Airaksinen on Berkeley’s Theological Ethics
April 22, 2017 — 11:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Command Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The 11th and final chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Ethics and Berkeley’s Good God” by Timo Airaksinen. This is a rich, complex, and careful treatment of Berkeley’s ethical thought. It is the only essay in the volume that pays careful attention to Berkeley’s own theological commitments. Further, by specific attention to the theological context of Berkeley’s ethical thought Airaksinen is able to show that Berkeley’s thought in this area is richer and more complex than philosophers have often supposed.

The discussion is focused around Berkeley’s Alciphron. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Passive Obedience, though good use is also made of Berkeley’s sermons (which scholars have often ignored). Further, the article concludes with some interesting discussion of the development of Berkeley’s thought about evil in the world over the course of his career.

It is widely recognized that Berkeley’s ethical thought contains both divine command elements and rule utilitarian elements. A disputed question is how these elements fit together. On this subject, Airaksinen makes the provocative statement, “Berkeley is no utilitarian, rather God is” (221). What Airaksinen means by this is that, on Berkeley’s view, morality for us is fundamentally a matter of obedience to God. Yet we should not conceive God as a tyrant issuing arbitrary commands which we follow solely out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.* Rather, such obedience should be based on our attitude of love and trust toward God, which are in turn based on our faith in the goodness of God. Now this requires that we be able to make sense of God’s being good in some way that is not wholly arbitrary or trivial. On Airaksinen’s reading, Berkeley appeals here to the fundamental or intrinsic goodness of happiness, which is closely related to but perhaps not identified with pleasure. God’s goodness means that God seeks to promote these ends in God’s design of the natural and moral order of the world. Insofar as this is a genuine order it must be based on rules. It is in this sense that God is a rule utilitarian: God has instituted a moral system which is optimal with respect to the promotion of the happiness of creatures. Proper religious attitudes should include not mere acquiescence in this moral system, but active endorsement of it. That is, the genuinely moral/virtuous person buys into God’s plan for the natural and moral order of the universe. It is in this sense and for this reason that, according to Airaksinen’s reading of Berkeley, religious faith is required for genuine virtue.

What does all of this have to do with idealism? According to Airaksinen, Berkeley’s ethical thought is idealistic in two senses. First, Berkeley holds that “one cannot define moral notions and conscience without a reference to the mind and its functions or, in this case, God’s will” (217). This is idealism in the sense in which that term is used in contemporary metaphysics, that is, the claim that things we might not ordinarily think of as mental are grounded in or reducible to mental phenomena. Second, Berkeley’s view (according to Airaksinen) is idealistic in the Platonic sense that it appeals to a transcendent moral ideal, namely, God (217). Now, Airaksinen says that “His [Berkeley’s] ethics rests on idealistic metaphysics—it is metaphysically informed as it tracks God” (217). However, I don’t see any particular connection here to idealism in the sense of immaterialism, and in fact immaterialism makes no (explicit) appearance in either Passive Obedience or Alciphron. In fact, most of Christian ethics has been idealistic in the two senses Airaksinen defines. So I was left puzzled about the connection to idealism in the sense in which that term is understood in the rest of this volume. Nevertheless, this is an excellent essay which handles Berkeley’s text carefully and advances our understanding of his ethical thought.

(Cross-posted at

* I note that Airaksinen seems to me to underemphasize the extent to which Berkeley does want to defend reward and punishment as sources of moral motivation in Alciphron. However, Berkeley certainly does not think that this is the best sort of moral motivation.

Virtual Colloquium: Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West, “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride”
November 4, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Virtue  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Today’s virtual colloquium paper is “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride” by Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West. Dr. Roberts received his PhD from Yale in 1974 and is currently Chair of Ethics and Emotion Theory in the Jubilee Centre, the University of Birmingham (UK) and Distinguished Professor of Ethics emeritus at Baylor University. His extensive publication history includes monographs published by Oxford, Cambridge, and Eerdmans (among others) as well as numerous journal articles, mainly focusing on Christian virtue ethics. Dr. West received his PhD from Baylor, under Dr. Roberts’ supervision, earlier this year and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grove City College. His papers on virtue ethics have appeared in journals including Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Synthese, and Faith and Philosophy.

