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Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” Part 2

 Summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next evaluate the Cornell realist account, advanced by those like David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Richard Boyd. Cornell realists view moral facts as natural facts (constituted by some complex collection of natural properties), but not reducible to non-moral natural facts. Some natural properties, for example, contribute to human flourishing. Baggett and Walls point out that even if Cornell realist accounts of the good are successful, this does not provide an effective account of moral obligations. C. Stephen Evans, for example, thinks such a theory of goodness is fully compatible with Divine Command Theory.

They then further evaluate Brink’s approach to accounting for moral obligations, which seems far from a Kantian understanding of moral obligations as categorical. Kant’s categorical imperatives fell on hard times for various reasons. One reason was due to potentially competing or conflicting moral demands which Kant provided no way of resolving. W. D. Ross extended Kant’s work by distinguishing between prima facie and ultima facie duties (ultima facie duties are one’s duties all things considered). This however loosened the perceived authority of certain moral obligations since they can be overridden. Another reason was due to the action-guiding nature of morality. Moral anti-realists took this as evidence to suggest that moral judgments can’t merely purport to state facts, otherwise they cannot fulfill their practical function. Those who resist this assessment typically affirm an internalist thesis, where there is an internal or conceptual connection between moral considerations and action or the sources of action. One can be an internalist about motives or reasons. And “reasons for action” may refer to explanatory reasons or justifying ones. Brink responds to the anti-realist challenge by identifying three distinguishable characteristics of internalism: (1) Moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action; (2) it follows that the claim about the motivational power or rationality of morality must be a priori; (3) it follows that the rationality or motivational power of moral considerations cannot depend on substantive considerations such as what the content of morality turns out to be, facts about agents, or the content of the correct theory of rationality. On motivation internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact will necessarily be motivated to act on it. This seems implausible. On reason internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact has a reason to act on it. Baggett and Walls think this is true, but resists Brink’s insistence that internalism entails (2) and (3). Brink himself admits that not all internalists embrace all three conditions.

9780199931194Brink rejects reason internalism because he thinks that someone can correctly identify their moral obligations and yet still wonder whether those obligations give him good reason for action. Hence not all moral facts are reason-giving. While he thinks moral obligations apply to agents independently of their desires, he thinks that moral obligations do not provide reasons for action independently of their desires. The sort of reasons he is interested in are the sorts of pro-attitudes that expressivists and prescriptivists affirm are constitutive of moral judgments. Baggett and Walls reject Brink’s account, then, because this waters down the concept of moral obligations. The sort of reasons that moral obligations give us to act are connected with the authority of morality, which is closely connected to a commitment to reason internalism. Certain moral facts themselves provide distinctive, and sometimes overriding reasons for acting, bringing deliberation to a halt and resulting in a guilty verdict if we do not perform the duties in question. Hence, Brink’s account cannot explain these kind of moral obligations and instead waters the concept down.
Baggett and Walls then look at non-natural normative realism advanced by those like Derek Parfit and Erik Wielenberg. On this view, moral facts are non-natural facts. Wielenberg claims that the secularist can posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are. Both sets of laws are prescriptive. Since the law of non-contradiction can exist without a lawgiver, so can morality. Baggett and Walls however think that there are important dissimilarities. First, it may well be that all genuine norms have their locus in God, reflecting aspects of his nature. Second, only violation of the moral law properly generates guilt, a need to be forgiven, and alienation from others that forgiveness can fix. Making a logical mistake may cause us to feel silly or embarrassed, but not guilty.

Baggett and Walls also note that some secular philosophers lose the distinctive character of moral obligations when they assimilate moral obligations to having good reasons to act a certain way. What they do is provide a number of reasons to perform an action and act as though they have explained where a moral obligation comes from. Instead, Baggett and Walls claim that it often works the other way. Because we have a moral obligation gives us reasons to act. For example, we don’t look at a poor person and count up a distinct set of normative reasons to act and then infer we have an obligation as a result. We instead apprehend or feel the force or sense the authority of the obligation to help, which gives us overriding reasons to act.

Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.”

Summary by Frederick Choo

Part 1

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls focus on deontic moral concepts, which include moral permissibility, moral obligation, and moral forbiddenness. Such are also expressed as moral duties (right/wrong). First, they point out that moral obligations are not identical to feelings of obligation. The feelings of obligation are neither necessary nor sufficient for moral obligations. One might have a moral obligation to do X without feeling so. One could also feel obligated to do X without actually having a moral obligation to do X. Hence explaining one’s feeling of moral obligations is not sufficient to explain moral obligations themselves.

Baggett and Walls start by visiting a few ways of understanding the nature of moral obligations. Scott M. James lists these truths about moral judgments: (1) Moral creatures understand prohibitions; (2) moral prohibitions appear independent of human desires and (3) human conventions; (4) moral judgments are tightly linked to motivation; (5) moral judgments imply notions of dessert (punishment is justified); (6) moral creatures experience a distinctive affective response to our own wrongdoing, and this response often prompts us to make amends for the wrongdoing.

Robert Adams identifies two features responsible for guilt. The first is based on the harm caused to, and the second is alienation from, people. He regards obligations as a species of social requirement, and guilt consists in alienation from those who have required of us what we did not do. Adams of course does not think that every social bond results in obligations, only a morally good one. How good the demand is, who the demander is, and the consequences of the demand all plays a role.

C. Stephen Evans similarly lists four features of moral obligations: (1) A 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.

In sum, moral duties are not mere suggestions, or merely prescriptions there are excellent reasons to fulfill. Moral obligations possess authority (which gives us decisive reasons for action) and are inescapable (applying to persons with few exceptions). Moral laws are what we must do, not in the sense of the causal must (like the physical laws), but of the moral must. Violating moral duties also results in an experience of guilt (rather than shame or degradation).

