David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Others have offered their thoughts on this book online (John Hare being an example), and in reading those thoughts I have found a lot of common ground between myself and those reviewers. I take some heart from this, as it reduces the probability that I have unique misunderstandings about what the authors have said. Still, I thought I would offer my thoughts. The larger the number of reviews out there, the better a picture is painted for readers of reviews (and perhaps the authors) of what – if anything – the consensus among friendly reviewers is.
And in spite of my disagreements, I really am a friendly reviewer. By this, I mean that I am motivated to speak well of this book. I share broad agreement with the main thesis of the book. But there are a number of criticisms to make as well, and they do dominate my impression of this book. Not having written a lot of book reviews, certain traits in my approach became apparent to me. There is a certain aspect of “unfairness” in my comments in the sense that I am not an impartial reader. I have developed my own thoughts about God and morality (not that they are really new), and at times those thoughts differ from those of the authors. I found myself especially sensitive, therefore, to the ways in which they expressed disagreement with views that I hold, and I was probably more scrutinising at those junctures than a detached referee might be. You might even say that I was looking for mistakes when I disagreed with the writers. And you might be right. Tough. I am what I am. I am also someone – and this is something that I have known for quite some time – who is especially irritated when people exude over-confidence when I do not think they have earned it. I start to suspect that they don’t take enough time to examine other points of view, or that they don’t do it fairly (in other words, that they are careless because they are partisan). It makes me think that what I am reading is far too touched by arrogance. I get impatient with that, and, rightly or otherwise, it colours the rest of what I read, because I hear it in the voice of somebody who is prone to over-confidence and perhaps carelessness. That happened while I was reading this book, my broad agreement with the authors notwithstanding. Is this fair on the authors? Maybe! I’d like to think that my tendencies are at least partially driven by the right sorts of intuitions about what’s acceptable and what’s not in good, fair and distinctively Christian writing.
Enough with the preamble. What did I think of the book? Think of a car trip to Disneyland where you get motion sickness for about half of the journey. You love where you’re going, you love some of the sights you see on the way, but the journey isn’t always something you’re terribly fond of (and sometimes it is). So it is here. I have some broad agreement with the authors’ overall point, and there are many good discussions of a whole host of the related issues here, but there are features of the book that made it feel at times like I just wanted it to be over.
At times the authors treat those with whom they disagree as irritants on the path to their conclusions, and dismiss them far too quickly. Take for instance their treatment of Brian Davies, a particularly noteworthy scholar in the exposition of Thomas Aquinas’ thought. In his book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, Davies spells out a view that I have also come to (and it was encouraging, after reaching this view, to find Davies saying the same thing). That view is that even if God is the basis of morality (which Davies and I construe in terms of ethics, right and wrong), it is not right to say that God is morally good. Indeed, God has no duties and is the instigator of moral duty. God is perfectly good, to be sure, in that he is the perfect being, and he exemplifies and models those characteristics that are (aesthetically, we might say) good; love, kindness, justice, beauty and so on. Something is good to the extent that it has those features, like God does. But this leaves open the fact that morality (duty) is a matter of obeying God’s commands rather than simply being like God, and as such moral goodness simply doesn’t apply to God. But our authors will have none of this, saying that Davies’ conception of moral goodness is overly “narrow,” and “lacks sufficient motivation.” I think this is very wide of the mark. Stressing the difference between goodness per se and morality in particular is in my (and Davies’) view is crucial for explaining the sorts of issues raised by the so-called Euthyphro dilemma. We can coherently explain that the morally good thing to do is what God commands, and that God commands a thing (at least in part) because it is good, with no hint of circularity, and we fully avoid the problem of independence, the problem of God commanding as he does in order to comply with the demands of morality. The authors seem to think that they have an edge over Davies because there are some commands that would really be “beyond the pale” and which we just can’t imagine God issuing, and there really must be “some such identifiable commands,” or else our position is vulnerable to the charge of “arbitrariness and vacuity.” But it is never explained why Davies position cannot allow for there to be such situations. Of course there are! Davies and I can happily explain that since God is loving, just, fair etc, we can indeed assess commands as to whether or not they are compatible with what we know about God, all the while maintaining that none of these characteristics of God make him morally good (which we take to mean that he is disposed to be ethically well-behaved). I think Davies would be justified in finding the authors to be somewhat curt in dismissing what is actually a deeply thought out point of view as being little more than a “semantic manoeuvre.” It involves semantics of course, but it is a substantive point of view to be reckoned with, and I do not think the authors effectively do so. This is an example of the kind of unwarranted confidence that I referred to earlier, and at this point in the book I did start to worry about what would follow.
