The first set of moral phenomena in need of explanation are certain moral facts, among them moral goodness and moral duties. Recall that “objective moral values and duties” function at the heart of William Lane Craig’s version of the moral argument. They together serve as the first part of the four-fold moral argument presented here; here the topic will just be moral goodness.
Secular Moral Goodness
Moral goodness pertains to the issue of value, moral value in particular. It’s common nowadays for our secular counterparts to identify certain moral goods—friendship, meaningful work, fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness, pleasure—and to suggest that since morality is about aiming for such moral goods, we can thereby construct a thoroughgoing secular ethic aimed at securing such goods.
This strategy is not altogether without merit, but it leaves too much out of the equation. For one thing, it’s not altogether clear that all of these “goods” are distinctively moral goods. Pleasure, for example, appears to be a nonmoral good; likewise, pain is a nonmoral bad. Surely it’s bad to experience excruciating pain, but it’s not morally bad as such. It’s nonmorally bad; what would be morally bad is to inflict such suffering on another just for the sheer fun of it. The distinction here is one between badness and evil.
Immanuel Kant recognized this distinction, insisting that the latter is the more distinctively moral category, and I think he was right. This is closely related to his insistence that the only truly good thing is a good will—a feature of persons. To conflate nonmoral badness with moral evil contributes to quite a bit of confusion nowadays, and, to my thinking, is a real weakness in a number of contemporary efforts to construct a moral theory. Sam Harris’s approach is a striking example.
For a bit of our broader context, a quick insight from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will have to suffice. The book discusses a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. This has happened. Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives, which poses a challenge to faith. This new cultural context is less concerned with what people believe as with what strikes people as believable. The conditions of belief trump the expressions of belief. Prevailing plausibility structures render religion contestable, making possible the emergence of what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” a vision of life in which the immanent takes primacy. As Taylor puts it, “I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”
Much of Taylor’s book occupies itself with recounting the circuitous tale of how we arrived at a point when exclusive humanism could be seen as a viable vision of significance, such as a rejection of these traditional obstacles to unbelief: (1) The natural world was constituted as a cosmos that functioned semiotically, as a sign that pointed beyond itself to what was more than nature; (2) Society itself was understood as something grounded in a higher reality; earthly kingdoms were grounded in a heavenly kingdom; and (3) In sum, people lived in an enchanted world, a world “charged” with presences, that was open and vulnerable, not closed and self-sufficient.
These prevailing assumptions made religious belief function as the natural default position, and unbelief seem anomalous. Today these assumptions are no longer so prevalent, which has made the situation just the opposite: unbelief has become the default, and religious belief more of the outlier, despite its continuing popularity. This history continues to make its force felt, though, by both riddling believers with doubts and haunting unbelievers with a nagging sense of the transcendent.
A Better Approach
A generation earlier, another Taylor—A. E. Taylor, author of the classic The Faith Of A Moralist—spent a great deal of time presciently suggesting that a close examination of morality itself is indeed semiotic, pointing beyond itself to something more ultimate. This is the underlying logic of moral arguments for God’s existence: morality is taken to be a veridical insight into the nature of reality, and this is just where the prescience of Faith of a Moralist can be seen. It pointed to a close, careful, honest, and painstaking examination of morality.
Taylor would find some of today’s emaciated caricatures of morality woefully inadequate to do justice to distinctive features of morality that cry out for adequate explanation. He would concur with the sentiment once expressed by Hastings Rashdall that, rather than deciding our metaphysics first and looking into ethics only later, a close study of ethical truth can and should be allowed to yield insight into the nature of reality.
Yet another prominent luminary in the history of the moral argument, whose work on the argument came to the fore in Gifford lectures, was William Sorley. Like Rashdall before him and Taylor after him, Sorley quoted with approval H. Lotze: “The true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics.” The moral argument is based on this powerful idea: a close examination of morality in its distinctive features, its robust construal that’s true to our rich and thick moral experiences, functions semiotically to point to something more ultimate than itself, functions evidentially to provide reasons to think that the merely temporal and finite goods of this world are neither the only nor most important goods there are to secure.
The problem with privileging a thin metaphysics before considering the evidence of morality is that it precludes following where the evidence of morality may well lead. It’s a circular, even if unwitting, example of domestication. Taking the evidence of morality seriously should enable us to see the futility and failure of exclusive humanism—maybe not immediately, but eventually. Both Taylors would suggest there’s a troublesome myopia to the insistence that only temporal and earthly goods are among the deliverances of morality, however fashionable the mantra.