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Theological voluntarists might believe it is really just God. You and I might believe it is just persons—people who are capable of holding one another morally responsible. As is evident from the quote, Darwall defends a secularist approach to morality. Similarly, Susan Wolf, another secularist philosopher, points out that it is not enough to say that moral requirements are requirements of morality; that to follow moral obligations is simply to do what morality requires of us. In other words, human beings are the moral community that gives obligation its normative force.

But it is important to address a common misconception about the normative character of morality in a more direct way. It is often assumed that reason by itself is adequate to give us all we want in terms of knowing and acting upon our moral obligations. What is moral to do, the claim goes, is what is reasonable to do. But although morality is indeed reasonable, the relationship between the two is not as clear cut as the foregoing claim implies. It is one thing to have good reasons to do something and quite another to be obligated to do it.

Having reasons to perform an action does not necessarily imbue one with the kind of obligation morality requires. An illustration given by C. Stephen Evans might be helpful here. He would have a very good reason to perform that act. But he would not be considered morally blameworthy should he choose to play golf instead. The point, once again, is that having good reasons to do something is not the same thing as being obligated to do it.

Alternatively, violating rationality is not the same thing as violating moral obligation. As Robert Adams puts it,. To the extent that I have done something morally wrong, I have something to feel guilty about. To the extent that I have done something irrational, I have merely something to feel silly about—and the latter is much less serious than the former.

The only time when failure to heed the demands of reason bears serious consequences is when there is a moral component involved. For example, an error of calculation in designing a bridge is more serious than getting an answer wrong on an engineering examination. Moral obligation has a certain, distinct characteristic that gives it its compulsive force with blameworthiness or guilt attached to it. Moral obligation has the unique capacity to override any other reasons we may have to do or not to do something. Such a decidedly law-like character of obligation makes sense within a social context where demands or imperatives and accountability are in force.

Moral obligation is a social concept: it is based on the assumption that there are persons involved. So far we have seen that we have good reasons to think that moral obligation is a social concept. As already mentioned, many philosophers agree with this conclusion. Some of those who argue that obligation is a social concept claim that human societies can adequately account for it. It is the society, period, that places moral demands on its individual members.

But while it is true that we have obligations that are created by the societies to which we belong, the imperatival force of morality makes it doubtful that appealing to the society can account for the entire range of the obligations we acknowledge. To begin with, societies often err in prescribing behavior for their members.

For example, those who obediently followed the laws issued by the Nazis during the Second World War were indeed carrying out their societal obligations. But their society was gravely mistaken about the obligations morality prescribed for its citizens. This suggests strongly that moral obligations are not decided by the society. They are objective—what we are obligated to do transcends individual or the collective human will, desires, or beliefs. Thus unless there is a law above human law, it is hard to see how we can justify our claim that some things commanded by certain societies are wrong.

Philosopher Joel Marks has argued that obligation does indeed require the existence of God, though he sadly rejects morality instead of seeing it as further evidence for God. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander—whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

Similarly, Yale law professor Arthur Leff concluded his powerful critique of morality without God with the following words,. All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have.


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Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

The hound of heaven is ever on our trail. Consider the words of the following poem written by A. Housman The speaker acquiesces to the weight of moral obligation that he finds to be undeniable, even though it is foreign to his preferred mode of existence. How is such compulsion to be justified? Why should one yield to such demands? In Christian terms, we should be moral because we are moral beings made by a moral God in his image. We find our proper telos or purpose when we become what we were originally intended to be.

That process begins in this life and continues on to the next, where it will be fully perfected. But if this life is not all there is, then the scales will eventually be evened out, and morality and happiness will one day coincide.

Moral Obligation as Agent-Relative

I find it absolutely mystifying that some would choose to deny the reality of morality rather than acknowledge the fact that it indeed points us to God. Thankfully, there are many others who have found their way to the cross after pondering the implications of an objective morality that is simply a part of the fabric of the universe. After discussing some of the points I have raised here with a seemingly hardened, lifelong atheist university professor, he completely caught me off-guard by confessing to me that the argument makes his atheism untenable.

