Matthew O’Brien and Robert Miller have continued the discussion over moral absolutes and the role of God in moral theory and practice, raising several interesting issues. My final contribution to this conversation will address only two of those issues, namely, from Miller’s essay, the role that “natural causation” plays in thinking about absolutes, and, from O’Brien’s, the nature and role of divine commands.
O’Brien gives us a “pithy summary” of Thomas Aquinas’s ethics by quoting from the Summa Contra Gentiles: “We do not offend God unless we act contrary to our own nature.” That is indeed a good summary of much contemporary Thomistic ethics, according to which we consult our nature for the content of moral norms, and God’s commands for the obligatory force of those norms. And it is a rare point of disagreement between O’Brien and myself, since I agree with him on many things: that there would be no morality without God; that part of morality involves giving God what is due to Him; that in the absence of divine revelation it would be difficult to adhere to absolute moral norms in situations of emergency; that God has legitimate authority; and that His commands “make perspicuous” what we ought and ought not to do.
But we get a better picture of Aquinas’s ethics if we accurately quote Thomas, who writes that we do not offend God “unless we act contrary to our own good,” (nisi ex eo quod contra nostrum bonum agimus). This situates ethics squarely on a foundation of human good, rather than human nature, which is a good thing, since human goods give reasons for action in a way that “conformity with human nature” does not. It becomes intelligible why absolutely impermissible actions are never to be done, since in themselves (i.e., apart from their consequences) such actions are intended to do nothing but damage, destroy, or thwart basic goods, basic aspects of human well-being.
How are those goods related to our final end? It is difficult to see how if one takes our natural end as human beings to be the beatific vision. Better, in my view, is the idea that our natural end is life in communion with all persons, enjoying and pursuing all the goods of persons. We know by revelation that this end will be realized in the Kingdom of Heaven in a way it can never be on earth; but that end provides a focal point for human willing even now: willing that is compatible with such a final end is upright, but willing that is not so compatible is deficient, disordered.
Here we see a great difference between my account of absolutes and Miller’s. Miller says rightly that what is important is the ordering of action to the final end; but he sees that order as largely causal: “claims that certain actions are always wrong are based on claims about the causal structure of the world—claims that certain causes will not have certain effects, regardless of circumstances."
This sets up the difficulty of establishing what effects we are responsible for, and which consequences of acts are relevant. Miller settles for those effects that are ours, relatively proximate, and, as regards the particular acts in question, ut in pluribus—i.e., for the most part, knowing that effects oft go astray.
But I think that the order that matters for morality is the order of willing, not the order of natural causality. Morality is a matter of the heart, of willing in accordance with our final end. The norm for such willing could be put thus: will only in a way that is in accordance with integral personal fulfillment. An agent who only willed in accordance with this norm would will, in fact, the natural end of man; and would be, in so willing, suited for that end, were that end to be realized. One who wills contrary to human goods, by contrast, unfits himself for that end, a circumstance certainly to be repented of.
So my account of moral absolutes is not that they involve acts whose consequences are, for the most part, contrary to the end of man, but that they involve acts the willing of which is always contrary to that end. I think Miller could (and should) embrace my view, without difficulty: what could be more out of line with a “community of good will” than intending the death of an innocent human being? Accordingly, the will of any who intended, for example, the deaths of innocents in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to say nothing of the many other allied bombing campaigns that targeted innocents—was deficient, disordered; no one, ever or anywhere, should will what they willed.
Let me turn to the question of God’s commands, of which O’Brien makes much. In my earlier discussion, I made the traditional argument that divine commands cannot generate obligations unless there is some reason to obey such commands, a reason that cannot be generated by the commands themselves. O’Brien counters that “a divine command gives you a new reason for doing what the command requires, because God has legitimate authority.” I agree with this: God does have legitimate authority. But both legitimacy and authority are already fully loaded normative notions, and it seems to me that God has neither by virtue of His commands.