In fact Davies’ insight could have made this book stronger at numerous junctures. For example (page 93) the authors approvingly describe a Thomist view of divine goodness, saying that “since it is God’s very nature and no arbitrary decision of his that thus constitutes the standard of morality, only things consonant with God’s nature could be morally good.” In truth, nothing is added to the strength of the authors’ position by positing that God’s nature is the standard of moral goodness. They would lose nothing by simply saying that God is the paradigm of goodness, and as such his decisions are not arbitrary, but accord with goodness, and for that reason only things that are good are candidates for things that God commands or approves of, and hence God does not command anything that is not good. Introducing the concept of arbitrariness here to describe (apparently) any divine will based theory of ethics really casts aspersion – aspersion that could have been responded to with ease, if only the voluntarists had been allowed to speak (again highlighting that frustrating tendency to not give decent coverage to the responses that have been made in the literature by those whom the authors are criticising). The quality of such interaction with other views may be a casualty of the authors’ conscious choice to write a work simply enough for people who are not theologians or philosophers. As the distinction between Davies’ view and that of the authors is something that has occupied my attention in some detail, any attempt to simplistically end the dispute for the sake of readability (if that is what has happened here) is going to stand out more than it would to those who care less about the difference.
The authors devote an entire chapter to raising a whole series of philosophical objections to Calvinism. Yes, I’m sympathetic to Calvinism. But I don’t think badly of the chapter simply for that reason. A lot of very good thinkers are not Calvinists. The chapter is a mere sixteen pages and yet presumes to deal five considerable philosophical blows to Calvinism, which tells us that the treatment being offered is extremely brief. In some cases this can be suggestive of haste and even dismissiveness, and the reader whose views are in the firing line would justifiably think that this is the case here. Probably due to space constraints, the arguments are presented very briefly, none of the responses in the literature are considered (as far as I can tell), and then a new argument is raised, and so on, until the end of the chapter, where the authors tell us that the Reformed view of God is sure to “leave a bad taste” in one’s mouth. Well, a bad taste had certainly been left. Not by the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty in salvation – which is largely shared by Augustine and Aquinas (whom the authors show frequent high regard for, interestingly) – but by this unnecessary partisanship. It was, in my view, a fly in the ointment. In the space used, no really satisfactory critique could have been offered (not even a mention of the treatises on free will by Augustine or Jonathan Edwards, both of whom have written significant works on behalf of the view the authors reject), and the result was to diminish the pool of people who would appreciate and potentially use this book (as well as to further the impression that the authors were enjoying a confidence that they really haven’t earned). I think one of the great virtues of a good apologist (and I do see this book as largely serving an apologetic role) is that they are able – and perhaps more importantly, willing – to focus on the most important divides, and not needlessly alienate those who really are, at the fundamental level, on the same side of this issue. The chapter should really have been left out, and the space used to flesh out some of the finer points in other sections, points that were intentionally omitted for the sake of simplicity.
Wait, was there anything good in this book?
Up to chapter four (on the Reformed view), things sound pretty negative in this review, and there six more chapters and two appendices to go! I didn’t want to write a review that was too negative, but only to give an idea of the sort of hesitations I have about recommending the book. The truth is, however, there is material in the book that I do recommend to the reader.
In spite of my misgivings with the authors’ view on the moral nature of God, their actual chapter called “God and goodness” is a good read. It provides a very informative survey in terms of the options when it comes to what God can and can’t just make true, some digestible discussion on God’s role as “the Good,” along with some illuminating discussion of the possibility of objective moral truths if God did not exist, supposing that God, if God exists, is a necessary being.
