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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part I

By David Baggett 

Russ Shafer-Landau is a leading metaethicist today, and the book in which this particular chapter is included is a popular treatment of the question of moral objectivity. In dealing with this book, I don’t pretend I have addressed everything he’s written (in his other work) on this specific question of God and ethics, and I also readily concede that the treatment he gives these issues here is more cursory than he treats them in other places.

All in good time; philosophy is slow. On another occasion I can discuss those other works. Here I will consider just this one chapter in this particular book, a book that’s full of good sense on a wide variety of subjects. Much of the time I find myself entirely agreeing with his analysis in the book, which is tremendously useful and admirably well expressed. The content of this particular chapter, though, while clear, is far less persuasive to me, for reasons I’ll outline below. I thought it might be worthwhile to explicate the reasons why.

The title of this chapter reveals a clue as to how Shafer-Landau (subsequently SL) intends to conduct the discussion: does ethical objectivity require God? Language of requirement here is interesting to note. From a descriptive viewpoint, it’s surely not the case that all atheists are skeptical of ethical objectivity, so that’s one obvious sense in which ethical objectivity doesn’t require God—though, of course, what’s shown by this descriptive analysis is merely that belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require belief in God. Beliefs may or may not be rational, warranted, justified, and the like, however, so this isn’t much of a substantive claim yet.

CoverA more revealing question is whether belief can be rational that there is moral objectivity without believing in God. I suspect the answer to that question is yes, even though I myself am a theistic ethicist and, in fact, a moral apologist. But this is because my case is that God (not mere belief in God) is the best explanation of various moral phenomena (including a robust sense of moral objectivity), not necessarily the only explanation, and that, given certain background assumptions and other convictions, folks are well within their epistemic rights, as atheists, to believe in moral objectivity. Of course, the fact that my argument doesn’t require God to be the only ultimate explanation of morality doesn’t preclude my believing that he is, but the point that needs special emphasis at the moment is this one: the moral argument for God’s existence assumes that there are plenty of unbelievers who have solid reasons for taking moral objectivity seriously.

If indeed God exists and even does serve at the foundation of morality, it makes all the more sense that even unbelievers would have epistemic access to moral truth—on the assumption that a piece of evidence for a divine reality is objective morality itself. An argument for God’s existence needs to feature evidence that appears at least as likely as God’s existence, preferably even more so. Otherwise the argument is trying in vain to persuade one to accept a conclusion on the basis of evidence that seems even less likely. I wholeheartedly affirm that unbelievers can know, just as well as theists can, that there are objective moral standards of rightness and wrongness, good and evil. (Obviously, in speaking of morality here, the reference is to objective moral truths, not merely conventional and contingent moral beliefs and practices that may or may not comport with objective morality.)

The question “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” can be understood epistemically or ontologically. Epistemologically, I’ve already argued that rational belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require God. If the order of being is different from the order of knowing, however, this isn’t enough to show that morality is independent of God metaphysically. The ontological or metaphysical question is the more penetrating question: does moral truth require God as its foundation? Admittedly this is a question that’s not easy to answer; making a case either for or against such an idea takes quite a bit of time and effort. If SL doesn’t want to pursue this particular question in this chapter, that’s entirely fine and his prerogative, but it will be useful as we go along to look to see if his claims broach moral metaphysics or are confined to moral epistemology. If the former happens (and it surely does), I intend to subject what he says to critical scrutiny.

Now that we’re done assessing the title of the chapter, we can proceed.

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