GOD & MORALITY: FOUR VIEWS - A BOOK REVIEW
God and Morality: Four Views. R. Keith Loftin, ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 175pp. $22.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3984-1.
I will begin by saying that I absolutely love the Four Views series of books. Publishing a book in which four reputable scholars explain their own particular views on a subject and give an analysis of the views of the other three scholars is a great idea. The exchange of ideas, and dialogue amongst those who disagree on any given subject, is absolutely necessary for anybody who is honestly seeking truth. Of course, this type of book creates is difficult to review. Are we reviewing the work of the editor or the work of the authors of the individual articles, or both? In this book review, I will do a little of both. I will begin by noting the proposed purpose of the book, and its structure. Then, I will give a brief overview of the main articles, along with a couple of observations about the claims made by the authors of each article. Finally, I will note the relative worth of the book, along with a couple of critiques concerning whether or not it achieves its proposed purpose. Before I begin, I would like to go on record as saying that if you are interested in moral philosophy for any reason, then you need to get a hold of this book.
From the front, and back, cover of this book, we can safely assume that this book will explore the relationship between God and moral philosophy. In the introduction R. Keith Loftin, the editor of this book, explains that the purpose of the book is to explore an area of philosophy that is called Meta-ethics. The questions to be explored include, but are not necessarily limited to, “Where does morality come from? What, if any, is God’s role vis-à-vis morality? Is God necessary for morality? Are morals objective or relative? How do we come to know moral truths?” Therefore, the purpose of this book is to create a discussion between the four authors (I am unsure whether Loftin chose the four scholars himself or whether they were chosen by the publishing company.) who will explain and defend their own meta-ethical views, giving primary attention to the relationship between God and morality.
The book, therefore, is structured around the main articles of each of the scholars. After a brief introduction in which Loftin explains some of the key terms, and the academic pedigree of each scholar, we move into the main section of the book in which each scholar explains, in their principle article, their views concerning the relationship between Meta-ethics and God. Each of the main articles is followed by the comments and critiques of the other three scholars. The four authors are: Evan Fales, who refers to himself as an Aristotelian-Platonist, a naturalist, an atheist and a moral realist, presents his own version of what is called “Naturalist Moral Realism”. Michael Ruse, who refers to himself, on various occasions, as a Cartesian-Humean-Kantian skeptical atheist and an evolutionist, presents his own version of what is called a “Naturalist Moral NonRealism”. Keith Yandell who claims to be a Theist and a moral realist, and, seems to be somewhat of a platonist, presents what he calls “Moral Essentialism”. Finally, the last main article of the book is written by Mark D. Linville who is a professing Christian theist, and who presents what he calls “Moral Particularism”, an interesting version of the Divine Command Theory.
In his main article Evan Fales presents an argument whereby he argues that morality is based, ultimately, on human nature. He begins by explaining the key terms of Naturalistic Moral Realism, and then attempts to defend how a naturalistic teleological moral philosophy works. In this second section he notes, and attempts to give a response to, a number of potential problems for his theory, and concludes with an explanation of how moral obligations can be determined through observation of natural teleology. He then takes on the question of how we know what is right or wrong based upon human nature, responding to Hume’s is-ought distinction in the process. He then attempts to answer the question that must be asked, what is, and what grounds, human nature? His answer to this question is: evolution. In answering this question he attempts to critique the theistic answer to the same question, and he finishes of this section with a couple of examples on how to apply his theory to concrete ethical problems. In his concluding section he briefly notes the areas of agreement and disagreement that can be found between a theistic Natural Law theory, a Divine Command Theory, and a naturalistic Natural Law theory. As I, personally, sympathize with thomistic Natural Law theory, I find that I agree with Fales on the bulk of his theory. However, throughout his article he brings up what he thinks are a number of important problems for any Christian theist position. What he sees as important problems, however, seem to be either misunderstanding, or simply wrong. For example, after noting that Naturalism has a hard time explaining how conscious intentionality could have been produced by naturalistic means, he claims that Christianity is no better off. He claims that “until we understand how it can be done, we’ve no basis for claiming that God can do it, but nature cannot.” I’m not exactly sure how he got to that conclusion; however, it seems to go against the common experience of humanity. For example, though I, personally, have no idea how an intel chip is made, I do know that it is fabricated, and that it is fabricated by an intelligent being. The point is this, it is not necessary to know how something is caused in order to know that it is caused. If it be accepted that nothing can give that which it does not possess, then we have the basis for an argument to show that in order for a being endowed with intelligence to come into existence, it must have been caused by a being that is endowed, at least, with intelligence. W. Norris Clarke argues, quite forcibly, that even if we assume that evolution is the process which brought our universe to be what it is today, we still need to posit the intentional intervention of God into the evolutionary process in order to explain the jump from inanimate to animate life, the jump from plant to animal life, and the jump from animal to rational life (based upon the principle of causality mentioned above). Another problem that Fales does not answer adequately concerns the foundation of human nature. Unless an intelligent creator is posited, it certainly seems to follow that evolution does not permit the possibility of any type of nature, let alone human nature. Without a human nature Fales has no theory.
