Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

Ethics on One Wing

Laura L. Garcia, Boston College

Several contemporary devotees of atheism offer moral theories that purport to capture the substance of morality within a world-view explicitly committed to materialism. The recent entries in this category share the view that many of the ethical norms endorsed by religious believers, especially Christian believers, are pernicious and should be eliminated. That is, their goal is not to develop a naturalistic moral theory that will justify traditional moral norms, but rather to develop a theory that will justify replacing these norms with more "progressive" or "enlightened" moral principles. I consider here three such anti-theistic theories along with some criticisms of each approach. Finally, I propose a renewal of metaphysical inquiry as crucial to sustaining a sound and persuasive natural law ethic.

Three Naturalist Proposals

(I) Nielsen's New Blend for the Nineties

Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen published a book in 1972 called Ethics Without God; in 1990 the book reappeared under the same title, revised and greatly expanded. The earlier version simply endorsed a consequentialist moral theory directly, but sometime in the 1980's Nielsen tried to convert to a Rawlsian theory, with mixed success. Nielsen's current moral theory proposes a Rawlsian methodology of wide reflective equilibrium which he describes as follows:

We start with firmly fixed considered moral judgments such as . . . the belief that religious or racial intolerance is unacceptable, that promises must not be broken, that we need to have regard for the truth, that people are never to be treated as means only, and the like. Starting with these considered moral convictions that we hold most firmly, we see whether we can arrange them into a coherent and, of course, consistent package. We should also take the extant moral theories and see how well they match with these considered judgments. The relation is much like that of scientific theories to observed experimental data. . . . The theory that squares best with and explains best this consistent set of confidently held considered judgments is, ceteris paribus, the theory we should accept.{1}

This approach sounds relatively harmless at first blush, apart from who is included in the "we" with reference to whose considered moral judgments we must square a moral theory. This is no idle concern, as becomes apparent when Nielsen describes the data set he has in mind. "Wide reflective equilibrium must not only seek the most coherent fit possible between considered judgments and moral theories; it must also seek the most accurate account available to us of the nonmoral facts (if that is not pleonastic); and the best social, scientific, and philosophical theories we have."{2}

Nielsen wastes no time in letting us know which philosophical theories count as the "best" in this context. "Many Christians believe that under all circumstances suicide is wrong, abortion is wrong, and pre-marital intercourse is wrong. . . . According to some Christians, God categorically forbids suicide and so they conclude that suicide is wrong. But . . . there are serious and deep questions about whether the concept of God is a coherent concept and, beyond that, even if we can make sense of the concept, there is still the problem of whether there is a God or whether belief in God is rationally justified."{3} Nielsen does not pause to consider whether prohibitions against suicide, abortion, and premarital sex might be derivable from one of his own "considered judgments," for instance, the claim that persons are never to be treated merely as means. Instead, he criticizes those believers who ground moral judgments in divine commands for failing to justify the ontological claims implicit in their theory. What it takes to justify these deeper claims is assumed to be (minimally) arguments for the existence of God and for the rationality of belief in God. Nielsen does acknowledge the existence of a natural law tradition in ethics and notes that some have even accused him of adopting a natural law approach (horrors!) with his appeal to considered moral judgments. Of course, Nielsen's version lacks the rational foundation for these judgments provided by Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. In fact Nielsen rejects any grounding of natural law in human nature, not by offering arguments against this approach but by asking several rhetorical questions about it: "How do we know that there is one thing -- happiness, beatitude, or whatnot -- that is the rationale of all rules of reason? . . . Even if there is only one such end, how do we know it is happiness or beatitude?"{4} Oddly, some of Nielsen's criticisms do more to support than to undermine Thomistic natural law theories, as when he claims that "one cannot just somehow see what is good through becoming aware that there is a supremely powerful and intelligent creator of the world."{5} Presumably, this is the point of developing a moral theory and not stopping with cosmology. Nielsen himself describes natural law theory as grounded in a common humanity and in a common quest for happiness/beatitude, not solely or directly in the existence of a perfect God. Be that as it may, his final verdict is that "the Thomistic conception of the natural law is a myth."{6} Why a myth, as opposed to merely mistaken or naive or, as Alvin Plantinga might put it, epistemically sub-par? Nielsen senses the looming presence of God in the background of most natural law theories, no doubt, as well as the presence of such disturbing entities as immaterial souls with free agency -- and these are ruled out by his prior commitment to materialism.