Now Baggett and Walls move to various accounts that attempt to explain moral obligations. First is the functionalist approach advanced by primatologist Frans de Waal. De Waal argues that social primates have tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversion to inequality. He thinks that the weight of morality comes not from above but from inside of us. So he thinks that morality has its origin in evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, altruism, and empathy with other primates is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things.

The problem is that when it comes to accounting for moral obligations, de Waal either (1) eschews their importance, by arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations. Regarding the first strategy, while he may be right to say that moral motivation should come from higher moral impulses (as most virtue theorists would agree), he still needs to explain the existence of moral obligations themselves. The second strategy also does nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves, only a feeling of obligation.

9780199931194What he calls “morality” isn’t moral truths; rather, they are moral beliefs, feelings, and practices at most. He has fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated. Even moral skeptics can affirm what he has said. In fact many moral skeptics argue that since naturalistic evolution can explain why we have moral beliefs, without any reference to their truth, there is no reason to affirm moral realism. Furthermore, others like E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse have argued based on a naturalistic evolutionary account that if humans had evolved differently, we could have quite different ethical beliefs. Hence this leaves morality redundant.

Another evolutionary account comes from Philip Kitcher, who offers a naturalized virtue ethic. On his view, evolution gave us certain capacities to empathize with others. These faculties are limited and morality has for its function to extend such empathy. What we morally ought to do follows from the traits we ought to develop, which depends on the sorts of creatures that we are. Rather than explaining moral obligations, however, Kitcher explains them away. On his account, it is a good idea to follow certain rules, and to coerce the unwilling to follow them, in order to maintain functional harmony. This is merely prudential and far from moral obligations.

Scott M. James offers yet another evolutionary account. He takes on a response-dependency view, allowing him to affirm that moral facts are real, though mind-dependent. He thinks that this can be done in a way that makes moral facts objective. He adopts a tracking account that says our minds evolved in the way they did because they were tracking moral facts. His proposal has two parts. The first part talks about how we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior. He thinks the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. He claims that we first evolved a disposition to consider how others would likely react to our behavior. This allowed cooperation. However, keeping track of the responses of others would be a challenge. The solution is to ask this hypothetical question: if your counterpart were only seeking principles that all could agree to live by, would he have any reason to condemn your behavior? Over time, we became only concerned with the evaluations of a hypothetical observer. By the time modern humans evolved, we had moral minds that place special weight on how others would respond to proposed courses of action. Second, many primate societies and extant hunter-gather tribes have a strong tendency towards egalitarianism (the view that supports equality). Third, certain studies suggest that the earliest (recognizably) moral communities exemplify the social contract tradition of morality. Finally, there is cross-cultural evidence of this.


In the second part, he lays out a metaethical story about what moral judgments are and about what makes them true. On his view, an action is wrong just in case others (who have an interest in general rules governing behavior) would tend to object to that action.

Baggett and Walls have a few worries. First is a Euthyphro dilemma problem. Is an action right because hypothetical observers say so, or do hypothetical observers say so because it is right? Baggett and Walls are skeptical that what hypothetical observers say becomes true because they say it. Rather, hypothetical observers would say it because it is true. Second, some empirical evidence that James cites underdetermine the answer to what is at question here. Even if something that externally looks like a social contract is empirically verified in the earliest moral communities, the question of what makes something right/wrong has still not been answered. The social contract can be based on a shared recognition of objectively true moral principles (independent of the social contract). Lastly, this still does not account for the strong sense of moral obligations which includes, guilt for violation, its binding authority, and the like.

God and Cosmos, Chapter 4, Part II (Moral Value)

summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next consider a more Platonic effort to account for intrinsic human value. Such a view is advanced by those like David Enoch and Erik Wielenberg. They focus on Wielenberg’s book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism. Wielenberg’s view (known as robust normative realism) is that there are response-independent, non-natural, irreducibly normative truths, objective ones, that when successful in our normative inquiries we discover rather than create or construct. He thinks moral properties supervene on nonmoral properties. Because of issues over supervenience, he distinguishes three types of supervenience.

Let M stand for a moral property. The first variant of supervenience he calls R-supervenience (R for reductive). The way M supervenes on the base properties here is by being reduced to them. Here, M is identical or entirely constituted by the base properties. The second form is A-supervenience (A for Adams). The instantiation of M might be entailed by the instantiation of the base properties together with the instantiation of certain non-base but necessarily instantiated properties. This comes from Robert Adams’ view of finite goodness. His view is that the property of being finitely good is the property of faithfully resembling God’s nature. The third variety is called D-supervenience (D for DePaul). M is not identical, or reducible to, or entirely constituted by the base properties, on this view. Rather, the instantiation of the base properties makes (or explains) the instantiation of M. He thinks the most plausible of these is D-supervenience.

He offers a few ways of construing such a making relation. The first is a grounding relation. Morality on this view concerns a sui generis domain (its own unique domain) that can be reduced to, or consist in, facts that might be formulated in other terms. Wielenberg worries that there isn’t a well-understood and useful grounding relation that is distinct from other metaphysical relations like identity and constitution.

The second way, which Wielenberg favors, is construing making as causation. He acknowledges various worries. One concern is that causation requires the existence of laws of nature connecting causes and effects, but it seems implausible to suppose there are laws of nature that connect nonmoral and moral properties. Another concern is that causal connections are usually thought to be contingent, but Wielenberg posits a necessary casual connection. Lastly, it is sometimes thought that causes must precede their effects. Wielenberg thinks the answer to these objections is by understanding causation in a particularly robust fashion, the same causal relation many theists take to hold between a state of affairs being divinely willed and the obtaining of that state of affairs. So, when asked why does being an instance of torturing someone just for fun entail moral wrongness, he says it is because being an instance of torturing someone just for fun makes an act wrong. He thinks no further explanation is available (since all explanations must stop somewhere).

