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Review of Angus Ritchie’s From Morality to Metaphysics

From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments, by Angus Ritchie, Oxford University Press, 2012, 198 pages.

In this excellent and tightly argued book, Angus Ritchie offers a moral argument for theism, or at least a vital piece of a bigger argument to that effect. Theism, he argues cogently, explains the human capacity for moral cognition better than various secular rivals. For his pool of alternative candidates, he canvasses the field of meta-ethics. In this way he cuts to the heart of much of the contemporary ethical debate, and in so doing he highlights a serious and systemic problem facing secular positions that attempt to accommodate our pre-theoretical moral commitments. He also sketches a teleological and theistic alternative that he argues avoids such objections that prove intractable to the secular theories.

In my estimation Ritchie’s work is one of the more important books written in ethics in recent years. In terms of building a moral apologetic, it does three central tasks: it presses the distinction between justification and explanation of moral truths (a recurring and integrating motif of the book); it takes secular alternatives seriously enough to engage them with real seriousness (at sufficient length with arguments suitably generalizable); and spells out the theistic alternative (though a bit briefly, inviting others to extend the discussion). Despite its lamentable number of distracting typos that should have been fixed in editing, and its failure to discuss Railton, Joyce, or Parfit, I recommend this book with enthusiasm. I have every confidence it will be an important contributor to the resurgence of interest in moral arguments for God in both natural theology and popular apologetics.

Ritchie offers an inference to the best explanation (IBE); his argument is that classical theism better explains objective moral ontology and epistemology. His primary argument for the moral objectivism in need of explanation is its deliberative indispensability. Humans are committed to moral norms for much the same reason we believe norms underwrite practices indispensable to human thought and action in the arena of theoretical reasoning. It is impossible to engage in moral deliberation without taking oneself to be aiming at a normative truth that goes beyond personal preference or cultural custom.

Among the secular explanation candidates of moral cognition Ritchie considers are those provided by Blackburn, Gibbard, Korsgaard, and the early Scanlon, who argue that our fundamental moral convictions can be accommodated without objectivism; and those of Foot, Crisp, and the later Scanlon who seek to combine a fully objectivist account of moral norms with no purposive agent or force. What all of these secular accounts have in common is their systemic flaw. In the case of the less objectivist theories the concessions made to reductionism leave them unable to do justice to our most fundamental moral convictions; those that accommodate the pull of objectivism generate an ‘explanatory gap’. The book’s central contention is that all secular theories that do justice to our most fundamental moral convictions go on to generate an insoluble ‘explanatory gap’ that consists in their inability to answer the following question: How do human beings, developing in a physical universe which is not itself shaped by any purposive force, come to have the capacity to apprehend objective moral norms?

Secular (nonteleological) theories only escape the explanatory gap by failing to vindicate our pre-philosophical moral commitments. The gap arises when the following commitments are combined: (1) Robust moral objectivism, (2) secularism, and (3) the belief that humans, through the exercise of their normal belief-generating and belief-evaluating capacities, are able to apprehend the objective moral order. While secular theories can explain humans’ acquisition of moral sensibilities and practices of reasoning, this does not tell us why those practices and sensibilities have the property of tracking the truth.

Regarding cognitive capacities (perceptual, theoretical, practical), three questions can be asked about their genesis and justification: (1) What is the justification for our faith in their reliability? (2) What is the historical explanation of their development? And (3) what is theexplanation for their capacity for tracking truth? It is just because Ritchie takes the fundamental convictions that emerge from reflective equilibrium to be justified (to have non-accidental correlation with objective moral norms) that the third question arises. So Ritchie stresses the importance that we not confuse the demand for an explanation for the reliability of our moral beliefs with the demand for a justification of our trust in the human capacity to acquire and modify our moral beliefs in a way that tracks truth.

In terms of what sort of explanation is needed, what is most promising, he thinks, is a teleological form of explanation that explains a particular event or state of affairs by showing that it is either (1) part of the end-state which a system brings about or (2) part of the means by which a system brings about the end-state. To be an intelligible account, the teleological explanation will also have made it intelligible why the system yields the outcome and of the means by which the system is capable of generating those outcomes and why it tends to generate them.