Jesus and the Virtues of Pride

Robert C. Roberts and Ryan West

We are grateful for the opportunity to participate in this virtual colloquium. Our paper, “Jesus and the Virtues of Pride,” is to be included in an interdisciplinary volume on pride edited by Adam Carter and Emma Gordon as part of Rowman & Littlefield’s forthcoming series, Moral Psychology of the Emotions (series editor, Mark Alfano). This is the penultimate draft, and we welcome your feedback. Here’s a sketch of the project.

It is commonly thought that humility and pride are traits that repel each other. And so they are, but only in a qualified sense. We propose that there are both virtuous and vicious forms of both humility and pride, and that only some of these are mutually repelling. More specifically, we argue that virtuous pride and virtuous humility are in fact mutually reinforcing, even as each is opposed to both vicious pride and vicious humility. We make our case by offering conceptual analyses of several sub-species of the four classes just mentioned, giving special attention to the presence or absence of those traits in the character of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we take to be an exemplar not only of virtuous humility, but also of virtuous pride.

We take virtuous humility to consist in the intelligent absence of the vices of pride. The latter encompass three general areas of human selfhood: the self as agent, as having special entitlements or privileges, and as a self among other selves. The third area admits division, so we group the pride vices into five species:

  1. The prides of distorted agency (selfish ambition, domination, and hyper- autonomy);
  2. The prides of corrupt entitlement (arrogance and presumptuousness);
  3. The prides of empty self-display (vanity and pretentiousness);
  4. The prides of invidious comparison (snobbery, self-righteousness, invidious pride, and envy); and
  5. The prides of tribal superiority (racism, sexism, ethnicism, homophobia, etc.).

We suggest that people with the vices of pride are concerned to have a kind of importance, which, in a way that deviates somewhat from common usage, we call self-importance. The drive for self-importance is exemplified in such things as using one’s agency for personal importance independently of the real value of one’s actions, taking over others’ proper agency, and eschewing others’ contributions to one’s own agency; having entitlements beyond what is proper to one; getting the (usually) positive regard of others in abstraction from what is actually excellent; and being superior to others and having others be inferior to oneself, either individually or in tribal terms. Virtuous humility, then, comes in a number of varieties: there is the lack of vanity, the lack of snobbery, the lack of domination, and so on.

The three areas of human selfhood just noted—the self as agent, as entitled, and as a self among other selves—are generic and unavoidable in the constitution of selfhood. They are fundamental aspects of human life that bear on individuals’ importance—not just the false value of self-importance, but the real importance of persons. People can be important for what they do, for what they are entitled to, and in virtue of their relations to one another. Also, these three belong intimately together, because they all intersect. The virtues of pride—traits like self-confidence, secure agency, aspiration, pride in one’s work, sense of dignity, self-respect, personal authority, pride in associates, group belonging, and secure collegiality—are excellences with respect to the same dimensions of character with respect to which the vices of pride are defects.

If virtuous pride is a positive self-construal in terms of one’s agency, one’s dignity, or one’s entitlements, it would seem to encourage virtuous humility in a special way, namely, by being a proper and genuine satisfaction of a basic human need of which the vices of pride are a perverse and false satisfaction. The fact that the vices of pride speak to the same psychological need as the virtues of pride marks the special intimacy between them. We illustrate this point by exploring the presence of several virtues of pride in the New Testament presentation of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, we suggest that we can discern in the teaching of Jesus that he encourages his disciples to imitate him in many of these respects.

Finally, we suggest that virtuous pride and virtuous humility are each contrary not only to vicious pride, but also to what we call vicious humility. The latter finds expression in traits like deep shame, servility, and a variety of other unrealistically low dispositional self-construals.

That is a basic outline of the conceptual scheme of pride and humility we develop. In the paper, we offer several narrative examples to illustrate the nuances of each trait and their interrelations with one another. We also defend our view against some objections. We welcome the opportunity to explain and/or defend ourselves here as well. Thank you in advance for your feedback.

The complete paper is here. Comments welcome below!

Violation of freedom of conscience
June 21, 2012 — 7:03

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 5

Here are two plausible necessary conditions for a law to violate freedom of religion or freedom of conscience:

  1. Legislation L violates x’s freedom of religion only if L requires x to do something that is contrary to the requirements of x’s religion.
  2. Legislation L violates x’s freedom of conscience only if L requires x to do something that is contrary to the requirements of x’s conscience.

