Summary by Michael W. Austin
In the final chapter of God and Morality, Mark Linville argues for a view in which morality is objective and depends on God. He does not argue that moral realism is true, but assumes as much and then offers a model for understanding how objective moral truths depend on God, which he calls “moral particularism”.
Linville begins the chapter by offering a critique of a view he rejects, in which morality is made true by divine fiat. On this view, the claim that adultery is wrong is true only in a relational and contingent manner. Adultery is immoral because God has prohibited it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the act itself. One problem for this view, however, is that things really could go either way, i.e. God could have commanded adultery, and it would have been good. Or consider the following options: (i) God creates Adam, grants eternal friendship to him, and provides him with what he needs to flourish; or (ii) God creates Adam and allows him to experience nothing but eternal pain, grief, and torment. If morality is true merely by divine fiat, then God is good regardless of the option he actualizes. Both (i) and (ii) are consistent with God’s goodness. But as Linville points out, the term “good” appears to no longer have any real meaning here, because it fails to pick out any feature or property in a distinctive manner.
Fortunately, there are other options available for those who think that morality in some sense depends on God. Aquinas, for example, holds that God is himself the good. The good is not identical to God’s commands, but rather God is the criterion of goodness. As William Alston states it, God is himself the ultimate criterion of value. Alston calls this view value particularism, because “the criterion of value is a particular being rather than a principle or abstract idea” (p. 143). Linville agrees with this. However, Alston goes on to argue that moral obligation depends on God’s commands. Linville disagrees with this latter claim.
The view favored by Linville is moral particularism. This is the view that God’s nature is the standard for both the right and the good. On this view, the ultimate explanation of the significance and value of love is the loving nature of God. That is, loving others is commanded because it is obligatory. It is not obligatory because it is commanded. God is the ultimate ground of the requirement that we love others, because God is himself love (1 John 4:8). The command, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) reflects this reasoning as well. God’s nature yields the obligation, ultimately.
When we reflect upon the obligation of loving others, it is also important to point out, as Linville does, the Christian doctrine of imago Dei. It is crucial that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the ground of our value. This fits nicely with the above. It is quite plausible to think that personhood has value because God is a person, just as love has value because God is love. We owe others love, justice, and mercy because they are persons, made in God’s image. God, a Person, “is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate” (p. 158).
For those engaging in moral apologetics, there are many other issues in this chapter worth considering. One is a response that is often given to the claim that morality depends on God, namely, that there are plenty of atheists who still know particular moral facts and seek to apply them to their lives. I will focus here on the former claim concerning knowledge of moral facts. Consider the following moral fact, offered by Linville:
“Recreational baby-stomping is wrong.”
If we understand this claim, and our moral faculties are functioning properly, we should just see that it is true. One can know that recreational baby stomping is wrong, without any knowledge of theology or God. God can set up our world so that we can form such value judgments that do not depend on understanding their grounding in Him. This belief can have warrant, whether or not one believes in God. This is important because the claim that is relevant to moral apologetics here is not that one must believe in God to have properly functioning faculties. Rather, the claim that is relevant is that the theist can offer a better explanation for why human beings have faculties that reliably track moral truth—those faculties were specifically designed for the task.
I would add that theists have another and in my view stronger claim to make. On theism, there is an explanation for the very existence of such moral truths. There is a personal and morally perfect being whose nature grounds them. It is difficult to see how such truths are metaphysically grounded, on naturalism. In his reply, Evan Fales argues that there is no need to bring God into the explanation. Instead, we can simply say that the moral law is ultimate. The problem here, however, is explaining the existence of the moral law, with its self-evident moral truths, in a purely natural world. Did the moral law arise from the Big Bang? How would that work? Moral truths don’t seem natural. They don’t have weight, spatial location, and so on. The theist has a ready explanation for the existence of such truths, as we’ve seen, whereas the naturalist does not. A moral law fits well within a theistic framework, but not a naturalistic one. This is a key piece of evidence in favor of theism.
Image: Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Spectral Light by N. Howard. CC license.