The second main article in the book is written by Michael Ruse who seeks to explain the Meta-ethics of an evolutionary theory of morality. Michael Ruse begins by noting that, as far as he is concerned, any moral discussion must begin by presupposing: (1) a distinction between what he calls “substantive ethics” and “meta-ethics”, (2) the truth of Evolution (a process of development in which natural selection and the survival of the fittest see to it that only those mutations that contribute to survival and reproduction persist), and (3) that nothing that exists is the creation of a good God (as no such God exists). He then goes on to give a brief explanation of social Darwinism, and to note how his theory differs from, and how it is similar to, social Darwinism. He then explains how he thinks that it is an empirical fact that humans exhibit what we might call moral sentiments, and how he would explain this fact as being the expected, or appropriate, result of the evolutionary process. Having noted that there are similarities between the Christian and the evolutionary answers to particular moral questions, he then moves on to explain his views about the foundations for morality. As far as Ruse is concerned, evolution is the ultimate source of all morality. That is, the evolutionary principles, of natural selection and adaptation for survival and reproduction, caused, within humanity, the notion that humans must be moral, as well as some idea of how to be moral. These notions, of course, have nothing to do with human nature, God or some other objective fact about reality. On the contrary, these notions are relative to the tangent that evolution took in this universe, and specifically, in accidentally resulting in the existence of the human race. Ruse, therefore, will argue both in his main article, and elsewhere, that his theory is not a true relativistic morality. It is relative to the way our universe evolved (in other words, if it had evolved differently, then a different morality might have evolved), but, what we “phenomenologically” feel to be morally right and wrong, is absolutely right and wrong – in our universe. There are, therefore, no absolute foundations for morality, but what humanity, in general, perceives as being morally right and wrong is just that. As some of the other authors pointed out, it seems very difficult for Ruse to escape being labeled as an ethical relativist. However, his theory certainly seems much more coherent with his evolutionist views than that of Fales. Ruse finishes with a very confused attempt to show that there is no inherent contradiction between his theory and some versions of Christian theism. It should be noted, however, that his discussion, in this confused section, of thomistic natural law theory is quite interesting.
The first theist to address the questions of the relationship between Meta-ethics and God, Keith Yandell, introduces his theory by offering two principles that, so he thinks, can be safely assumed to be necessary truths. He then sets out to defend this assumption. He begins by offering a very interesting discussion of Cultural, Descriptive and Ethical Relativism. Having put to sleep the notion that morality could possibly be relative in any of these ways, he goes on to note two aspects of the important relationship between Metaphysics and moral philosophy. This leads him into a discussion of Euthyphro’s dilemma. Yandell quickly makes short work of this classic dilemma by showing that, it is, in fact, a false dilemma. This he does by pointing out a number of other possibilities concerning God's relationship to morality. From this starting point he begins his exposition of what he calls Moral essentialism – the notion that the fundamental principles of morality are necessary truths, and that they have the ontological status of being abstract objects. Now, a number of philosophers, Yandell included, who argue in favor of abstract objects, maintain that abstract objects exist necessarily and eternally, independent of God. This of course begs the question of Gods relationship to “things” of this nature, and Yandell bravely, in the short space given him, attempts a defense of the truth of this position without removing any of the traditional attributes of God – such as omnipotence. Whether or not he is successful is another question. He then notes a number of ways in which Divine Command Theories could use his basic theory in order to slip between the two horns of Euthyphro’s dilemma. Returning to the domain of metaphysics he presents arguments to show that his theory is, in fact, an open possibility to any moral theorist, regardless of whether they are atheists or theists.
The final main article is written by Mark Linville, who seeks to defend a modified version of William Alston’s Divine Command Theory. He begins by noting a number of different ways of approaching Euthyphro’s dilemma, including the approaches of Bertrand Russell, Santayana, Leibniz, Clark, Scotus and Ockham. He then notes one of the more popular ways of slipping through the dilemma – the notion that morality is based upon God’s nature. In relation to this view he attempts a very confused explanation of Aquinas’s answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma. He then turns to William Alston’s reaction to Euthyphro’s dilemma (In general, that moral value is based on God himself, and moral obligation is based upon God’s command.), and builds his theory on a modified version of Alston’s theory. His theory is dependent on showing that God is necessarily essentially morally good (meaning that he would always act, necessarily and by nature, according to the moral law that he commands – it follows, according to Linville, that God is not limited by the moral law); and, therefore, that his nature can serve as the basis for moral goodness (much of his article goes to demonstrate this important point). In his conclusion he attempts to show that morality is based upon the nature of one particular person – God (It is, of course, highly debatable that referring to God as a person is appropriate.). As such, all moral commands, though not strictly necessary, explain how we are to live morally as human imitations of the divine person.
