If God can make moral rules just as he pleases, can we be confident that those rules are going to be any good?
At The BC Catholic, Christian apologist Andy Bannister and humanist advocate Ian Bushfield have summarized arguments they presented in a recent public discussion on the foundations of human rights. Bannister argues that Christianity offers a superior account of how there could be such things as human rights, while Bushfield argues for the superiority of a naturalistic, pragmatist approach. To my mind, however, neither approach is adequate; while each contains a measure of truth, both ought to be rejected by theists and non-theists alike. In this post I focus on some of the problems with Bannister’s argument; in a future post I intend to present some objections to Bushfield. Because it is not apparent from Bannister’s statement that he views human rights as importantly distinct from other kinds of moral facts, in what follows I use these terms interchangeably.
Bannister’s argument is as follows. There are three possible positions on human rights. The first is that human rights do not exist in any robust sense. They are just made up rules with no justification beyond their instrumental value in securing conditions for survival and reproduction. The second possibility is that human rights exist, but they are not justified or explained by anything further. The third position is that human rights exist because we have been endowed with them by God, our creator, who made us in his image. The moral skepticism of the first position is unacceptable, and the second position is ad hoc and lacks true explanatory power. Only the third position supplies an adequate foundation for human rights.
This short argument suffers from a multitude of problems. The first problem is that Bannister assumes that there is something morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations. The grounds of this special status are no less mysterious than the grounds of human rights — in fact, they seem to be basically the very same mystery. If so, then Bannister’s third position has no explanatory advantage over the second position.
Perhaps, however, this objection misconstrues Bannister’s claim that God endows humans with rights in the act of creation. Bannister may reply that God is in a position to determine what is right, good or valuable. When God creates human beings, he is not only assembling a bundle of material and spiritual substances which, by virtue of being assembled by God, thereby acquires value; rather, the act of creation also involves creating moral properties and attaching them to each bundle. On this view, there is nothing morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations prior to God’s willing that moral significance into being.
Although I think this interpretation is a better fit with Bannister’s intended meaning, it raises a new problem: making God’s will the ultimate source of moral obligation threatens to turn God into the kind of “human rights fairy” Bannister earlier dismisses as an ad hoc pseudo-explanation.
Bannister might respond that there is an important dissimilarity between a human rights fairy and a conception of God as the source of moral obligation. We have independent grounds to believe that God exists, and if God exists, God could play the same explanatory role as a human rights fairy. So God is not invoked on an ad hoc basis to explain morality; rather, God becomes a candidate explanation for morality only after God is established as a candidate explanation for some other phenomenon.
I think this is an effective reply to the charge that Bannister’s explanation for morality is just as ad hoc as the human rights fairy. But the problem with the human rights fairy is not only that it is an ad hoc explanation, but also that it just doesn’t really explain much at all. Unless there are moral facts prior to God’s willing them into existence, the moral facts God chooses to will into existence — and even the choice to will any moral facts into existence — are arbitrary. So even if Bannister is right to claim that God could bring moral facts into existence, we still don’t have an explanation of why these moral facts — why any moral facts — exist. And if Bannister is right to claim that moral facts fundamentally depend on God for their existence, there is no explanation.
It will not do to reply that God is not just good but also loving, and a loving God would create moral rules that are best for us. “Best” is an evaluative concept. If there are no moral facts prior to God’s willing, then prior to God’s willing there is no fact of the matter about what is best for creation. Any set of rules imposed by God would count as the rules that are best for us, so the selection of those rules would still have to be wholly arbitrary even if they were selected by a perfectly loving being.
Those who still find Bannister’s argument persuasive on balance may at this point wish to bite the bullet and accept a view of morality grounded in arbitrary divine commands. Before doing so, however, it is worth considering some further options. Nihilism, brute explanation and divine commands do not exhaust the options for understanding morality, and Bannister’s neglect of these alternatives is puzzling, especially given that the idea that moral facts depend on God has faced noteworthy challengers even within his own religious tradition. The influential Early Modern philosopher and theologian Samuel Clarke, for example, argued that while God’s will was always perfectly congruent with moral truth, moral truth was not dependent on God’s will. Moral truths, according to Clarke, are necessary truths, knowable by reason:
(from A Discourse of Natural Religion)
Morality is not a simple matter, Clarke acknowledges, and in some cases the distinctions between right and wrong may be very fine indeed. We have reason to pay attention to divine revelation concerning moral truth, because God’s perfect knowledge of morality can help us navigate the hard cases. But when it comes to certain elementary truths, Clarke says:
Drawing on the philosophy of Plato and working with the methods of natural theology (i.e. deriving theological truths from reason rather than revelation, mystical experience, or analysis of sacred texts), the 17th-century Christian philosopher Ralph Cudworth likewise argued forcefully against the idea that morality is dependent on the divine will. The idea of absolute authority over the content of morality, Cudworth thinks, generates a paradox:
The right and authority of God himself, who is the supreme sovereign of the universe, is also in like manner bounded and circumscribed by justice. God’s will is ruled by his justice, and not his justice ruled by his will; and therefore, God himself cannot command what is in its own nature unjust. And thus have we made it evident, that infinite right and authority of doing and commanding any thing without exception, so that the arbitrary will of the commander should be the very rule of justice itself to others, and consequently might oblige to any thing, is an absolute contradiction, and a non-entity; it supposing nothing to be in its own nature just or unjust; which, if there were not, there could be no obligation nor authority at all. (from The True Intellectual System of the Universe)
Instead, Cudworth follows Plato in positing an abstract, mind-independent property of goodness — what Plato called a “Form” and Cudworth an “Essence” — as the basis of moral truth; God’s perfection ensures that his will is always exercised in conformity with essential goodness. While imperfect beings like humans are less reliably moral, the basis of our moral knowledge — rationally grasping the eternal essence of goodness — is ultimately the same as God’s.
Immanuel Kant, also a theist (although not an orthodox Christian by the time he developed his mature moral philosophy), developed a very different account of the objectivity of morals. In contrast to realists like Clarke and divine command theorists like Bannister, Kant argued that the source of moral authority must be found within moral agents themselves. But this does not mean that the dictates or morality are relative or otherwise mutable.
According to Kant, we are free only when our wills are not determined by “alien causes,” i.e. causes that are external to ourselves. This rules out the possibility that we could be free when we act according to whatever our strongest impulses happen to be, because these impulses are determined by external natural causes. Nor can random action make the will free, because the very notion of a randomly acting will is incoherent. It follows, by process of elimination, that the positive definition of freedom must be autonomy or self-legislation, i.e. action that is determined by a law that we give to ourselves. This law cannot be a hypothetical imperative because hypothetical imperatives are based on our particular interests and inclinations, and these in turn are naturally determined. And if the law is not a hypothetical imperative, then it must be a categorical imperative, which is the moral law. Therefore we are free only when we govern ourselves according to the moral law.
Clarke’s realism, Cudworth’s Platonism, and Kant’s rationalist constructivism are just three alternatives to Bannister’s grounding of moral truth in God’s will. All of them were proposed by people who believed in God, so they are at least compatible with Bannister’s broader religious beliefs. And because none of these alternative theories of morality presuppose or entail the existence of God, they are also compatible with secular humanism. Because Bannister fails to address these alternatives — let alone the multitude of realist theories originating within the field of secular ethics — his claim that Christianity offers the only secure foundation for morality lacks adequate support.