Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Journal of Religious Ethics, 8:2, Fall 1980, 330-349. Abstract: The notion that “the holy reality wills it” can provide both the rational justification (the move from “is” to “ought”) and the psychological motivation for acting morally.  But can the will of God be the criterion for the morally right? Although what is right cannot be reduced to what God wills (due to the perceptual aspect of the meaning of “right”), it can be deduced from it, given an under-standing of perception that implies that an omni-scient perceiver would necessarily be an impartial sympathizer.  This, however, presupposes the ideal observer criterion of rightness, which is based upon an appeal to holiness.  Recognizing that the criterio-logical and religious meanings of moral terms are finally identical overcomes the problems of justifi-cation and motivation inevitable in apparently non-religious moral theories.

Posted October 29, 2009


The Holy, Necessary Goodness, and Morality

David Ray Griffin 


Ethical autonomists claim that morality must be understood to be both logically and motivationally independent of religion.  In terms of logic, they use the well-known “Is-Ought” problem, claiming for example that there is no way to move from statements about God’s will to statements about what we ought to do.  No way, that is, except by inserting an independently derived ought-statement, i.e., “One ought to obey God’s will.”  In terms of motivation a similar argument is sometimes made. And it is often pointed out that so-called religious motivations are appeals to self-interest (e.g., “Obey God and you will be rewarded”) and hence are antithetical to morality.

The claim to autonomy from religion is usually part of a larger claim that morality should be understood as autonomous, logically and motivationally, from all metaphysical beliefs, i.e., beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality.  This claim to autonomy comes at a high price.  It means that, after clarifying the nature of morality, the autonomists have difficulties with both the ultimate rational justification and the human motivation for being moral.  They can argue that the justifying reason for doing a particular act is that the act is right, i.e., when viewed from the “moral point of view,” but they have difficulty giving grounds for adopting this point of view.  Many, in fact, frankly admit that at this level one must simply “decide,” and that there are no reasons to support this decision.  In reference to motivation, even for those who have adopted the moral point of view, more and more authors are saying that people will be moral only if they want to, but that philosophical ethics does not have the job of creating this desire.  These ethicists seem to be in the position of having to hope that parents, churches, and other individuals and institutions will keep doing whatever things they are doing that somehow get people interested in being moral, even if these things are irrelevant or even antithetical to the true nature of morality, so that there will continue to be people interested enough in morality to buy the ethicists’ books to learn finally what the true nature and status of morality are.

I believe that morality is inextricably connected to religion, and that the problems of justification and motivation are insoluble apart from religious beliefs and perceptions.  This view depends on the assump-tion that religion centrally involves conceptions and perceptions of the holy, which I will discuss in Section I.  The rational justification of morality ultimately depends upon a conception of something holy; moral motivation ultimately depends upon a perception of something holy.

An original (as far as I know) part of my argument is a three-fold analysis of the meaning of “right” and “ought.”  (Rightness and oughtness are not coexten-sive for at least two reasons: sometimes more than one choice may be equally right; and some things are right that are not obligatory but only permissible.  However, for the sake of simplicity I ignore this fine point, and equate what is right for a person at a particular time with what that person ought to do then and there.)  Section I deals with the religious aspect of this meaning.  Section II discusses the other two aspects, the criteriological and the percep-tual. (This perceptual aspect of the meaning of “right” and “ought” is not to be equated with the perception of “the holy.”)  The distinction between the criteriological and perceptual aspects explains why assertions about “the Will of the Holy Reality” can entail ought assertions even though “ought” and “right” cannot be exhaustively defined in terms of “the will of the Holy Reality.”

Section III is devoted to showing those who accept an “ideal observer account of the criterion of right and wrong could, given a particular understanding of God, accept God’s will as the criteriological meaning of right.  In Section IV it is suggested that those who implicitly accept the ideal observer account of the meaning of moral terms do so on the basis a perception of holiness, so that the criteriological and religious meanings of these terms are finally identical.  And I argue that a recognition of this fact would overcome the problems of justification and motivation that are inevitable in apparently non-religious moral theories.



Max Stackhouse has recently argued persuasively that all morality is ultimately religious in that every moral position is finally grounded, whether explicitly or implicitly, on some appeal to the holy.  The holy is that which is taken to be (1) decisively powerful in human affairs and (2) of self-authenticating intrinsic worth, inviolable (Stackhouse, 1976:64, 69f., 76).  It determines what is important to us, since “it is that which is held to be basically commanding and effective in life and is simultaneously worthy of our attention, loyalty and obedience” (Stackhouse, 1976:70).