I have seen students give their lives to Christ when they learn how to think clearly about morality and when they consider what the gospel of salvation has to offer them—not just for this life, but also for the life to come, as we will see at the conclusion of this article. Its long existence therefore presupposes some other will behind it. The hard part for me [as an atheist] was the idea of a personal God, who has an interest in humankind. And the argument that Lewis made there—the one that I think was most surprising, most earth-shattering, and most life-changing—is the argument about the existence of the moral law.

In every culture one looks at, that knowledge is there. Where did that come from? The Christian has a ready and compelling answer to the question: morality comes from a God who made us in his image and who makes it possible for us to apprehend and apply morality to our lives.

Christian Apologetics (1): Knowing Right from Wrong | Believer's Magazine

We are at odds with a system of morality that we did not invent, and we stand condemned. But Christianity does much more. It offers a solution to the human condition through the Cross of Christ. At the cross, God marvelously honors his justice while demonstrating his infinite love at the very same moment. And, finally, the Word of God promises that we will one day be made morally perfect. At that point, morality will no longer be a subject of debate—we will just live it out the way we breathe oxygen today, only without the threat of air pollution.

Imagine that: we will one day live beyond right and wrong! In addition to accounting for the objectivity and agent-centeredness of moral obligation, Christianity fulfills and complements morality itself in ways naturalism can never hope to do. When we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we fail to keep the moral law that we know exists. And our failure to keep it is more than just a matter of ignorance; it bears the marks of what the Bible calls rebellion against God. As a result, we all stand in need of forgiveness. The Bible thus offers both an accurate diagnosis of the human heart as well as the solution for our primary malady.

In a chillingly profound passage, atheist philosopher Joel Marks makes the following observation:. Did you catch that? In Genesis , the serpent assures Adam and Eve that they are mistaken to let God define right and wrong for them. For God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. What the Tempter meant was not that Adam and Eve would know about good or evil or that some things were wrong to do.

They must have known that already, or the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would not have made any sense to them. What the Tempter meant was that Adam and Eve did not need to let God define good and evil for them; they could determine that for themselves.

When that happens, we become incapable of appreciating and appropriating the power of the gospel in our lives. But the hope offered in the gospel message goes well beyond morality. When we have achieved the status for which we were made, morality will cease to occupy the central place it does in our day-to-day lives. When we complain about evil, we do indeed presuppose the reality of the good. Good and evil invoke an objective standard of right and wrong. How wonderful to know that forgiveness and eventually eternal restoration are available for people like us.

What an incredible promise: that one day we will be able to live beyond right and wrong! Oxford: Oxford University Press, , Robert Garcia and Nathan L. It is important to note that duty, or obligation, holds even when no punishment is intended. All that is needed is for there to be a person with the authority to issue a command. XVI , Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. Your podcast has started playing below. Feel free to continue browsing the site without interrupting your podcast! We believe that the world makes more sense when we have a right view of God and the world.

Learn about RZIM. Must the Moral Law Have a Lawgiver? To quote the legendary scientist Galileo, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. For most people, what we have said so far is enough to establish the dependence of morality on God. All the pieces we need to build that puzzle are not only present but in their rightful places.

We know that some things are really wrong. Other things are really right, and there is an objective moral standard that helps us differentiate between the two. We also sense quite strongly that this can only be true if God exists. Morality is indeed grounded in God. Once one begins to realize that morality is not relative, that it cannot be grounded in biological evolution, and that it cannot be fully explained on the basis of social conventions or individual taste, one immediately feels drawn to the conclusion that God must exist.

That conversation reminded me of the following quip by GK Chesterton, If it be true as it certainly is that a man can feel exquisite happiness skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can make one or two deductions. Denying the Cat: Objective Morality Without God If you are reading carefully, you will note that I said that most ethicists, including atheists, accept almost each one of the claims Ravi makes in the quote above.

Can we really make sense of objective morality without God? Suppose you were given these two premises, All men are mortal Socrates is a man You know immediately that you ought to draw the following conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Yes, I want to follow Jesus. I am a follower of Jesus. I still have questions. All rights reserved in the original.

