David Baggett and jerry Walls have written an excellent book exploring God’s relationship to morality. The book aims to provide a moral argument for the existence of God, and to answer criticisms to theistic ethics. After showing how various non-theistic foundations for ethics fail, the authors take a close look at the most common objection to theistic ethics: the Euthyphro argument. They critique both horns of the dilemma: pure voluntarism (X is good because God commands it) and non-voluntarism (X is good wholly independent of God and His will). If goodness is determined by God’s commands, then morality seems arbitrary. Indeed, if God willed that rape is good rape would be good (abhorrent commands objection). There is also the epistemic problem. How would we know what God has commanded, or if God has changed His mind? The problem with non-voluntarism is that it makes God irrelevant to morality. Goodness stands outside of God. Indeed, God is subject to the good in the same way we are. At best His role is to communicate to us what is good. He is like the divine meteorologist who reports the weather rather can creating it. If goodness is independent of God, then God’s aseity (self-existence) is called into question. He cannot be the metaphysical ultimate.
Baggett and Walls split the horns of the dilemma by arguing that the good is neither metaphysically independent of God nor dependent on God’s commands, but rather metaphysically dependent on God’s nature. But some divine commands don’t appear to have anything to do with morality (such as building a fence on top of one’s roof), and yet those God commanded to do so were morally obligated to obey Him. If those commands have their origin in God’s will rather than His good nature, are we not back to voluntarism? Yes, but in a modified form that does not fall prey to the same errors as pure voluntarism. It’s at this juncture the authors make a critical distinction between the moral good and the moral right. The moral good is a matter of axiology (what is good), whereas the moral right is a matter of deontology (what is morally obligatory). Not everything that is morally good is morally right. For example, while it is morally good to give away one’s money to the poor, it is not morally obligatory to do so. While the good is grounded in the nature of God, our moral obligations (the moral right) are constituted by God’s commands. As Baggett and Walls note, “God’s commands determine what’s morally obligatory, but not what’s morally good.” (47) God’s commands not only inform us which of the morally good acts are also morally obligatory for us, but they are also expressions of the divine will. These amoral commands will always be in accord with God’s good nature, but they are not expressions of the good per se. And yet, we are morally obligated to obey these commands because they are issued from a legitimate authority.
Baggett and Walls argue that the nature of morality is a clue to the nature of God. Most people are keenly aware of their moral intuitions. Moral truths are not just objective, but necessary. For example, we cannot conceive of a possible world in which torturing an innocent child for fun would be morally good. Moral truths are necessary truths. If moral truths are grounded in the nature of God, then God must be a necessary being as well.
One question that often comes up in discussions is why we should think that God is good to begin with. Why think that if God exists, He is a good being rather than an amoral or even immoral being? Baggett and Walls point to the objectivity of moral truths as one key to answering this question. Moral truths are propositions about what is good and evil. But what sense does it make to speak of propositions of thought without the existence of a thinker who thinks them? As Alvin Plantinga writes:
How could there be truths totally independent of minds or persons? Truths are the sort of things persons know; and the idea that there are or could be truths quite beyond the best methods of apprehension seems peculiar and outré and somehow outrageous. What would account for such truths? How would they get there? Where would they come from? How could the things that are in fact true or false propositions, let’s say—exist in serene and majestic independence of persons and their means of apprehension? How could there be propositions no one has ever so much as grasped or thought of? It can seem just crazy to suppose that propositions could eist independent of minds or persons or judging begins. That there should just be these truths, independent of persons and their noetic activities can, in certain moods and from certain perspectives, seem wildly counterintuitive. How could there be truths, or for that matter, falsehoods, if there weren’t any person to think or believe or judge them?
In this he echoes Aquinas who said, “Even if there were no human intellects, there could be truths because of their relation to the divine intellect. But if, per impossiblei there were no intellects at all, but things continued to exist, then there would be no such reality as truth.” (De Veritate Q. 1, A.6 respondio) Such moral truths could not exist apart from a mind. If the moral truths are necessary and eternal, then so is the mind that knows them. God does not merely believe these propositions, but rather conceives of them as necessary aspects of His nature.
In chapter six they turn their attention to divine command theory. God’s commands do not constitute the good, but do constitute our moral duties. While many of God’s commands are necessary reflections of His good character, some are contingent. While these command would never violate his good nature, they do not reflect it. Examples would include God’s command to Jewish males not to trim the edges of their beards, or the command to give 10% of one’s increase (rather than, say, 9%).
There is a decent chapter on the problem of evil and the challenge it poses to the existence of God. Walls and Baggett argue that the problem is not insurmountable, and to the degree that the moral argument for God’s existence is successful we have good reason for thinking the argument against God from evil is false.
They also address the question of why God is needed for morality if one can recognize moral facts and behave morally without belief in God: “[I]t might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize…that the order of being is different from the order of knowing.” (18)
One aspect of the book that disappointed me was the amount of attention paid to Calvinism. While the authors were right to bring up how one’s theological views might affect the cogency of the moral argument, I think they were guilty of treating the issue too simplistically, and perhaps even constructing a straw man. They essentially equated Calvinism with determinism. The same problems that arise for materialistic versions of determinism arise for theological versions as well. But not all Calvinists hold to theological determinism. Salvation can be monergistic, and yet humans still have libertarian freedom in other matters. They also misconstrued what Calvinists believe at points. For example, they equated irresistible grace with a love potion that creates infatuation in the beloved but not genuine love. But on a Calvinistic view, God unilaterally regenerates man so that man is able to freely love God—something He is not able to do when He is dead in His sins.
Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to explore in more detail how God relates to morality, and how the existence of morality is a powerful argument for the existence of God.
Plantinga, “How to Be and Anti-Realist”, 67.