One of the major difficulties that most of the authors were unable to deal with satisfactorily is the question of the “good”. What is it? None of the authors gave a satisfactory definition of “good”, so, it begs the question, if we don’t know what “good” means, how can we talk about types of “goodness” such as a good human action, or a morally good God? A second difficulty showed up, but was never addressed is the question, Can the same moral categories that are applied to human beings be applied, adequately, to God? Finally, they frequently discussed the moral goodness of God (Linville even went so far as to claim that Aquinas claims that God is morally good), but no one asked whether it is even legitimate to talk about God as being morally good? We need to ask whether we even know what it means for God to be good.
This book was an extremely interesting read. We were exposed to a discussion between four different meta-ethical views, two atheistic evolutionary meta-ethical theories and two theistic meta-ethical theories. To be able to judge for ourselves each view, and then see how three other scholars judge each view is an invaluable opportunity, and one that nobody should pass up. As such this book is an invaluable resource for anybody who is interested in moral philosophy, whether a “professional” or “lay” philosopher, scientist or theologian. In order to truly critique any given view one must first understand that view. This book allows the attentive reader to understand the views of each of the scholars whose works were included. As such, it would be a great textbook for a class on moral philosophy, and especially on meta-ethics.
Though this book is an invaluable tool, it does, however, have its share of drawbacks. I think that the main drawback of this book is that its proposed purpose is too broad. The relationship of God to human morality is an enormous part of meta-ethical discussion, and can be approached from at least two different angles. Though it is not made explicit in the introduction to this book it seems as if the primary purpose of the author was to give four different views on whether or not it is possible to have a tenable meta-ethical theory, concerning the foundation of morality, apart from God (This is one way that we can approach the question of the relationship between God and morality. This approach does not presuppose the existence of God, therefore the answer to the question of God’s relationship to morals is usually tentative – “if God existed…”). If this was the purpose of the book, then it was an enormous success. Three of the scholars claimed that it was possible to elaborate a moral theory without God (Fales, Ruse and Yandell); one claimed that without God human morality does not make sense (Linville). The first two views (Fales and Ruse) presuppose, technically, that God does not exist in any meaningful way. As such, their discussions of the possible, though improbable, relationship between God and their moral theory are honestly neither interesting nor pertinent; and in the case of Ruse, it is quite confused. (Fales notes that there is a theistic version of his theory, and donates a couple of paragraphs to talking about it, but, he does not think that it is tenable, because he does not think that God exists.) Their discussions of the relationship of God to morality would have been more to the point had they attempted to demonstrate that God is more of a problem to morality than an aide. In his response to Linville, Michael Ruse casually puts this problem into words. “I go into the exercise with God not existing – I don’t have faith, and I see all of the problems both theological…and philosophical…So frankly for me this is all a bit like a board game – fun but not ultimately serious.” What is serious, for Ruse, is the question of human morality, but this question and the question of how God is related to morality are two entirely different questions.
Another way to approach the question concerning the relationship between God and Morality is to ask how God relates to morality, and, in fact, if it is even coherent to claim that God does relate to human morality. This second approach is entirely different from the first in that here we assume that God does, in fact, exist, and then we attempt to show what, if any, relationship he would have to morality. There have been a multitude of answers to this second question, including the many forms of Divine Command Theory, the various forms of Natural Law Theory, and, in fact, almost any other theistic meta-ethical theory. Yandell, in his main article, briefly offers an overview of a number of these views.
The only critique that I have to offer towards the book as a whole, based upon the above comments, is that the aim of the book was slightly off. This book, as the main articles seem to be pointed more towards the first way of approaching the question of God and morality than the second, should have been entitled, Can Man be Good without God: Four Views. In my humble opinion, another book needs to be published that answers the question of the relationship of God to Morality based upon the second approach that I mentioned above. It could be called: God & Morality: Four Views and it would expose the many different ways of responding to Euthyphro’s dilemma (which raises the problem of whether or not it is coherent to say that God is foundational for human morality), including, but not limited to various forms of the thomistic Natural Law Theory, various forms of the Divine Command Theory, Moral essentialism, and, perhaps, some form of situational ethics.
R. Keith Loftin, ed., God & Morality: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 7.
Evan Fales, “Naturalist Moral Realism”, in God & Morality: Four views, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 19.
W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 246-247.
Mark Linville, “Moral Particularism”, in God & Morality: Fours views, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 142.
Cf. Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil (London: Continuum, 2006), 95-103.
Michael Ruse, A Naturalist Moral Nonrealism Response”, in God & Morality: Four views, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 168.
If worse comes to worse it could always be entitled: God & Morality: Four views, vol. 2.