Tarcher, , What do you think? God , the Father, sent His only Son to satisfy that judgment for those who believe in Him. Jesus , the creator and eternal Son of God, who lived a sinless life, loves us so much that He died for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserve, was buried , and rose from the dead according to the Bible.

If you truly believe and trust this in your heart, receiving Jesus alone as your Savior, declaring, " Jesus is Lord ," you will be saved from judgment and spend eternity with God in heaven. What is your response? Learn More! Or Philosophically? Is the Bible True? Who is God? Is Jesus God? Such a society might claim that their morality is based on some universal features of human nature or of all rational beings. Although all societies include more than just a concern for minimizing harm to some human beings in their moralities, this feature of morality, unlike purity and sanctity, or accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, is included in everything that is regarded as a morality by any society.

Because minimizing harm can conflict with accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, there can be fundamental disagreements within a society about the morally right way to behave in particular kinds of situations. Some psychologists, such as Haidt, take morality to include concern with, at least, all three of the triad of 1 harm, 2 purity, and 3 loyalty, and hold that different members of a society can and do take different features of morality to be most important.

Most societies have moralities that are concerned with, at least, all three members of this triad. Concern with harm appears in the form of enforceable rules against killing, causing pain, mutilating, etc. But beyond a concern with avoiding and preventing such harms to members of certain groups, there may be no common content shared by all moralities in the descriptive sense. Nor may there be any common justification that those who accept morality claim for it; some may appeal to religion, others to tradition, and others to rational human nature. Beyond the concern with harm mentioned above, the only other features that all descriptive moralities have in common is that they are put forward by an individual or a group, usually a society, in which case they provide a guide for the behavior of the people in that group or society.

Ethical relativists such as Harman , Westermarck , Prinz , and Wong , deny that there is any universal normative morality and claim that the actual moralities of societies or individuals are the only moralities there are. The harm caused by Christian missionaries who used morality as a basis for trying to change the practices of the societies with which they came in contact may have been one of the reasons why many anthropologists endorsed ethical relativism. As a result, when the guide to conduct put forward by, for example, a religious group conflicts with the guide to conduct put forward by a society, it is not clear whether to say that there are conflicting moralities, conflicting elements within morality, or that the code of the religious group conflicts with morality.

Members of the society who are also members of a religious group may regard both guides as elements of morality and differ with respect to which of the conflicting elements of the moral guide they consider most important. There are likely to be significant moral disputes between those who consider different elements to be more important.

In small homogeneous societies there may be a guide to behavior that is put forward by the society and that is accepted by almost all members of the society. However, in larger societies people often belong to groups that put forward guides to behavior that conflict with the guide put forward by their society, and members of the society do not always accept the guide put forward by their society.

If they accept the conflicting guide of some other group to which they belong often a religious group rather than the guide put forward by their society, in cases of conflict they will regard those who follow the guide put forward by their society as acting immorally. When relativized to an individual in this way, morality has less limitation on content than when it is taken to refer to the code of conduct put forward by a society or group.

Still, if the person is rational, this guide will include prohibitions on causing harm. It is not clear whether it refers to 1 a guide to behavior that is put forward by a society, to which that person might or might not belong; 2 a guide that is put forward by a group, to which that person might or might not belong; 3 a guide that someone, perhaps that very person, regards as overriding and wants adopted by everyone else, or 4 a universal guide that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents.

However, if the individual is referring to his own morality, he is usually using it normatively; that is, he would usually accept the claim that all rational persons, at least under certain conditions, would endorse it. However, Sidgwick regarded moral rules as any rational rules of conduct. Because all moralities in the descriptive sense include a prohibition on harming others, ethical egoism is not a morality in the descriptive sense.

Because, as will be explained in the following section, all moralities in the normative sense not only include prohibitions on harming others but also are such that all rational persons would endorse that morality, ethical egoism is not a morality in the normative sense either. Sidgwick does this, but he is decidedly in the minority in this respect.

However, that fact that an individual adopts a moral code of conduct for his own use does not entail that the person requires it to be adopted by anyone else.

