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Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” Part 2

 Summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next evaluate the Cornell realist account, advanced by those like David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Richard Boyd. Cornell realists view moral facts as natural facts (constituted by some complex collection of natural properties), but not reducible to non-moral natural facts. Some natural properties, for example, contribute to human flourishing. Baggett and Walls point out that even if Cornell realist accounts of the good are successful, this does not provide an effective account of moral obligations. C. Stephen Evans, for example, thinks such a theory of goodness is fully compatible with Divine Command Theory.

They then further evaluate Brink’s approach to accounting for moral obligations, which seems far from a Kantian understanding of moral obligations as categorical. Kant’s categorical imperatives fell on hard times for various reasons. One reason was due to potentially competing or conflicting moral demands which Kant provided no way of resolving. W. D. Ross extended Kant’s work by distinguishing between prima facie and ultima facie duties (ultima facie duties are one’s duties all things considered). This however loosened the perceived authority of certain moral obligations since they can be overridden. Another reason was due to the action-guiding nature of morality. Moral anti-realists took this as evidence to suggest that moral judgments can’t merely purport to state facts, otherwise they cannot fulfill their practical function. Those who resist this assessment typically affirm an internalist thesis, where there is an internal or conceptual connection between moral considerations and action or the sources of action. One can be an internalist about motives or reasons. And “reasons for action” may refer to explanatory reasons or justifying ones. Brink responds to the anti-realist challenge by identifying three distinguishable characteristics of internalism: (1) Moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action; (2) it follows that the claim about the motivational power or rationality of morality must be a priori; (3) it follows that the rationality or motivational power of moral considerations cannot depend on substantive considerations such as what the content of morality turns out to be, facts about agents, or the content of the correct theory of rationality. On motivation internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact will necessarily be motivated to act on it. This seems implausible. On reason internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact has a reason to act on it. Baggett and Walls think this is true, but resists Brink’s insistence that internalism entails (2) and (3). Brink himself admits that not all internalists embrace all three conditions.

9780199931194Brink rejects reason internalism because he thinks that someone can correctly identify their moral obligations and yet still wonder whether those obligations give him good reason for action. Hence not all moral facts are reason-giving. While he thinks moral obligations apply to agents independently of their desires, he thinks that moral obligations do not provide reasons for action independently of their desires. The sort of reasons he is interested in are the sorts of pro-attitudes that expressivists and prescriptivists affirm are constitutive of moral judgments. Baggett and Walls reject Brink’s account, then, because this waters down the concept of moral obligations. The sort of reasons that moral obligations give us to act are connected with the authority of morality, which is closely connected to a commitment to reason internalism. Certain moral facts themselves provide distinctive, and sometimes overriding reasons for acting, bringing deliberation to a halt and resulting in a guilty verdict if we do not perform the duties in question. Hence, Brink’s account cannot explain these kind of moral obligations and instead waters the concept down.
Baggett and Walls then look at non-natural normative realism advanced by those like Derek Parfit and Erik Wielenberg. On this view, moral facts are non-natural facts. Wielenberg claims that the secularist can posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are. Both sets of laws are prescriptive. Since the law of non-contradiction can exist without a lawgiver, so can morality. Baggett and Walls however think that there are important dissimilarities. First, it may well be that all genuine norms have their locus in God, reflecting aspects of his nature. Second, only violation of the moral law properly generates guilt, a need to be forgiven, and alienation from others that forgiveness can fix. Making a logical mistake may cause us to feel silly or embarrassed, but not guilty.

Baggett and Walls also note that some secular philosophers lose the distinctive character of moral obligations when they assimilate moral obligations to having good reasons to act a certain way. What they do is provide a number of reasons to perform an action and act as though they have explained where a moral obligation comes from. Instead, Baggett and Walls claim that it often works the other way. Because we have a moral obligation gives us reasons to act. For example, we don’t look at a poor person and count up a distinct set of normative reasons to act and then infer we have an obligation as a result. We instead apprehend or feel the force or sense the authority of the obligation to help, which gives us overriding reasons to act.

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