in this regard is a straightforward component of Christian moral motivation.  Indeed, it is a rather obvious implication of the logic of Trinitarian belief.  For we cannot harm our well being by obedience to God, just as we cannot promote it by selfishness.

Indeed, there is no other way to be happy and to find the fulfillment we desire than by obedience to God.  Thus, there is no parallel problem on the Christian view to the one posed for naturalism by those who choose, often successfully, to cheat the system.  God cannot be deceived or cheated in any way, so moral parasites are completely out of the question on this view.   It might make rational sense to think that cheating could successfully serve one’s ultimate well being on naturalistic assumptions, but that could never be the case given Christian beliefs. This observation further confirms the power of Christian theology to account not only for why morality is objectively binding upon us but also for why any reasonable person should want to obey it.  It provides a rationally persuasive and winsome account of moral motivation that nothing in secular morality can emulate.

Before concluding this section, let us return for a moment to Sidgwick and recall that he rejected the notion of theistic sanctions for morality, confident that morality could stand on its own.   As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, he held that at the “foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements for the truth of which no further reason can be given.” [22]  MacIntyre goes on to argue that it was this sort of intuitionist view that undermined any claim to objectivity and prepared the way for the emotivism of twentieth century moral philosophy.  Subsequent moral philosophy, not to mention the moral confusion of our culture, has surely shown that Sidgwick’s faith was not well founded and that morality needs a better grounding than he or his heirs have provided.  I have been arguing that the theism he rejected, particularly in its orthodox Christian forms, along with its teleological account of human nature and happiness remains the most viable resource for resolving the problems we have inherited from him.



Before concluding, let us hear from Chesterton again.  In his discussion of the “Paradoxes of Christianity” he noted that “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”  He goes on to give this as an example: “One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”[23]

This comment points us to the very end of his book where he notes the irony that modernism is emancipated in seeking pleasure in this life, but ultimately despairing because it does not believe there is any final meaning in the universe.

 The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but

sad about the big ones.  Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it

is not native to man to be so.  Man is more himself, man is more manlike,

when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.[24]

Christians follow one who obeyed God, even unto death, because of the joy set before him.  Therein lies not only the foundation of morality and the salvation of wasted virtues, but our very humanity.




[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959), 30.

[2] Orthodoxy, 30.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 44.

[4] The Abolition of Man, 40; 73.

[5] The Abolition of Man, 49.

[6] Orthodoxy, 44.

[7] Orthodoxy, 44-45.

[8] For helpful historical analysis, see David W. Lutz, “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Notre Dame, 1994.

[9] Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 404, note 1.

[10] The Methods of Ethics, 405.

[11] The Methods of Ethics, 507-508.

[12] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 136.

[13] “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” 8.

[14] Walter Shapiro, “What’s Wrong,” Time, May 25, 1987, 17.

[15] Ezra Bowen, “Looking to Its Roots,” Time, May 25, 1987, 29.

[16] John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things 91 (March 1999), 34.

[17] For a helpful discussion of these theories, see Jeffrey P. Schloss, “Evolutionary Accounts of Altruism & the Problem of Goodness by Design” in Mere Creation, ed. William B. Dembski (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 236-261.

[18] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James E. Huchingson (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 310.

[19] “The Evolution of Ethics,” 310.

[20] “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” 38.

[21] Hebrews 5:7; 12:1-3.

[22] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 65.

[23] Orthodoxy, 95.

[24] Orthodoxy, 159.

Photo: “Heaven Above” by Jochemberends. CC License. 

Video: Theist Trent Dougherty and Atheist Erik Wielenberg Discuss C.S. Lewis

In this video, Christian philosopher Dr. Trent Dougherty and atheist moral realist Dr. Erik Wielenberg have an irenic and thoughtful discussion on the thought of C.S. Lewis.  Topics covered include the moral argument, the problem of evil, and the argument from reason. The conversation was hosted by Baylor University.


Photo: “Graphic Conversation” by M. Wathleu. CC License.

Podcast: Dr. Leo Percer on Moral Epistemology and the Character of God

In this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Percer about the relationship of faith and reason in the context of the moral argument. Dr. Percer offers some tremendous insights on being made in the image of God and how we can have moral knowledge as well as how the Bible portrays the character and goodness of God.



