Ethics without God, Aristotle style
July 14, 2011 — 0:35

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Divine Command  Tags: ,   Comments: 23

Here at the Naturalism and Ethics conference at Auckland and thinking about this again.
Christians seem to like stuff from Aristotle, so it puzzles me that I rarely see anything like the following discussed in contexts where it is asserted that there can’t be ethics without God.
1. A thing that exists has the intrinsic nature it has whether or not God exists.
2. The conditions for an existing thing’s flourishing are fully determined by its intrinsic nature.
3. How a thing ought to be treated is fully determined by the conditions of its flourishing.
4. Lemma: How a thing ought to be treated is fully determined by its intrinsic nature. 2,3
5. How a thing ought to be treated does not depend on whether God exists. 1,4
Wolterstorff discusses a Kantian “capacities approach” in his Justice book (HT Matt Flannigan) which is somewhat similar, but I think he gives it short shrift.

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hi Trent,
    Nice post. I agree with the spirit of the argument, not necessarily the letter. One worry has to do with 3. If x ought to be treated in such and such a way, I think I’d have reasons to refrain from treating x in anything but that way, but it’s not clear that for any x such that x can flourish, I have reasons to act in ways that are conducive to x’s flourishing or I have reasons to refrain from acting in ways that are not conducive to x’s fluorishing.
    The hang up for me is that it’s not obvious to me that anything that can flourish has moral status, in which case there’s a potential gap between what’s good for x and what moral reasons we have to act. If only sentient creatures can flourish, I think I’m much more sympathetic as I’m tempted to say that any sentient creature has some degree of moral status.
    At any rate, I’m very much opposed to the idea that ethics requires God and think that the basic sort of argument you’re describing is basically right.

    July 14, 2011 — 1:18
  • Tim

    Trent, your argument would seem to presuppose the existence of teleology. Could you have teleology without God?

    July 14, 2011 — 4:25
  • overseas

    how would you symbolize (1)?

    July 14, 2011 — 4:27
  • Terence Cuneo

    Hi Trent,
    While I’m not in the no ethics w/out God camp, I have my doubts about the argument offered above.
    Premise (2) doesn’t seem right. The conditions of my flourishing are determined by all sorts of factors other than my intrinsic nature, such as my life history, social roles, social relations, and contingent social conditions.
    Premise (3) also seems to me suspect. Everything will hang on how we understand what it is to flourish. I take it that a central argument of the Wolterstorff book you mention is that broadly eudaimonistic accounts of flourishing (according to which the flourishing life is the life lived well) cannot provide an adequate framework for rights; there are goods to which we have rights that have nothing to do with a life lived well. I might, for example, be living my life well even if unbeknownst to me you are spying on me for prurient reasons but doing nothing with the information you’ve gathered other than savoring it. Still, I have a right to your not doing this. If so, it’s false that how I ought to be treated is determined by the conditions of my flourishing.

    July 14, 2011 — 7:16
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I too have a problem with (3), because it leaves many situations unresolved. For example, catching a fish to feed a hungry child is good for the child’s flourishing but not for the fish’s.
    My impression with God-less ethics is that after much searching nobody has found a mechanical formula. It seems ethics is a field of knowledge that is non-mechanizable, and thus does not fit with any naturalistic worldview. Perhaps there is a non-naturalistic and non-theistic ontology that will work (after all theism is not the negation of naturalism, but a particular supernaturalistic ontology), but I haven’t seen one either.

    July 14, 2011 — 9:54
  • Matthew G

    In my reading on this topic an Aristotelian approach is frequently mentioned. But I don’t remember Aristotle talking about moral duties, and I don’t see how you get the “ought” in (3).

