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

Summary by Frederick Choo

Part 1

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls focus on deontic moral concepts, which include moral permissibility, moral obligation, and moral forbiddenness. Such are also expressed as moral duties (right/wrong). First, they point out that moral obligations are not identical to feelings of obligation. The feelings of obligation are neither necessary nor sufficient for moral obligations. One might have a moral obligation to do X without feeling so. One could also feel obligated to do X without actually having a moral obligation to do X. Hence explaining one’s feeling of moral obligations is not sufficient to explain moral obligations themselves.

Baggett and Walls start by visiting a few ways of understanding the nature of moral obligations. Scott M. James lists these truths about moral judgments: (1) Moral creatures understand prohibitions; (2) moral prohibitions appear independent of human desires and (3) human conventions; (4) moral judgments are tightly linked to motivation; (5) moral judgments imply notions of dessert (punishment is justified); (6) moral creatures experience a distinctive affective response to our own wrongdoing, and this response often prompts us to make amends for the wrongdoing.

Robert Adams identifies two features responsible for guilt. The first is based on the harm caused to, and the second is alienation from, people. He regards obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt consists in alienation from those who have required of us what we did not do. Adams of course does not think that every social bond results in obligations, only a morally good one. How good the demand is, who the demander is, and the consequences of the demand all plays a role.

C. Stephen Evans similarly lists four features of moral obligations: (1) A judgment about a moral obligation is a kind of verdict on my action; (2) a moral obligation brings reflection to closure; (3) a moral obligation involves accountability or responsibility; and (4) a moral obligation holds for persons simply as persons.

In sum, moral duties are not mere suggestions, or merely prescriptions there are excellent reasons to fulfill. Moral obligations possess authority (which gives us decisive reasons for action) and are inescapable (applying to persons with few exceptions). Moral laws are what we must do, not in the sense of the causal must (like the physical laws), but of the moral must. Violating moral duties also results in an experience of guilt (rather than shame or degradation).

Now Baggett and Walls move to various accounts that attempt to explain moral obligations. First is the functionalist approach advanced by primatologist Frans de Waal. De Waal argues that social primates have tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversion to inequality. He thinks that the weight of morality comes not from above but from inside of us. So he thinks that morality has its origin in evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, altruism, and empathy with other primates is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things.

The problem is that when it comes to accounting for moral obligations, de Waal either (1) eschews their importance, by arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations. Regarding the first strategy, while he may be right to say that moral motivation should come from higher moral impulses (as most virtue theorists would agree), he still needs to explain the existence of moral obligations themselves. The second strategy also does nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves, only a feeling of obligation.

9780199931194What he calls “morality” isn’t moral truths; rather, they are moral beliefs, feelings, and practices at most. He has fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated. Even moral skeptics can affirm what he has said. In fact many moral skeptics argue that since naturalistic evolution can explain why we have moral beliefs, without any reference to their truth, there is no reason to affirm moral realism. Furthermore, others like E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse have argued based on a naturalistic evolutionary account that if humans had evolved differently, we could have quite different ethical beliefs. Hence this leaves morality redundant.

Another evolutionary account comes from Philip Kitcher, who offers a naturalized virtue ethic. On his view, evolution gave us certain capacities to empathize with others. These faculties are limited and morality has for its function to extend such empathy. What we morally ought to do follows from the traits we ought to develop, which depends on the sorts of creatures that we are. Rather than explaining moral obligations, however, Kitcher explains them away. On his account, it is a good idea to follow certain rules, and to coerce the unwilling to follow them, in order to maintain functional harmony. This is merely prudential and far from moral obligations.

Scott M. James offers yet another evolutionary account. He takes on a response-dependency view, allowing him to affirm that moral facts are real, though mind-dependent. He thinks that this can be done in a way that makes moral facts objective. He adopts a tracking account that says our minds evolved in the way they did because they were tracking moral facts. His proposal has two parts. The first part talks about how we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior. He thinks the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. He claims that we first evolved a disposition to consider how others would likely react to our behavior. This allowed cooperation. However, keeping track of the responses of others would be a challenge. The solution is to ask this hypothetical question: if your counterpart were only seeking principles that all could agree to live by, would he have any reason to condemn your behavior? Over time, we became only concerned with the evaluations of a hypothetical observer. By the time modern humans evolved, we had moral minds that place special weight on how others would respond to proposed courses of action. Second, many primate societies and extant hunter-gather tribes have a strong tendency towards egalitarianism (the view that supports equality). Third, certain studies suggest that the earliest (recognizably) moral communities exemplify the social contract tradition of morality. Finally, there is cross-cultural evidence of this.


In the second part, he lays out a metaethical story about what moral judgments are and about what makes them true. On his view, an action is wrong just in case others (who have an interest in general rules governing behavior) would tend to object to that action.

Baggett and Walls have a few worries. First is a Euthyphro dilemma problem. Is an action right because hypothetical observers say so, or do hypothetical observers say so because it is right? Baggett and Walls are skeptical that what hypothetical observers say becomes true because they say it. Rather, hypothetical observers would say it because it is true. Second, some empirical evidence that James cites underdetermine the answer to what is at question here. Even if something that externally looks like a social contract is empirically verified in the earliest moral communities, the question of what makes something right/wrong has still not been answered. The social contract can be based on a shared recognition of objectively true moral principles (independent of the social contract). Lastly, this still does not account for the strong sense of moral obligations which includes, guilt for violation, its binding authority, and the like.

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