Turning to Nielsen's own proposal for an ethic without God, we are hardly surprised to find that it remains in this second edition a version of consequentialism, oriented toward fulfilling basic human desires and interests of varying sorts, maximizing the satisfaction of these desires to the greatest extent possible for all humankind. Nielsen starts with judgments about what things are intrinsically good, based on that fact that we pursue them for their own sake. His list includes happiness, self-consciousness, and a sense of self-identity. Presumably happiness (even if it is interpreted here simply as pleasure or as the satisfaction of one's desires) is a strong candidate for an intrinsic good. Though Nielsen frets over is-ought problems, he also admits that "any realistic morality-secular or religious-links in some close way with what men on reflection actually desire and with that elusive thing we call human happiness."{7}

But why self-consciousness? It is a condition for happiness, but so are many other things -- that one is alive, that the nature remains uniform, and so on -- and self-consciousness cannot be an end of action (unless we count drinking a lot of coffee, or maybe popping acid). Self-identity is more puzzling still -- can anyone fail to be self-identical? In any event, the only absolute moral norm in Nielsen's theory is consequentialist: "Actions, rules, policies, practices and moral principles are ultimately to be judged by certain consequences: to wit, whether doing them more than, or at least as much as, doing anything else or acting in accordance with them more than, or at least as much as, acting in accordance with alternative principles, tends, on the whole, and for everyone involved, to maximize satisfaction, that is, to maximize happiness, minimize pain, enhance self-consciousness and preserve one's sense of self-identity."{8} Though Nielsen is mildly troubled by the charge that consequentialism fails to ground any other exceptionless moral norms, he bites the bullet here and claims that there are "hard cases" where doing evil that good may come is not only permissible but even obligatory. Some of these cases are eerily relevant in today's climate. For instance, certain acts of terrorism that target innocent people are said to be justified by their effects, when no other means of achieving the aims of the terrorist group present themselves. "In certain, almost unavoidable circumstances, they must deliberately kill the innocent," Nielsen says. "In [the film The Battle of Algiers,] Algerian women -- gentle women with children of their own and plainly people of moral sensitivity -- with evident heaviness of heart, planted bombs that they had every reason to believe would kill innocent people, including children."{9} One might have thought that a moral theory that clashes so loudly with our considered moral judgments would have to be abandoned, but not so. Nielsen is content to make exceptions to these judgments for the sake of maximizing satisfaction for the greatest number. While some homage is paid to Rawls' notions of equality and fairness in order to block some of the more shocking implications of consequentialism, it is consequentialism that wins any conflict between principles of justice and the perceived greater good. Against Elizabeth Anscombe's defense of moral absolutes, Nielsen claims that insisting on allegiance to a moral law even when it involves great sacrifice for oneself and others can itself be a "morally monstrous" position, since evaluation of actions should always involve choosing the lesser evil (he thinks). Consider the moral principle Nielsen endorsed at the beginning of his book -- that persons must never be treated as instrumental to an extrinsic end. As the book progresses, this bold principle dies the death of a thousand qualifications -- it turns out that (1) the fact "that a normative ethical theory is incompatible with some of our moral intuitions (moral feelings or convictions) does not refute the normative ethical theory;" (2) the Kantian norm about respect for persons only requires that we treat them initially as equally deserving of respect, instrumentalizing them only with great reluctance; and finally (3) we do not treat a man only as means to an end in, say, whacking him to save the rest of us, as long as we don't single him out because of anything peculiar to him and we have "humane reasons" for acting as we do,{10} (presumably these reasons aren't humane toward Jones, but you can't have everything).

Would the existence of God in the metaphysical background of these questions give one pause in setting aside fundamental moral convictions? In effect, Nielsen agrees that it would. Citing John Hick's description of the moral life endorsed by Jesus, Nielsen concedes, "If the creedal and doctrinal claims of Judaism or Christianity were true, then it would indeed be rational to act as Hick's believer is convinced we ought to act [that is, in imitation of Christ]."{11} (Hick's article is from 1959, a time when Hick still thought the creedal and doctrinal claims of Christianity were true.) Naturally, this move cannot rescue moral absolutes for Nielsen, since he thinks "we have no evidence at all for believing in the existence or love of God."{12}

It's a little difficult to see how Nielsen's blend of intuitionism, consequentialism, and Rawlsian liberalism holds together in the end. More importantly, it is hard to see how he can maintain a role for moral truth within the naturalistic framework to which he is committed. He proposes that a moral principle is true if it is required by "the moral point of view," which involves adopting Nielsen's consequentialist axiom enjoining maximal satisfaction of desires and interests, as long as we treat every person's interests with the same moral weight.{13} As to why we should adopt the moral point of view, and whether this point of view is itself reflective of truths about the world, the only reason given is that societies need a moral code in order to have something higher to appeal to than the positive law and the will of the majority. That a moral theory is socially useful in this way hardly entails that it is true. To the extent that persons in a society agree to adopt this particular moral point of view, presumably there can be some agreement about moral principles, but this falls short of showing that Nielsen's moral point of view is rationally justifiable.

