Moral Knowledge and Theistic Platonism

Many theists believe in the divine-command theory of morality, the collection of meta-ethics which depend in some critical way on the nature and dictations of God. Others think that moral facts are too robust to depend on the (presumably contingent) attitudes of God, and that their authority to dictate our moral obligations depends on God’s essential nature, or on some basic moral fact like, “we ought to conform to the ideals inherent in God”, or on a collection of independent non-naturalistic moral facts. We might label this latter group of people “theistic Platonists.” Theists are often adamant that their moral theories are superior to atheistic offerings, so we might wonder, “does this hierarchy hold for theistic and atheistic versions of Platonism?”

Popular blogger cl of the warfare is mental thinks that it does. In fact, he’s so confident that this is the case that he regards atheistic moral contemplation to be a “quest for second best.” First, a paraphrase of his argument:

  1.  There are objective moral facts.
  2. God would have perfect epistemic access to all objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, a set of commands dictated by God would be the best possible system of morality.

I think the idea is that an agent with infallible access to moral facts would be the best source of moral knowledge possible, such that atheists working from their own fallible intuitions and so on are bound to be competing with the best of all possible competitors. While cl appears to hold to non-naturalistic moral realism, note that the first premise of his argument is compatible with moral facts all being rooted in God’s essential nature (like Robert M. Adams’ second DCT). Later in his post, he cautions against responding with arguments against God’s existence, since they are not relevant to the conclusion of his moral argument. However, I think that the current dialectic surrounding the argument from divine hiddenness furnishes theists with reason to be uncomfortable with cl’s argument.

The Argument from Divine Hiddenness

If God is good and loving, we’d expect him to actively seek out a personal relationship with humans (or so the argument runs). This is because it is in the nature of a loving being to want an explicit relationship with the object of its love, just as parents naturally desire face-to-face interaction with their children. It would also be a very good thing for humans to interact with God, just as it’s instrumental to children’s psychological health that they be conscious of parents who love and protect them. This analogy is borne out in the paternalistic language of monotheistic religious texts and their insistence that God desires (antecedently, at least) personal communion with all humans at some point (correct me if I’m wrong here; I know it’s true of at least Christianity).

Of course, God will not force humans into an immediate relationship if they are not consenting, so he remains at such an epistemic distance that humans can freely choose to interact with him should they be so inclined. It is at this point that philosopher J.L. Schellenberg argue that this epistemic distance need not be total; in fact, presenting a person with a meaningful opportunity to engage with God requires that the person in question at least knows that God exists. But there are persons who are ready to engage in a relationship with God, and yet through no fault of their own lack knowledge that God exists (let’s refer to them as “inculpable believers”). So the argument concludes with the non-existence of God.

But isn’t divine hiddenness a good thing?

In response to Schellenberg’s argument, a number of theists have counter-argued that divine hiddenness is in fact a very good thing, or at least there are good reasons for God to preserve it, such that we shouldn’t be surprised by the existence of inculpable non-believers given a loving God. For example, Michael J. Murray argues in his 2002 paper, “Deus Absconditus,” that the immediacy of God’s existence would unduly coerce humans to engage with God, interfering with the intrinsically good process that is soul-building. That soul-building requires considerable autonomy is affirmed by John Hick in the now-classic Evil and the God of Love (2010 reissue):

God must set man at a distance from Himself, from which he can then voluntarily come to God. But how can anything be set at a distance from One who is infinite and omnipresent? Clearly spatial distance means nothing in this case. The kind of distance between God and man that would make room for a degree of human autonomy is epistemic distance. In other words, the reality and presence of God must not be borne in upon men in the coercive way in which their natural environment forces itself upon their attention. The world must be to man, to some extent at least, etsi deus non daretur,’ as if there were no God’. God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation. He must be knowable, but only by a mode of knowledge that involves a free personal response on man’s part, this response consisting in an uncompelled interpretative activity whereby we experience the world as mediating the divine presence. (p.281)

cl’s argument again

Recall the third premise:

A system of morality dictated by an omniscient, omnibenevolent God is therefore the best system of morality possible.

This is somewhat ambiguous, but I believe that cl intends to be read as arguing that, having received moral commandments from God, we would possess moral knowledge as certain as we could ever hope for. And, since the argument is about the best possible system of morality, not the one which is most plausible given our actual epistemic situation, considerations about epistemic plausibility (like the argument from evil etc.) simply aren’t relevant. But notice that the strength of our confidence in God’s delivered commands correlates positively with our assurance that they were actually delivered by God. And any assurance of this kind would also implicitly assure us of God’s existence.

