C. Stephen Evans. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

John Rabe was a German businessman working in Nanjing, China in 1937 when it became clear that the advancing Japanese army was soon to overrun the city. Given the notorious reputation of the Japanese for brutality, the obvious course of action beckoned: flee the war-torn country by retreating to the safety of the West. But instead, Rabe reflected as follows:

“under such circumstances can I, may I, cut and run? I don’t think so. Anyone who has ever sat in the dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand through the long hours of an air raid can understand what I feel. The rich are fleeing, the poor remain behind. They don’t know where to go. They don’t have the means to flee. Aren’t they in danger of being slaughtered in great numbers? Shouldn’t one make an attempt to help them? There’s a question of morality here. And so far, I haven’t been able to sidestep it.” (Transcribed from a dramatized reading of Rabe’s testimony in the documentary Nanking.)

Rabe’s certainly correct. There is a moral question here. But what kind of question is it?

Rabe’s question of morality appears to be deontological in nature: that is, he senses an obligation to help those whose lives are placed under threat, even though action would place himself in imminent peril. It is an obligation so strong that it led Rabe to forgo the extremely powerful drive for self-preservation, thereby choosing to remain behind, facing the advancing Japanese armies, a courageous act that would help save untold numbers of Chinese civilians in the process.

An Overview of God and Moral Obligation

In God and Moral Obligation philosopher C. Stephen Evans seeks to provide an account of the nature and origin of moral obligations such as those that led Rabe to remain behind. Evans argues that the proper understanding of such obligations is theological in nature: “God is the ground of moral obligations and a crucial part of the explanation of such obligations.” (2)

The argument begins in chapter 1 where Evans introduces the concept of moral obligation.

“Many find the existence of such things as moral obligations that are distinct from our feelings and beliefs odd or strange. How do they arise? How do we account for such obligations?” (7)

We can have a range of obligations (e.g. prudential, legal) (10), but moral obligations have distinct characteristics, about which more anon. Moreover, moral obligations for action should not be confused with reasons for action since one can have a powerful reason to act without having a moral obligation to act (9).

Evans notes several unique characteristics of moral obligation: it is objective in nature (i.e. it is not merely a subjective perception), it bears a verdict-like quality (i.e. either you have an obligation or you don’t), the presence of a moral obligation provides an overriding and motivating call to action: “A moral obligation therefore is something that has the function of bringing reflection to closure” (13), failure to follow one’s obligations leaves one accountable for a moral failure, and moral obligations have a universal scope such that they apply to us as persons. Evans summarizes these qualities as follows:

“they involve a kind of verdict on an action, they make it possible to bring reflection on action to closure and make a decision about the action by providing a decisive reason for action, they are the kinds of things people are rightly held responsible for doing or omitting, and they hold for human persons just as human persons.” (15)

These qualities unique to moral obligation are borne out in Rabe’s testimony: he had every reason to retreat from Nanjing, but the overwhelming force of his perceived moral obligations kept him living among these oppressed peoples. It was not merely that Rabe had good reasons or non-moral obligations to stay behind: Rather, this was simply the right thing to do.

So just what are moral obligations? Where do they come from? What is their nature? Evans argues that we should understand moral obligations to constitute divine requirements for right living. Evans agrees on this point with Robert Adams that moral obligations are identical to the commands of an essentially good and loving God.

It is important to understand that Evans is not attempting to argue that all moral truths (including, for example, moral values) are identical with an aspect of the divine will. Indeed, leading contemporary defenders of divine command theory (henceforth DCT) accept a prior conception of the Good. For example, Robert Adams accepts Platonism while John Hare accepts an Aristotelian conception. Evans is content to presuppose some theory of the Good to account for the fact that God is essentially good; his argument is limited to the origin of moral obligation.

So what are these objective demands that stand over us and call us to action? In chapter 2 Evans presents his thesis: moral obligations are identical to divine commands. A theory of moral obligations should explain their objectivity (we can be wrong about our obligations), their compelling reasons for action, the resulting motivation to action and their universality, all of which are evident in Rabe’s case. Evans argues that DCT meets each of these criteria: objectivity is rooted in the divine command, compelling reasons for action in our end to enjoy relationship with God, the motivation to action is explained as we owe an infinite debt of gratitude toward God, and the universality is grounded in our universal creation in the divine image and relationship to God (32).