    July 14, 2011 — 10:05
  • Ryan

    I’m not sure I understand what sort of dependence you have in mind in the conclusion. Could you clarify?
    If the conclusion was supposed to mean something like , then I’m concerned that the argument is invalid.
    Think about a parallel argument where in place of “God” we put “other human beings.” We get:
    (1) A thing’s intrinsic nature doesn’t depend on whether other human beings exist or not.
    (2), (3) and (4) same as before
    (4) So, it makes no difference to how a thing ought to be treated whether other human beings exist or not.
    Suppose (1)-(4) are all true so that how we treat some human being is determined by its nature as a human being. It still seems to me that whether other human beings exist or not makes a difference to how we should treat it. For, by virtue of its nature, it is good for it could contribute to its flourishing for it to make friends with some of these other human beings and so on. So, if they exist, I should encourage this. But if they don’t, I shouldn’t. Likewise, if God exists, perhaps I should encourage fellowship with God; if God doesn’t exist I shouldn’t.
    Or maybe you’re thinking not about whether certain particular acts should be performed, but at some more abstract level about how something should be treated under whatever conditions might obtain?

    July 14, 2011 — 11:55
  • Leo Mollica

    I have a problem with (1). If classical theism is true, then nothing would have any nature or properties, intrinsic or not, if God did not exist. Or am I missing something?

    July 14, 2011 — 12:33
  • Jonah

    I’ve thought about this for some time, and have been a little disappointed that this line of argument has been dealt with more readily by current Christian philosophers, although it is, of course, not mainstream by any means. It still does represent an important challenge to theistic ethics. For (1), even a great number of Christian philosophers in the past have thought that this was the case, e.g. Hugo Grotius. However, an A/T philosopher would certainly argue against the practicality of such a notion, since a thing’s continued existence is contingent upon God’s continued conjoining and sustaining of existence with essence, and so if he did not exist, there would be no ‘natures’ to speak of, for there would be no existence at all.
    The way I see it, the is/ought problem still does apply if you treat final causes as if they constituted the ontology of the ethics. However, if you have non-natural ethical axioms as your ontology, you can fit in final causes in human nature as a solid epistemology that would be far more preferable than intuitionism.
    I’ve also thought about the difficult behind (3). This would, I believe, lead to the charge of speciesism, although I’m sure a thorough-bred Aristotelian would have a good response to this, along the lines of qualities that separate man and animal. While man remains an animal, he is a rational animal, and so this may give enough justification to the preferential treatment of a child’s final causes over those of a fish. This is the same line of thought used in disputes over animal rights.
    As far as I remember from Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Wolterstorff actually thinks that Kantian ethics are the most plausible secular foundation for rights, if God did not exist. It’s the Eudaimonist account of rights that he has no kind words for.
    I don’t usually comment here, but I did just to note how pleased I am that this topic was brought up, and would really enjoy more commentary on this subject in the future.

    July 14, 2011 — 14:26
  • Thanks Terence,
    re: (2), yes, that’s right of course, but none of it seems to require God. I always think of the contingent stuff as in the background, but it’s best to state it explicitly, so I take your point.
    re: (3), I agree that’s what Woterstorff is saying, and though I do disagree with it, I don’t need to for presesnt purposes, since I’m not after rights, like he is, I’m just after some bit of morality, since I take it the cliam of many is, literally, *no* ethics without God. I’m not sure I believe in rights anyway. Reasons do all the work in my view, but I also don’t think I need that here.

    July 14, 2011 — 15:37
  • Trent Dougherty

    I think (3) is analytic or some kind of conceptual truth. In any event, I don’t think God needs to exist in order for it to be true.

    July 14, 2011 — 15:42
  • Trent Dougherty

    Clayton, I’m inclined to believe (i) that any living thing can flourish and that (ii) for each of those things, we have *a reason* to promote its flourishing. This reason is only pro tanto and so might (very) easily be outweighd. So I’m making a pretty weak claim here.
    I definitley think I have a reason to water the potted plants in my building. For better or worse, that reason is outeighed by other things.
    I’m open to the idea that non-living objects that exemplify “organic unity” also have moral standing (there are going to be issues about this, I’m not sure what moral standing or moral reasons are, but I’m working with the idea that paradigmatic moral reasons are reasons not related to my own self-interest). For example, I have a reason–not related to the moral standing I think spiders have–not to destroy a pretty spider web. Honestly, doesn’t that just seem wonton?

    July 14, 2011 — 19:01
  • Trent Dougherty

    DG, Aristotle accepted a hierarchy of forms based on progressive capacities. The child has higher capacities than the fish, so the reason we have to feed the child outweighs the reason we have to spare the fish. God does not feature in this explanation.

