(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.


19 thoughts on “(How) does morality need God?

  1. Interesting that Ward defines the opposition as between naturalism and theism, when subjective moral voluntarism seems to be so much more foundational to the account. And there’s a touch of the utilitarian and consequentialist here, in that the question seems to be what the most useful ground is for our determinations of moral value.

    Also, a touch of the self-evident and/or self-serving, in that agreed-upon goods of the Modern West can be accommodated by naturalisms (assumed to be fleeting and individualistic) but derive better from systems in which long-term projects can be baptized under the communitarian authority of a religion. That’s not a facile recapitulation of intellectual history, is it?

  2. I telescoped a lot of the argument here, so this probably didn’t come through clearly in the post, but Ward’s contention is that metaphysical and evaluative claims can’t be neatly separated. That is, it’s not a matter of adopting whatever metaphysical view that seems to justify determinations of value arrived at upon other grounds. Rather, it’s that intimations of certain aspects of morality (e.g., its categorical nature and universal scope) may “point” in some way to richer account of reality than is permitted by contemporary naturalism. He has a pretty interesting chapter (which I didn’t touch on) defending aspects of Kant’s “moral” argument for God, if that gives you a clearer sense of what he’s trying to do.

    You second point–if I understand it correctly–does get at a legitimate worry about Ward’s project, I think. Are you saying that he is in effect baptizing the values of contemporary liberal humanism under the banner of religion?

  3. What my first complaint really boils down to can’t be escaped if he’s actually after an objective moral ground. If he actually thinks that there’s something about God that makes for preferable moral objectivity, rather than an (objectively indefensible) preference for a particular moral subjectivity, then I can understand why it’s God or nature. That is the classical insider dilemma of Christian ethics, and it is always already decided (as it also seems to be here). The orders of the world and its powers, or God’s will?

    But scripture always gives the answer that it is about your way of life before God as a responsible subject, and not about conformity to an objective reality. The occasions on which God delivers substantive moral judgments are few and far between, but when they come, they come as corrections of what God finds objectionable in the chosen way of life of the people in that time and place. Subject to subject. Unless his richer account of reality is a reality of thoroughgoing evaluative intersubjectivity, I’m probably going to find it a cop-out. Choosing between God and nature as objective reals leads me toward that opinion already.

  4. As to my second complaint, I’m not accusing him of baptizing Modernity; Modernity in the West was never not part of Christendom. I’m suggesting that he’s simply not doing anything new, when he suggests that values that arose from the project of Christendom and its own subsequent cultures of (occasionally anti-authoritarian) naturalism fit better within their matrix of origin than in some hypothetical system that really proceeds etsi Deus non daretur (the theories of which also came from Christendom).

  5. I may well be missing your point, so please correct me if so, but I think Ward’s contention is that the supposition that God exists “coheres” with morality, understood in a particular way, better than the supposition of atheistic naturalism. That is, if God exists, then our efforts to ensure universal human flourishing are proceeding (to borrow a phrase) “with the grain of the universe.” But if not, then they are, at best a kind of noble, but ultimately futile, gesture.

    But from your second paragraph, I gather that you see ethics in a more “situationalist” sense (for lack of a better term)?

    1. I’ll put this up here, so it’s directly attached to the words I’m riffing on: I get the feeling in arguments like this that the problem is that the supposition of freedom does not “cohere” with morality so well as the supposition of deterministic order. The supposition that God exists is simply a justification for the supposition that the universe is a certain way, and that that way is therefore moral, even if it cannot be justified from observation of the natural world.

  6. And perhaps my first complaint really collapses into my second, as a subpoint of it, if this is the case WRT Ward’s argument. Is he really only arguing “theistic” vs “atheistic” naturalism? Contentions that the state of the universe either a) accords with piety (because God defines the grain of the universe), or b) supports a multitude of nontheistic possiblities?

    1. He hints that a nontheistic religion (such as Buddhism) could provide similar support to our moral endeavors as a theistic one. So it’s more like religious views of the world vs. naturalistic ones. But this threatens to flatten the differences among religions, I’d say. Even talking generically about “theistic morality” is problematic, and that’s one of the issues I had with his argument.

      1. That said–I have always found plausible the view that Christian ethics can and should overlap with “secular” ethics. I.e. that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to discern moral truth.

      2. I’m inclined to agree, but also to reduce the point not to religion, but to culture. Theism certainly isn’t a valid reduction, and following Asad I don’t think religion is either. But religion has long been one of the strong forces of cultural preservation and transmission.

  7. More constructively: I don’t prefer the label of situationalism, because it still reduces the moral basis to an objective set of states of affairs. Situational ethics can be reasonably mapped casuistically. I would tend to suggest that all codified ethics we have are fundamentally situational; “situationalism” is simply the extreme of saying that reality is so uniquely granular that it cannot be precisely codified at any layer of abstraction. No maps, just territory.

    And I also know that “situationalism” has been an accusation leveled against Barth, who resists codification of ethics because he believes in the living and available subjectivity of God–for which reason it’s not a good label. Barth is not a situationalist; he’s not even a moral realist. It is God’s right as the particular moral subject God is, and having the character God has, to be the principal moral subject to whom we are responsible as moral subjects ourselves. It is therefore God’s right to show us the limitations to every system of ethics we may define, the boundaries we have made that are variously true and false. And they are variously true and false in situations, certainly, but not because of the situations themselves.

    I know there’s been a press on again about moral realism as opposed to relativism. But my first response to Ward’s sort of “theistic Platonism” is to move from Plato’s late formalism back to the aporetic dialogues, in which moral subjectivity is all there is, and the debatability of values and virtues has no end in sight.

    If the quest is for enduring systems of moral value that can undergird trans-generational projects, God isn’t necessary–though most of them have a god’s name on them somewhere, whether or not it’s been filed off by later generations, because religion is useful for securing multi-generational systems. If the quest is for obedience to God, however, you can write off everything about that idea.

  8. But more seriously, it sounds like on Barth’s view, ethics is not exhausted by God’s commands; but instead God’s commands show where ethics–as a provisional and human undertaking–reach their limits? Would that be accurate?

    1. “Ethics, as a human and provisional undertaking, is not exhausted by God’s commands.” I think I could go with something like that. We are constantly doing ethics, but a living theological voluntarism (one that refuses to reduce itself at any point to a set of codifications of the will of God) will keep itself open and attentive to God as it goes about seeking to know and do good in the world. Theological voluntarism is hard, as a pure position, unless God really is micromanaging. It doesn’t answer the question of what to do with freedom. Ethics is what we do with our real freedom in pursuit of responsible good action.

  9. Pingback: “Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics? | A Thinking Reed

  10. Pingback: God as Ultimate Mind: Keith Ward’s “Christian Idea of God” – A Thinking Reed

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