Ritchie’s overall claim is that it is legitimate to raise questions of explanation with respect to the truth-tracking quality of humans’ moral faculties because we see in natural selection a way in which explanation can be answered for our truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning and with respect to the physical world. The ability to track truth is selectively advantageous in those cases (unless Plantinga is right, which should prove no comfort to naturalists). Natural selection is the obvious candidate for an explanation of the development within humans of truth-tracking capacities regarding fundamental principles of deduction, IBE, and induction. It is highly probable that we will be better able to survive if we can come to true beliefs. So natural selection offers a story of how humans come to have truth-tracking capacities for theoretical reasoning; likewise for both physical perception and theoretical reasoning.

No such correlation is plausible in the moral case. On the account given by evolutionary biology, it is not the fact that moral beliefs are correct which leads to them being selected for. Rather, it is the fact that they are conducive to the flourishing of the collective. There is no guarantee that the qualities which lead to multiplication will have any other excellence about them. Any value system based on survival, replication, and pleasure alone is inadequate. If there is not a less obvious way in which moral valuations promote survival, replication, and pleasure, then they’re spandrels, lacking any direct connection with genetic survival and multiplication. Unless we have a wider teleological account, we have no reason to suppose that these valuations have any non-random connective with that moral order.

Beyond such a prima facie case, Ritchie turns to specific meta-ethical theories, beginning with quasi-realism (‘QR’). Gibbard respects what Blackburn calls the ‘realist-seeming grammar’ of practical deliberation, but they both seek to minimize its metaphysical implications. Both respond to an impulse to both reductionism and objectivism. They want to offer the best of both worlds while avoiding objections. Moral quasi-realism is designed to avoid the following kind of morally obnoxious counterfactuals:

(CF) If we approved of torturing the child it would be a good act,

while keeping the ontology to a minimum. In moral deliberations, we judge desires and the prevailing attitudes of our society by a standard which is independent of those desires and attitudes.

QR claims that (CF) should be read as a statement within ethics. They deny that it need be taken as a higher-order, metaethical assertion. When we consider counterfactuals, they insist, we cannot help but evaluate them from within our commitments. And as such, all decent people will obviously reject (CF). Blackburn insists that we have no conception of the nature of an independent order of reason. Ritchie disagrees, insisting that the existence of objective norms of theoretical reasoning shows that we do have a conception of what ‘an independent order of reason’ would be.

Ritchie thinks QR can answer various objections, but that it runs into difficulty when it has to account for the provisionality with which all human beings hold their ethical views. We simply do not regard moral truth as being fixed completely by our current views. In its efforts to accommodate such an objection, QR faces two challenges: tying morality too closely to current beliefs, precluding progress, or tying it to whatever we come to believe, thus introducing problematic counterfactuals.

The early Scanlon tried to accommodate the pull of reductionism by stressing rational procedures rather than an ontologically distinct moral reality, using the meta-ethics of Korsgaard.  Korsgaard says the procedural moral realist thinks there are correct answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them. Thus she tries to secure objectivity without ontological commitments. Ritchie responds that both Blackburn and Korsgaard locate moral value in a feature of the agent’s attitudes, but these only make sense as responses to an external order of value. Unlike Kant, Korsgaard says the way we choose between the different candidates for universalizable moral norms is an agent’s existential commitments. What, though, about someone who’s a member of the Mafiaso? In one sense this produces obligations, but Korsgaard says the Mafioso should, given sufficient reflection, come to see that obedience to the honor code is the wrong law to make for himself. Ritchie argues that agents’ valuations only have the wider implications her argument requires if they are understood as responses to an objective order of value. Korsgaard may disapprove of his existential choice, but it is hard to see why (on her account) the Mafiaso’s settled choice threatens his grip on himself as having any reason to do one thing rather than another, and with it his grip on himself as having any reason to live and act at all.

Later Scanlon moved toward a more objectivist position, describing himself as a ‘Reasons Fundamentalist’, contrasting the position with Korsgaard’s. Reasons Fundamentalism (RF) insists on the irreducible character of normativity. Scanlon has answered justification, but not of explanation of reliability. Once more, secular accounts fall foul of our most fundamental moral commitments, or in vindicating them they generate an explanatory gap.