It should be more clear now that cl’s argument critically relies on an inference that all theodicies for divine hiddenness contradict. For they all argue that epistemic distance, even to the point of lacking theistic belief altogether, is a good thing and to be expected were God to exist. By contrast, cl’s argument expects that God would obviate this epistemic distance to deliver his moral commands, thus obviating all the goods that the aforementioned theodicies worked so hard to articulate.

Suppose that God just delivered his moral maxims to humans as in the form of intuitions which had no obvious connection to himself? But then moral beliefs would be no more secure then they are now, as all would be relying on moral intuitions which lack the warrant of God’s obvious approval.

So the theist must make the choice between cl’s argument and all theodicies for divine hiddenness. Since cl’s argument at best can only show that the best possible moral theory involves God, and the argument from divine hiddenness is about the actual world, I think it’s obvious that the theist has more to lose than gain by accepting it.

Is sceptical theism the answer?

Another interesting facet of this argument involves cl’s stated commitments elsewhere on his blog. I take it that the following quotations to represent his current views on the matter (please correct me if I’m wrong):

While I’ll still gladly engage anybody on the issue, these days, I’m leaning towards the conclusion that the atheist’s problem of evil arguments are fatally flawed. In the end, all variants I’ve encountered reduce to incredulity: reasoning from premises derived at via conceptual analysis and intuition, the atheist disbelieves that a morally sufficient reason can exist: “There’s no way a good God would allow this much evil in the world.” That’s it. I’ve not seen a single POE argument that doesn’t reduce thus, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether disbelief is sufficient to warrant skepticism in this regard. I say no. (source)

I recently said that all the POE arguments I’ve heard reduce to arguments from incredulity, and this argument is no different. Inability to conceive of a higher good is the only thing grounding the claim that any given instance of suffering is needless. 6 is a naked assertion sustained only by incredulity. That alone invalidates the argument in my opinion, but I can make a stronger case. (source)

This is the standard sceptical-theistic objection to the inference from, “there are evils for which we have no known moral justification” to “there are evils which actually have no moral justification.” If his objection is sound, it follows as a general principle that we cannot infer anything about what God would prevent or allow from what appears to be good or evil to our limited minds. And so the move from, “God knows all moral truths” to “God would reveal and guarantee these truths for humans” is unjustified. Perhaps God cannot deliver these commands to humans, because there is some opposing outweighing good which we aren’t aware of. Perhaps he can deliver these commands to humans, but only in such an attenuated manner that they persuade no-one. Perhaps he can deliver his commandments in such a spectacular fashion that everyone can’t help but be persuaded, but he is forced by some unknown outweighing good to deliver only false commands, commands which do not correlate with the actual moral facts.

In Conclusion

It appears that accepting a moral argument of this kind requires one to abandon all theodicies for divine hiddenness, and sceptical theism besides. This is a high cost; the theist would have to concede that the problem of gratuitous evil and divine hiddenness are sound and extant. If one has the pragmatic desire to rationally preserve  one’s theistic beliefs, then, it is this moral argument which ought to be abandoned.

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10 Responses to Moral Knowledge and Theistic Platonism

  1. Daniel says:

    I think this would only be problematic if humans were ideally rational. It seems to me that an agnostic might believe in objective morals and be unaware of the moral argument, or unconvinced by it, though it may be sound.

  2. Adamoriens says:

    I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t dispute that non-theists can rationally believe in moral realism.

  3. Daniel says:

    My point is that one can be a moral realist, have a sense of God’s moral commands, but not know who are what is the source of those commands. The epistemic distance only becomes problematic if we assume that any human that recognizes morally objective duties and facts will necessarily realize that the ontological foundation must be in a morally perfect intentional being.

    Consider Marie. She is the twin sister of Frank Jackson’s Mary, except she has absolutely no scientific knowledge of the color red at all. She doesn’t know about photons, light waves, optics, neuroscience, etc. Yet, she knows the qualia of red when she sees it in an apple. I would imagine that Marie might also lack a reasonable metaethical foundation, yet she is absolutely convicted by her conscience when she sees something wrong. She senses moral value despite lacking moral knowledge. So being a moral realist does not require having any theoretical knowledge about morality at all. God might give Marie His moral commands without intruding too far into her capacity to freely assent to His grace. Scripture seems to confirm this:

    For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” (Romans 2:14-16).

    So I would say that an ideally rational being, sensing objective moral values, would fall into the problem you point out. Such a being would instantly infer that some sort of transcendent intentional divine being exists, on the basis of her moral sense. But we are not ideally rational. We can refuse to believe premises, even if there is rational warrant to accept them. Still, we have a conscience even if we refuse to accept a reasonable conclusion (assuming the moral argument is reasonable).