An individual may adopt for himself a very demanding moral guide that he thinks may be too difficult for most others to follow. He may judge people who do not adopt his code of conduct as not being as morally good as he is, without judging them to be immoral if they do not adopt it. For it may be that the individual would not be willing for others to try to follow that code, because of worries about the bad effects of predictable failures due to partiality or lack of sufficient foresight or intelligence.

Many moral skeptics would reject the claim that there are any universal ethical claims, where the ethical is a broader category than the moral. But another interesting class of moral skeptics includes those who think that we should only abandon the narrower category of the moral—partly because of the notion of a code that is central to that category. These moral skeptics hold that we should do our ethical theorizing in terms of the good life, or the virtues.

Elizabeth Anscombe gave expression to this kind of view, which also finds echoes in the work of Bernard Williams On the other hand, some virtue theorists might take perfect rationality to entail virtue, and might understand morality to be something like the code that such a person would implicitly endorse by acting in virtuous ways. In that case, even a virtue theorist might count as a moral realist in the sense above. But this appearance is deceptive.

Mill 12 himself explicitly defines morality as. And the act-consequentialist J. Smart is also explicit that he is thinking of ethics as the study of how it is most rational to behave. His embrace of utilitarianism is the result of his belief that maximizing utility is always the rational thing to do. On reflection this is not surprising.

What is that to me? Definitions of morality in the normative sense—and, consequently, moral theories—differ in their accounts of rationality, and in their specifications of the conditions under which all rational persons would necessarily endorse the code of conduct that therefore would count as morality.

These definitions and theories also differ in how they understand what it is to endorse a code in the relevant way. Some hold that morality applies only to those rational beings that have certain specific features of human beings: features that make it rational for them to endorse morality. These features might, for example, include fallibility and vulnerability.

Other moral theories claim to put forward an account of morality that provides a guide to all rational beings, even if these beings do not have these human characteristics, e. Among such theorists it is also common to hold that morality should never be overridden. That is, it is common to hold that no one should ever violate a moral prohibition or requirement for non-moral reasons.

Can We Be Good without God?

Though common, this view is by no means always taken as definitional. Sidgwick despaired of showing that rationality required us to choose morality over egoism, though he certainly did not think rationality required egoism either. More explicitly, Gert held that though moral behavior is always rationally permissible , it is not always rationally required.

Foot seems to have held that any reason—and therefore any rational requirement—to act morally would have to stem from a contingent commitment or an objective interest. And she also seems to have held that sometimes neither of these sorts of reasons might be available. Indeed, it is possible that morality, in the normative sense, has never been put forward by any particular society, by any group at all, or even by any individual.

That is, one might claim that the guides to behavior of some societies lack so many of the essential features of morality, in the normative sense, that it is incorrect to say that these societies even have a morality in a descriptive sense. This is an extreme view, however. A more moderate position would hold that all societies have something that can be regarded as their morality, but that many of these moralities—perhaps, indeed, all of them—are defective.

That is, a moral realist might hold that although these actual guides to behavior have enough of the features of normative morality to be classified as descriptive moralities, they would not be endorsed in their entirety by all moral agents. Moral realists do not claim that any actual society has or has ever had morality as its actual guide to conduct.

In the theological version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Aquinas, this is because God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons.

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In the secular version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Hobbes , natural reason is sufficient to allow all rational persons to know what morality prohibits, requires, etc. Natural law theorists also claim that morality applies to all rational persons, not only those now living, but also those who lived in the past. In contrast to natural law theories, other moral theories do not hold quite so strong a view about the universality of knowledge of morality.

Still, many hold that morality is known to all who can legitimately be judged by it. Baier , Rawls and contractarians deny that there can be an esoteric morality: one that judges people even though they cannot know what it prohibits, requires, etc. For all of the above theorists, morality is what we can call a public system : a system of norms 1 that is knowable by all those to whom it applies and 2 that is not irrational for any of those to whom it applies to follow Gert Moral judgments of blame thus differ from legal or religious judgments of blame in that they cannot be made about persons who are legitimately ignorant of what they are required to do.

