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Summary of Chapter 7, God and Cosmos: “Moral Transformation”

 Summary by Frederick Choo

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss the performative aspect of morality, what John Hare calls the moral gap. They argue that theism possesses the necessary resources for moral transformation. Secular theories however do not have such resources and either reduce the moral demand, artificially exaggerate human capacities, or settle for substitutes for Divine assistance.

C. S. Lewis painted a picture of the moral enterprise. He envisioned a fleet of ships, where each individual ship must be seaworthy, the ships must avoid running into each other, and they need a destination. Likewise, morality has these three aspects: (1) individual moral flourishing, (2) harmonious interpersonal interaction, and (3) all of us striving toward a moral destination.

Although morality celebrates every step in the right direction, it seems to impose a demand for more. Telling lesser unjustified lies is an improvement over telling whoppers, but it’s not enough to satisfy the demands of morality. Morality calls us towards the goal of moral perfection. So the real question is what can secularists say about moral transformation? How do they close the moral gap (the gap between our best efforts to live a moral life and the moral demand itself)? Note that a full-fledged moral account has to address matters of character and virtue, not just moral behaviors. Morality pertains not only to what we do, but to who we are. Note that their view is not that secularists are morally weak or deficient. Neither is their claim that religious belief is necessary to be a moral person. Rather, if the secular worldview is true, then there is a moral gap.

Immanuel Kant was one of those who recognized this gap. The first aspect of Kantian moral faith is the conviction that the moral life is possible. On Kant’s view, our natural capacities are not up to the task, yet the moral demand is constantly there. Without adequate resources to meet the moral demand, a moral gap is inevitable. If morality requires of us what we cannot do, however, then we may complain based on the principle that “ought implies can.” If we cannot live up to the moral standard, then it is not the case that we ought to. The standard cannot be authoritative if it’s impossible to meet. However, there is another possibility. If there are resources to help us meet the moral demand, then there may be a duty to use these resources. So the principle can be modified to “ought implies can with the help available.” If naturalism does not have such resources, however, then it seems that secular theories fall short of explaining the authority of morality.

First, a secular theory may try to close the gap by exaggerating human capacities. Hare takes utilitarian Shelly Kagan as a contemporary example. It seems obvious that our own interests have the most motivational force for us. As Hare says, “We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than the utilitarian principle allows.” Kagan makes a counterfactual claim that “if one’s beliefs were vivid, then one would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.”

Baggett and Walls first reply that if it is the case we ought to do something, then it must be the case that we can do it, not just in the counterfactual sense of “I could do it if I wanted to,” but we must be able to want to. Second, they reference Hare who argues the counterfactual is false. There are two ways to understand vividness. Vividness might capture the degree of clarity and distinctness regarding a belief, or it might pertain instead to the degree of importance we attach to a belief. Kagan means to use vividness in the former sense. In reply, then, we can look at cases where we can be very clear about someone’s pleasure without caring much about it. Consider misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Another example is when the love of power, envy, fear, and resentment are operative in families, even where awareness of the needs of others is great. Also, there’s willful blindness such as choosing not to be vividly aware of a need such as famine relief.  Greater clarity of the pleasure and pain of others does not necessarily result in an increased tendency towards partiality. Even if it did, it may not lead to an overall tendency towards partiality. Impartiality requires no bias at all. Hence complete impartiality is beyond the natural capacity, and cultivating vividness is insufficient to close the gap.

Second, a secular theory may instead try to reduce the moral demand in order to close the gap. Baggett and Walls examine some feminist views. The first strategy suggests that women are better suited to meet the moral demand than men are. Feminist Carol Gilligan argued that women are more caring, less competitive, less abstract, and more sensitive than men in making moral decisions. Her claims, however, are controversial and many studies on gender difference in solving moral dilemmas show otherwise. Empathy is a human trait found in both genders. Hence this view is implausible.

The second strategy reduces the moral demand by rejecting the universalist and impartiality constraints in Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Instead one should adopt the views put forth by various care ethicists. Gilligan, for example, says that moral judgments must be specific, but the universalist requires them to be general. Hare replies by distinguishing between the general and specific, on the one hand, and between the universal and particular, on the other. A principle can be universal and yet completely specific in detail. Kant’s universal does not imply being general and non-specific.

Contra Kant, Hare further argues that some moral judgments are not universalizable. He calls these particular moral judgments. For example, if a mother is torn between caring for her daughter and helping in a worthy cause, she may be within her moral rights to care for her daughter, even if she cannot show that doing so is morally preferable. She is caring for her daughter and doing so for her daughter’s own sake, whether or not everything about it can be universalized. Hare thinks such an example does not lower the moral demand. What would, however, lower the demand is feminist Nell Noddings’ sort of extreme particularism. Noddings insists that she bears no responsibility to feed starving children in Africa because duties only arise in the close context of caring. Hence, it seems troubling to reduce the moral demand.

Finally, one may try to find a secular substitute for God’s assistance. Baggett and Walls choose to review Hare’s discussion of David Gauthier’s social contract theory. Gauthier argues that it is rational to agree to be moral, and also to refrain from being a “free rider.” (A free rider is one who does not follow the rules of morality and yet gets the benefits of social cooperation.) Gauthier thinks that we are all self-interested and argues that we need to cooperate because there are goods we cannot obtain without doing so. Morality is a set of prescriptions for such participation. Morality in time can then take on value for us.

Hare thinks that such an account fails. Morality simply does not present itself to us as justifying itself first instrumentally, as a means for the production of cooperative goods, and then we end up caring for justice. Following Kant, Hare thinks that practical reason does not start from maximizing self-interest, and then choosing to bring others into affective ties, and finally end up valuing justice for its own sake. Rather, practical reason starts from recognizing the self and others as under the law. Hare also lists many other difficulties with such a view.

Going back to the moral gap, there are some challenges related to it. It is common to ask “Why be moral?” A good answer is that morality is its own reward. But as Linda Zagzebski points out, the question of “should I try to be moral?” arises. It doesn’t make sense to attempt to do something one cannot possibly do. What is the point of someone trying to become a great artist if he lacks the talent and cannot achieve it? Knowing that it is worthwhile is not sufficient to provide rational motivation if the chances of success are too remote. Zagzebski further identifies three ways in which we need moral confidence. First, we need confidence that we can have moral knowledge. Second, we need confidence in our moral efficacy, both in the sense that we can overcome moral weakness, and in the sense that we have the causal power to bring about good in the world. Third, we need confidence in the moral knowledge and moral efficacy of other people, since moral goals require cooperation. Moral despair cannot be rational. Hence, we must be able to rely on more than our own human powers and those of others in attempting to lead a moral life—God. This is the basis for Zagzebski’s moral argument.

One might try to avoid moral despair by embracing David Hume’s form of skepticism. His skepticism over causation, induction, an enduring self, etc., had no practical implications. When Hume said that various beliefs were not rationally justified or rationally grounded, his subsequent counsel was not that we abandon such beliefs or stop such practices. Is this an option? Baggett and Walls argue that this possibility obtains only if certain Humean strictures are satisfied. One of those features is that the beliefs and practices in question are impracticable to give up. Moral beliefs and practices, however, do not qualify, since they can be abandoned and in certain circles surely are. Hence, appealing to Hume’s form of skepticism does not work to evade the force of Zagzebski’s moral argument.


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