I am pretty sure that (1) is false, and am inclined to think (2) is false as well. (Let me specify that I am using “legislation” to mean something like a putatively authoritative enactment of an authority. The reason I say “putatively” is that I want to allow for legislation that is so unreasonably that it is null and void, has no authority. Aquinas will say such legislation–my term, not his–is not a law.)

Let me start with (1). There is a simple counterexample. Consider legislation prohibiting public religious worship on Saturdays. Such legislation seems to be a paradigm of legislation that violates the religious freedom of Jews. But it is my understanding (and if the understanding is flawed, just make this a hypothetical) that Judaism does not require public worship on Saturdays–the requirements of prayer do not have to be fulfilled in Synagogue worship. Hence (1) is false.

Now consider (2). Suppose that Sam is a typical vegetarian on grounds of conscience. Now, consider legislation M1 that requires everyone to eat meat on New Year’s Eve, under penalty of a week in jail. This legislation is a paradigmatic case of a law that violates Sam’s freedom of conscience. (Note: I am not taking it to be clear that “violates x’s freedom of conscience” entails that the legislation is unjustified; obviously that legislation violates someone’s freedom of conscience is a strong reason against having such legislation, but since consciences can be mistaken in all sorts of spectacular ways, there may be times where such legislation is justified.) But note that except in really weird scenarios, M1 isn’t like that.)

But now consider legislation M2 that is just like M1, except that now the penalty is death. Surely if M1 violates Sam’s freedom of conscience, so does M2. But Sam is a typical vegetarian. And typical vegetarians, I think, hold that it is permissible to eat meat when the alternative is death. Thus, M2 does not require Sam to do anything that is contrary to the requirements of his conscience: it requires him to eat meat, but eating meat is permissible given M2.


Another argument against divine command theory
September 1, 2011 — 9:02

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: ,   Comments: 11

A standard line of objection against divine command theories is centered on the counterfactual:

  1. Even if God commanded it, torturing the innocent would be wrong.

But here it is extremely plausible that the antecedent is necessarily false–that God cannot command torture of the innocent. There is still a line of argument against divine command theories that continues past this roadblock, but I think it fizzles out.

But if we replace “God commanded it” with “God didn’t forbid it”, we actually get a much stronger argument. Actually, let’s avoid counterfactuals, since we don’t understand them well enough. We can give this argument:

  1. (Premise) Necessarily, torturing the innocent is wrong.
  2. (Premise) Possibly, God does not forbid torturing the innocent.
  3. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, then it is the case that: necessarily, something is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by God.
  4. Therefore, divine command theory is not true.

The argument is valid. Premise (2) is pretty plausible. It is justified by the same kinds of intuitions as (1) was. Premise (4) is uncontroversial, though it highlights the fact that the argument is specifically being aimed at divine command theories. Pure divine will theories are unaffected by the argument.

Interestingly, I think that if the argument works, it continues to work even if one replaces “God” with “a loving God”, as in Robert M. Adams divine command theory.

The big question now is with regard to (3). A quick move to defend (3) is this. Possibly, God creates a world with no agents other than himself. In such a world, God wouldn’t have any reason to issue any commands. So, possibly, there is a world with no agents other than God where no such commands have been issued. (Maybe you might object that God can issue a command to himself. But why would he need to? After all, the same loving character that might lead him to issue such a command would lead him to refrain from torturing the innocent.)

Now, this particular argument might make one worry that the assent to (2) was too quick. Perhaps instead the divine command theorist should have said:

  1. Necessarily, for every created agent x, it is wrong for x to torture the innocent.

However, I don’t think the quantification in (2) should be restricted to created agents.

But suppose we do grant such a restriction. I think my argument can be rescued. Add:

  1. (Premise) Possibly, there is a created agent x who is not forbidden to torture the innocent.
  2. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, necessarily: for every created agent x and action-type A, A is wrong for x if and only if A is forbidden to x.
  3. So divine command theory is false. (By 6-8)