Likewise Foot’s theory using ‘Aristotelian categoricals’ is trapped in this dilemma: we can define ‘good’ naturalistically, in which case it is reduced to that which enables the species to replicate and perhaps increase in complexity, but then what we call good we do not have good reason to promote. Or define ‘good’ to include evaluative judgments, but then we have gone far beyond anything those ‘Aristotelian categoricals’ could justify. To make this choice is to concede that the idea of ‘flourishing’ is itself heavily moralized, and there is no longer any sign of a purely biological story of natural normativity from which morality might emerge.

McDowell wants to defend moral realism. Instead of seeking to ground ethics in a non-moralized account of the natural world, McDowell urges Foot to acknowledge that ethical reasons are themselves part of any adequate account of nature. Ritchie insists, though, that there remains an explanatory question which McDowell is unwilling to answer, which is distinct from justificatory issues. Unless McDowell is urging a return to a fundamentally purposive account of the universe, the question of how we explain (rather than justify) the reliability of our belief-generating and belief-correcting processes will arise for him in a way it did not for Aristotle—who, incidentally, contrasted the natural not with the supernatural but the artificial.

Ritchie argues that theistic and teleological explanation is better than nomothetic explanation that is given in terms of causal laws. Natural selection has led to resistance of teleology. Natural selection can’t offer the explanation of our capacity for moral cognition, however, and nomothetic explanation is also unsuited to task. Teleological explanation accounts for an event or class of events by laws in terms of which an event’s occurring is held to be dependent on that event’s being required for some end. A paradigmatic teleological explanation involves a goal G of objective worth, the agent knows this to be so, the agent pursues G because of its value, and the agent has the power through X-ing to bring G about.

Theism explains the truth-tracking nature of human moral capacities by God’s understanding the value of such a state of affairs and intentionally bringing it about. Such an account avoids the explanatory gap, and the problems cited (raised by Rice and Hume) are far from intractable. A theistic explanation of the emergence of moral knowledge also need not conflict with a version of the theory of natural selection. All that the theist needs to add to the account given by evolutionary biology is the claim that the world is providentially ordered so that the interaction of the quasi-teleological process of natural selection and of the spandrel-like features it generates yield an outcome which enables human beings to apprehend that which is of objective value.

At this juncture the book left me slightly disappointed, but only because I had grown accustomed to seeing more. I could imagine a critic saying “God made it happen because he knew the value of its happening” does not so much explain as beg the question that God has or could. Although I might know that something happening in my head is making my hands type right now without my being able to explain that mechanism, the appeal to divine intentions to account for the truth-tracking ability of our moral faculties requires further analysis. It remains, in a sense, a promissory note and framework in need of fleshing out. If contemporary work on the moral argument is going to rival in quality the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, more articulation of theism’s epistemic narrative of moral cognition is essential—particularly to answer the challenge posed by Harman and Joyce. Joyce, for example, echoes the case that the success of evolutionary moral psychology provides a stiff challenge to naturalistic ethics by explaining the formation of our moral beliefs without reference to their truth. Unlike Ritchie, though, he adds that “if the naturalist cannot make her case, Harman’s challenge seems to make non-naturalism and supernaturalism obsolete. . . . if moral naturalism fails non-naturalism and supernaturalism are sunk. Thus non-naturalism and supernaturalism suffer most in this argumentative fray.”[1]Although it is not clear why Joyce insists on this, beyond an earlier reference to parsimony, what is clear is that positing the possibility and, even more so, plausibility of a teleological explanation rooted in divine intentionality—however hopeful such a move promises to safeguard what ordinary speakers believe about morality—remains in need of careful articulation and strong cumulative evidential support in this emerging dialectic.

Throughout his excellent book, Ritchie is at pains to stress that theism is the most satisfying explanation of the human capacity for moral cognition. Theism can explain it simply better than the rivals can. As such he’s been doing philosophy as an autonomous enterprise to show the power of apologetic argument. Our moral commitments pull us to a supernatural source for our knowledge of what is good and evil. Philosophy, he argues and demonstrates, has a significant part to play, in helping us respond to the important and legitimate worry that the faith journey may be an exercise in wish fulfillment rather than a response to a genuine reality. Philosophy can create the intellectual space for an encounter of the heart. Apologetic arguments can show that unless our thought is open to the supernatural there are a number of correlations which are, by its own lights, inexplicable. Such arguments remind us of our need for God; they call us to humility rather than hubris.








[1] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 210