God has some discretion in what he commands: “For example, arguably God might well have commanded every human, after reaching maturity, to spend some period of time, such as two years, doing some kind of service to their fellow humans.” (33) Had God commanded this action it would become a moral obligation. While God has some discretion, his commands are still constrained by the nature of the Good such that some commands are commanded necessarily.

Advocates of DCT differ on the extent to which God has the ability to issue commands counterfactual to what he has, in fact, commanded. But the theory is committed to what Evans calls the “modal status thesis” according to which all acts that God does command acquire a special moral status in virtue of that command (35).

We should not think of divine commands as all consisting of imperatives. Rather, Evans uses the term more broadly to encompass all instances where God communicates his will for action to human beings (38). But how does he communicate that will? How do we become aware of God’s commands? There are a variety of possible ways. Of course, God could communicate his commands through special revelation. But given that virtually all people grasp moral obligations, we need to find a general way that God’s commands would be communicated. Evans discusses several possible ways to learn obligations including formal rational reflection, the instruction of other human beings, and the voice of conscience.

Evans defines conscience as “a faculty whereby humans can immediately discern the rightness or wrongness of particular acts or of general principles about how one should act….” (41) A theist can think that God provided human beings with this cognitive faculty as a source for immediately justified epistemic beliefs. This does not mean that conscience is infallible. Our conscience can often lead us astray. Nonetheless, it does provide a beginning point of ethical knowledge, including a grasp of moral obligations:

“Moral intuitions … can be compared to mathematical insights, which are arguably grounded in a natural human capacity, but which clearly require some nurture and education to be actualized.” (43)

Since one grasps divine commands through generally available means like conscience, it follows that divine command ethics is not “sectarian”, i.e. it does not require particular theological beliefs or a particular relationship with God or membership in a particular belief community. One can readily grasp divine commands even if one does not recognize them as divine commands. This is important because it means that Evans’ metaethic is not religiously sectarian: one can grasp moral obligations and reason from them regardless of whether one recognizes them to be divine commands or not.

In chapter 3 Evans argues that DCT is not necessarily in opposition to natural law and virtue theories of ethics. Indeed, he argues that properly understood the relationship between these three theories is a harmonious one: DCT presupposes a theory of the Good as one finds in natural law theory, and a conception of virtues as the end of the adherence to moral obligation.

In natural law goods are commonly understood as that which completes one’s nature or contributes to one’s flourishing (61). DCT receives a conception of the good from natural law whilst providing in return a robust account of moral obligation that is otherwise absent from natural law.

Evans argues that DCT introduces a unique relationship between God and creature which brings with it social dimensions that encompass relational obligations with respect to divine authority. For example, it is proper to express gratitude toward God. (64) Further, there is a unique goodness in being in relation to God and divine commands could be a means of facilitating that relationship. Third, as the sole creator of all things, God has unique natural (property) rights over all things. (Evans argues that God’s property rights extend to created persons given his unique status as creator and sustainer of all and his perfect exemplification of the Good.)

Natural law theorists tend to assume that the establishment of the Good secures the right, i.e. that once God creates particular essences with specific natures, the proper set of moral obligations that they bear or that are borne toward them follows ineluctably. Evans is willing to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that this is the case. In other words, he sets aside the discretion thesis according to which God counterfactually could secure other moral obligations than do in fact obtain. Nonetheless, he insists that the modal status thesis still applies: i.e. divine commands still add to and enrich our understanding of moral obligations:

“One may hold that then that the content of what God commands is determined by the created natures He has chosen to give things, but still hold that what one might call the perceptorial force of the morally right is due to God’s commands.” (69)

Next, Evans turns to the relationship between DCT and virtue theory. He defines virtue theory as focused on the acquisition of “long term dispositional states of character” (74) such as courage, kindness, and mercy. This is fully compatible with the thesis that moral obligations exist and are identical to divine commands. Thus, there is no incompatibility per se between an ethic of virtue and an ethic of duty (though certain versions of virtue theory may be incompatible with DCT and vice versa). Evans then offers a critical response to some virtue theories that attempt to eliminate distinct moral obligation. He concludes: “There certainly are versions of virtue ethics that are incompatible with a DCT. However, it seems that these versions are less plausible than their less-extreme counterparts.” (80)

The mainstream Christian tradition has long linked the observation of moral obligation to the cultivation of moral virtue. Indeed, “a passionate concern and desire to live in accordance with one’s duties is itself recognized by most people as one of the virtues.” (82) Evans suggests that “moral duties might have as a part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such [virtuous] persons.” (84) This seems right to me. Just as the musician gains skill through a disciplined practice schedule, so the moral agent gains virtue through a disciplined attention to moral duties.

