LECTURE #13: Moral Realism and God

I. Moral Realism: Objective and subjective

Moral Realism: the thesis that there really exist moral properties and facts.

Objective vs. subjective realism:

  1. According to objective moral realism, moral facts do not depend upon corresponding human judgments, choices or attitudes, whether of individuals or whole cultures.
  2. According to subjective moral realism, moral facts do depend on what we take them to be. E.g., our thinking something wrong makes it really wrong (at least for us).
Issue: is subjectivism really a form of realism? Do moral facts really exist if they are merely a projection of our thoughts, desires?

II. Varieties of Non-theistic Moral Realism

A. G. E. Moore: moral properties are "non-natural" properties, grasped by direct intuition. They consist neither in natural properties or supernatural ones (i.e., possible relations to God's will or character). Moral facts are sui generis, irreducible brute facts.

Main problems: explaining how such non-natural facts can enter into causal relations with the natural facts of our thinking and doing. How to make sense of this faculty of "intuition".

B. Sensibility theory (Hume, Hutcheson, John McDowell, David Wiggins):

x is wrong = most (normal) human beings have feelings of disapproval toward x.
Some problems:
  1. giving a non-circular explanation of these moral feelings,
  2. dealing with the apparently wide diversity of feelings from person/person, culture/culture,
  3. defending subjectivism as a proper form of realism,
  4. explaining our motivation to avoid wrong acts (who cares what most people would feel about my action?).
C. Naturalistic realism (Peter Railton, Richard Boyd):

x is wrong = (x is an act of murder or x is an act of theft or x is an act of treachery or....)
Give an exhaustive list of the things that are in fact wrong, described in unambiguous, morally neutral language.

The content of the list is determined by (1) reaching a "reflective equilibrium" between our "intutions" about particular cases and our attraction to a general theory of moral principles, or (2) by finding a "homeostatic cluster" of properties that best fits our commonsense intuitions about right/wrong. A homeostatic cluster of properties is a set of properties that tend to occur together, because of a self-reinforcing network of cause-and-effect relationships.

Some problems:

  1. doesn't seem to be a form of moral realism, since there is no common nature that makes all wrong things wrong,
  2. such open-ended disjunctive properties (A or B or ...) cannot play a role in causal explanations, and so cannot be the objects of thought or knowledge,
  3. for all we know, the disjunction might have to be infinitely long, again posing problems for the possibility of moral knowledge,
  4. it's not obvious that we can specify the truly wrong acts in morally neutral language (any moral rule expressed in neutral language will admit of exceptions), and
  5. it excludes the possibility that our moral consensus (reached in reflective equilibrium) would be completely wrong (attributes a kind of infallibility to human judgment that Adams labels as "idolatrous").
D. Bioteleological realism (Larry Arnhart, MacIntyre, Koons -- in part).

x is good for y = x realizes some aspect of the natural end (telos) of y.
Natural ends are explained in terms of the idea of biological adaptation: the successful operation of one of the natural adaptations of a member of species S is part of the natural end for S.

x is a (human) virtue = x is a character trait that reliably produces (in human beings) good actions.
Some problems:
  1. may be able to explain value, and virtue/vice, but doesn't provide an account of moral obligation or right/wrong,
  2. faces the threat of ultimate meaninglessness: all of human life, including our moral aspirations, has no meaning beyond the process of gene duplication,
  3. doesn't take into account the "spirituality" of man (in Pieper's sense): our transcendence of any finite, merely animal environment, the infinte open-endedness of our aspirations,
  4. has difficulty explaining the ubiquity of wickedness in human history, and the apparent worldly success of evil (can't take into account a metaphysical form of original sin),
  5. doesn't justify the elements of a "high" morality, such as the condemnation of genocide, the existence of moral obligations to sick and dying strangers, or taking responsibility for ecological harmony, and
  6. doesn't make room for the possibility of an individual vocation (Kierkegaard): a set of moral obligations that are specific to me as an individual (and not simply as a member of the human species).

