April 15, 2012
Keeping Moral Epistemology and Moral Ontology Distinct
I have been debating several atheists regarding the existence of objective moral values being grounded in God. I have been doing quite well avoiding the red herring of moral epistemology and have managed to keep the debate to moral ontology. Now I am stuck and need your help.
Quoting you in a debate with Dr. Harris you said, "Theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral duties. On a theistic view, objective moral duties are constituted by God's commands. God's moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments. These constitute our moral obligations."
By saying this, is not one already providing an argument for Revealed Theology and thus making an argument for moral epistemology? That is, unless divine commandments don't come through Revealed Theology.
Please help, I don't know how to wiggle out of this one. It seems I am trapped into having to discuss moral epistemology now.
As I explain in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, it is vitally important in discussing moral arguments for God’s existence to distinguish clearly various areas of Moral Theory:1
The claim that moral values and duties are rooted in God is a Meta-Ethical claim about Moral Ontology, not about Moral Linguistics or Epistemology. It is fundamentally a claim about the objective status of moral properties, not a claim about the meaning of moral sentences or about the justification or knowledge of moral principles.
I’m convinced that keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear is the most important task in formulating and defending a moral argument for God’s existence of the type I defend. A proponent of that argument will agree quite readily (and even insist) that we do not need to know or even believe that God exists in order to discern objective moral values or to recognize our moral duties. Affirming the ontological foundations of objective moral values and duties in God similarly says nothing about how we come to know those values and duties. The theist can be genuinely open to whatever epistemological theories his secular counterpart proposes for how we come to know objective values and duties.
So I am delighted that you have been keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear in your discussions with non-theists. If you maintain a firm grasp on that distinction, I think you can readily see the answer to your question: “By saying [that objective moral duties are constituted by God's commands], is not one already providing an argument for Revealed Theology and thus making an argument for moral epistemology?” So saying will, indeed, imply that one of the ways we could come to know our moral duties is via a (scriptural) revelation of God’s commands. But that isn’t to say that the only way of coming to know our moral duties is through such a means. As Paul says, “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Romans 2.14-15).
The salient point is that God’s commands constitute our moral duties. That is a claim of moral ontology. How we come to know our moral duties is a matter of moral epistemology and is irrelevant to the argument. There’s nothing to wriggle out of.
1 See Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Moral Skepticism and Justification,” in Moral Knowledge?, ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 4-5.