Note that there is nothing in this definition of the holy about moral goodness.  To be intrinsically good and worthy of loyalty does not necessarily involve being morally good.  The widespread popular equation of holiness with moral purity in our culture is based upon contingent factors, including the fact that Jahweh, the “Holy One of Israel,” did increasingly become perceived as morally perfect, a perception that was not undercut by Christianity (in spite of parables and doctrines suggesting that God’s for-giving mercy abrogated the divine justice).  In any case, the sense in which the religious drive to be in harmony with the holy reality includes a need to be “morally righteous” depends upon the nature of the holy reality in question.

Stackhouse distinguishes between that which is ultimately holy for some individual or group and that which has a derivative holiness.  For example, although for Jews and Christians God alone is (ultimately) holy, it has become customary to speak of the “sacredness of human life.”  The twofold characterization of the holy as (a) decisively powerful and (b) of self-authenticating worth and inviolability would seem to apply only to that which is ultimately holy, while derivative holiness would consist in inviolability based on more or less self-authenticating intrinsic worth.

There is another distinction I think needs to be made, that between the perceived holy and the conceived holy.  The “conceived holy” is that which one thinks to be worthy of ultimate loyalty.  The “perceived holy” is that which one directly feels or senses to be holy.  It involves one’s pre-conscious outlook, a way of perceiving reality that has become “second nature,” whereas a conception of the holy involves one’s conscious intellectual processes.  A mere intellectual belief that something is holy will act upon one’s attitudes and emotions and hence upon one’s outer actions.  This is why so-called “believers” can be such hypocrites, feeling and acting in ways that are not at all consonant with their professed beliefs.  And this is why theologians distinguish between “mere belief” and “saving faith”; it is in saving faith that one’s perception of reality is oriented around the holy reality of the religious tradition in question.  In the saving faith that makes one (more or less) whole, it is not merely one’s “mind” that is convinced, but one’s total “heart” and “soul.”  One has a “vision of God,” not a mere belief in God.

Combining these two distinctions accounts for the fact that those regarded as “atheists” from the standpoint of a certain religious tradition may be more moral, in terms of that tradition’s own values, than the explicit believers.  For, although the atheist no longer accepts the conception of the ultimately holy reality that originally supported the identifica-tion and relative importance of those things that are taken to be derivatively holy, this non-believer may have a stronger perception or sense of the holiness of these more immediate things (such as “all sentient beings”).

If “religion” is taken to include reverence not only for things taken to be ultimately holy (e.g., God, Brahman, the Tao) but also for things with derivative holiness (e.g., human beings, all sentient beings, naturalness, truth, impartiality), and is also seen to involve not only conceptions but also perceptions of the holy, the claim that all morality is in fact religious is much more plausible than it would otherwise seem. The key idea is that every rational justification of an ethical stance, whether made explicitly or implicitly, involves an appeal to something which cannot and need not be further justified: It just is holy and hence inviolable. That is, it is taken to be self-authenticatingly worthy of reverence.

The idea of the holy is relevant not only to the question of justification, but also to that of motivation.  Many commentators who have argued that there is no logical passage from is-statements to ought-statements have pointed out that there seems to be some psychological basis for moving from one to the other.  Beliefs about the way things are seem to influence our most fundamental moral beliefs and motivations.  This psychological basis, I claim, is a religious drive that is common to all people.  I believe this desire is what is common to all religions: the Taoist wants to be in harmony with the Tao, the Vedantist with Brahman (“being in harmony with” can mean “realizing identity with”), the Jew and Christian (and Moslem) with the will of God (or Allah), the Hegelian with Absolute Spirit, the Marxist with the dialectical process.  The desire is common; the conceptions of the holy are various.  The various religions are the various beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and practices oriented around the desire to be in harmony with that which is taken to be ultimately holy.  Many of the practices (e.g., both individual and corporate) are devoted to getting the conceived holy to be more completely perceived as holy.  A con-ception of the holy provides some motivation; but primarily people are religiously motivated to the degree that they have a vision of holiness.