Frank Jackson objects that there is always a purely descriptive claim that is necessarily coextensive with an ethical predicate, so there are no sui generis ethical properties. Using his making relation, Wielenberg argues that moral properties have a feature natural properties lack, namely, the former are resultant. Tristram McPherson objects to Wielenberg’s account by saying that commitment to brute necessary connections between discontinuous properties counts significantly against a view. Wielenberg admits there is some intuitive force to this objection, but argues that such a principle is self-undermining. Lastly, Wielenberg shows that both theists and his own view are committed to metaphysically necessary brute facts. They come from nowhere and nothing external to them grounds their existence. He thinks ethical facts are such facts.

9780199931194What about the narrower issue of the intrinsic value of human beings? Wielenberg thinks that his account better explains such value than at least certain theistic explanations. He insists that makes something good must lie entirely within its own nature. It is good in and of itself. He strikes off Mark Murphy’s, Adams’, Linda Zagzebski’s, and Mark Linville’s accounts because he thinks that human value is extrinsic on such views. Baggett and Walls will address such concerns in a later chapter.

They now turn their attention to reservations they have about Wielenberg’s account. First, Wielenberg thinks human dignity and worth D-supervene on the property of being human (or some specific features of being human). Baggett and Walls think that such a making relation underdetermines why this causation relation holds. Second, it is question-begging to assume that this supervenience story is consistent with secularism because, if humans are created in the image of God, then being human would have for one of its essential features a relational property of which God is a part. Third, Wielenberg is committed to the causal closure of the physical. This limits him to material and efficient causes, leaving little to no room for formal or final causes. The first person needs to be left out in any final theory. There is no room for mental causation in the context of casual closure. This arguably eliminates the means of treating persons as ends-in-themselves because the attitude of respect for a person presupposes mental causation. Fourth, there is a huge qualitative gap between natural and non-natural, between fact and value, between value and disvalue. Fifth, Wielenberg seems to dismiss the historical relevance of theism to the conviction about intrinsic human value, yet it is not clear that his worldview has the metaphysical resources to ground such truths. Sixth, it is not obvious that his explanatory stopping point is a good one. It is not clear what explanatory work is done by saying that an act of deliberate cruelty simply makes something wrong. He seems to be simply stating a moral fact that is in need of explanation. His explanatory stopping point amounts more to an assertion than argument. So, with these worries, Baggett and Walls do not think that Wielenberg’s account sufficiently accounts for intrinsic human dignity and value.



Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Cosmos: “Moral Value,” Part I

Summary by Frederick Choo

Part 1

In chapter 4, Baggett and Walls focus specifically on intrinsic human value. Historically, religious perspectives played a role in forming convictions about human rights. On the Judeo-Christian view, human beings are not only creatures of God, but are made in the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that there is no plausible alternative to this religious framework to ground natural human rights. For example, some ground human rights in capacities like the power of reason, but this ends up excluding infants and those with mental disabilities who are often thought of as also having the same rights. Baggett and Walls do not want to say that respect-for-persons is supportable only on religious grounds. They make a more modest claim that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism compared to competing theories.

9780199931194First they consider egoism. Kai Nielsen’s proposal is that a respect-for-persons may be derivable from egoism (the view that one ought to act in one’s own self-interest). Based on this, he thinks that one ought to treat others well in order to be treated well himself. The first problem is that this fails to account for the moral standing of others; it is just a strategy to be treated well. As Baggett and Walls put it, “What does my acting in my interest have to do with you possessing intrinsic worth?” A second problem is that this fails to account for cases where not respecting others does not affect one’s self-interests. For example, one may be powerful and need not fear repercussions for treating people poorly. This results in having no reason for respecting others since it does not affect one’s self-interests. Hence egoism by itself cannot account for intrinsic human value.

Next, they consider utilitarianism/consequentialism. On this view, one ought to maximize utility. For example, some utilitarians say that one ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of utilitarianism, infamously said that the notion of intrinsic natural rights is nonsensical. Rights exist based on what is advantageous to society. Whether rights are protected or not is determined by social utility.

John Stuart Mill, another proponent of utilitarianism, likewise thinks that the sole reason for according rights to people is based on social utility. As Mark Linville notes, there is no necessary connection between an action’s maximizing utility and its being fair or just. On utilitarianism, in a case where someone is raped, the wrongness of rape is not because their right is violated, but is because of the generally injurious consequences for the community. So utilitarianism fails to safeguard individual human dignity and worth.

Utilitarians offer many responses. One reply is that we tend to be unreliable calculators of consequences, so it is better to always safeguard individual rights than not to. Still, the problem persists that no individual’s rights or dignity is beyond sacrificing if, by doing so, utility is maximized. A rule-utilitarian may say that one should follow the rules which maximizes utility. But still, this is far from saying that certain acts are categorically wrong. All that can be said regarding an act is that it is at most merely consequentially wrong. Angus Menuge has said that on utilitarianism, if a tyrant was more effective in brainwashing people or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right. Hence utilitarianism has problems accounting for human value.

Next, Baggett and Walls consider Philippa Foot’s virtue ethics that is based on a natural law theory. Foot’s book called Natural Goodness is an account of virtues based on how human beings are normatively structured, how we typically behave when it comes to those teleological aspects of our human functioning. Her book has three distinct parts. First is her argument against non-cognitivism (the view that moral statements do not express propositions that can be true or false). Second is her defense of naturalistic moral objectivity. Last, she handles objections from utilitarians and from Nietzschian nihilists.

Baggett and Walls focus on the second section. Foot argues that we make judgments of goodness and defect of living things by reference to a teleological account of the life form based on its species. Her account covers evaluative judgments of the characteristics and operations of other living things. What an animal should do depends on the kind of animal it is. Likewise, what we (humans) should do depends on our being humans. This means that moral defect is really just a form of natural defect. Vice is a form of natural defect while virtue is a form of natural goodness, rooted in patterns of natural normativity. Based on the kind of species one is, some behaviors simply conduce better to one’s flourishing than others.

