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The Best Explanation for Moral Truth
By Adam Lloyd Johnson
For many centuries before the modern era, most Western thinkers believed that God is the best explanation for moral truth. Though these thinkers agreed that God is the ultimate foundation for morality, they disagreed as to how he serves as this foundation—for example, by his commands, because of his moral nature, through ideas in his mind, as a moral exemplar, or in creating human nature with a certain purpose (telos). Though they differed on the details, they all agreed that an immaterial and personal God, as the ultimate source of all things, provides a fitting explanation for morality, which itself is both immaterial and personal.
This is not only true of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions); many ancient Greek philosophers also believed morality has a transcendent source. Some of them, including Plato and Aristotle, even described this transcendent source in similar ways to how the Abrahamic religions described God. The Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas understood Plato’s theory of forms as the conclusion of Plato’s search for certainty in the face of the constant change we experience in the physical world. The state of flux we find in the physical world, which includes ourselves, just couldn’t provide the objectivity Plato, like many others, assumed must be the case concerning truth, including moral truth. Thus, he posited transcendent universals, which include moral truths, that exist objectively apart from us. He also suggested in the Timaeus that a divine craftsman, the Demiurge, employed these universals in making the physical world.
In his celebrated work After Virtue, widely recognized as one of the most important works of moral philosophy in the twentieth century, Alasdair MacIntyre calls this predominant view I’ve described from the premodern era the “classical tradition,” which includes Greek philosophy and Christian theism. He often refers to this classical tradition as Aristotelian but regards Aristotle “not just as an individual theorist, but as the representative of a long tradition, as someone who articulates what a number of predecessors and successors also articulate with varying degrees of success.”
MacIntyre notes, “Most medieval proponents of this [moral] scheme did of course believe that it was itself part of God’s revelation, but also a discovery of reason and rationally defensible.” He explains that Aristotle and the New Testament share “a unitary core concept . . . [that] turns out to provide the tradition of which I have written the history with its conceptual unity.” MacIntyre argues, “The New Testament’s account of the virtues, even if it differs as much as it does in content from Aristotle’s . . . does have the same logical conceptual structure as Aristotle’s account. A virtue is, as with Aristotle, a quality the exercise of which leads to the achievement of the human telos.” Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas may differ “in a number of important ways,” but the “presupposition which all three share is that there exists a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life.” MacIntyre even admits, “I became a Thomist after writing After Virtue in part because I became convinced that Aquinas was in some respects a better Aristotelian than Aristotle. I had now learned from Aquinas that my attempt to provide an account of the human good was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding.”
MacIntyre also provides an extended explanation of how, when this classical theistic tradition was jettisoned in the modern era, various thinkers tried but failed to find or establish a new foundation for objective morality. Without God, how could objective moral truth exist apart from our own ideas and preferences? If there’s no fixed point, no absolute standard, and no ultimate purpose for human beings, then how could our moral beliefs be anything more than our personal opinions?
MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s proclamation of the is-ought problem, that oughts do not follow from what is, sometimes referred to as the fact-value gap, “was itself a crucial historical event. It signals both a final break with the classical tradition and the decisive breakdown of the . . . project of justifying morality in the context of the inherited, but already incoherent, fragments left behind from tradition.” He explains, “The joint effect of the secular rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos. The elimination of any notion of essential human nature and with it the abandonment of any notion of a telos leaves behind a moral scheme composed of two remaining elements [is and ought] whose relationship becomes quite unclear.” These modern thinkers “reject any teleological view of human nature, any view of man as having an essence which defines his true end. But to understand this is to understand why their project of finding a basis for morality had to fail.” In other words, “once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements.”
John Hare similarly critiques modern secular attempts to propose foundations for objective morality based on classical theistic models such as Aristotle’s and Duns Scotus’s, among others, while at the same time rejecting their theistic assumptions. He notes, “Elizabeth Anscombe (herself a Christian) made this point about moral law in her famous article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ in 1958.” In this article she wrote, “It is not possible to have such a [moral law] conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians.”
MacIntyre further explains that the failure of these modern attempts at finding a new, nontheistic foundation for objective morality led to the birth of subjective morality:
On the one hand the individual moral agent, freed from hierarchy and teleology, conceives of himself and is conceived of by moral philosophers as sovereign in his moral authority. On the other hand the inherited, if partially transformed, rules of morality have to be found some new status, deprived as they have been of their older teleological character and their even more ancient categorical character as expressions of an ultimately divine law. If such rules cannot be found a new status which will make appeal to them rational, appeal to them will indeed appear as a mere instrument of individual desire and will.
While some modern thinkers claimed their models did preserve objective morality, “what those philosophers in fact provided were several rival and incompatible accounts, utilitarians competing with Kantians and both with contractarians, so that moral judgments . . . became essentially contestable, expressive of the attitudes and feelings of those who uttered them.” These irreconcilable contentions led many to the horrifying conclusion that objective morality was merely “a theatre of illusions,” a realization that paved the way for the acceptance, and eventual promotion, of subjective morality.
— Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches for the Rhineland School of Theology in Wölmersen, Germany, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also serves with Ratio Christi, a university campus ministry. He is the author or editor of several published works including A Debate on God and Morality: What Is the Best Account of Objective Moral Values and Duties?, co-authored with William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Erik Wielenberg, and others, and Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity Is the Source and Foundation of Morality. You can learn more about his work at his website, convincingproof.org.
Excerpted from Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundation of Morality by Adam Lloyd Johnson (Kregel, 2023). Used by permission.
“Johnson leaves no stone unturned, his research is exceptional, and his topic and treatment of it are first-rate. I very strongly recommend this book.”
— J. P. Moreland, distinguished professor of philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
“Johnson’s book is very well done and very helpful to the reader; I love the historical overview. Also, his Evolutionary Debunking Argument against Wielenberg’s position is really good. Lastly, I found the part on imaging the obedience in the Trinity as a basis for the obligation to obey God creative and interesting.”
— William Lane Craig, professor of philosophy, Talbot School of Theology and Houston Christian University
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