Pragmatic considerations come into this adoption decision because of a failure to ground a consequentialist moral theory in anything else. Nielsen's appeal to wide reflective equilibrium is no accident, since he uses the metaphysical assumptions of current materialist views to rule out moral theories inconsistent with these assumptions. If we bring to our consideration of the ethics a prior commitment to physicalism and determinism, it is no surprise that Thomistic natural law theories don't make the cut. Theoretical support for materialism is hard to find in Nielsen's book, except for a brief (nostalgic?) reference to the verification criterion of meaning. If this criterion were revived, however, Nielsen's own commitments to happiness and equality would fare no better than Aristotle's commitment to eudemonia. The moral intuitions he appeals to could not serve as raw data, revisable or no, since they would be considered strictly meaningless by positivist empirical standards. In the end, says, Nielsen, he cannot give us a good reason to choose his moral point of view; it is a matter of simply choosing it.

(II) Moore's Objectivism Lite

Michael Moore, a living philosopher not to be confused with G. E. Moore, hopes to find a place for moral realism and objective moral norms within a moral intuitionist theory along the lines of that offered by (confusingly enough) G. E. Moore. Michael Moore treats "good" as an impersonal, natural quality that we postulate to be present in some objects and actions. In a 1996 collection of essays edited by Robert George called Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, Moore considers this question: "Would the existence of God help at all in justifying our belief that morality is objective? Would God's existence strengthen the case for morality's objectivity?"{14} His answer is that it would not, and he ultimately suggests that God's existence might be incompatible with morality's objectivity.

Moore defends a position he calls moral realism, a two-fold metaphysical claim that "(a) moral qualities such as goodness, wrongness, etc., exist . . . and (b) the existence of such moral qualities does not depend on what any person or group of persons believes about them."{15} For Moore, moral qualities are natural properties of things, and facts about which activities, relations or states are good to do or good to be in are simply evident to us. One cannot ground their moral value in anything further, including any facts about human nature or human desires. "Rather, our actions, relations, or states possess the quality of goodness, a quality existing in the universe like wetness,"{16} and human actions need not be the only things in the universe that possess this quality, according to Moore. If a work of art has the property of being good, then it will be good whether or not there is any beholder in the universe (God included). Values are to be completely independent, on Moore's view, not just of person's beliefs but also of their needs, desires, ends, or motives. Values are not simply mind-independent, then, but wholly impersonal for him.

On the other hand, Moore wants moral truths to do some work in guiding our actions and choices. "If an action is morally right, or a state of affairs morally good," he says, "necessarily we have an objective, non-prudential reason to pursue it."{17} How this is supposed to follow in Moore's theory is difficult to see. As Jorge Garcia asks in a critical response to Moore's article, "What makes value give people reasons to act if that value has no necessary connection to what advances any person's goals, projects, plans, needs, purposes, or function?"{18} Moore's version of moral realism goes well beyond the claim that the good is independent of what people believe about the good to the claim that it is independent of people altogether. Perhaps a duty to pursue various goods is itself based in the value attached to this action, and we can recognize this. In addition to apprehending the goods in the universe, we also apprehend that we ought to pursue these goods. (Much still needs attention in this theory, however. What counts as pursuit here? Maximizing the goods? Maximizing the pursuit of them and minimizing violations against them? Are there norms for adjudicating conflicts, and do we intuit these as well?)

While G. E. Moore compared "good" to a simple, unanalyzable quality like "yellow," Michael Moore compares "good" to "wetness," but neither thinker succeeds in finding a common reason to apply the term "good" to items as diverse as a movie, a computer, a sniper, and an afternoon.{19} "Good" isn't like yellow or wetness, but we can often tell what qualities make a thing good or what is good for that thing. It's just that these qualities will not be the same in every case. Be that as it may, suppose we grant Moore's view of values as non-natural qualities, and go on to ask, as he does, whether the existence of God (as Christians describe God) would make any difference to ethics. Michael Moore deeply opposes divine command theories of ethics, but recognizes that there are other ways in which God's existence might be relevant to moral theory. In his critique of Moore, Jorge Garcia details some advantages that could accrue to one's moral theory if God exists.