    July 14, 2011 — 19:04
  • Ryan, the latter. Though I should clarify that the full truthmaker for claims about how some entity ought to be treated will also refer to the essences of other things. So the lamb nature and the lion nature are both required to make true that lions ought to eat lambs. And so it would be true of humans in a God-less world that they are such that if there were a God, they should worship him.

    July 14, 2011 — 19:12
  • Leo, why think that? Nevertheless, since I think God is metaphysically necessary, I think nothing would exist if God didn’t exist. And so I am dealing in substantively true counterpossibles as, i take it, are the folks who say “If there were no God, there would be no objective ethics.”

    July 14, 2011 — 19:15
  • Brian, it will be hard for a symbolic representation not to misrepresent, because I’m expressing a substantively true counterpossible.
    A start could be []ALLx,y(x has nature y –> [](x has nature y))
    May have to Chisholm it from there. Maybe their are weird exceptions, maybe it goes to hell wihtout S4 which may not hold here, so I don’t know if, in this case, the formalism is going to be more revealing than the English. Maybe Alex will read this and know! 🙂

    July 14, 2011 — 19:31
  • Tim, I think so, yes. I think even without ultimate teleology–which maybe he had in God as “first” Final Cause–we get proximate teleologies if there are natures of things, if there are conditions of a thing’s flourishing. One might question whether this is even really a form of morality, I’m not always sure it is. My point is just that the “No God, no ethics” crowd is ignoring a plausible and historically influential view.

    July 14, 2011 — 19:36
  • Matthew G

    I would agree that in a world without God there could still be facts about a thing’s flourishing, but I don’t see why there would be an “ought” associated with the thing’s flourishing. There might be good and bad; but right and wrong? But really the whole issue is whether (3) really IS one of those things that is just true (an analytic truth or whatever). I suppose, though, that I’m really thinking about whether there can be moral value without God rather than ethics.

    July 14, 2011 — 19:45
  • Matthew, it seems clear to me that “ethics” is aboue the value question not just the duty question, since Aristotle’s work is called the Ethics. A value guy like me thinks the good is prior to the right, but it’s not like we don’t have the righ in our picture, derived from the good.

    July 14, 2011 — 20:01
  • Kraig

    I have a hard time understanding how (3) could be a conceptual or analytic truth. I just don’t see how the manner in which a thing ought to be treated is included in the concept of flourishing. I’m not sure what we mean by ‘ought’ anymore.

    July 14, 2011 — 21:10
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    “Progressive capacities” strikes me as a too malleable concept to be of much use. After all, fish swim faster than we do, can breath under water, and can produce thousands of offspring at one go. And, biologically speaking, we have not progressed more than fish, rather fish and we have progressed independently. Further, I understand there are animals with brains which are more complex than ours, and others with a genome which is more complex than ours. What’s more, even on the premise that we are intrinsically more valuable than fish, we can clearly see that it’s not OK to kill all fish there are in order to save the life of one child.
    It seems to me that an important fact about the human condition is that we directly perceive basic ethical truths, and perceive them with the same clarity we perceive large physical objects in our close environment. (Further, I think it’s generally accepted that there are some people who seem to be able to see better than most of us, so that we know some moral truths because we perceive the truth in what they say or in how they live, rather than perceive these truths directly.) Do you hold that there is a formula based on naturalistic facts that will give the correct answers to all ethical questions, without the need of us actually perceiving one way or the other the truth of the matter? Alternatively, if you hold that ethical knowledge is ultimately based on some sense of perception, can you suggest what kind of a God-less world would include such a sense?
    Trying to answer the latter question myself, I would say the following: Given that I perceive some moral truths with as much clarity as I perceive some physical objects, I hold both to be real, and would need a huge amount of evidence against before accepting that either perception is some kind of illusion. Now trying to imagine a God-less world in which such moral perception exists, I come to a view close to Aristotle’s in which it’s not that every single object has a final cause (or a natural end), but rather a view in which the whole world has a final cause, and in which universal final cause every object partakes to some degree and in some fashion. We may say that an object has a final cause only in the sense that it advances the entire world’s final cause. Now we humans are such that in order to advance the world´s final cause we need to perceive it. Therefore we have by nature the cognitive capacity to perceive which particular events are such as to advance that universal final cause, and thus can perceive moral truths (such as that to kill a fish to save a child is good, but to kill all fish to save a child is not).
    A God-less ontology as the one described above would work I suppose, but, as far as I am concerned, it would be like painting a sunlit landscape without painting the sun: The better you paint the landscape, the clearer you make it that there is a sun illuminating it. I suppose the following lemma holds: If God exists then any field of knowledge you diligently think about will in the end lead you towards the realization that God exists.

