God and Moral Obligation
BY C. STEPHEN EVANS OXFORD, 202. PAGES, $99
Divine command theory is hardly in fashion among ethicists these days. Secular scholars tend toward utilitarianism, the defense of human rights, or accounts of the social contract. Others may share with religious ethicists an interest in advancing an ethic based in natural law or the virtues or both. So it is intriguing and even bold for C. Stephen Evans to have written God and Moral Obligation, "a sustained argument," as the author puts it, "that God does provide the best explanation for why there are moral obligations."
Evans, who is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University, is a distinguished and prolific scholar, an expert in the thought of Soren Kierkegaard, and, notably, an interpreter of the latter's moral thought along the lines of a "divine command ethic" akin to what we find defended in this book.
While Kierkegaard is referenced at a few points in God and Moral Obligation, Evans' main subject is what he calls an "intuition" belonging to the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. In her classic 1958 essay, "Modern Moral Philosophy," she urged her contemporaries to stop working with the concept of "moral obligation."
The notion made sense, she claimed, only within a "law conception of ethics" that had its roots in Judaism and Christianity. With the widespread loss of belief in God as law-giver, the idea of being morally bound or obliged--as if this or that verdict on your action hangs in the balance--loses its basic meaning, however much it might retain its compelling psychological effect.
In order to avoid the confusion and mischief made possible by a "morality" floating free of the historical and logical context affording its intelligibility, Anscombe suggested that moral philosophers follow Aristotle's lead and try to come up with what they lack but most sorely need: a moral psychology that focuses on virtues, the goods of human flourishing to which they are directed, and accompanying understandings of "actions," "intention," "pleasure," "wanting," and the like.
In the modern intellectual environment that Anscombe found dominated by utilitarian moral calculation, the alternative position would be to permit an effectively empty idea of "moral obligation" to falsely authorize normative conclusions that the Hebrew-Christian divine law ethic will and should categorically reject. "For it has been a characteristic of that ethic to teach...