(1) God's existence helps justify the overriding importance of moral considerations over prudential considerations. God can ensure that acting rightly or virtuously will not lead to unredeemed calamity for a person.{20}

(2) God's existence helps justify the existence of absolute moral norms that admit of no exceptions. The theistic picture includes the claim that God loves human persons for their own sake. That human persons should learn to love others (and God himself) is his primary goal for us. The motives and intentions behind our actions are the focus of moral judgments then, whereas the consequences of our actions matter only indirectly (e.g., we need to know what foods a baby can handle if we are trying to help and not harm her).{21}

(3) Theism grounds a view about human dignity, derived from the claim that every person has been willed by God and has a destiny in God (or at least in the contemplation of God). Theism thus "helps immunize us against the modernist view that morality consists merely in placing constraints on the individual's pursuit of what is taken to be the basic business of life -- satisfying his desires (nowadays dressed up in Rawlsian garb as 'living according to his own conception of the good')."{22}

(4) Theism explains how objective values can have a place in the world of 'facts'. It presents the world of facts as already pervaded by value, since this world comes from, reflects, and returns to, the source of all [worldly] facts in the reason and will of God.{23}

The grounding of absolute moral norms was a problem for Nielsen's theory and it turns out to be an equally grave problem for Moore. He tries to show that God's existence does nothing to increase the gravity or weight of agent-relative considerations in morality (the agent's attitudes, intentions, character, and the like). If God wants each person (equally) to conform to the moral laws, Moore asks, what about a case where my conforming to the law will result in others violating it? "What sense can we make of one Being, who, though he cares for each of us equally, doesn't care to minimize moral failure or maximize moral success?"{24} Moore assumes that what God wants is to minimize the total number of times moral laws get violated -- i.e., that God would be a consequentialist. But suppose that what matters to God instead is that persons become virtuous and loving and attain their ultimate end, not that they strive to bring about the greatest balance of moral success over moral failure (as if anyone could realistically make this a personal goal). Then God would not endorse deliberately committing an evil that good may come. While an explicit appeal to theism is not necessary for coming to know that there are some absolute moral norms, it can be difficult to show why they should not be compromised in the face of so-called 'hard cases'. Moore believes (I take it) that deliberately taking the life of an innocent person (murder) is wrong, incest is wrong, torturing prisoners is wrong. But he denies that moral norms can be captured in "text-like formulations" like "Do not kill." One must grant exceptions to this rule, for killing in self-defense, in defense of one's family, as a soldier in a just war, and so on, and "new exceptions will always be in principle discoverable."{25} Moore seems oblivious to any common elements in his list of exceptions or of the need to rule out pseudo-exceptions (killing because we are really, really mad). He concludes that there is no finite proposition that can capture moral principles -- stated in propositional form, they can only be guidelines as to what is prima facie right or wrong. Just as in Nielsen's theory, one can be morally obligated to violate a fundamental principle to prevent great enough harms or promote great enough goods. Moore confidently opines that "one who would not kill or lie to save his family is in no sense a saint, but rather, a kind of misguided moral leper."{26} Similar considerations apply to incest. "We might come across (actually or imaginatively in literature) incestuous relationships that enhance the dignity of persons in ways we had not anticipated. [!] In which event we might withdraw our initial judgment that incest is even prima facie wrong."{27}

Moore defends his version of moral realism on the grounds that it is "the best explanation of various facets of our common moral experience. This is a fallible, scientific inference, not an unseemly leap of faith."{28} God is not needed to make sense of this experience, according to Moore. Even so, why the hostility toward theistic moral realists? Shouldn't they (we) be seen as allies? Well, no, as it turns out. "My own metaphysics . . . is to refuse to countenance the existence of objective moral qualities unless they cause other (non-moral) entities, qualities, and events to occur, and such a causal role can exist for moral qualities only if they supervene upon, and in some sense are identical to, non-moral (i.e., natural) properties. . . . Nothing in this kind of ethical naturalism should shock empiricist sensibilities about what can exist."{29}

In other words, Moore is committed to a materialist view of the world, and believes that while values exist, this is only because they are identical (on an item-by-item basis) with empirical properties of some kind. Values do no causal work -- one may not be able to translate value language into value-free language, since the claim is not that value is itself (as a category) reducible to or identical with some empirical quality. Moore's reductionism is rather a reduction at the level of particulars, so that one cannot neatly replace universal concepts about value with empirical concepts having the same extension. The analogy is with mind-brain identity theories in philosophy of mind; since it proved impossible to replace mental language with physical language, now the proposed identities are at the level of individual mental states and individual brain states. Moore claims his theory is still a form of realism, since values are independent of minds and their beliefs. On the other hand, they turn out to be identical with natural qualities and have no causal role to play, so that qua values they are in effect eliminated. For most philosophers, this would count as anti-realism about values. It is hardly obvious, then, that Moore has succeeded in preserving a role for objective moral principles in a world view committed to the non-existence of God, souls, and libertarian free will.