Take for example the virtue of promise keeping. In giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that contains in its nature a prescription that harmlessness in neglecting does not annul. Some accuse her account of being utilitarian. She however says that utilitarianism (and other forms of consequentialism) has its foundation in a proposition linking goodness of action to the goodness of state of affairs. Her theory of natural normativity has no such foundational proposition.

While Baggett and Walls agree with many aspects of Foot’s work, such as moral cognitivism and moral realism, they have some significant reservations with her main account. The most significant is that her account does not answer whether human flourishing is of intrinsic value. While she affirms it, her account does not provide a foundation for it. First, Foot has to account for differences between pestilential creatures, animals, and human beings. If she wants to say that biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or tigers do not entail objective moral facts, then how does she go from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings?

Second, there is a problem of smart free riders. Why should one keep their promise if no damage is done? Foot says that there is still a moral duty to keep it to cultivate the sort of character of being trustworthy. But her reply still cannot account for a really smart promise breaker who is able and willing to get over her aversion to breaking promises when doing so is unlikely to detract from optimal species-flourishing.

Third is the problem of a deflationary analysis. Foot’s account is characterized as neo-Aristotelian, but Aristotle’s worldview was far from naturalistic. While Aristotle placed great emphasize on being human, his view wasn’t content with our being merely human.

Fourth is a transition problem. While she affirms good and noble human characteristics, she departs from a naturalistic, biologically grounded account of moral virtues. Furthermore, by limiting her resources to human flourishing, it seems unlikely she will have enough for the sort of thick account that virtue approaches to ethics tend to have as their distinctive strength.

Fifth, Baggett and Walls raise a normativity challenge. While they agree she is right, in one sense, to say that morality depends on our natures, this still leaves out an analysis of what that nature is exactly. Talk of telos (purpose) and human nature in a Godless world is difficult to sustain. Foot thinks that the designs of a Divine Mind are irrelevant to the natural-teleological descriptions of human beings. But if we have been created by God in His image, with his intentions in mind, then this is a relevant consideration.

Sixth is an epistemic challenge. Foot’s work does not address the contemporary challenge (in regards to moral knowledge) posed by evolutionary moral psychology.



God and Cosmos Chapter 3: The Problem of Evil, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility

Summary by Frederick  Choo

Part 1

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls talk about the problem of evil. This is not the problem of evil as often heard in philosophy of religion (Why is there evil if a good and all-powerful God exists?). Instead, they refer to Susan Neiman who traced the problem of evil in modern thought. The problem of evil is that the world is not as it should be. There is a gap between how the world is, and how the world ought to be. Questions arise, for example, what reason do we have to think that some event ought not to happen? The answer is clear in Christian theology of course, that evil is at odds with God and His purposes. It is a problem that God Himself is working to overcome with His plan of salvation and redemption that will ultimately be fully accomplished.

Baggett and Walls review three influential modern thinkers. The first thinker is David Hume. Philo (a character in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion who is said to represent Hume) thinks that the designer of our world is neither good nor bad. This is because if the designer was good, he would will the happiness of his creatures. However, it is apparent that our world is not designed to achieve this end. Hume’s argument for God’s moral indifference dissolves the problem of evil. It explains why the natural world is indifferent to human happiness. Baggett and Walls note here that it is odd that an amoral God would give human beings the ability to make moral judgments.

The second thinker is Immanuel Kant. Kant thinks that the nature of the highest good includes both virtue and happiness. He thinks that happiness and virtue should be tightly connected. The problem then is that the natural order is not arranged such that happiness and virtue correspond. The world for him is no less hostile to morality than it is to human happiness.

The third thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. His problem was that Christian morality was hostile to happiness, restraining us from expressing our instincts. For him, the real problem of evil is that we thought it was a problem. Without God and objective morality in his view, he thinks that we have no reason to think that the world should be good in the Christian sense of supporting either our happiness or moral virtue. Sigmund Freud seems to agree with Nietzsche’s view. Freud argued that religious belief is an illusion fostered by childish needs for security in a frightening world. Instead, he thinks that evil is part of life to be expected and coped with. There is no reason to think that the world ought to promote human happiness. Hence Nietzsche dissolves the problem of evil.

Neiman thinks that the problem of evil gives us the choice to either give up making moral judgments, or to come to terms with the demoralizing reality that the gap between what is and what ought to be will never be closed. Neiman herself takes the latter option and argues that recognizing evil as a problem is essential to our humanity. Instead of denying the problem of evil, we should accept that there is a conflict that will never be resolved. Baggett and Walls agree with Neiman that evil is a problem to humanity, but they want to argue that there are options other than resigning oneself to accept a conflict that will never be resolved. On the Christian story, there is another option, namely, that the gap will one day be resolved.

The main point being driven here is that God’s nature as the best explanation of moral good, and the fact that He created us in his image, constitute an excellent explanation both of why we cannot avoid making moral judgments about the world and of why we cannot escape seeing evil as a problem. We will constantly see a gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be, as long as we live in a fallen world that is “groaning for redemption.” Naturalism, on the other hand, has no reason to believe that there is a problem of evil. Consider Richard Dawkins who thinks that the ultimate reality is morally indifferent (similar to Nietzsche and Hume). Evil and suffering is not surprising. There is no gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Part 2

Having discussed the problem of evil, Baggett and Walls turn to discuss freedom and responsibility, by examining an exchange between three naturalist philosophers. This exchange started after Daniel Dennett reviewed Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility. Most philosophers are compatibilists, who think that determinism (the view that every event and state of affairs is completely determined by antecedent states of affairs and the laws that govern the physical world) is compatible with both human freedom (defined as doing what one wants to do) and at least some measure of moral responsibility. Waller however argues that while determinism and naturalism are compatible with freedom, they are not compatible with moral responsibility. Waller defines moral responsibility in a strong sense that holds praise/blame and reward/punishment as justified because moral agents deserve so. It is intrinsically good for offenders to suffer. This is known as the retributivist view of moral dessert that rejects consequences as relevant for punishment or blame. Contra Waller, Dennett thinks that moral responsibility should not be understood in these terms. He adopts a consequentialist account of just desserts and punishments. Punishment is needed to keep civilization from disintegrating; it is a practical necessity. Dennett uses the example of promise making and making contracts. The threat of punishments deters one from breaking one’s promises or contract. This threat is essential for the glue of civilization to hold.