This discussion of the idea of the holy has been for the purpose of explicating one of the three aspects of the meaning of “ought” and “right,” the religious aspect.  In regard to this aspect, something is “right” if it is in harmony with the holy reality; something is “wrong” if it would be a violation of it; the sense that we “ought not” do something attaches itself to those things that would be wrong; the sense of “oughtness” attaches itself to those things that are not merely permitted but positively enjoined if one is to be in harmony with the holy reality.

In terms of the religious meaning of ought, the transition from is-statements to ought-statements is provided by the religious drive that belongs to human nature.  The “argument” that occurs implicitly in people can be explicated as follows:

1. To be in harmony with a reality that is X, one must Y.

2. The holy reality is X.

3. If I want to be in harmony with the holy reality, I ought to Y.

4. I want to be in harmony with the holy reality.

5. Therefore I ought to Y.

Of course, this “deduction” usually does not occur in this step-by-step form, except in cases where one is explicitly aware of the community’s conception of the holy and is giving a theological argument for a certain course of action, as in a sermon.  Usually the perceived holy is taken for granted, and the type of behavior that is fitting in the light of this holiness is simply seen.  This is the aspect of the meaning of “right” and “ought” that provides the basis for those who say that these terms refer to properties of certain entertained feelings, attitudes, courses of action, etc., properties which are known through “intuition.”

Te religious aspect of the meaning of moral terms, then, is concerned with what is viewed as fitting and unfitting in the light of the nature of the holy.  There can be considerable moral tension within a person, due to the variety that is possible within that which is taken as holy.  For one thing, many things can become derivatively holy.  For example, in a tradition in which the holy reality has been conceived as Truth Itself, and in which human beings have been regarded as created in the “image of God,” both truth and human feelings may come to be regarded as holy, and in some cases loyalty to truth may dictate a different action than does loyalty to human feelings.  Also, there can be a tension between the perceived and the conceived holies.  Accordingly, one may feel something to be wrong without being able to give any rational justification for the claim that it is wrong; likewise, one may, upon reflection, think that something is wrong without having any strong feelings about it.

However, that which is conceived to be ultimately holy may also be perceived as holy.  To the extent that this is true, one and the same thought can provide the rational justification and the motivation for a particular action—for example the thought, “The Holy Reality wills it.”  It would seem, then, that there would be considerable advantage to be gained if God’s will could appropriately regarded as the criterion of what we ought to do. But this idea has been widely rejected.  In the next section I will argue not only that the objections to this idea are inconclusive, but that a widespread consensus among philosophical ethicists in fact implies that God’s will is the criterion.



Theological ethicists (as I use the term) move from the assertion that God wills that we do A to the conclusion that we ought to do A.  Ethical auto-nomists, wanting to demonstrate that at least our most fundamental moral principles—and hence the meaning and justification of moral judgment—are independent of all religious beliefs, ask how this move is made from factual assertions about God’s will to normative conclusions as to what we ought to do.  It seems to be widely agreed that there are only two logically rigourous ways this move can be made.  The first is to insert an ought-statement between the factual premise and the normative conclusion.  For example:

A. God wills that we cultivate our loving tendencies.

B. We ought to do what God wills.

C. Therefore we ought to cultivate our loving tendencies.

This move does not show that morality is dependent upon religion, for we have to decide independently whether what God wills is always right before we can know whether B is true.  Hence, we have to have some independent standard of right.

The only other way to move logically from statements about God’s will to statements about what we ought to do is to define “ought” so that the conclusion that we ought to do A is already included in the assertion that God wills for us to do A.  For example, if the word “ought” simply meant “willed by God,” the syllogism would be valid.  William Frankena offers the following as an example of such a valid argument:

1. “I ought to do A” means “A is commanded by God”.

2. A is commanded by God.

3. Therefore I ought to do A. (Frankena, 1976:137)

If this definition of “ought” could stand up to scrutiny, religious morality would be vindicated.  But it will not stand up.  The usual weapon is the “open Question” argument.  One can meaningfully ask: “Ought I to do the will of God?” or “Is the will of God always right?”  But if statement using “ought” and “right” were simply replaceable with statement about “the will of God,” these questions would make no sense.  One would be asking: “Ought I to do what I ought to do?” or “Is the will of God always the will of God?”  Hence, these moral terms cannot simply mean “what God wills.”

However, most commentators have evidently not noticed that this strict identity of meaning is not required for the argument to be valid.  All that is necessary is that “I ought to do A” be entailed by “God wills that I do A.”

