Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls

Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls is a spirited defense of both the moral argument (MA) for God’s existence and a specific version of Divine Command Theory (DCT). The MA claims that morality is based in God and DCTs attempt to specify how morality is based in God. While the book briefly addresses the that question, the bulk is devoted to answering the how question.

Baggett and Walls make very clear that the kind of God one believes in affects the plausibility of both the MA and DCT. The authors affirm the existence not only of God, but of God as the Greatest Possible Being (GPB)—that is, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and necessary (existing in all possible worlds). This view of God as the GPB informs the rest of the book.

In addressing the that question, the authors draw upon both theistic and nontheistic moral philosophy to construct a version of the MA. The end result is striking: adopting a theistically-based morality allows one to not only retain the strong points from the nontheistic approaches, but also to remedy their defects. Some version of God-based morality thus appears quite plausible.

In addressing the how question, the authors propose a few very important distinctions. The first is the distinction between what is good (morally permissible) and what is right (morally obligatory). They maintain that it is impossible for God to control what is good but that it is possible for God to control what is right. They also propose the ‘depend/control’ distinction: it is possible for A to depend upon B without B controlling A. Both of these distinctions become crucial when assessing how their DCT fares in the face of various objections, all of which derive from the famous Euthyphro Dilemma (ED).

The ED confronts the theistic ethicist with two unpalatable options: Is something good because God wills it, or does he will it because it is good? If the former option (known as ‘voluntarism’) is taken, this seems to make ‘good’ an arbitrary thing, dependent on God’s whim. If the latter option (‘nonvoluntarism’) is taken, this seems to make goodness something independent of God, which undercuts God’s status as the ontologically ultimate substance.
The authors acknowledge that some versions of DCT (like that allegedly espoused by William of Ockham) are vulnerable to the ED. However, they maintain that their version is not.
The challenge to our theory of the good will be to show that moral goodness is not independent of God after all, despite the fact that it is independent of God’s commands, and the main task for our deontic theory of moral obligations will be to show that an appeal to the authority of divine commands doesn’t fall prey to the typical problems affecting Ockhamistic voluntarism.(p.47 Kindle edition)
A skeptic might challenge their nonvoluntaristic theory of the good by first asking “So if God commanded us to torture innocent children for fun, that would become good?” The typical theist answer is that (a) God wouldn’t so command and further (b) God couldn’t, given His necessarily and essential good nature. The common skeptical retort is that this means that the truth of “It is not good to torture innocent children for fun” is beyond God’s control and so cannot depend on God.

Such an assertion seems to conflate necessity (unavoidably existing) with aseity (existing independently). The authors reject such conflation and propose an alternative, drawing upon the ‘divine ideas’ tradition of St. Augustine. In essence, they propose that although moral truths are not dependent on God’s commands, they are dependent on God himself for their very existence. As the GPB, God exists in all possible worlds. As an omniscient being, he thinks all true propositions…including moral truths like “It is not good to torture innocent children for fun”. As the necessary thought of a necessarily existing being, this moral truth is itself necessary. Nonetheless, the truth would not exist without God existing.

However, God cannot change the truth of that proposition because its truth is rooted in his own immutable nature. For those who protest limiting God in this fashion, the authors note that Scripture itself says that God cannot lie. This is not a limitation on God’s part, but simply implied by lacking an imperfection. (As the GPB, God lacks all imperfections. Hence, not only can he not lie, he cannot fail to know or think a truth.) Thus, the dependence/control distinction comes into play. Although God does not control such truths, such truths do depend on him for their very existence.

The authors defend their voluntaristic view of the right by noting the factors which lead us to ascribe authority to someone: power, knowledge, and moral integrity and character. As the GPB, God possesses all of these to the maximal degree, and is thus the most plausible (in fact, the necessary) stopping point for objective moral obligation.

The implications of God as the GPB carry over into other areas as well. The authors do a marvelous job of showing how only God as the GPB can make sense of our moral outrage: if there is no God then there is no proper object of our outrage, if there is contingent God of goodness but limited power our outrage cannot be grounded in the idea that evil is ultimately deviant, etc.

In an appendix, the authors also show how God as a GPB makes utterly vacuous various various skeptical critiques of DCT. For example, atheists sometimes acknowledge that God couldn’t and wouldn’t command that we torture innocent children for fun. Still, they say, the fact that if God did command rape that would make it right is a blow against DCT.

One response to this is to say that a conditional statement with an impossible antecedent is not worth addressing. But much stronger objections are leveled by Baggett and Walls, drawing upon God as the GPB. First, atheistic proponents of these arguments seem to take for granted that we finite humans could perceive necessary truths as necessary. It is not clear how such a thing would be true given atheism. However, God as a GPB does make sense of our ability to apprehend such necessary truths. (Bear in mind the earlier discussion of dependence/control: God as the GPB also explains the existence of such necessary truths). Further, God as a GPB makes total nonsense out of any thought experiment which posits a world with moral truths but no God. Why? Because God is the GPB, the source of all existence-the world as well as moral truths. Asking us to envision a reality with the conditions of that reality (world and moral truths) removed is arguably incoherent. This approach thus doubly fails.

This, then, is the core argument of the book: that a properly constructed theistically-based morality not only makes clear that God as a GPB and morality are intertwined, but how they are intertwined. Further, God as a GPB grounds the existence of necessary moral truths, makes sense of how we would come to know such truths, and shows how it is not only impossible but logically incoherent to posit such necessary moral truths without the existence of a GPB.

All in all, Good God is a marvelous book, lively in presentation, clear in argumentation, and profound in insight. It is therefore highly recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology. More of his writing can be found at


Anonymous said...

I had a pleasure of reading this book and must say that the reviewer has done a fantastic job at clearly presenting the main thrust of this profound work. This book truly deserves a place on the shelf alongside After Virtue, Finite and Infinite Goods, etc. in a library of anyone interested in area of ethics.

blogGNOSIS said...

Thanks for posting this! I'm writing on DCT as we speak, and this book will be a valuable resource.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice review! GB

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