9780199931194Tom Clark, the organizer of the exchange, makes a few points. First, he says that Dennett should give up the language of “just desserts” which implies the retributivist view. Second, the traditional account of moral responsibility is strongly shaped by a long history of believing in libertarian freedom (a stronger view of freedom than determinism is generally thought to allow). Hence, many think that dropping the retributivist view of just desserts alters the concept of moral responsibility. Third, he thinks naturalists should focus on debunking libertarian freedom to undermine the appeal to such freedom to justify punishment. Fourth, compatibilists must change how they think of humankind. They have to be honest that in their view, no one has the unconditional ability to do otherwise. He accuses Dennett of suppressing his commitment to determinism in attempting to make moral sense of punishment, just desserts, and deterrence. Dennett responds by highlighting the practical necessity of punishment to protect society from criminals. We should use force to quarantine muggers, enroll them in rehabilitation programs, and warn society to avoid them. Dennett says that if Waller and Clark agree to this but say we should not blame the muggers, then they are simply engaging in a rhetorical dodge. Waller continues to press the point that the system of moral responsibility is unfair, even if he has no better alternative system to offer.

To give further insight to the discussion, consider Dennett’s discussion of Bernie Madoff. Madoff is infamous for costing people millions of dollars lost in his fraudulent financial schemes. Surely in such a case, punishment is necessary. Dennett writes, “If somebody’s unavoidable mistake led to similar financial loss, we wouldn’t do that, would we? It’s because we deem Madoff guilty that we consider that we have the right to rescind his rights (under the moral responsibility game) and do all these things to him that he doesn’t want us to do, and which we couldn’t justifiably do if he weren’t guilty. That’s punishment. Not retributive punishment, but punishment and blame, all the same.” From this example, it is easy to see why Waller and Clark criticized Dennett for helping himself to the traditional view of moral responsibility and retributivist punishment. Dennett says that it is not fair to blame someone for something over which they had no control. But in Madoff’s case, Madoff was determined to defraud each of his clients by casual factors prior to him, over which he had no control. There is no alternative possibility. Next, Dennett emphasizes that we are justified in punishing Madoff, because Madoff is found guilty. This seems to be the retributivist position that Madoff did something to deserve punishment.

Baggett and Walls think that this debate makes many points against naturalism. Both freedom and moral responsibility fit far more naturally in a theistic account of morality. The whole notion of promise keeping also better makes sense on libertarian terms than on compatibilist terms. Thomas Reid had observed that “when I plight my faith in any promise or contract, I must believe that I shall have power to perform what I promise. Without this persuasion, a promise would be a downright fraud.” However, compatibilists believe that no one who fails to keep a promise had the ability to do otherwise (except in the counterfactual sense of being able to do otherwise if they’d wanted to). Whenever one makes a promise, it is possible that the natural order is arranged such that when the appointed time comes, one shall be determined to will not to keep one’s promises. Hence this is at odds with making promises, since doing so assumes that we can both keep our promises or not, and it also assumes that we have control over our actions. The reality of conscious control over our actions make better sense on libertarian freedom than the view that our actions are determined by a causal chain that preceded our very existence, and over which we had no control. On compatibilism, the agent has no alternate possibilities, and the agent is not the ultimate originator or source of his actions, since there is a causal chain external and prior to them, that is sufficient to determine those exact outcomes.


Chapter 2: “The Case for Abduction” of God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning

Summary by Frederick Choo

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls motivate using an abductive moral argument over a deductive moral argument. They first review what they call the Anti-Platonist Moral Argument (APMA), such as the one proposed by William Lane Craig:

P1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C3. Therefore, God exists

To prevent ruling out theistic ethics, Baggett and Walls take Craig’s definition of objective moral (deontic) truths to be facts according to which some actions and motivations are right or wrong independently of whether any human mind believes it to be so.

As previously mentioned in Good God, some theists have reservations about the argument. C. Stephen Layman, a theist himself, rejects APMA because of P1 which he thinks is unappealing to nonbelievers, especially Platonists. If Platonism is true, then P1 is false, because one can appeal to a possible world where God does not exist but objective moral value and duties do (since moral values and duties exist necessarily on their view). One may counter that God’s existence is necessary, so there is no such world and Platonism is false. However to do so would be to appeal to C3 which would be circular. Hence, Layman thinks that P1 lacks non-circular justification, wide enough support, adequate intuitive force, and sufficient obviousness.

9780199931194John Milliken, another theist, similarly rejects P1. He imagines a world such us ours without God. He thinks intuitively that, in such a world, morality still holds. In more philosophical terms, he takes P1 to be a nontrivially false counterpossible (since he is committed to Divine necessity).

In Good God, Baggett and Walls have also previously offered their criticisms, and in John Hare’s (another theist) review of Good God, Hare says that Baggett and Walls have argued convincingly that Craig’s view that atheism leads to moral nihilism is unlikely to be persuasive. Note that Baggett and Walls do not think Craig’s argument is bad or unsound, rather that it is relatively unpersuasive to many atheists for a few reasons. Hence they propose one should adopt their abductive moral argument instead.