Photo: “Bible” by C. Zlelecki. CC License


A Sketch of a Moral Argument Cumulative, Abductive, and Teleological

By David Baggett

Three features of moral apologetics are particularly powerful means, individually and collectively, to make the case for God’s existence. The first is its cumulative potential. Cumulative case arguments in apologetics typically conjoin arguments like the teleological, cosmological, and historical arguments—or some such combination. Such cumulative cases are great, but here I mean a cumulative moral argument in and of itself. The most common sort of moral argument puts the focus on moral facts like moral values and duties, and perhaps under the penumbra of such concepts fall a constellation and cluster of other important moral dimensions in need of explanation like rights, agency, ascriptions of responsibility, human dignity, an human equality; but in addition to such facts, think also about something like moral knowledge. This expands the focus from metaphysics and ontology to moral epistemology, and thinkers like Mark Linville, Angus Ritchie, J. P. Moreland, and R. Scott Smith have done an admirable job fleshing out this aspect of moral apologetics.

What Kant referred to as “moral faith” broached two other features of morality: whether achieving the life of virtue is possible, and whether, even if it is, it’s consistent with happiness. John Hare puts a great deal of emphasis on these aspects of moral apologetics. The Moral Gap, for example, discusses both; the notion of the “gap” that God enables us to cross is all about our need for moral transformation and, especially, God’s grace and assistance to meet the moral demand, something we can’t do otherwise. The second part of moral faith, pertaining to the ultimate correspondence of happiness and virtue, has to do with nothing less than the ability to believe the moral life is a fully rational enterprise—a solution to what Sidgwick called the dualism of the practical reason. Classical Christian theism impeccably and best sustains both of these aspects of Kantian moral faith, and thus these additional aspects of morality allow for two additional variants of moral apologetics. Put all four parts together—moral facts, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality—and the result is a powerful cumulative moral argument for God’s existence.

In addition to being a cumulative case, it’s arguably preferable for numerous reasons to advance an abductive moral argument. An abductive case is an inference to the best explanation. This form of argument need not deny that other alternative explanations of the range of moral facts (just discussed) are entirely deficient with nothing to add to the discussion. Numerous among them may well be able to do some measure of explanatory work. Consider the world in which we live. Especially if theists are right that this is a rich, fertile world imbued with all sorts of value and significance, and populated by creatures made in God’s image and invested with a range of powerful epistemic faculties, theism would predict that the resources of this world will provide powerful insights into its ubiquitous moral features. It would be altogether surprising if it were otherwise. The reason that morality provides evidence for God is not that the world alone can explain nothing about morality, but rather that the world and theism together can provide the considerably better explanation of those realities. An abductive case builds on the common ground shared by believers and unbelievers alike and invites a conversation about what can better explain the full range of moral facts and can explain them robustly, without domesticating them, watering them down, or subtly changing the subject.

My preferred approach to moral apologetics also features a strong recurring theme of teleology. If theism is true, and we have been created for a reason and purpose, we have been imbued and invested with a telos: a goal or aim. This makes excellent sense of the ontology of both goodness and oughtness. God as the ultimate Good, and the one in whose image we have been created, is both the source and goal of our lives and, ultimately, of any goods we enjoy.

Teleology also facilitates the acquisition of moral knowledge. So long as the operative meta-narrative of the human condition is that we’re pushed and pulled around by the ineluctable forces of the material world, we are hard pressed to maintain confidence in our belief-formation processes to reliably track the truth, moral or otherwise. But if God designed us in such a way that our cognitive apparatus puts us in touch with reality and makes real knowledge possible, then we can take the deliverances of our deliberations and reflective processes veridically.

Teleology functions at the foundation of Kantian moral faith as well, bolstering the two variants of moral apologetics resting on its foundation. If God created us for fellowship with him—to love God with all of our hearts and souls and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—we simply have far better reason to think that total moral transformation is possible. If this world is all there is, and the resources of naturalism exhaust the tools at our disposal, morality seems to stir a desire within us that can’t be satisfied, a thirst that can never be quenched. For this life and world will end without anyone ever having achieved a state of moral perfection. But if Christianity is true, then our desire to be delivered entirely from every last vestige of sinfulness and selfishness is no futile pipe dream, but an intimation of things to come, an echo of eternity, when all is set right, all tears are wiped away, and we will be changed entirely to conform with the One who made it possible. And in that state, if Christianity is true, we will find our deepest joy—when holiness and happiness not merely conjoin or cohere, but kiss and consummate. This was God’s intention and our God-invested telos all along.

So, construct a powerful, patient abductive moral apologetic, wrapped with a robust teleology that encompasses every part of the cumulative case for God’s existence, and you’ve got the makings for a formidable argument indeed—one that can illumine the mind, stir the heart, and move the will.

Photo: “Construction” by A. Levers. CC License.