(III) Pinker's Blue Genes

The psychologist Steven Pinker stands out among popularizers of the evolutionary paradigm as the key to understanding nearly everything there is to know about human beings and their behavior. The key assumption of this approach is a view of the human mind as identical with the brain, and the brain as having evolved to its present state over vast millennia by way of random variation and natural selection (with or without 'punctuations' that cause major leaps in evolutionary development). As Pinker puts it in the preface of his 1997 book How the Mind Works: "The mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors in their foraging way of life."{30} This assumption opens up a new discipline in the academic world, evolutionary psychology, which claims to find the physical causes (in the evolutionary history of the human race) that lie behind virtually every emotion, belief, and practice of human beings.

A difficulty for this new science is that it hardly seems to qualify as a science at all. Claims about the evolutionary path behind specific emotions (such as altruism, sympathy, etc.) cannot be tested, or can only be tested in a very wide sense of that term. It's a matter of some amusement that those who rose up with indignant horror to condemn creationism as non-scientific are seldom found crusading against evolutionary psychology. The field is riddled with the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies, since the fact that certain conditions obtained in the distant past that could perhaps account for current human beliefs, desires, etc. does nothing to show that these conditions were in fact the cause of those beliefs or desires. Even apart from the disputed notion of agent causation, one could attribute a large role to environmental and cultural factors in explaining a person's behavior and outlook. Instead, neo-Darwinian theories of human nature attribute nearly every such factor to the genes -- and the 'goal' of our genes is to reproduce themselves; they are 'selfish' genes. If we care about our children, it is due ultimately to our interest in preserving our genetic legacy. If we tend toward depression, this will have a genetic explanation -- perhaps in term of 'blue' genes. As for moral beliefs, these are taken to reflect various human emotional reactions to different objects and practices, reactions that contributed at some point to the survival of the individual or of the human species. As emotions, they are neither true nor false. "People have gut feelings that give them emphatic moral convictions, and they struggle to rationalize the convictions after the fact."{31} Moral convictions about what is good and bad, right or wrong, can have no objective or realist basis. Moral reasoning is nothing more than rationalization. We assume that Pinker will go on to embrace moral nihilism or non-cognitivism (since there are no moral facts in this view). Instead, he endorses consequentialism as the one moral theory that reason would recommend.

The difference between a defensible moral position and an atavistic gut feeling is that with the former we can give reasons why our conviction is valid. We can explain why torture and murder and rape are wrong [perhaps he should check with Michael Moore about torture and murder], or why we should oppose discrimination and injustice. On the other hand, no good reasons can be produced to show why homosexuality should be suppressed or why the races should be segregated. And the good reasons for a moral position are not pulled out of thin air: they always have to do with what makes people better off or worse off, and are grounded in the logic that we have to treat other people in the way we demand they treat us.{32}

It is remarkable that Pinker can know that promoting people's welfare and following the Golden Rule are grounded in reason, while other moral principles are dismissed as rationalizations of gut feelings. As it turns out, even the Golden Rule quickly succumbs to consequentialist considerations, since making people better off turns out to be mainly a matter of making oneself better off -- others are out of luck.

It is probably unfair to criticize Pinker for the numerous philosophical blunders in his books, which are often entertaining and illuminating and are directed to a popular audience. What is shocking (to me, anyway) is Pinker's constant appeal to what 'most scholars' or the cognoscenti are saying as in effect a demonstration of a claim. Consider the many authorities and luminaries that appear in the following citation: "For millennia, the major theories of human nature have come from religion. . . . But the modern sciences of cosmology, geology, biology, and archeology have made it impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took place. As a result, the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature is no longer explicitly endorsed by most academics, journalists, social analysts, and other intellectually engaged people."{33} Those who do continue to accept something like the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature come in for ridicule and contempt in later chapters of the book. (Leon Kass and President George W. Bush are particular targets here.) On the other hand, while Pinker is (we assume) scientifically literate, how confident can he be about the sweeping metaphysical claims he makes in the passage just cited? Those of us of a certain age (i.e., 45 and up) might be reminded of a television commercial featuring the actor Chad Everett, who played a doctor in the series "Marcus Welby, M.D." The ad was for a medical remedy, perhaps a painkiller, and Everett began: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV . . . ." No one listened to the first part, because for us viewers he was a doctor. We saw him in thoughtful, capable, and compassionate action every week. A similar illusion is created by Pinker's list of respectable people who have jettisoned theism. Pinker is not a philosopher, but he does play one from time to time in his popular writings, without providing any careful arguments for his metaphysical claims or making much effort to capture accurately the views he attacks. Nor does he tell his readers that there are some well-informed and thoughtful people on the other side.