III. Adams's Divine Command Theory of Moral Obligation

A. Empirical necessities

  1. Prior to recent work by Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam and others, many philosophers assumed that all necessities are matters of definition or of logic: mathematicians necessarily do mathematics, bachelors necessarily are unmarried, it is necessarily the case either that there is a pink elephant or there isn't one.
  2. Kripke and Putnam argued that some necessities depend on the identity, origin or nature of things: Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens are necessarily identical, Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin are necessarily distinct, water is necessarily composed of H2O molecules, etc.
  3. In the case of "natural kinds", we look for the underlying structure that causally explains the superficial similarities among our standard samples. Once we've found such a structure, we can attribute that structure to the natural kind as its "real essence". Thus, being composed of H2O molecules explains why our standard examples of water (the stuff in lakes, oceans, rain drops, etc.) have the superficial properties (clear, tasteless, odorless, dissolving salt, freezing at 0 C and boiling at 100C) they do. Thus, we can say that water is necessarily composed of H2O molecules. Any substance composed of anything else would not be water, no matter how much it resembled water. Instead, it would be "fool's water".
B. Adams argues that moral wrongness has, as its real essence, being contrary to God's (revealed) commands. Of necessity, everything contrary to God's commands is morally wrong, and vice versa. Being contrary to God's commands is what it is to be morally wrong.

  1. This is consistent with denying that the meaning of the phrase 'morally wrong', or the analysis of our concept of moral wrongness, involves any reference to God's commands. Just as we can meaningfully talk about water without knowing about H2O molecules, so we can meaningfully talk about moral wrongness without having any idea of God or his commands.
  2. In his recent book, Finite and Infinite Goods (1999), Adams defends the view that God exists, and has the moral character he does, as a matter of absolute necessity. It is not possible that God not exist, or that He exist but lack his attributes of love, justice, mercy, etc. This eliminates the problem of deciding what would be morally wrong if God commanded us to torture each other at every opportunity. There is no real possibility of God's commanding such a thing.
C. Adams's Case for his divine command theory. The theory explains the following data:

  1. Moral wrongness is an objective property of certain actions.
  2. The usual things we take to be morally wrong (murder, treachery, lying, etc.) really are morally wrong (since God has commanded us not to do them).
  3. There is a causal connection between the facts of what is morally wrong and our beliefs and judgments about moral wrongness (God has planted a conscience in us, and promulgated his commands through traditions of moral instruction -- Romans 2).
  4. The fact that an action is morally wrong gives us a reason not to do it (we have good reason to try to obey God's commands, since doing so keeps us in a harmonious relationship with God, and we should value such a relationship, since God is so important to each of us).
  5. What is morally wrong is determined by a superhuman law or standard.

IV. Adams's Theistic Platonism (God as the Good)

A. This is developed in Adams's new book, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford, 1999). As in the case of his divine command theory, this is a theory of the real essence of goodness, not a theory of the meaning of the word 'good' or of our concept of goodness. In the "Moral Commands" paper, Adams deals with such concepts as right./wrong, moral obligation, guilt. In FIG, Adams deals with such concepts as good, valuable, excellent (including morally excellent, virtuous).

B. Plato held (in the Symposium, the Republic, and elsewhere) that good things are good by virtue of a resemblance to the Good itself, a transcendent standard of absolute goodness. Adams takes on Plato's theory, but identifies the Good with the Christian God.

C. Not just any resemblance to God constitutes goodness:

  1. Resembling God's contingent properties (such as the property of speaking to Abraham) does not constitute a kind of goodness.
  2. To resemble God in the relevant sense is a holistic matter -- resembling God in one's most important traits and in the appropriate way. So, although both God and Shirley Maclaine believe themselves to be God, this is not (in Maclaine) a good-making resemblance to God.
  3. We can identify goodness (in created things) as resembling God in a way in which God intended. All created things have as their ultimate purpose the glorification of God by a "faithful imaging" of God's essence and character. Something is good when it fulfills this purpose by resembling God in the right way.
D. The Euthyphro problem (drawn from Plato's dialogue of this name): does God love things because they are good, or are they good because God loves them? On Adams's account, clearly the first. God loves himself -- his own essence and character, and so has good reason to love things that resemble himself, especially when they have been created by him for that very purpose.

What about God's goodness? Clearly, God is good in a very different way: he is not good by virtue of resembling himself. He does not love himself because of a self-resemblance. God loves himself (of necessity) because he has the character he has (of necessity), but he does not love himself because he conforms to some prior, independent standard of goodness. Perhaps we should say that the Euthyphro question cannot sensibly be asked about God's goodness.

E. Gratitude toward God motivates our obedience to God's commands. Gratitude is a good, to be explained in terms of a kind of resemblance to God's character. Adams thus avoids Mackie's charge of circularity. Disobeying God's commands is bad (because ungrateful), and this badness explains why it is rational for us to want to avoid moral wrongness. We don't have to assume (contrary to Mackie) that there is a prior moral obligation to obey God in order to derive moral obligation from God's commands.