    July 15, 2011 — 3:31
  • Trent:
    What if we deny 1?
    On one reading of Thomas’s view, and quite possibly even Aristotle’s view, the teleology implicit in a nature comes from the fact that the nature is a particular mode of participation in God. Thus, a rational nature is a particular mode of participation in God qua mind. An organic nature is a particular mode of participation in God qua living. (Our nature is both rational and organic.)
    Furthermore, it may be that it is this participatory nature of natures that makes the teleology in the natures genuinely specify the flourishing of the things that have the natures. It is divine final causation that gives telê to things. But final causation may be more intimate, more intrinsic, than efficient causation. While it makes some sense to imagine a rock not created by God, it may not in the end make sense to imagine a nature having a telos not by participation in God.
    More technically, I don’t understand what exactly you mean by 1. (However, I think my above concerns are sufficiently general that precise formulation will not matter for them.)
    Is 1 something like the conjunction of two conditionals:
    1a. If God did not exist, x would still have the nature it does; if God did exist, x would still have the nature it does.
    But if theism is true, then if God did not exist, x wouldn’t exist. Maybe then:
    1b. If God did not exist but x (perhaps per impossibile) still existed, x would still have the nature it does; if God did exist and x (perhaps per impossibile) still existed, x would still have the nature it does.
    I don’t know about that. Maybe in the closest impossible worlds where God doesn’t exist but I exist, I am an elementary particle, indeed the only one in existence. After all, when we measure the closeness of worlds, then we want to preserve deep principles (this is a generalization of what Lewis says about preserving large scale laws of nature), and one of the deep principles is that everything finite is such that it could not exist without God. So in the closest impossible worlds where God doesn’t exist but I exist, we would have only a minimum amount of violations of that deep principle, and hence only one elementary particle–which would be me. Granted, that would violate a principle about my nature, but that’s a more local principle.
    OK, you could say that we should hold fixed x’s nature in the counterfactual. But then the counterfactual trivializes.
    Maybe the best way to take 1 is:
    1c. God is not a part of what makes “x has nature N” true.
    I don’t know that 1c is correct, however. It could be that facts about divine final causation are a part of what makes natures be natures, precisely because of the participatory nature of created natures.
    Moreover, if essentiality of origins is true, then divine efficient causation may be a part of what makes it true that x is what it is.

    July 21, 2011 — 20:51
  • Trent:
    “I’m not after rights, like he is, I’m just after some bit of morality, since I take it the cliam of many is, literally, *no* ethics without God”
    But the premises of your argument do commit you to the stronger claim, since you say that “How a thing ought to be treated is fully determined by the conditions of its flourishing” (my emphasis). It sounds like the original argument commits you to the idea that every fact about how a thing ought to be treated explanatorily supervenes on the conditions of its flourishing.
    Here is a small Aristotelian difficulty for the thesis. How I ought to treat you does not merely depend on the conditions of your flourishing. It also depends on my relationship with you and my own nature. If I am a shark, I have no duties to you at all. If I am a man, I have many such. If I am an angel, I have duties to you, but some of them may differ from the duties of a man to you.
    I suppose you could say that your nature determines all necessary truths of the form “someone with nature N and in relationship R to Trent ought to treat Trent in manner M”. I guess that’s OK, but now the divine command theorist can agree every point in your argument.
    The divine command theorist can accept that your nature determines all necessary truths of the form “someone with nature N and in relationship R ought to treat Trent in manner M.” For the divine command theorist can insist that the only necessary truths of this sort include mention in R of how God has commanded one to treat Trent. Surely that is a salient feature of a relationship.

    July 21, 2011 — 21:06