To sum up, DCT is not itself a complete ethic; rather, it builds on a conception of the Good rooted in natural law and of personal ethical formation directed toward virtue (87).

Evans turns to discuss the main objections to DCT in chapter 4. The most pervasive objections are concerned with Plato’s venerable Euthyphro dilemma: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” (cited in 89) Evans agrees that the Euthyphro presents “grave difficulties” for any ethical theory that seeks to ground all moral properties (e.g. moral values) in the divine will. However, as we have noted, contemporary versions of DCT such as Evans defends restrict the theory to obligations and the range of possible obligations is set by the nature of the Good.

Other critics present another version of the Euthyphro objection by arguing that even if God couldn’t command an evil act, it still follows counterfactually that if he had commanded an evil act, we would have had a moral obligation to carry out that act. And this, the objector insists, is absurd (92-3). Evans replies by appealing to Alexander Pruss’ point that the same objection can be presented to every metaethical theory, thereby rendering the objection trivial (93-4).

Next, Evans considers the objection that divine command theory undermines human autonomy in moral reasoning. In response, Evans points out that DCT does not commit one to any particular view of ethical reasoning. It only seeks to provide an account of the nature of ethical obligations however it may be that we come to know them.

From there Evans carefully considers four more objections: the prior obligations objection (98-101), the supervenience objection (101-106), the mysterious relationship objection (106-110) and the promulgation objection (110-117). According to the promulgation objection as developed by philosopher Erik Wielenberg, one must be aware that a command comes from God for it to constitute an obligation. Evans denies the claim, to my mind rightly: “it is possible for a reasonable non-believer to recognize a moral obligation without realizing that the obligation is in fact a divine command.” (112-113)

Evans begins chapter 5 with the observation that “philosophical theories are often assessed not in absolute terms but relative to competitors.” (118) And with that, he devotes the chapter to a close examination of the major competitors to DCT including error theory (“the argument from queerness that Mackie mounts is only effective against naturalistic metaethical views” (121)), expressivism (it “undermines the authority of moral judgments” (126)), relativistic social contract (“the authority of morality is undermined” (131)), ideal social agreement (“What authority do the decisions of these hypothetical contactors have over actual individuals?” (136)), and Korsgaard’s constructivism (Without an objective basis for obligations, “it is hard to see what is wrong with the person whose identity is suffused with racist or nationalist or sexist notions…” (145).)

Evans concludes the chapter with a look at sensibility theories, ethical naturalism, and ethical non-naturalism. Ethical non-naturalism treats all moral facts as brute facts irreducible to the natural. Ultimately this view tends to back up into Platonism a move that brings it perilously close to a religious worldview:

“It seems almost irresistible for a Platonist to ask what the fact that moral are deep truths about the universe says about the nature of ultimate reality. Platonism itself in some ways makes the world mysterious and posits features of the world that cry out for explanation. Many theists in fact have thought that Platonism itself makes far more sense in a theistic universe than it does otherwise, since in a theistic world the Forms do not have to be seen as independent realities but can be understood as Ideas in the divine mind.”  (153-154)

Evans makes only passing reference to the idea that Platonic forms could be understood as divine ideas. This thesis was first developed by Augustine and was revitalized in contemporary philosophy of religion with the publication of Morris and Menzel’s 1986 paper “Absolute Creation” in American Philosophical Quarterly. Though the thesis remains controversial (along with most things in metaphysics), it may hold the best prospect for grounding the Good itself in the divine nature.

Regardless, at least two things are clear: first, Platonism does not comport well with naturalism (in other words, those who believe in eternal, timeless, abstract forms lose any right to dismiss God as metaphysically extravagant), and second, theism offers a distinct epistemological advantage when it comes to our ability to grasp abstract moral properties as they are exemplified in spacetime.

In the final chapter Evans engages those who are sympathetic with much of his analysis but who are, nonetheless, incredulous to the conclusion that God belongs in our moral theories. For example, a person could accept Evans’ argument but then use it as a reductio against the existence of moral obligations (155).