When Pinker turns to a consideration of particular moral judgments, his main concern is to eliminate moral absolutes and to completely erase moral prohibitions against the favored projects of current scientists -- in vitro fertilization and cloning -- and the favored practices of the cultural elite, especially sexual practices. Moral absolutes are dismissed as efforts to "treat an act in terms of virtue and sin as opposed to cost and benefit," when we should all know that considerations of virtue and vice are "morally irrelevant grounds."{34} Two examples Pinker mentions in the realm of sexual ethics are incest (apparently a favorite for atheist moral theories these days) and, of all things, sex with a chicken. He assures us: "Many moral philosophers would say that there is nothing wrong with these acts, because private acts among consenting adults that do not harm other sentient beings are not immoral."{35} Mention of sentient beings might lead to some concerns about the chicken, but let's pass over that issue for the time being.

Pinker cites a psychological study of a decade ago that asked people to justify or explain the strong reaction of disgust they felt when presented with various scenarios involving incest, bestiality, and the like (eating your dog was another example -- he is already road kill and you need the food). Initially, respondents to the survey focused on negative consequences of these acts, whether immediate or delayed, and on offenses to the wider community. If they were told that none of these negative consequences would (or did) happen in these cases, they were hard pressed to find a further reason for their moral disapproval. They would say things like "I don't know; I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong."{36} The psychologists take this to indicate that there is no rational foundation for such moral claims, apart from a consideration of consequences -- the cost/benefit model. But one might instead take seriously the respondent's insistence that they "know it's wrong," even when told that the wrongness can't lie in the negative effects of the action.

What grounds this deeply held moral conviction? Perhaps in the case of the sex examples, people believe that these offend against personal dignity, that they are degrading of oneself and others, that such acts cannot be sought as genuine goods for us, and so on. Knowing that the scientists will reject any such claims, they fall silent instead. The claim that human persons are inviolable, that they cannot be instrumentalized, grounds many of the moral principles that come under attack in The Blank Slate. Prohibitions against abortion, against auctioning orphans to the highest bidder among prospective adoptive parents, against harvesting organs from living people who are not going to live much longer -- none of these survives the cost/benefit test. A typical treatment of these issues appears in Pinker's endorsement of in vitro fertilization: "As recently as 1978, many people . . . shuddered at the new technology of in vitro fertilization, or, as it was then called, 'test-tube babies.' But now it is morally unexceptionable and, for hundreds of thousands of people, a source of immeasurable happiness or of life itself."{37} It is also a source of death or suspended animation for hundreds of thousands of other people (at the embryonic stage), but this fails to register on Pinker's cost/benefit scale. Why is the death of these small persons not counted at all, even if only to be overridden by a so-called higher good?

The answer can be found in a telling passage on the morality of abortion, wherein Pinker shows his devotion to materialism and scientism. "The idea that ensoulment takes place at conception . . . flouts the key moral intuition that people are worthy of moral consideration because of their feelings -- their ability to love, think, play, enjoy, and suffer -- all of which depend on a functioning nervous system."{38} This is the kind of claim that can take your breath away. People are worthy of moral consideration because of their feelings and their abilities alone. What justifies Pinker's fundamental claim about human nature? The answer is: nothing. A materialist picture of reality, including humans, interpreted through the lens of evolutionary biology, yields no discernible moral theory. Hence, those operating from this perspective either simply assert some initial axioms to get the system going or, as in Moore's theory, pretend to accept 'values' into a system that has no place for them. Pinker thinks morality can survive just fine in this modern day in which all thinking people agree with him about human nature as a product of a blind watchmaker. Some of us will continue to have our doubts, however.