The chapter on “Divine Command Theory” is also an excellent overview of how divine command ethics have been developed in recent times, including some prudent corrections of the popular version propounded by William Lane Craig, along with some comforting reassurance that the authors have no problem with voluntarism per se, recognising (as I commented in “Brief Thoughts about God’s Freedom to Command“) that God’s nature does not need to be seen as making all of God’s actual commands necessary; God does actually have some freedom in the way that he commands. Similarly, the chapters on Abhorrent Commands and the Problem of Evil, although covering familiar ground that receives much coverage elsewhere, provide good treatments of issues that really do need to be covered given the scope of the book’s subject. Appendix A extends the discussion initiated in the chapter on abhorrent/arbitrary commands in a manner that is sure to be more satisfying to readers of a philosophical bent than the main chapter.
Chapter 9, “Knowing God’s Will,” resonated with me particularly well, in particular because it stressed the compatibility of the dependence of morality on God with the fact that people may epistemically grasp morality with no knowledge of God (something I have published on in the past), as well as the compatibility of the best elements of a natural law theory with divine command ethics (something I plan to publish on in the future). Still, in spite of my agreement with what I saw in this chapter, I was at the same time struck by how much of a stock repertoire it was: The order of being vs the order of knowing, the varieties of natural law theories, the relationship between rationality and morality, divine hiddenness – and only a couple of pages spent on each. There is clearly a trade-off going on. Wanting to present something for the everyday reader who might not know the field of study at all, the authors clearly felt that these subjects needed to be included. But someone who does know the subject matter will be frustrated that little of substance, given the brevity, is offered. But as with other parts of the book, given the drive to appeal to the uninitiated reader, the chapter serves its purpose well. Given the more complex treatments of subjects that appear elsewhere in the book, however, it does reveal a rather awkward attempt to be “all things to all men.” I for one would have appreciated a chapter like this being substantially longer and more detailed (I would gladly have seen the chapter on Reformed theology jettisoned to make room for this).
The same is true of chapter 10. To someone looking for deep discussion, it will seem brief. However, on the whole it’s a very good survey of the matters it raises – in spite of the reappearance of an important error when the writers bring up the question of whether or not God has duties, and they again talk of God being morally perfect, so that “he couldn’t fail to fulfill any duties he might have.” Setting that aside (I have a tendency to let such remarks irritate me and remind me of what I see as the flaws of earlier chapters, which again, isn’t necessarily fair), the chapter, in my view, brings a more distinctively Christian focus to the work than previous chapters. The chapter, called “Ethics and Eternity,” bring what some may find to be a more “human” touch to a philosophical issue. Here the stresses fall on the importance of virtue, the relational nature of morality (if Christian theism does underpin morality), the contrast between slavery to wrongdoing (sin) and the freedom to be what we were created to be through relationship with God, self-sacrificial love and the hope of eternity. And yet even here, as I found value in every point being made, I felt that I the reader – was being rushed (a mere couple of pages for each topic, which was given an evidently hurried treatment), and I was again nagged with the recurring thought – I like the length of the book, but the authors really should have sacrificed scope for depth.
It’s not good form to comment negatively on those who are on your team, but I just didn’t like the lack of depth that was pervasive in this book. I didn’t like the inadequacy of the interaction with other points of view. I didn’t like the partisanship at times. And the authors’ apparently sincere intentions and evaluations not withstanding (and I am conscious of sounding a bit mean), I don’t really see this book as a presentation of the moral argument for theism – although there were some defences of theistically grounded ethics from some specific objections (but I take that to be quite a different sort of thing). On the plus side, some of the defences of theistic ethics here receive succinct and clear re-statement in an accessible format, and even in the parts of the book I wasn’t wild about for other reasons, the disagreeable moments were couched in what was generally interesting discussion (even while dismissing Davies’ view of divine goodness, the authors were at work making plenty of useful distinctions, giving the reader or student many tools for clearer thinking about the subject). Do I recommend the book? Well, that depends on what you want it for. If you just want a good book to give a history and analysis of the moral argument, interacting well and in some depth with the literature, then no (sorry!). I really want this aspect of Christian philosophy to be better than it is. But if you have a keen interest in the philosophical question of the relationship between theism and morality, you want to keep abreast of the field and you want to see what a particular slice of evangelical philosophy has to say about it (David Baggett hails from Liberty University), then yes, by all means, buy the book. Your reaction might be nothing at all like mine.
And that’s what it’s like to be in my head when I read philosophy books on God and ethics. I’ll tell you what, I’m less inclined to write such reviews in future now. I really do feel mean being this honest. I hope nobody ever reviews any book I write!