Confusing the Good and the Right

Today Erik Wielenberg’s book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe arrived in the mail. Wielenberg is a proponent of the claim that moral facts exist without God. They are just brute facts. They are there, and that is that, with no deeper explanation to be offered. Because of my keen interest in the moral argument for theism, I was interested in seeing what he had to say.

At the moment I’m still at the stage of flicking through the pages, but already I am recognising some familiar friends (or enemies!) on the pages I read. The first one I thought I would mention is the perennial confusion of the the concept of moral rightness with more general goodness. In a way it’s actually encouraging to see so many examples of the error in the literature, because it confirms that there is a good reason to complete my article on “The Non-moral Goodness of God” and have it published (I’m fairly sure that some of what I say here will find its way into that article). But while the subject is fresh in my mind I thought I’d explain how Wielenberg makes this confusion. Bear in mind throughout, this isn’t a special problem with this book. A number of philosophers make the error, whether only through careless use of terminology, or, as in this case, through a confusion of the underlying concepts involved.

In the section of the book that I’m referring to, Erik Wielenberg is discussing the position that moral facts depend for their truth value on God, a position that he does not accept. He calls this the Dependency Thesis. He cites Edward Wierenga as an example of a philosopher who holds this view. That Wielenberg uses Wierenga as an example reassures me that I have understood what position he is referring to, since Edward Wierenga is a well known proponent of a divine command theory of ethics. According to this view (actually it’s more like a cluster of similar views), the truth of moral facts comes (in some important way, it varies from one view to the next) from God’s commands or will.

At this point (drawing on Ralph Cudworth), Wielenberg raises a very familiar objection to divine command ethics. The argument here is that if morality is based on God’s will then it would be completely arbitrary. God could command us to torture and pummel each other, and this would be OK. As Wielenberg puts it, this view implies “that it could be morally permissible for one person gratuitously to pummel another.”1 According to Wielenberg, this is “absurd.” Notice that he Wielenberg is referring, and correctly so, to the concept of being “morally permissible.” The subject is morality or ethics, the study of what we ought and ought not do. This will be relevant in a moment.

Just as well known as this objection, is the reply to the objection. Ever since the early 1970s the literature on divine command ethics has contained responses to this problem of arbitrariness. Wielenberg is aware of this, as he quotes from Edward Wierenga (from an article published in 1983) who, like other divine commands theorists, explains that if God is essentially loving, then there exist constraints on what he will and will not command. “He would not command an action which, were it is to be performed, would be a gratuitous pummelling of another human being.”2 in other words, the fact that moral duties derive from God’s will does not imply that God could in fact command atrocities which would thereby become morally required. But Wielenberg does not accept this response. He has two objections to it, but I am going to focus only on the second. His first objection is that Wierenga’s defence does not show that God cannot command abominations, it merely presents us with a scenario in which God would not command them. Wielenberg says, “this implies that if, per impossible, God were not loving, he could make it the case that it is obligatory for someone to inflict a gratuitous pummelling on another human being.”3 Without going into much depth, let me just note here that many, perhaps most, theologians and Christian philosophers, do not think of God as having his traits incidentally. Instead he has them necessarily, and it is therefore necessarily the case that he would not command the kind acts that Wierenga refers to.

What caught my eye, however, was Wielenberg’s second response. He says:

Second, notice that the Dependency Thesis implies that nothing distinct from God is intrinsically good or evil. The claim that the Dependency Thesis is necessarily true implies that it is impossible for anything distinct from God to be intrinsically good or evil. This is because intrinsic value is the value of thing has the virtue of its intrinsic nature. If an act of will on the part of God bestows value on something distinct from God, that value cannot be intrinsic. It will be valued that the thing has in virtue of something distinct from itself.4

Here is where the water begins to get muddy. There is nothing wrong with what Wielenberg says here, provided he is being careful. The Dependency Thesis, as represented in the divine command theory of ethics, is a theory of moral duty. This quotation from Wielenberg is only correct, therefore, if he is using the word “value” to refer strictly to moral value in the sense of facts about moral duties. If this is what he means, then what he says here is unobjectionable, because the Dependency Thesis just is the view that independent of God’s will, there are no objective moral values in the sense that we do not have any actual moral duties, whether we think we do or not.

If this is what Wielenberg meant, then the above quotation would not constitute an objection to the Dependency Thesis, it would merely describe it. But observe what Wielenberg says in the very next sentence:

I think this implication is problematic for the simple reason that something is distinct from God actually are intrinsically good and some things actually are intrinsically evil. Pain, for example, seems to be an intrinsic evil. It is evil in and of itself; its badness is part of its intrinsic nature and is not bestowing upon it from some external source. Yet the theist who accepts the Dependency Thesis must reject this, and maintain instead that pain is bad only because God made it so.5

This objection is apparently rather obvious to Wielenberg. He says, “a metaphysics that leads to the conclusion that falling in love is not intrinsically good, or that pain is not intrinsically evil, should be rejected.”6 However, what we are seeing here is a rather obvious case of equivocation. When Wielenberg says that falling in love is intrinsically good, he surely does not mean that it is our moral duty to fall in love. Likewise, when he says that pain is intrinsically bad, it is absurd to think that he means that it is somehow morally wicked to be in pain. What he has to mean is that there is some non-moral goodness involved in being in love, and some non-moral badness involved in experiencing pain. Here, I am fairly certain that any divine command theorist would agree with Wielenberg. There is an obvious sense in which pain is bad for us and there is an obvious sense in which it is good to be in love as it provides us with certain goods. But none of this has anything to do with morality. Therefore, the fact that goodness and badness of this sort might exist independent of the will of God does not present a problem for the Dependency Thesis.

1Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 48.

2Edward Wierenga, “A Defensible Divine command Theory,” Nous 17 (1983), 394.

3Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 49.

4Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 49.

5Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 50.

6Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 50.


13 thoughts on “Confusing the Good and the Right

  1. Glenn,

    I have not read this book but it sounds interesting. Could it be possible that certain things are good (have moral value) without there being a moral duty to perform them. I can see how one might argue that there are no moral duties without a moral authority to which one is subject. But could one still not intuitively recognize that certain things are good while other things are bad?

  2. Glenn,
    I had asked this question on the previous thread about how an increasing number of new atheists were writing off morality as a brute fact as though that explains everything with no further need for explanation. This response was thus very helpful. Thanks!

  3. Excuse my ignorance but how can morality possibly be a brute fact?
    Like 1+1=2? There are no possible variations.
    As a Christian i believe there is absolute truth [in areas other than just math and physics] but how can an atheist possibly say morality is brute fact. Many christians point to an underlying commonality in moral values across cultures as pointing to God but even so there are still lots of variations and inversions. Surely that is not characteristic of a brute fact.

  4. Ken, I don’t think that things can have moral value without there being any moral duties. There can be other values: aesthetic value, financial value (or market value), sentimental value etc, but morality (as I construe it, at least) just is about duty. Nothing else should be called moral.

  5. From your last comment Glenn i think you are approaching the reasons behind the motivation and understanding of the confusion you mention between good and right in the use of the word “morality”
    If a word is deliberately missused enough and its meaning skewed then the debate aound the concept encompassed in that word is muddied and to some extent nullified. Think of “evolution”, most people think they know what it means [change/development over time] but it now encompasses micro, macro, Darwinian, neo-Darwinian, punctuated equilibrium, social and any number of other theories of evolution. Another example may be found in “marriage” which you have previously posted on. Words encompass ideas, muddy the word, muddy the idea, confuse the thinking then change the thinking.

  6. Jeremy, to a very large extent this is true on this issue.

    I’ve heard people, for example, say “objective values? But different people *value* different things,” and so the meaning shifts in their hands.

  7. Ken, I don’t think that things can have moral value without there being any moral duties. There can be other values: aesthetic value, financial value (or market value), sentimental value etc, but morality (as I construe it, at least) just is about duty. Nothing else should be called moral.


    Moreover, morality is interpersonal and relational.

    Moral duties and expectations (for there are two sides to it) exist only between persons, never between persons and non-persons and never between non-persons.

    And, the moral duties and expectations existing between persons follow from the personal relationships between the persons. The moral duties we have toward persons in the Alpha Centauri system, it there exist such persons, are very minimal to non-existent. The moral duties we have toward our parents and our children are extensive. The moral duties we have toward our fellow countrymen are different and more expansive than those we have toward citizens of foreign nations.

    Immorality always involves an element of personal betrayal.

  8. Glenn,

    You note that “morality (as [you] construe it, at least) just is about duty. Nothing else should be called moral.”

    I wonder, however, how you can state that without turning your attention to non-deontological morality, at least by way of clarification? Utilitarianism, though it has it’s problems, is not wholely dismissed by a preference for duty-bound morality, is it?


  9. Kane, if I understand utilitarianism as a system of ethics (and I think I do), then it involves one fundamental moral duty to maximise utility (however that is expressed, e.g. greatest happiness for the greatest number or some other variation). It then posits other duties that are grounded in this over-arching duty.

    Otherwise utilitarianism would not tell us how to live and would not be a system of ethics.

  10. To be quite honest I don’t see how you can say that some thing or some sensation is even intrinsically “good” or “bad”. Pain in itself is not a bad thing . In fact, it can easily be argued that pain (and its prototype) is an essential sensation for survival.
    Likewise “falling in love” has no intrinsic “goodness” in it. At least clearly not what most people consider that action to be. The number of domestic violence victims who stay way too long in a relationship because they “love” their abuser is astounding.
    And, of course, Wielenberg, is even further from the truth by labeling each of these as either good or evil.
    In my humble opinion good and bad in the non moral sense are best determined by the outcome (and even that is not always clear) while good and evil as moral distinctions are best determined by one’s intentions and objective in relationship.

    1. “In fact, it can easily be argued that pain (and its prototype) is an essential sensation for survival.”

      This is true, but that doesn’t mean that it is not intrinsically bad. That just means that it can serve some instrumental good, just as many bad things can (e.g. the wicked deeds of Joseph’s brothers).

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