For the classical theist, a world such as ours could not even exist without God, while for the atheist, the world is possible without God. Hence a world such as ours, with at least the appearance of love, relationships, satisfactions of morality, social harmony, clear moral apprehensions, etc., is possible without God for the atheist. Baggett and Walls think that it is better to approach atheists by affirming their common convictions about moral truth and then asking what better explains such facts, rather than encouraging them to assume such a world like the actual world is consistent with atheism, providing them a lot of theoretical resources to use, and inviting them to construct a secular moral theory. It would be strange if atheists could not come up with a substantive moral theory using the rich resources of a world like ours, which is only here (if theists are right) because God created it with such features. This allows atheists to travel some distance down the road in building an ethical theory. Hence Baggett and Walls prefer an abductive moral argument that does not rely on P1.

Craig however thinks that his formulation has the advantage of meeting the atheist in the world as he conceives it to be and asking whether morality would be objective without God. The problem however is that while one allows such a world with such rich resources to be consistent with atheism, one (potentially anyway) dismisses too hastily the atheists’ serious efforts to build a secular ethic. This explains why so many secular theories have emerged and sport considerable merit. It is not as if secular theories fail altogether to explain anything morally. They can get somewhere given the resources of the world. Baggett and Walls think however that this world conjoined with God provides a better explanation of the full range of moral facts.

Other theistic ethicists seem to recognize this. Robert Adams, for example, thought social requirement theory had its strengths in explaining the idea that obligations are owed to persons. Human social requirement theory is not without resources to make sense of this, but adding God is crucial to complete the theory. Another example is Linda Zagzebski who grounds morality in motivations and admits that the first half of her theory can be constructed without reference to God at all. She then completes her theory by bringing God in.

Craig however thinks that when it gets down to showing that the best explanation of objective moral values and duties is God, one will slip into arguing that, given atheism, objective moral values and duties would not exist. So the abductive argument still ends up doing the same thing as the deductive argument. Contra Craig, Baggett and Walls think that they are doing something different. The deductive argument says, “Imagine the world is atheistic, now try to make sense of morality, you can’t.” The abductive argument instead says, “Suspend belief on whether the world is atheistic or theistic, try to make sense of morality. Given its features, you can make some progress. But what better explains the fuller range of moral facts in need of explanation, the world alone or the world and God?”

In short, they list five main problems in total with the deductive argument (TDA). In a footnote, they construct an Acrostic called CARBS:

1. Counterpossibles.
Counterpossibles are counterfactuals with an impossible antecedent. For example, “If a necessarily good and loving God commanded murder and torture for fun, it would be right to do so,” or “If there were a square circle, mathematicians would be puzzled.” For the classical theist, if God exists necessarily, then “God does not exist” would be impossible. Hence P1 is a counterpossible (according to classical theists), and a particularly intractable counterpossible—one in which the being presumed to be the very ground of being doesn’t exist. Presuming to know the features of such an intractably impossible world strains credulity. (Note that “If God doesn’t exist, then God didn’t create the world,” doesn’t seem particularly problematic, but it’s also analytic.)

2. Acknowledging the rich features of a world like this if it could exist without God.
The deductive method doesn’t allow enough room to acknowledge what would be the simply amazing features of a world like this if it could exist without God, whereas the abductive approach allows the world without God to explain some of morality, while providing the explanation for why it can.

3. Rejecting realism instead of naturalism.
By allowing the atheist to think this world with its features is compatible with atheism, it is easy for them to reject moral realism instead of naturalism, contributing to the escalation of nihilism Nietzsche predicted would ensue from the “death of God.” The abductive method instead keeps the moral facts in question front and center as the starting data in need of explanation.

4. Bridge-breaking.
The deductive version can sever the bridge with naturalists by focusing on differences rather than similarities. The abductive argument agrees that the world can account for some of the moral data to a certain extent, and then shows how adding God to the picture offers a considerably more robust explanation.

5. Saying uncomfortable things.
The deductive version makes us say very uncomfortable, unintuitive, and unnecessary things like “If God does not exist, then rape is not wrong.” The abductive version avoids this.

Introduction and Summary of David Baggett’s and Jerry Walls’ God and Cosmos: Chapter 1, “Alone in the Cosmos”

Summary by Frederick  Choo

In their previous book, Good God, David Baggett and Jerry Walls defended their theory of theistic ethics. Their theory grounds rightness in Divine commands and goodness in the Divine nature. In this second book, God and Cosmos, they aim to address competing secular ethical theories and show that they ultimately fail to provide an adequate account of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation. Instead, God and cosmos together best explain the moral phenomena (hence the title). Their methodology is to begin with various moral data, and then look at the explanations to see which best explains the various data. In short, they advance a cumulative abductive moral argument for God. In doing so, they assume moral realism, the view that objective morality exists. Whether moral realism is true will be addressed in another book to be published. God and Cosmos is rich in philosophy and many philosophical terms; in my summary, I will try to simplify it to be more accessible to the lay reader and highlight the main points.

Chapter 1: Alone in the Cosmos

Naturalism or materialism is the idea that the physical world exhausts reality. This view is held by many intellectuals. In this chapter, Baggett and Walls discuss naturalism and its history. They start a historical sketch all the way from the ancient philosopher Thales. Their brief sketch is meant to make three points.

The first point is what they call the deflationary fallacy. This fallacy is when one attempts to co-opt and appropriate a thinker (or insight) to the cause of one’s worldview, despite compelling counter evidence. For example, some might cast the stoic philosophers as allies of naturalism. But this is difficult because their ethical thought was bound up in their theology as seen in many of their writings.

