Skip to main content

Summary of Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation, Chapter 1

By David Baggett 

Chapter 2

Chapter 3, Part 1

In this book Evans will argue that one part of morality in particular threatens to drop out of the picture or be transformed beyond recognition by leaving God out of the picture. That part of morality is moral obligations. He doesn’t mean to suggest that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person, or that moral knowledge depends on religious knowledge. His point instead is an ontological one: that God is the ground of obligation and a crucial part of the explanation of such obligations.

Moral obligations pertain to action primarily. They make up part of a deontic family of concepts. The various terms in the obligation family have nonmoral uses; each type of obligation embodies a particular kind of social institution.

The task of meta-ethics is to understand the foundation of ethics. Regarding obligations, questions arise like this: Are there moral facts about what are our moral obligations? If there are such facts, how can they be explained?

Non-cognitive theories such as emotivism and prescriptivism deny that moral utterances express propositions with objective truth values. Cognitivists, in contrast, affirm this. The main problem with noncognitivism seems to be a loss of moral authority.

But how can we explain the authority of moral obligations? This is an important task for the moral cognitivist. J. L. Mackie thought moral obligations as authoritative are too strange, too ontologically odd, so he rejected them. This led to his “error theory.”

The so-called Cornell Realists (Brink, Boyd, Sturgeon) think that naturalism can explain the authority of moral obligations.

So really there’s a three-party dispute: moral skeptics versus theistic moralists versus naturalistic moral theorists.

What’s special about obligations? To have a moral obligation is to have a special reason to act. An obligation conveys the notion of an absolute verdict. How is this different from Aristotle? When Aristotle used terms like “should” or “ought,” they relate to what is good or bad in the sense in which one can explain what is good and bad for something in terms of what is needed for that thing. Justice is a virtue needed for human flourishing and being unjust is therefore harmful to a person.

In modern moral philosophy, Anscombe maintains, terms like “should” and “ought” have a special moral sense, in which they imply some absolute verdict (like one of guilty/not guilty on a man). Anscombe attributed the difference to the intervening influence of Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. But if such a conception of a law-giving God is dominant for many centuries and then given up, it’s a natural result that the concept of ‘obligation’, of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though it’s lost its root.

Anscombe thought it best to leave the modern conceptions behind and go back to Aristotle’s understanding because she thought the theoretical underpinnings irretrievably lost. She may have been pleasantly surprised to see the more recent resurgence of interest in theistic ethics.

Evans calls the “Anscombe intuition” the idea that moral obligations as experienced have a unique character, and attempts to explain moral obligations must illuminate that special character. What is that special nature?

Four features of moral obligations include these: 1) 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.

Evans wishes to suggest, though, contra Anscombe, that Socrates seemed to have the concept of moral obligation. See his Apology, for example. All the features are present: some actions are forbidden, settled question, personal responsibility, and universal.

Aristotle thought of God as the model of contemplation. Socrates thought of God as personal, who cared about human beings, and as authoritative.

In this book Evans will argue that a transcendent law-giver is the best explanation of moral obligations. His thesis, again, is ontological, not epistemic. Evans will try to show that God accounts for moral obligations and secular substitutes for God are not satisfactory. A key part of his case will be showing how God has this authority.

“We need to recover the vision of the moral law as a gift intended for human flourishing, a view that is clearly articulated in the attitude of the Jewish people towards the Torah.”

Photo: “Church of the Covenant” by Nicholas Erwin. CC License. 

Leave a Reply