An Abductive Moral Argument (Part 6, The Full Abductive Case)

In this last post, let’s bring to bear all the pieces of the cumulative abductive moral argument we’ve mentioned in the previous posts. The list isn’t exhaustive, but we focused on these four aspects of moral reality: objective moral goodness, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality. Charles Taylor writes that the secular age into which we’ve entered features the first society that’s accepted exclusive humanism, which is the acceptance of “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” In contrast with this remarkable trend, such historical moral apologists as A. E. Taylor gave extended arguments that morality points beyond itself to eternal goods that, rather than trivializing or devaluing earthly or temporal goods, imbue them with sacramental significance.

Further Considerations

We didn’t discuss the dimension of moral value that broaches the topic of the dignity and value of human persons, but we easily could have. Immanuel Kant contrasted value with price, arguing that human persons have the former, but not the latter. In contrast to a utilitarian like Bentham, for whom the notion of intrinsic human rights is “nonsense on stilts,” firm and principled convictions about the inherent dignity and value of persons warrant confidence in inalienable human rights with which a loving Creator endowed us. Likewise God’s universal and infinite love of every person, and his creation of us in his image, provide stable grounds for believing in essential human equality, despite our many differences.

Metaphysics scripts history. Derrida wrote that the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, the sacredness of man as your neighbor. Today there’s a growing opinion among Chinese social scientists that the Christian idea of transcendence was the historic basis for the concepts of human rights and equality. Atheist Richard Rorty admits that throughout history societies have come up with various ways to exclude certain groups from the human family by calling them subhuman, and that by contrast Christianity gave rise to the concept of universal rights, derived from the conviction that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Atheist Jürgen Habermas, similarly, has argued that from the Judaic ethic of justice and Christian ethic of love sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy. Paul Copan adds texture to the moral argument by adducing such historical roles played by Christ and his devoted followers in leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding. The evolution in moral thought that enabled us to see the sacred and beauty qualities in the Downs syndrome child, the aged, and the exile was a function of Christian influence. As David Bentley Hart says, to reject such ones would be what’s most natural; to see, rather than a worthless burden, “instead a person worthy of all affection—resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence—is to be set free … from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.” Only a myopic view of history fails to see the revolutionary force of Christianity in generating such moral insight.

Yet another moral fact we didn’t discuss but could have is the matter of moral obligations. Binding and prescriptive, they direct us to perform certain actions, while avoiding others, and carry with them an authority that’s well-nigh undeniable. They are, as C. Stephen Evans puts it, another natural sign for a divine reality—a moral law-giver whose commands are good and just, in accord with his perfect nature of love. There’s nothing arbitrary or quasi-arbitrary about his commands. Rather, they’re more like instructions from our master builder, who desires our perfect satisfaction and deepest joy. Along with Evans, Robert Adams and John Hare have offered powerful reasons to think that God resides at the foundation of our moral obligations. (See Adams’ Finite and Infinite Goods and Hare’s God’s Command.)

The Full Case

On matters of moral epistemology, we noted the distinctive ability of theism to solve the debunking problems plaguing secular ethics, and then we took up the issue of moral faith, which has two parts. One dimension of moral faith broaches the question of whether morality is a fully rational enterprise. We saw that theism provides a powerful resolution to the dualism of practical reason, no small matter, because nothing less than the full rational authority of morality is at stake. The other dimension of moral faith involves what realistic hope there can be for moral transformation. On a Christian story, hope for radical moral transformation—indeed transfiguration—will not disappoint. We can’t fulfill the moral law on our own, but God’s assistance is available for us finally to be what and who we were intended to be, without domesticating morality by lowering or watering down its standards.

In addition to the need to be changed, we also feature a deep need to be forgiven. This is the juncture at which the moral argument predicated on general revelation dovetails with and serves as the perfect prelude for the Christian gospel that comes from special revelation. Jesus is the face of an all-loving God when he takes human form. Without seeing our need for forgiveness, we won’t look for a Savior. If there’s indeed an authoritative moral law—and down deep we all know there is—and if we invariably fall short of it, what do we do with the resultant guilt? A. E. Taylor, John Henry Newman, William Sorley, and others spilled quite a bit of ink on this topic. Its indelible features, its nagging reality, and its convicting power tempt us to despair. But into the bleakness of our darkness and sin comes a message of hope and love, an offer of forgiveness that is indeed great “good news.”

The moral argument speaks and tugs inwardly, implicitly, gently, wooing both the heart and mind, from the inside out. Its tug is less like a cold deliverance of reason and more like a warm and personal invitation to come and partake, to drink from a brook whose water quenches our deepest thirst. The voice of morality is the call of God to return to our real source of happiness. It’s not an overactive superego or joy-killing curfew, but an intimation of the eternal, a personal overture to run with rather than against the grain of the universe. It’s a confirmation of our suspicions that love and relationship haven’t just bubbled to the surface of reality, but penetrate to the foundation of all that is real. Reason and relationship, rationality and relationality, go hand in hand. They weren’t just the culmination of a process; they began it all and imbued that process with meaning right from the start.

Part 1  |  Part  2Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5  |  Part 6

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Esaú Poncegary Recent comment authors
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Hi David,

I have a challenge for you: Read the short, concise, very interesting book, “Why Evolution is True”, by biologist Jerry Coyne. It is a fascinating read and will shake your conservative Christian beliefs to the core. I predict that after reading this book, you will abandon conservative Christianity…and maybe even Christianity itself.

Esaú Ponce
Esaú Ponce

Hi Gary,

Could you please explain in a nutshell why and how the arguments given in that book you suggest are good enough to make Christianity look implausible?