Act consequentialists seem to hold that everyone should know that they are morally required to act so as to bring about the best consequences, but even they do not seem to think judgments of moral blame are appropriate if a person is legitimately ignorant of what action would bring about the best consequences Singer Parallel views seem to be held by rule consequentialists Hooker The ideal situation for a legal system would be that it be a public system. But in any large society this is not possible. As a result, sometimes people are held legally responsible for violating rules about which they were legitimately ignorant, and even when it would have been irrational for them to have followed those rules.

Games are closer to being public systems and most adults playing a game know its rules, or they know that there are judges whose interpretation determines what behavior the game prohibits, requires, etc. Although a game is often a public system, its rules apply only to those playing the game.

If a person does not care enough about the game to abide by the rules, she can usually quit.

Morality is the one public system that no rational person can quit. This is the point that Kant, without completely realizing it, captured by saying that morality is categorical. The rules of a club are inescapable in this way, even though one can escape them by quitting the club.

Rather, the fact that one cannot quit morality means that one can do nothing to escape being legitimately liable to sanction for violating its norms, except by ceasing to be a moral agent. Morality applies to people simply by virtue of their being rational persons who know what morality prohibits, requires, etc.

For example, some Levy might say that psychopaths cannot do so, while others might make the opposite claim Haji Public systems can be formal or informal. To say a public system is informal is to say that it has no authoritative judges and no decision procedure that provides a unique guide to action in all situations, or that resolves all disagreements.

To say that a public system is formal is to say that it has one or both of these things Gert 9. Professional basketball is a formal public system; all the players know that what the referees call a foul determines what is a foul. Pickup basketball is an informal public system. The existence of persistent moral disagreements shows that morality is most plausibly regarded as an informal public system. When persistent moral disagreement is recognized, those who understand that morality is an informal public system admit that how one should act is morally unresolvable, and if some resolution is required, the political or legal system can be used to resolve it.

These formal systems have the means to provide unique guides, but they do not provide the uniquely correct moral guide to the action that should be performed. An important example of a moral problem left unsettled by the informal public system of morality is whether fetuses are impartially protected by morality and so whether or under what conditions abortions are allowed. There is continuing disagreement among fully informed moral agents about this moral question, even though the legal and political system in the United States has provided fairly clear guidelines about the conditions under which abortion is legally allowed.

Despite this important and controversial issue, morality, like all informal public systems, presupposes agreement on how to act in most moral situations, e. No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill a moral agent simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. Many violations of moral rules are such that no rational person would be willing for all moral agents to know that violating the moral rule in these circumstances is morally allowed.

However, moral matters are often thought to be controversial because these everyday decisions, about which there is no controversy, are rarely discussed. The amount of agreement concerning what rules are moral rules, and on when it is justified to violate one of these rules, explains why morality can be a public system even though it is an informal system. The old schema was that morality is the code that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse.

The improved schema is that morality is the informal public system that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse. Some theorists might not regard the informal nature of the moral system as definitional, holding that morality might give precise answers to every question. This would have the result that conscientious moral agents often cannot know what morality permits, requires, or allows.

Some philosophers deny that this is a genuine possibility. However, on ethical- or group-relativist accounts or on individualistic accounts—all of which are best regarded as accounts of morality in the descriptive sense—morality often has no special content that distinguishes it from nonmoral codes of conduct, such as law or religion. Just as a legal code of conduct can have almost any content, as long as it is capable of guiding behavior, and a religious code of conduct has no limits on content, most relativist and individualist accounts of morality place few limits on the content of a moral code an exception is Wong Of course, actual codes do have certain minimal limits—otherwise the societies they characterize would lack the minimum required degree of social cooperation required to sustain their existence over time.

On the other hand, for moral realists who explicitly hold that morality is an informal public system that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents, it has a fairly definite content. Hobbes , Mill , and most other non-religiously influenced philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition limit morality to behavior that, directly or indirectly, affects others.

The claim that morality only governs behavior that affects others is somewhat controversial, and so probably should not be counted as definitional, even if it turns out to be entailed by the correct moral theory.