Wednesday, February 4, 2015

IN SEARCH OF MORAL KNOWLEDGE: A BOOK REVIEW

In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy. By R. Scott Smith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 361 pp. $28.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-4038-0.

            The question of how we know what is the right thing to do is one of the most important questions that humanity has perpetually asked, from the very beginning of its existence as a species to the present day. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there are about as many theories of morality as there are philosophers and theologians who have set out to answer this moral question. In this review we will explain the primary purpose and argument of R. Scott Smith, and how he sets out his argument, followed by a short analysis of the relative success of Smith’s argument, and the worth of this book.

            The overall purpose of this book, as Smith notes in the Introduction, is “to show that, contrary to our received wisdom, morals are best explained as being (a) metaphysically objective and universal, (b) something that we can know as such and (c) grounded in the Christian God. We can have moral knowledge, and we need to reject the many false views that have led us to conceive of morality as merely a human construct. (p. 19)” In order to accomplish this overall purpose Smith divides his book into three parts. In part 1 he considers various moral theories from ancient greek philosophy up to the Reformed views of Luther and Calvin. In part 2 he turns to Modern and Contemporary moral theories. In part 3 he develops his own theory.

It is always interesting to know the general views of an author before one reads their book. It is to be noted that the author argues for a form of ontological, epistemological, and moral realism (p. 18). He argues that morals find their foundation ultimately in God’s nature (p. 18, 176, 317, 319-322, 327). Though Smith maintains that New Testament ethics are deontological (p. 27-31, 321), he also sees room for some form of Natural Law Ethics (p. 36-39). Concerning human nature Smith appears to be a form of substance dualist (p. 39fn28). He does not, however, endorse Cartesian substance dualism (p. 311), but, rather, seems to think that thomistic-aristotelian dualism (Typically referred to as hylemorphism, in the relevant literature, in order to distinguish it from other forms of dualism. Smith classes Aristotle’s theory as a substance dualism – p. 48.) is the proper understanding of human nature (p. 48, 334-335). In epistemology, Smith rejects representationalism (p. 300), and holds to a form of modest foundationalism (p. 301).

In this book the author seeks to propose his own onto-epistemological theory for morality. In order to present such an argument the author must begin by showing where the other popular views fail. His argument, therefore, takes the form of a logical dilemma (with multiple terms – each term being a different moral theory). The logical dilemma could be taken to be something as follows: Platonic theory (ch.2), or Aristotelian theory (ch.2), or Augustinian theory (ch. 3), or Thomistic theory (ch. 3), or the Reformational theories of Luther and Calvin (ch. 4), or Hobbes’s theory (ch. 4), or Kant’s theory (ch. 4), or Utilitarianism (ch. 4) or Naturalistic theory (chs. 5-6), or Ethical relativism (ch. 7), or Rawlian theory (ch. 7), or Korsgaard’s Constructivism theory (ch. 7), or Feminist Moral theory (ch. 8), or the Liberation theory of Gustavo Gutiérrez (ch. 8), or Jurgen Habermas’s theory (ch. 8), or pragmatic theory (ch. 8), or MacIntyre’s theory (ch. 9), or Hauerwas’s theory (ch. 10), or Smith’s theory (part 3). Smith attempts to show that there are problems in every single theory other than his own, which thus allows him to conclude, using an argument based on a logical dilemma, that his theory is true. He is not, however, so arrogant as to think that there is nothing of value in these other theories. He points out what is good, but he is not so naïve as to think that any one of these theories is perfect, and, so, he also points out difficulties in each of the theories. The first two parts of this book, therefore, read something like a survey of the history of moral theory (beginning with a chapter on Biblical ethics – ch. 1).


The author argues for a form of platonic ontology, Aristotelian anthropology/psychology, and a moral theory that includes both Natural law and Deontology; where human morality finds its foundations and source in God’s nature. The argument that is presented, in this book, by Smith, is excellent. However, the success of an argument based upon a dilemma depends upon proving that all the disjuncts but one are false (or have difficulties). Unfortunately for Smith’s argument, the author does not successfully demonstrate the problems with the Ancient theories, and overlooks the conceptual equipment provided for him by Thomistic Morality (which could provide him with what he seems to want from platonic ontology as well as the other elements of his theory). The major problem with this book is that, and this is probably due to the amazing number of theories that it covers, some of Smith’s critiques of the different views are unfortunately shallow, or do not take important elements of these theories into consideration. This does not take away from the value of this book for anybody who is interested in moral theory. Smith’s position is, in itself, quite interesting. I would highly recommend this book as textbook for a course on moral philosophy at any level of university studies. The nature of this book makes it such that it would be useful for a beginner in moral philosophy, and should not be ignored by experts in this domain.