God & Morality: Four Views

March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

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I think I’ve made it pretty clear, but just in case, I’m a big fan of the multiple views books in theological and biblical studies. Generally speaking, I think they do a great job of both presenting the various positions on an issue and allowing readers to see how the positions would critique each other. The books themselves are not always of equal quality either because of the editing, or because of the quality of the individual contributors. But, on the whole, I’m a big fan.

This multi-view book is a bit different, mainly for two reasons. First, God & Morality: Four Views is a philosophical multi-view book. Because of that, none of the contributors are notable Christian theologians of biblical scholars. Second, this book is very unique because 2 of the 4 contributors are not even Christian philosophers. So, what we have in God & Morality: Four Views is not an intermural discussion of how to ground morality among otherwise likeminded Christian scholars. Rather, we have debate over whether or not God has anything to do with morality and ethics in the first place. And that makes this a very value apologetic resource.

Overview

After an extremely brief introduction, the first contributor is Evan Fales, professor of philosophy at Iowa. He argues for naturalist moral realism. Basically, he is arguing for morals to be absolute, but within a naturalistic framework. On the plus side, he is arguing for objective moral values. On the negative side, he has a really difficult time providing an ontological basis for those objective moral values. This is picked up on by the two Christian contributors.

The second contribution is from Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State, and well known proponent of Darwinian naturalism. His position is labelled naturalist moral non-realism. Ruse is a very engaging writer and I enjoyed reading his essay. He is very forthcoming about his unbelief, but in a non-abrasive sort of way (so basically the exact opposite of Richard Dawkins, even though they are on the same philosophical page so to speak). To his credit, he does a good job of articulating a consistent approach to morality within a Darwinian worldview. Because of this, he bypasses the issues Fales had in trying to ontologically ground morality in a naturalistic framework. However, in its place, he simply offers no justification whatsoever for morality, and says so in so in many words:

So how do I justify my substantive ethical beliefs? I claim simply that there is no justification! I think the substantive ethics, claims like “love your neighbor as yourself,” are simply psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness. There is nothing more to them than that. They have no ultimate backing. I am therefore what is known by philosophers as an “ethical skeptic.” Sometimes my position is known as “moral nihilism.” Regardless of whatever term is used, I want to emphasize that my skepticism or nihilism is not about the existence of substantive ethics. It is about the foundations of substantive ethics. I am therefore a “moral nonrealist.” (65)

To me, this is a remarkable admission, and kudos to Ruse for being so blunt about it. In truth, everyone committed to evolution should be so consistent. Unfortunately, this position destroys morality completely, and the two Christian contributors are quick to pounce in swift decisive fashion.

The third essay is from Keith Yandell and is the most overtly philosophical. Yandell is professor of philosophy at Wisconsin-Madison and argues for moral essentialism. He essentially (pun intended) argues that we can’t be sure if ethical principles are necessary truths that are therefore grounded in God’s nature or thoughts (116). In that light, his essay is an attempt to argue for a way of relating ethics and God which is philosophically attractive to both theists and non-theists (116). In this regard, he is on the same side of the debate as Fales, since they are both moral realists, but he is at odds with Ruse (who is a non-realist) and Mark Linville (who is a particularist rather than an essentialist). While probably the most densely argued position in the book, I think it ultimately is a weak position from a traditional Christian point of view, if for no other reason than that it is not a sufficiently Christian position on the subject if it is attractive to theists and non-theists alike.

The final essay is from Mark Linville, who teaches philosophy at Clayton State university. Linville argues for moral particularism, which places him in the category of moral realist (so alongside Yandell and Fales). However, he argues that morals are particularly grounded in the Christian God, which puts him against Fales and Ruse who don’t believe this God exists, and against Yandell who is trying to ground morality in a non-particular way. His position is the closest to classical Christian orthodoxy, so in that sense in a book about God and morality, there is only one distinctly Christian position.

Conclusion

This is an important book, and one that anyone interested in apologetics needs to read. In presenting 4 different ways of thinking about morality and ethics in relation to God, this book pretty much covers all the viable options out there in our culture (and I’m using viable not in the “logically coherent” sense, but in the “culturally acceptable” sense). You have an atheist who wants to have absolute morals (Fales), and an atheist who is a consistent Darwinian evolutionist and consider morals non-absolute (Ruse). You have a Christian who argues for a foundation of morals that would be attractive to Christians and non-Christians alike (Yandell) and a Christian who argues for morals grounded specifically in the Christian God (Linville). There really aren’t many other options out there. Only one view is faithful to the Bible presentation of morals (Linville). The atheistic views, though cogently argued, are exposed for the nonsense they make of morality. For Christians who’d like to at least understand the arguments from the inside, this is a great book to read and I’d highly recommend it!

Book Details

  • Editor: R. Keith Loftin
  • Title: God & Morality: Four Views
  • Series: Spectrum Multiview
  • PublisherIVP Academic (November 1, 2012)
  • Paperback: 180pgs
  • Reading Level: General Reader (with some background in philosophical reading)
  • Audience Appeal: Anyone interested in exploring the philosophical foundations of morality as it relates to God’s existence
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of IVP Academic)

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Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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