Summary by Michael W. AustinIn the third essay in God and Morality, theistic philosopher Keith Yandell engages in a discussion of a variety of topics in metaethics, including ethical relativism, divine command theory, and the Euthyphro dilemma. The breadth, concise nature, and complexity of the chapter make a comprehensive summary difficult. The view that Yandell seems to hold is moral essentialism. This will be the focus of my summary.
A moral essentialist believes that moral truths are necessarily true. A necessary truth is not merely true; it is also impossible for it to be false. To put it differently, a necessary truth is true across all possible worlds. In the non-moral realm, one example of a necessary truth is the claim that two logically contradictory statements cannot both be true. “X is y” and “X is not y” cannot both be true. Many philosophers argue that there are necessary moral truths. For example, if I claim “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” or “Humility is a virtue” I am making a claim involving a necessary moral truth. Yandell claims that it is the fundamental principles of ethics that are necessarily true, such as the claim that we ought to respect persons (unless they’ve forfeited that right).
Both theists and non-theists can hold to some type of moral essentialism. Both might adopt some form of Platonism, in which necessary moral truths are necessarily existing abstract objects of some sort. Platonism is not merely a view of moral truths, but also of other types of truths. On a non-theistic Platonic view,“2 + 2 = 4” is true whether or not there is a God. This necessary mathematical truth is simply a part of the furniture of the universe. Similarly, a necessary moral truth does not depend on God in some ontological sense, but rather it is true whether or not God exists. On such a view, “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” is also a part of the universe’s furniture, whether or not God exists.
Alternatively, a theist may conceive of such truths as “the propositional contents of thoughts that a necessarily existing Mind necessarily has” (p. 103). On this view, Yandell points out that “If ethical principles are made true by divine command or nature, and these principles are necessarily true, God must exist necessarily and necessarily command as God does” (p. 113).
Mark Linville’s reply to Yandell is helpful in further clarifying some of these issues. On Linville’s interpretation, Yandell holds that God is an exemplar of the good. God exists, as do the relevant abstracta, and God exemplifies those abstracta. For Linville, God is himself the good. That is, God’s character, his nature, are identical to the good. If Linville is right, and the good is in fact identical with God, then we have grounds for a distinct moral argument in support not only of God’s existence, but of the necessity of God’s existence. If such an argument is sound, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful case for the existence of God.