Hence the argument would be:

1. “I ought to do A” is entailed by “God wills that I do A.”

2. God wills that I do A.

3. Therefore I ought to do A.

It is at this stage that the distinction between the perceptual and the criteriological aspects of the meaning of right and ought is relevant.  By the “criteriological aspect” I mean that which serves as the necessary and sufficient condition for something’s being right.  This criterion might be God’s will.  But this would not make “that which God wills” the meaning of right and ought, since there is an irreducibly perceptual aspect to the full meaning of these terms.  That is, there is a “ought” dimension to our immediate experience; we have a feeling of “rightness.”  Although this feeling attaches itself to different contents in different cultures (due to different perceived and conceived holies), the feeling or perception that provides the experiential basis for understanding what the words “right” and “ought” mean is common to all cultures.  This is why people with radically different views of what is right can still argue about what is right.

In discussing the meaning of the word “good,” G. E. Moore discusses an analogy between the perception of a color and the perception of goodness.  You cannot explain what yellow is to someone who is blind.  Yellow is simple and therefore cannot be defined; it must be perceived I am discussing the terms “right” and “ought” instead of “good.” And I do not think that they are simple in the sense of being unanalyzable; I am suggesting just the opposite.  But I do think that Moore’s comparison with colors points to one aspect of the meaning of these terms.  If a person did not have feelings of oughtness or rightness, this person would simply not know what you were talking about when you said, e.g., that one ought to do what God wills, or that the right thing to do is that which would maximize goodness.

This perceptual aspect of the meaning of right and ought explains why the open question argument defeats every attempt to provide definitions of these terms that would exhaust their meanings, whether that definition be “that which God wills,” “that which promotes the most happiness,” or “that which is in harmony with the evolutionary thrust.”  There is an irreducibly experiential aspect to the meaning of right which makes it impossible to deduce its meaning to some formula.

But this does not necessarily mean that conclusions about what is right cannot be deduced from statements about what God wills.  For, it might be that God’s will can properly be understood as the ultimate criterion of what is right, and hence as the criteriological meaning of “right” and “ought.”  God’s willing something would be a necessary and sufficient condition for its being right.  If this were the case, then from the statement, “God wills that I do A,” it would follow that I ought to do A.

The big question is hence whether God’s will can appropriately be considered the ultimate criterion of right and wrong.  There will be two parts to my argument that it can.  First, I will point to a widespread consensus that the ultimate standard of moral rightness is what a fully informed, impartial, sympathetic observer would will.  Second, I will suggest that God should understood in such a way that God would necessarily exemplify this role.  That is, god’s will could not be arbitrary; God could not will otherwise.  In passing, I will also point to other changes required in the meaning of “God” for this idea not to be counter-intuitive.



My first point is that there is a widespread consensus among those who consider moral judgments to be objective and therefore capable of being true or or false, that right and wrong must finally coincide with what a fully informed, impartial, sympathetic observer would approve and disapprove.  The attempt to achieve this perspective is quite often referred to as adopting the “moral point of view.”  Some authors simply equate this with the “rational” point of view.  Others say that the notion of being rational does not necessarily include the notion of being sympathetic to the interests of others.  In any case, all parties hold that the spectator must be both impartial and sympathetic to the interests of all as well as fully informed. ~

It should be noted that taking the preferences of such a being as the criterion of right and wrong avoids the dilemma usually posed to those theologians who state that God’s will is the criterion. That is, it is usually argued that the theologian must either say God wills X because it is right (i.e., X was right prior to God’s willing it), or else admit that it is arbitrary that X is right (i.e., if God’s willing X is really what makes it right).  The ideal observer theory avoids this dilemma.  On the one hand, what is right is not some truth that exists prior to the ideal observer’s reaction, so that “reason” alone would be needed to see what is right (as Thomism is usually interpreted as saying).  Rather, what is right for Jones to do in a particular situation is decided by what a fully informed, impartially sympathetic observer would want Jones to do.  This reaction is the very criteriological meaning of saying that “X is the right thing for Jones to do.”  There is no higher standard by which the right thing could be established.  On the other hand, the preference of the ideal observer is not arbitrary, in the sense of capricious, for this observer if fully sympathetic to the interests of all the beings involved; hence its “preference” could not be for actions that would result in injustice and unnecessary pain.