Fearing God
September 4, 2010 — 12:37

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 11

The Bible refers to the “fear of God” as a good thing.
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded, “Fear the LORD your God and serve him… “(10:20)
David prays “Teach me your ways, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
In Proverbs, it says, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30).
Jesus warns, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5).
Multiple questions arise.
1) Textual questions: Are the above Biblical writers talking about the same sort of mental state? Whether they are talking about the same thing or not, what do they mean? Is what they are talking about close in meaning to what we mean in ordinary English if were to say that a person ought to fear another person?
2) Textual-to-Normativity Question: Given that we can accurately grasp what the above writers are referring to, what sort of normativity is being ascribed? Is it prudential or moral (or both or something else)? Given that we grasp which sort of normativity is being ascribed, are the statements true? Why?
3) A-Specific-Normativity Question: This question makes specific what was described in (2). Suppose that they are making moral statements and suppose that by “fear” they mean “being afraid of”. Is it indeed true that it’s a morally good state off affairs to be afraid of God?
Against a positive answer to the question in (3), Russ Shafer-Landau criticizes,


The first sin and compatibilism
April 1, 2010 — 8:01

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Christian Theology Divine Foreknowledge Divine Providence Free Will Problem of Evil Theological Fatalism Virtue  Comments: 33

Begin with this plausible principle:

  1. If x is necessitated by his internal state and the circumstances to do something wrong, then either (a) x’s character was in some way vicious prior to the action or (b) x is not culpable for the wrong (or both).

This principle is one that both compatibilists and incompatibilists can accept. Hume certainly accepts it, because he thinks we are culpable insofar as our actions reveal our vicious character. We can imagine cases where an internal state that is in no way vicious necessitates a wrongful action. For instance, one might justifiably believe that some action A is right, and one’s virtuous character might necessitate one to do what one believes to be right, but objectively A is wrong. However, in that case, one is not culpable for A. If there is nothing vicious in x’s character, and the character necessitates an action, it is hard to see how the action could be a culpable action.

But now add these premises:

  1. The first sin was culpable.
  2. The internal state of the first sinner was in no way vicious prior to the first sin. (The goodness of creation)

It follows from (1)-(3) that:

  1. The first sinner’s first sin was not necessitated by his internal state and the circumstances.


Anselm on the badness of sin
December 16, 2009 — 10:51

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Virtue  Comments: 14

St. Anselm believes that the least of our sins puts us in an infinite debt to God and is infinitely bad. Anselm’s own argument for this thesis is uses some implicit premises. Here is my best reconstruction:

  1. (Premise) To sin is to oppose the will of God.
  2. (Premise) If it is not permissible to do A in order to preserve a good G, then A is at least as bad as the loss of G.
  3. (Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God “even to preserve the whole of creation”, even “if there were more worlds as full of beings as this”, and even if “they increased to an infinite extent”.
  4. (Premise) The badness of the loss of the whole of creation if the whole of creation consisted of planets as full of beings as Earth and increased to an infinite extent would be infinite.
  5. (Premise) If something is at least as bad as an infinite bad, then it’s infinitely bad.
  6. To oppose the will of God is at least as bad as something infinitely bad. (2, 3 and 4)
  7. To oppose the will of God is infinitely bad. (5 and 6)
  8. Every sin is infinitely bad. (1 and 7)
  9. (Premise) To do something infinitely bad puts us in infinite debt.
  10. Every sin sin is infinitely bad and puts us in infinite debt. (8 and 9)


Forgiven Already?
November 12, 2008 — 10:45

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 70

I’m afraid that the answer to my question might be obvious; if so, then it’ll be answered quickly!
I come from a Christian background which told me that God has forgiven all of my sins, past, present, and future. I also come from a background which tells me that I should ask God for forgiveness. I also have the background belief that it’s not the case that you should ask for what you already have. These beliefs seem to me to conflict. Let’s be more precise.


February 24, 2008 — 10:19

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 13

In Revelation, we learn that the angels are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty!” We speak of “holy men” and there might be a “holy moment”. We strive for “personal holiness”.
I’ve always had difficulty getting a grasp of this concept. Sometimes, it seems that “holiness” is used synonymously with “moral purity” or “sinlessness”. I’ve also heard “being holy” equated with “being wholly other or set apart or different”, but what’s that supposed to mean?
As a first approximation, x is holy iff x is really, really morally good. But this feels like its lacking. Any ideas?

John Hare on Religion and Morality
September 30, 2006 — 20:34

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Divine Command Links Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: Off

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy added another philosophy of religion entry this week: John Hare’s contribution on Religion and Morality. It’s a lot more historical than I expected, and it has a lot less detail on the contemporary issues, with only one paragraph of eleven sentences on the issues in contemporary analytic philosophy. But it seems like a good historical guide to a number of issues too often ignored in many historical introductions to ethics.