  4. Adamoriens says:

    So far as I can distinguish, the crux of cl’s argument is that the explicit deliverance of moral norms by God would be the best epistemic guarantee we could ever hope to secure for our moral beliefs. The guarantee itself would not be of a class with rational inferences from controversial premises, but rather would be entirely stronger because it was included in a divine revelation recognizable as such. Moral knowledge of this sort would not require our accepting the argumentation of theologians and apologists. It would be flashy dictations from the Big Guy, and the only way to deny his existence in that case would require more than mere refusal to accept arcane theological argumentation. So if you wish to preserve cl’s imaginary scenario and the existence of non-believers, I think you will have to deny that any non-believers in that case could ever be inculpable. After all, refusal to acknowledge God’s existence when he is self-evidently the source of commands coming down to humans could only be the result of a serious disconnect with reality or outright culpable ignorance. I don’t think cl is inclined to think that this is actually the case.

    If you’re advancing a C.S. Lewis style of moral argument where God incepts a moral sense within us that does not immediately indicate his authorship, I will note that cl’s argument is not intended to persuade one that God exists, merely that, if he did, we’d have the best possible moral knowledge. On cl’s view, then, Lewis’s account of moral knowledge has the defect of not being self-evidently the deliverance of God, which allows atheists to offer all sorts of dastardly explanations for moral belief which do not include a guarantee of their truth. But cl wants that guarantee, should God exist.

  5. Daniel says:

    It seems to me that Lewis could be correct on the level of day-to-day application of moral reasoning while cl is correct in terms of analyzing which normative theory offers the “best possible” guarantee of those commonly used objective moral insights.

    I don’t see why God’s authorship needs to be known to live according to the law inscribed on the heart. I could imagine that an atheist might use some other normative theory to “rationalize” his or her moral insights, not being cognizant of the true ontological underpinning.

  6. cl says:

    Thanks for the engagement!

    […digesting…]

  7. Adamoriens says:

    While I’m open to correction, it seems to me that Lewis offers a history for our actual moral beliefs, while cl offers an history that would guarantee the most accurate moral beliefs possible. Part of what makes cl’s proposal interesting is that moral beliefs are guaranteed by the explicit revelation of God, whereas on Lewis’s conception God is much more circumspect. God may issue commands at some time or another, perhaps, but the correctness of our moral beliefs has more to do with how God created them within us then how God would teach them to us verbally etc.

    Perhaps you could modify either to come up with something like your suggestion. But Lewis doesn’t argue that God issued commands and then humans developed intuitions to have some day-to-day independence from God’s commands; he thinks that they’re innate and prior to revelation. If God were to “cook” moral knowledge right into us, revelation of moral norms would be unnecessary, which is entirely contrary to cl’s proposal. So I think that Lewis and cl are incompatible in vanilla form.

  8. cl says:

    “While I’m open to correction, it seems to me that Lewis offers a history for our actual moral beliefs, while cl offers an history that would guarantee the most accurate moral beliefs possible.”

    Close. I’m offering an ontology that would guarantee the most accurate “moral” beliefs possible. I think the distinction is central to properly framing the argument.

  9. Paul Wright says:

    The paragraph before your conclusion sounds a bit like Lovering’s “On what God would do”. I have only read John D’s summary of the paper, but from that it seems Lovering’s point is that argument’s for God’s existence are either directly convertible to statements about what God would do (create a universe fine-tuned for intelligent life, raise Jesus from the dead, and so on) or else imply that God would allow us to understand the argument itself (I think that latter one is rather neat). Lovering goes on to ask what differentiates these claims about what God would do from the claim that God would not allow so much suffering: both of these seem to be claims that doing a particular thing would be good, all things considered: as John D says, “Since God is a morally perfect being, then every event or state of affairs that is explained by reference to him, must be compatible with his moral perfection. And since moral perfection must mean “acting so as to achieve all-things-considered goods”, it follows that we must know that the events and states of affairs explained by reference to God are all-things-considered goods.”

  10. Adamoriens says:

    Hi Paul. I have read Lovering’s paper and thought it was the neatest thing ever. In fact, I think this sort of writing is the place a person learning about philosophy of religion, and whose worldview will depend on opinions formed while learning, should begin. His analysis has the consequence of showing that any successful argument for the existence of God relies on God’s moral perfection, which clears a whole swath of popular arguments for God. Of course, any argument which eliminates explanations for some phenomenon and remains with God will escape the horns he adduces, but no such argument is compelling anyway (in my estimation).

    Edit: William Alston refers to his particular skeptical theism as the “agnostic thesis” in his paper “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition.” One wonders if he hadn’t anticipated Lovering’s observation.

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