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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 IX

By David Baggett 

In this last installment, I’ll wrap up what I have to say by way of a critical reflection on Shafer-Landau’s (SL) chapter on God and ethics in his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? I’ve resisted his caricature of theistic ethics in the form of an extreme voluntarist account that would render morality altogether arbitrary. In fact, I think instead an Anselmian God both makes good sense of and perfectly safeguards necessary moral truths and our pre-theoretic moral intuitions of the deepest ingression.

In SL’s view, in contrast, theists should embrace the horn of the Euthyphro dilemma that says God commands something because it’s already good or right. Again, in my view, this very distinction between the good and right is important, for DCT properly applies to the right, not to the good. On his view, however, he thinks that he’s shown that “even theists should resist taking up the view that God is the author of the moral law. God is constrained by the moral laws, in the same way that God is constrained by the laws of logic.”

SL notes that most theologians aren’t troubled by saying God can’t do what’s impossible, which is true enough, but he’s wrong to think his view is congenial to the classical view of theism. Here’s the difference: when I say God can’t do something, I mean to say it’s either impossible to be done (which hardly impugns his omnipotence) or it’s fundamentally contrary to God’s nature to do. The constraints on his behavior, in the latter case, are internal to his nature. This is exactly what SL denies, arguing that morality is autonomous and functions as an external constraint on what God does. This move is not needed, though, if the Anselmian is right about God’s essential perfection. The Anselmian view threatens neither God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, nor ontological primacy.

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

On my view, there’s likely a solid analogy between logic and morality after all in a certain respect. Each features a number of necessary truths, but since I think necessary truths have for their best explanation thoughts God thinks in all possible worlds, I see the necessary truths as reflective of God’s very own nature. This is how I generally would go about explicating the locus of goodness—in God’s nature, not his commands; but logic too likely reflects unchanging aspects of God’s perfect and essential nature. Perhaps the truths of mathematics, rationality, and even epistemology too. SL would doubtless be unconvinced, but the point is this: there are rigorous ways to lay out such a case, establishing a picture far more complicated than the simplistic caricatures he happily exposes for their flaws.

The crux of the difference on this score between me and SL can be seen in his suggestion that comes after his discussion: “I am suggesting that theists amend this traditional view to say that God’s omnipotence enables God to do anything, so long as it is compatible with the laws of logic and the laws of morality, neither of which are divinely created.” I happily concur God can’t violate the necessary truths of morality and logic, but their necessity finds its best explanation in God’s unchanging nature. The constraints are internal to God’s nature, not external, allowing room for the possibility that God functions after all as the better explanation and firm foundation of the truths of morality. SL has done nothing to undermine a nuanced, careful analysis of theistic ethics. He’s only defeated straw men.

It’s interesting to note that SL characterizes it as a piece of Socratic wisdom that we see actions as right prior to God’s endorsement of them—in light of the recurring claim Socrates made that he was under a divine mandate to engage in the reasoning he did. His skepticism was not about any ultimate God, but rather of Euthyphro’s pantheon.

SL concludes the chapter by suggesting that theists not take God to be the author of moral law, but rather assume that God perfectly knows, complies with, and enforces it. He says that if his criticisms of DCT are on target, this option is the preferable one for theists, and also carries with it the promise of objective ethical laws.

I agree with his view there is moral objectivity, and so sympathize with that goal. But this chapter of his pertained to God and ethics, and the way he cast the discussion—whether morality requires God—was, to my thinking, problematically strategic. It made the burden of proof for the theistic ethicist unreasonably high. It would be like my asking the atheist, “Is atheism necessary for morality?”

It stacks the deck too much in favor of the other view. The better question is whether there’s good reason to think that God functions at the foundation of morality. Or, does morality in its distinctive features point to a divine reality? Alternatively, what’s the better explanation of objective moral values and duties? Or something in that vicinity.

Finally, note once more that SL’s claim is that by knocking down the most simplistic version of DCT he’s thereby defeated theistic ethics, which is classic overreach, in my estimation.

 

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