I have also argued that God’s commands are not necessary for understanding the obligation-making force of the prescriptions of the natural law. But it is a view common to natural law thinkers that God, recognizing epistemic and motivational deficiencies in human beings vis-a-vis the natural law, provides revealed commands as a supplement. So, if we abstract from the Miller-like suggestion of natural causality, I agree with O’Brien’s claim that God’s “commands make perspicuous to you those acts and omissions without which you cannot reach your final end.” But “making perspicuous” and “making absolutely obligatory” are not the same thing.
My final remarks on the subject of divine commands will be brief and tentative. As is obvious, the idea of divine command exercises a strong hold over both theistic ethics and Christian practice; I will call that idea the “dominant picture.” I want here to investigate whether the dominant picture should be resisted in certain ways. Specifically, I want to raise some perplexities in which I find myself when considering the image of God as divine commander, which can be summarized as follows: why must God’s authoritative and directive speech acts to us be thought of as commands or imperatives?
Well, what are the options? One might think that commands just are the form of speech act—the only such form—by which an authority directs as an authority, and as I have said, I agree that God has authority. So it might seem obvious that the dominant picture is correct.
Nevertheless, consider the following: I have authority over my children, and while I sometimes command them, sometimes I direct without command. I say, for instance, why don’t we do it this way? Or: it would please me if we were to do it this way. Or: I’ve decided that we’ll do it this way. Not everything that I say to them is in the imperative voice.
Perhaps my alleged counterexamples are disguised commands: when I say “Why don’t we do it this way?” I might just be commanding politely. But we should consider the possibility that at least some of the counterexamples are instead authoritative invitations. I have authority, and it is not just the authority of expertise, of knowing what is the best way: my decisions constitute in some cases what will now be the common—and hence best—way in the family, and my announcement of that common way is an act of authority. But I take myself not to be commanding the way but announcing it as an available option for those in the family who wish, in the choice itself, to continue their cooperation with me as the head of our merry little band, and to play their part in that band.
In so acting, I announce no external sanctions for those who fail to comply, as I do on other occasions when I tell my children that they must do such and such, or suffer some punishment. But there is an internal sanction built in, that of failing to act (a) in cooperation with me; and (b) in accordance with the common way, which is partly constitutive of our existence as a family. Because following my will is necessary to avoid these internal sanctions, and for familial well-being, we can further speak of the necessity, or virtue, of obedience for members of my family. God, it seems to me, speaks in this way to us when he shows us His way, and invites us to join Him in it.
But what about when God supplements the natural law with His commands? The precepts of the natural law are obligatory not because they are commanded, but because they are necessary for our well-being with one another and with God. What is added by God’s commanding them? For one thing, we now know we will be separated from God if we willingly disobey the precepts of the natural law, and this is undesirable: friendship with God is a human good to be pursued. So a reason for obedience is thus superadded to the obligations internal to the natural law itself. But how is God’s revelation of precepts of the natural law better understood here as a divine commanding, rather than, say, a divine reminding and authoritative inviting?
One might say: because God’s commands are backed by the threat of coercive sanction, the threat of hell. However, a more plausible view is that hell is the separation of the sinning self from God’s presence; so hell is not an imposed punishment, and threats about hell are actually warnings. In the commandments, God reminds us what the natural law is, and what the intrinsic consequences of failure in the natural law are.
The image of God that emerges from these reflections, and of His relationship to us as we share in His providence through our acts of practical reason and choice, is rather different from the image of God as one who commands obedience and is offended by disobedience. So perhaps what I am really trying to articulate is this: that our view of God’s communication of the law, natural and divine, has been somewhat deformed by our relying too closely on an analogy to the imperative form of speech act associated with human positive law. Echoing O’Brien, I would suggest that the debate over moral absolutes is only one among a number of areas in which that deformation has had its effect.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is the author, with Robert P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, the second edition of which recently has been released. Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.