A Modest Proposal

Thomists and other advocates of the natural law share the view that some substantive moral claims are objectively true (correspond to a mind-independent reality) and that these are accessible by the use of human reason (independently of knowledge of special revelation). There are differences over what kinds of moral claims can be grounded in this way, the ground or warrant for the claims, and the way they are known. Many Thomists follow Aristotle in presenting claims like "Rational activity in accordance with virtue is the highest good for humans" as accessible to reason, grounded in human nature, and knowable by broadly empirical methods.{39} Some more recent advocates of the natural law begin from practical reason, hoping to derive theoretical claims (such as "Knowledge is a basic good" and "Never choose directly against a basic good") from the principles we use to make rational or intelligible choices. The movement from one to the other is not logically necessary, but is thought to be obvious to the normal, unbiased, reflective person.{40} Finally, some natural law theorists ground substantive moral norms in self-evident, necessarily true basic principles that are held to be accessible to every rational person.{41} The differences among these approaches to natural law are significant in many respects. One of the most important, I believe, lies in their respective implications for the role of metaphysics in moral enquiry. A natural law theory that begins with a theory of human nature clearly requires a defense (at some point) of that theory of human nature, and this in turn may require a defense of related metaphysical claims. The latter kinds of natural law theory seem to make no such initial appeal to human nature or to other claims about the world, apart from the moral judgments themselves.

Metaphysics, conceived of as (in part, at least) the study of what kinds of things are real in addition to those accessible to the five senses, finds few defenders in philosophical circles these days (and fewer still in the broader intellectual community). It is generally assumed that optimism about efforts to know what there is cannot survive attacks from positivism, scientism, hermeneutics, historicism, anti-realism, the purveyors of the paradigm-shift, and so on. Advocates of these anti-metaphysical positions also oppose one another, of course, but conventional wisdom is that they are the current players in the marketplace of ideas and it is bad form to offend all of them at once.

The current situation has discouraged philosophers of a metaphysical bent from pursuing traditional metaphysical questions guided by reason and common sense. At best, someone might venture a claim about what our ways of speaking commit us to, or what are the features of our conceptual scheme. As to whether these ways of speaking and thinking reflect genuine truths about the world, contemporary philosophers are often loathe to say. Some of this is sheer survival tactics, since in the publish-or-perish atmosphere of the academy, it ill behooves one to proffer views that one's colleagues will universally condemn, not merely as mistaken, but as hopelessly naive, ridiculous, uninformed -- in effect, an embarrassment. Safer by far to focus on the interpretation of a text, the description of a language game, or tracing the implications of a philosophical claim in a purely hypothetical way. (If it were accepted, then these claims would also have to be accepted, given a greater probability, etc.)

The aversion to metaphysics and the desire to dissociate oneself from its intellectual odiousness affects other parts of philosophy as well. Moral and political theorists increasingly aspire to operate in the open air, as free as possible from substantive metaphysical commitments. Strategically speaking, this approach has something to recommend it, since a moral theory may thus gain a fair hearing even from those deeply opposed to metaphysics itself or to the metaphysical claims lurking in the shadows of the normative theory. The goal would be to delay discussion of divisive deeper issues and focus on claims that are closer to the surface -- the moral judgments themselves, or the attendant epistemological claims. One might try to display the coherence and explanatory power of the moral theory vis-à-vis our moral intuitions taken as 'raw data', prescinding from the question of where these intuitions come from and whether they have any rational force.

I have no intrinsic objection to such approaches. But it is increasingly clear that substantive metaphysical truths lie at the foundation of substantive moral truths, and that the metaphysical task cannot be postponed indefinitely. Indeed, it becomes even more urgent today in light of escalating assaults on human dignity from reproductive technologies and from social forces in a culture riveted to self-gratification. Showing that the moral prohibition against murder is absolutely binding is itself no piece of cake in today's climate, but at least there is a general societal consensus against murder. More difficult to defend are absolute prohibitions against the use of IVF technologies, cloning, contraception, homosexual acts, same-sex unions, and so on. The clear and present danger to oneself or others is less obvious in these cases, and our society tends to support scientific innovations and look the other way with respect to what their neighbors are doing. (Smoking is the exception here, as is having 'too many children.')

In light of these realities, I believe we should undertake a renewed study of metaphysical problems, accompanied by a robust realism and a deep respect for reason and common sense. With respect to anthropology, it might be promising to develop a metaphysics of human nature that draws on both the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding of man as a rational, social animal and the relational, personalist themes of Pope John Paul II. The goal would be to build a persuasive and substantive metaphysical foundation for natural law ethics, particularly where ethics addresses human sexuality. While some philosophers find substantial, perhaps irresolvable, tensions between the common sense methodology of Aristotle and the phenomenological methodology of personalism, it is obvious that John Paul II sees these two approaches as compatible and even complementary. A clear and carefully argued view of human nature and the dignity of persons is, I believe, the only permanent intellectual defense against the current assaults on human dignity.