9780199931194The second point is to highlight the diversity among secular thinkers. While Baggett and Walls generally use words like “atheistic,” “secular,” and “naturalistic” interchangeably, they note that there is a need to disambiguate at certain points. For example, an ethical realist who believes that there is no God may believe that moral facts are not reducible to natural facts. He is an atheist and secularist, but not a naturalist. This is an example of the diversity among secular thinkers. One significant set of atheists, who stand in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, thinks that the death of God results in having no objective morality. The result is moral nihilism where there is no God and no objective morality. Another significant set of atheists think instead that without God, nothing much changes at all. On such a view, objective morality still exists. They however disagree upon which secular ethical theory is correct. Various secular theories need to be addressed differently. In this book, Baggett and Walls aim to address a range of different theories which affirm objective morality (and, again, will address those who deny objective morality in a later book).

The third point they wish to bring out is a third option beyond theism and naturalism. Their salient example is Thomas Nagel’s account. Nagel thinks that naturalism is bound up with problems, yet he remains an atheist, resisting theism, by offering another alternative. In his book, Mind and Cosmos, Nagel argues that various features of the human condition – value, meaning, cognition, consciousness, agency – are beyond the ability of naturalism to account for. In finding an adequate explanation of value, Nagel divides the question into the constitutive issue concerning what value is all about and the historical question of how it could come about that we could recognize objective value and be motivated by it. Nagel opts for a nonintentional teleological (purposive) explanation. He writes that “these things may be determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.” So Nagel thinks objective morality exists, yet naturalism cannot ground it, and yet he resists resorting to theistic foundations.

Nagel’s recurring theme is also that the mind must be central to the story of reality, something that somehow guided the process form the start. However, Nagel is skeptical about theism for a few reasons. First, Nagel rejects theism because it does not seem to be a live option for him. He says while others may find it so, he has not been blessed with the sensus divinitatis (a sense of the Divine). Second, in finding an adequate explanation, he is committed to antireductionism and that certain things cannot be explained as merely accidental. The most important is “the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unified everything on the basis of a set of common elements and principles.” Nagel thinks that accepting the Divine mind as the stopping point leaves the explanation incomplete. Theism on his view “amounts to the hypothesis that the highest-order explanation of how things hang together is of a certain type, namely intentional or purposive, without having anything more to say about how that intention operates, except what is found in the results to be explained.” He further thinks theism and Cartesian dualism (the view that there exists a non-physical mind and physical body) fail to achieve a single natural order. For example, by appealing to miracles, one attempts to explain features of the world by appealing beyond the world. Hence he thinks that theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world and fails to explain intelligibility from within the world. The only kind of theism that Nagel may accept is a non-interventionist one, where God created the world in such a way that it was henceforth self-sustaining and self-regulating.

Baggett and Walls offer a few replies. First, the fact that Nagel himself does not personally have a sense of the Divine is no evidence against theism. There is still the question of whether the arguments for theism are good ones. Second, Baggett and Walls argue that theism can meet Nagel’s aesthetic bias in favor of an integrated worldview. They note that C. S. Lewis himself seemed to have anticipated such an objection, where people find miracles intolerable. The reason why they find it intolerable is because “they start by taking Nature to be the whole of reality. And they are sure that all reality must be interrelated and consistent.” Lewis agrees with the aesthetic constraint for an integrated worldview but points out that the problem is taking nature to be the whole of reality. If God is real, then miracles still fulfill the aesthetic constraint. Lewis also addresses the concern that miracles are irregularities or arbitrary interventions. He says that if miracles have occurred, it is because they are the very thing this universal story is about; it is where the plot turns. Atoms, time, and space are not the main plot of the story. So miracles are not arbitrary or ad hoc interruptions. Lastly, Lewis also argued that if naturalism is true, we have no reason to trust our convictions that nature is uniform. But if theism is true, then it is plausible that our convictions are generally reliable, yet it also entails that miracles are plausible and are part of our world alongside the uniformity of majority of events. So theism can meet Nagel’s aesthetic constraint for an integrated worldview, and Nagel’s rejection of it is premature.



The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma

By Frederick Choo

In general, Divine Command Theory (DCT) says that “If God commands X, then X is a moral obligation for us.” I will limit my discussion of DCT to moral obligations and prohibitions, which are used synonymously with rightness and wrongness. These are deontic properties which is distinct from goodness, which is axiological. For example, something can be good to do, such as becoming a lifeguard to save lives, but we do not have a moral obligation to do so. So I will use DCT as a theory of rightness that presupposes a theory of the good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) is often raised against DCT. For example, in the case of rape Walter Sinnott-Armstrong asks, “Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.” In short, the ED says:


(1) God has no reasons for His commands,


(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.

Embracing (1) leads to objections such as God’s commands being arbitrary which makes morality arbitrary. Furthermore, this means that God’s commands could possibly be what we consider abhorrent, such as commanding that we ought to torture babies solely for fun resulting in a moral obligation to do so. Any objection to this that says God has reasons is a move away from (1).

Embracing (2), shows that actions are morally obligatory prior to and independent of God’s commands, making God at most an epistemic authority who is just conveying His perfect moral knowledge to us. However DCT proponents want God’s commands to explain moral obligations instead.

From the ED, I think a third option is clear, which DCT proponents can well affirm:

(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.

God just needs good reasons to make an act morally obligatory. An act itself does not have the property of being morally obligatory prior to God’s command, but can have other relevant properties, such as being morally good or even “non-moral considerations ultimately based in God’s nature.” God’s commanding however adds certain properties that make the act obligatory. To use an analogy, let us think of other obligations. Consider a legal obligation not to smoke in a certain area when implemented by law. For the obligation to arise, there must be good reasons behind why it is implemented by law. Yet those reasons by themselves are not sufficient to give us legal obligations unless it is actually implemented by law. Hence a legal obligation arises because it is implemented by the law and there are good reasons for it being implemented. Likewise, DCT proponents say that a moral obligation arises because it is commanded by God and God has good reasons to command it.