In response, Evans devotes the final chapter to addressing some lingering issues including the hiddenness objection (158). Further, he challenges the skeptic to consider closely the powerful and nearly universal experience of moral obligation: “a good case can be made that moral obligations are experienced as objective; they seem to have the kind of objectivity we associate with ‘facts’.” (160) According to the principle of credulity, this experience of objectivity should be accepted as veridical unless we have a strong defeater to it. Evans then appeals to Terence Cuneo and David Enoch’s recent defenses of moral realism. Finally, Evans turns to a discussion of moral intuition as a cognitive faculty. With that he concludes the book:

“My aim in this work has been to encourage contemporary thinkers to take seriously the role that divine authority might play in morality, and thereby perhaps to think seriously about the reality of God.” (184)

Concluding Thoughts

Evans has written a great book, one that maintains a fine balance between academic rigor (God and Moral Obligation could serve as a graduate level text) and general accessibility to the educated lay reader. Evans eschews overly technical discussion while exemplifying the best virtues of analytic philosophy: clear, concise argument unencumbered by excessive rhetoric or emotion.

I suspect Evans’ argument may leave some theistic philosophers underwhelmed. After all, the core of his argument, as summarized in the “modal status thesis”, forwards the relatively modest claim that moral obligations attain a special status in virtue of being divine commands which they would not have otherwise. For those who envision a more robust divine role in ethics, this might seem to be a rather modest accomplishment in close to two hundred pages.

To such naysayers I have two responses. First, a modest thesis well defended is far more valuable than a bold vision that collapses under the weight of its ambition. Second, one should keep in mind that Evans’ own DCT proposal is enriched substantially by his ecumenical olive branch to natural law and virtue theory and his pointed critiques of other major ethical theories.

In my view, the book’s greatest weakness is a failure to explore sufficiently detailed real world instances of perceived moral obligation as a basis for subsequent analysis. The single greatest strength of Evans’ theory may be the immediate experience of moral obligation as in the Rabe case with which I opened this review. Carefully summarizing a few well chosen cases like this would have provided an excellent platform on which to build his case.

I think the book would also benefit from a distinction between general moral obligations to many and particular moral obligations given to a few, specific obligations that we might dub moral callings. Imagine, for example, a grade school teacher who has to leave the classroom temporarily to fetch a textbook. She tells the entire class “Now be good while I am gone.” Then she turns to young Owen and says, “Owen, you’re in charge while I’m gone. Make sure that nobody misbehaves.” The teacher has given a general obligation to all the students to behave. But she has also bestowed upon Owen an additional obligation to oversee the behavior of the entire class. It seems to me that the personal and specified nature of Owen’s obligation warrants a unique designation of moral calling.

This brings me back to the case of John Rabe. One could read Rabe’s musings as reflecting the conviction that every expatriate was morally obliged to remain behind and stand in solidarity with the oppressed in analogy to every person in the class being commanded to behave. But another way to read his comments would point to the conviction that specific individuals were called to this higher act of supererogation to stand in solidarity with the oppressed in analogy to the one student, Owen, receiving a special call to ensure that no other children misbehave.

It seems to me implausible to conclude that every single expatriate had a moral duty to remain in Nanjing, a conclusion which would entail that those who fled were engaged in an immoral flouting of their moral duty. But it does seem plausible to conclude that particular individuals like John Rabe sensed a particular moral obligation to stand with the oppressed masses of Nanjing.

History is replete with individuals who sense a moral calling from Mother Teresa and Maximilian Kolbe to John Rabe to the brilliant young lawyer who forgoes a lucrative career to work for the Innocence Project simply because “It’s the right thing to do.” These cases are especially intriguing because they involve several of the criteria that Evans attributes to moral obligation — the definitive verdict on action, the closure of reflection, the desicive reason to act, personal responsibility for failure to act — but they are not generalized to human persons just as persons. Rather, they are unique person-specific callings. We are apt to designate such actions supererogatory and praiseworthy but those who perform them are apt to downplay their actions as merely fulfilling a personal duty or calling.

The unique person-specific nature of moral calling is even more suggestive of an agent (and thus theistic) explanation, i.e. someone is calling me. Consequently, I think that analysis of moral calling as a distinct type of obligation would have strengthened Evans’ case. Regardless, God and Moral Obligation is a stellar contribution to a fascinating field of discussion.

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