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Mailbag: A Question on Atheistic Moral Realism


Dear Dr. Baggett,

I’m a Christian from Malaysia that has been interested in philosophy for the past few years now, and I have a burning question about the moral argument that I hope you’d be able to help me with.

Why can’t the naturalist posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are? I think J. S. Mill took this approach. Both the laws of logic and morality are prescriptive; the laws of logic prescribe how we ought to think if we want to be reasonable, while moral laws prescribe how we ought to behave if we want to be morally good.

The naturalist can claim that just as the law of noncontradiction can exist without having a logical lawgiver, moral laws can exist without the need for a moral lawgiver.

I think I got this from the moralapologetics website where Trent Dougherty interviewed Wielenberg on the issue. Was hoping you could help because something *feels* wrong about this response; it shouldn’t be that simple. Yet I can’t seem put my finger on what exactly is wrong with this response to the moral argument.







Hi Declan,

Thanks for the question. It’s a good one. Here are a few thoughts at least. Some do indeed argue that moral facts aren’t significantly different from other normative facts–be they logical or epistemic or even aesthetic. All of these normative standards do share some things in common alright. Both logic and morality, for example, as you note, are prescriptive–the former for theoretical rationality, the latter for practical rationality.

Philippa Foot once argued even the standards of etiquette are more than hypothetical imperatives because they too prescribe certain behaviors even for those indifferent to etiquette. But the contextual relativity of such standards, and their lesser gravity, still seem to distance etiquette from morality, at least until they start shading into one another.

Logic’s a bit of a tougher case than etiquette because it has greater gravity. But I think Wielenberg’s unwillingness to see a significant difference between logical and moral norms is a mistake. It may well be the case that all genuine norms have their locus in God–reflecting aspects of His nature–His rationality, His beauty, His goodness, etc. J. P. Moreland argues that to be so in his work. I’m quite open to this because it makes sense that, as Plantinga once put it, necessary truths may well best be thought of as reflections of God: thoughts God thinks, owing to who He is, in this and all possible worlds (modal realities).

Nevertheless, despite whatever all the various norms may hold in common, moral ones seem distinct in an important sense. Both logical (and epistemic) and moral norms may all be both authoritative and prescriptive and unavoidable, but moral norms are, additionally, the sort of standards whose violation should make us feel guilty. I don’t think of such guilt merely or primarily as a feeling (another way my view is a bit different from Wielenberg’s). I see it as an objective moral condition. It’s not that the violation of every moral norm results in guilt; not every moral norm is a duty; some are values. But the neglect of some values, anyway, violates a moral duty, and in such cases we are guilty. I don’t generally see violations of logical or epistemic norms in the same way.

“Oughtness” may apply to them all, but this shows an important way oughtness locutions can be variously construed. Usually it’s only the moral ought whose violation properly generates guilt. We often use ought language to point to prescriptions that don’t attain to the level of obligations. As in etiquette. In the case of logic, the normative standards do give us reasons to make some sorts of inferences and refrain from others. And sensitivity to such reasons is good–expansively construed. Robert Adams says sensitivity to good reasons is a form of excellence, and I agree. But the violation of constructive dilemma or modus tollens doesn’t, or shouldn’t, generate guilt, a need to be forgiven, or alienation from others that forgiveness can fix–features of shirking moral obligations all.

I think Wielenberg, Parfit, McGinn, Enoch, and others put the cart before the horse. It’s true that norms are connected with reasons, but moral obligations possess distinctive features. By my lights, we don’t find reasons to act and then presume we have explained moral obligations. Rather, moral obligations themselves give us compelling reasons to act. Inverting this has been one of the ways a number of secularists have watered moral obligations down, neglected one of their most important distinguishing features, and mistakenly acted as though moral obligations can be explained merely by adducing a certain set of normative reasons to act. Acting and thinking rationally does not constitute a full explanation of moral belief and practice. Morality carries extra clout and punch, which needs accounting for.

Hope that helps!



Photo: “Mail” by T. Johnston. CC License. 

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