One objection to (3) is based on a principle that moral properties strongly supervene on non-moral properties necessarily. Matthew Jordan says, “The doctrine of global moral supervenience, the uncontroversial thesis that any two possible worlds that are identical in all non-moral respects must be identical in all moral respects, implies that moral truths – at least the most fundamental ones – are metaphysically necessary.” So moral obligations are in some way determined and fixed by their non-moral properties. How exactly does moral supervenience amount to an objection to (3) exactly?

In “An Essay on Divine Authority”, Mark C. Murphy argues that DCT “must be false, for it, in conjunction with a very weak and plausible claim about God’s freedom in commanding, entails that the moral does not supervene on the non-moral.” To show this, he argues that according to voluntaristic versions of DCT, where God is free to choose what to command, there can be two possible worlds exactly the same in their natural features, but God gives different commands and thus we have different moral obligations in two possible worlds that have the same natural features. This seems to violate the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral, since two worlds with the same natural features should have the same moral obligations.

How may a proponent of a voluntaristic version of DCT reply? C. Stephen Evans points out that for the theist, non-moral properties can include both natural and supernatural properties. Supernatural properties are “properties possessed because what has the properties has a certain kind of relation to God,” such as “being commanded by God”, “being preferred by God,” or “being pleasing to God” or “being conducive to a better relation to God.” If an act is commanded by God, then it will have the further properties mentioned, such as “being conducive to a better relation to God” which is a non-moral property. These non-moral properties may even be linked to natural properties such as “being conducive to the agent’s happiness.” If a relationship with God is conducive to our happiness, and such a relationship requires that we follow what He commands, then the property of “being commanded by God” would be one that could alter the moral status of an act, especially for those who think that the moral status of an act is linked to whether the act is conducive to an agent’s happiness. Hence on DCT, it is both natural and supernatural properties that make up non-moral properties which moral properties supervene on. If so, then there can be two worlds alike in all their natural properties but differ in their supernatural properties, and hence moral properties can be different as it supervenes on both. So moral supervenience along with God’s freedom does not amount to an objection against (3).


Evans, C. Stephen. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jordan, Matthew Carey. ““Theism, Naturalism, and Meta-Ethics”.” Philosophy Compass 8, 2013, 373-380.

Miller, Christian B. “Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Murphy, Mark C. An Essay on Divine Authority. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality”, in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, edited by Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King, 101-115. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Image: “Socrates” by Oscar Anton. CC License. 

The Appropriate Authority of Morality

By Frederick Choo 

The moral argument tries to argue from morality to God. In this short article, I will work on what the source of moral obligations should be based on some features of obligations and of moral obligations.

To start off, we must distinguish between moral obligations and moral values. Moral obligations are deontological, having to do with whether something is required to do (or not to do). The terms typically used are “right” and “wrong”. This is distinct from values which are axiological, having to do with the moral worth of a person, action, or some state of affairs. The terms typically used are “good” and “bad”. Something may be good such as donating one’s kidneys or being a lifeguard to save lives, however one is not morally obligated to do so. Moral obligations have a reason-giving force for all to act, regardless of one’s goals or desires or interests, and even always trump non-moral reasons. It is an imperative with great force and not just a suggestion or preference. In other words, it is an unconditional “ought”.

What then would be an appropriate authority and source of moral obligations? First, we know that obligations come from another person or a group of persons. Some examples are familial obligations, legal obligations, obligations to one’s country, obligations to one’s company, etc. In the case of moral obligations, its source also has to come from another mind(s). It is difficult to see how we are required to do something if no other mind requires it of us.

Second, obligations only arise if the source stands as an authority over those who are being obligated. It would be pointless for some random person to demand to bring you to the police station for questioning unless that person is a police officer who has jurisdiction. In the army, a soldier of a lower rank and without being given authority cannot issue commands to one who is of higher rank. In the case of morality, since moral obligations apply to all human beings across all places and times, the source must transcend human persons and societies and stand as an authority over all human persons.

Third, when different obligations conflict, one obligation trumps the other based on which social relationship is greater or which authority is greater. In the case of moral obligations, since it trumps all other obligations, either the source has a social relationship with humans which is more important than any other social relation, or the source must possess more authority than any other human.
Fourth, obligations arise not by might, or by dealing out rewards and punishments. For example, a thief does not exercise authority over me by robbing me at gunpoint. Neither do evil dictators have the appropriate authority. If the law stated that no one could go to the toilet for a hundred days for no good reasons or that we should torture children for fun, then it does not generate an appropriate legal obligation to follow. For obligations to arise, they must be grounded based upon good reasons. So for moral obligations to always be appropriate to follow, the source must be reasonable and perfectly good.

Fifth, the source of obligations must be in a good epistemic position to know relevant considerations. If one is perfectly good and yet cannot know the relevant considerations in a situation and evaluate it properly, then there is no obligation generated. For morality, the source must be able to see all relevant considerations, including really difficult things like predicting the consequences of an action. Hence the source must be wise and intelligent.

Sixth, for obligations to be followed, they must be made known by the source in some way. Since moral obligations are to be followed, the source must either be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations.
Lastly many agree that at least some moral obligations exists necessarily in all possible worlds. For example, it is not possible that the world turned out such that it is right to torture babies for fun. Since there are some necessary moral obligations such as not to murder, the explanation for moral obligations must also be necessary. In the care of moral obligations, the source necessarily requires some actions to be done (or not to be done). If so, it follows that the source must also exist necessarily in order to do so. Note that this does not undermine the source’s freedom if nothing external to Him determines that He requires so.

To sum up, an appropriate source of morality must be from a person or persons, must be an authority above all human persons, either have a social relationship with humans which is greater than any other social relation or possess more authority than any other human, be reasonable and perfectly good, be wise and intelligent, be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations, and exists necessarily. Hence for theists, one can argue from moral obligations to such a source of morality which they may call God.

Image: CC License. “Authority” by M. Coghlan