Although advocates of natural law sometimes begin elsewhere in attempting to ground substantive moral claims, this does not render a theory of human nature unimportant for their own projects. Beginning from practical reason and the kinds of goods we choose for their own sake can perhaps lead to claims about what humans see as fulfilling for them or as necessary to their flourishing. But if it the materialist picture of human beings is correct, this project will appear to be nothing more than a catalog of human desires acquired over years of evolutionary development, not a reason to endorse a particular group of desires as ultimate or to take their rational grounding as anything more than an elaborate rationalization. By the same token, an intuitionist moral theory generally assumes that the moral sense is a rational faculty leading us in the direction of truth, and that basic moral judgments are common to all rational persons. Both claims are hotly contested, and both can be better supported within a theistic metaphysical outlook that includes some account of human nature such that the basic principles available to conscience can be supported by attending to the kind of beings we are.

In his masterful encyclical on faith and reason, Pope John Paul II opens with this beautiful image: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."{42} In seeking the truth about morality, reason is greatly helped by faith, even if neither the mysteries of faith nor the existence of God is presupposed in natural law theories. Nearly everyone begins with the moral intuition that the dignity of human persons is inviolable, but secular moralities seldom retain it in the end. Most people begin with a belief in an immaterial dimension of the self, and in free will as the basis of moral responsibility; without faith, one can be tempted to surrender these metaphysical claims and so destroy the very foundations of morality. I am a firm believer in the possibility of developing a sound natural law ethics without explicit appeal to articles of the faith. But when philosophical ethics explicitly rejects God and embraces naturalistic materialism, natural law theory does not have a prayer. Two wings are better than one, even if you can make it with one; and if we attempt to do morality without metaphysics, we won't even have a whole wing-maybe just a few feathers.


{1} Ethics Without God: Revised Edition (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1990), pp. 19-20.

{2} Ibid., p. 21.

{3} Ibid., p. 24.

{4} Ibid., p. 29.

{5} Ibid., p. 31.

{6} Ibid., p. 35.

{7} Ibid., pp. 91-92.

{8} Ibid., p. 129.

{9} Ibid., pp. 130-131.

{10} Ibid., p. 144.

{11} Ibid., p. 98.

{12} Ibid. The argument for this claim is that "none of the proofs works," including the argument from religious experience. Nielsen can't seem to stop himself from bringing in the verification criterion of meaning here as well: "Our troubles are compounded when we realize that we do not even know what we would have to experience for it to be true or even probable that God exists." (p. 99)

{13} Ibid., p. 197.

{14} "Good Without God," Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), pp. 224-225.

{15} Ibid., p. 222.

{16} Ibid., p. 256.

{17} Ibid., p. 256.

{18} J. L. A. Garcia, "'Deus sive Natura': Must Natural Lawyers Choose?" in Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, ed. Robert George, p. 276.

{19} In a long footnote, J. Garcia reminds us of Aristotle's argument against the Platonists of his own day who thought that there was a univocal "form of the good" involved in every ascription of goodness to anything. Aristotle also criticizes the view that there is a univocal form involved even if we restrict ourselves to what is intrinsically good. (See Garcia, op. cit., pp. 280-281).

{20} Ibid., p. 272.

{21} Ibid., p. 273-274.

{22} Ibid., p. 274.

{23} Ibid., p. 275.

{24} Moore, p. 244.

{25} Ibid., p. 243.

{26} Ibid., footnote 69, p. 267.

{27} Ibid. For Moore's treatment of the norm against torture, see his article "Torture and the Balance of Ends," Israel Law Review 23 (1989), pp. 281-344.

{28} "Good Without God," p. 260.

{29} Ibid., p. 232.

{30} Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997), p. x (preface).

{31} The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 271.

{32} Ibid., pp. 274-275.

{33} Ibid., pp. 1-2.

{34} Ibid., p. 277.

{35} Ibid., p. 271.

{36} Ibid., p. 270. The study referred to is: J. Haidt, H. Koller, and M.G. Dias, "Affect, Culture, and Morality, or Is it Wrong to Eat Your Dog?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (1993), pp. 613-628.

{37} Ibid., p. 274.

{38} Ibid., pp. 225-226.

{39} Ralph McInerny develops this view in various contexts; one very accessible summary is his Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1982).

{40} Such a theory has been proposed by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Robert George. For a brief statement of this position, see Robert P. George, "Natural Law Ethics" in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, eds. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 460-465.

{41} For a statement of this theory, see Hadley Arkes, "The 'Laws of Reason' and the Surprise of the Natural Law" in Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller, Jr. and Jeffrey Paul, eds. Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 146-175. Arkes links his theory to that of Thomas Reid, a contemporary and critic of David Hume.

{42} John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Boston: Pauline Books, 1998), p. 7 (the opening paragraph).