Given this consensus, one might expect that there would be little objection to the idea that God’s will is the criterion of right and wrong.  After all, is not the ideal observer, as Charles Reynolds (1970:163) points out, simply a secular version of God?  And yet there is much objection.  The dilemma mentioned above is repeated time and time again; it is asserted that right and wrong would be capricious if God’s will were the criterion.

How can one account for this widespread reaction? In terms of motives, one can of course understand that moral philosophers who do not believe in God, and in fact find such belief harmful, would want to reject the suggestion that God’s will is the criterion of moral rightness.  But the question is not what their motives are, but what argument they have.  They have to have some basis for concluding that the will of God would not necessarily be identical with the preference of a fully informed, impartial, sympathetic perceiver.

One important factor is surely that the images and concepts of God that have been dominant in our tradition do not make this identification self-evident, to say the least.  The image of the tribalistic, vengeful Jehovah, especially in the earlier-written parts of the Old Testament, still plays a powerful role in the connotation of the word “God.”  And the image of God suggested by Calvinism is that of an arbitrary tyrant.  A God who would predestine the majority of the human race to hell is hardly an impartial sympathizer.  Furthermore, traditional theism in general has insisted that God is “impassible,” which entails that God has no sympathetic reactions to the world.  Finally, the God of both theological and popular theism has been omnipotent, causing or at least permitting (while having the power to prevent) all the things we consider evil; it is certainly counter-intuitive that such a God is sympathetic to the interests of all sentient beings.  Accordingly, although there is a sense in which the fully informed, impartially sympathetic perceiver is a secular version of God, it is a secular version of a minority view of God.  Philosophers cannot be blamed for being biased against the idea that the will of God is the criterion of right and wrong, and thus rejecting this idea while endorsing, more or less explicitly, the omniscient, impartial sympathizer as the criterion.

Nevertheless, the understandable bias aside, the question is, What basis is there for the assumption that the will of God would not necessarily be identical with the preference of a fully informed, impartially sympathetic perceiver?  It is generally agreed, of course, that God would be fully informed, since omniscience is generally taken to belong to the very notion of God.  But many commentators believe that there is no absolute necessity that God be impartial and/or sympathetic to the interests of all sentient beings.  In particular, it is widely stated that these other two attributes do not follow from omniscience.

For example, Henry David Aiken (1958:82) states: “Now, there is no logical connection between the metaphysical attributes and the moral attributes.  Logically, there is no reason why an almighty an omniscient being might not be a perfect stinker.”  P. H. Nowell-Smith (1966:97) says: “There is nothing in the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator which, by itself, entails goodness or his right to command.” J. Brenton Stearns (cf. 214, 216) has discussed this issue most fully . While clearly including omniscience among the essential attributes of God, Stearns says: “However God is described, . . . his goodness remains a logically contingent matter.”  Stating it in other terms, he says that “there is no logical reason to suppose that the being on top in the metaphysical hierarchy is of any religious interest,” since there is no reason to assume that the metaphysically eminent being is morally eminent (Stearns, 1972: 212, 213). There is reason why a metaphysically supreme being, having attributes such as omni-science, should not be evil (Stearns, 1972: 12, 219). This, Stearns (1972:219) says, is true of even more adequate views of God, such as that of Whitehead.  It is this position, which is asserted again and again in the literature, but seldom ever argued, that I want to challenge.

Some theologians who view God’s will as the criterion of right have responded to the charge of arbitrariness by arguing that goodness is essential to the very idea of God.  For example, Patterson Brown (1963:239,241) seeks to mitigate the offense caused by his claim that God’s will is (for the Christian) the ultimate criterion of good by pointing out that perfect knowledge, justice, and love also belong to the definition of God, and that God would necessarily will in accord with these attributes.  Burton Porter (1968:152) tries to solve the is-ought problem by saying that “God is good” is analytically true.  Also, in pointing out that God’s point of view is the one and only exemplification of the moral point of view, Charles Reynolds (1972:511-515) and Richard Mouw (1970:65) both emphasize that this is not true of any old concept of God, but requires that God must be impartially benevolent.

Although I think these views are on the right track there is one problem they share: they provide no link between the metaphysical and the moral attributes of God.  All these thinkers would hold, I believe, that a being worthy to be called God must have certain metaphysical and certain moral attributes.  But from their writings one could infer that it is just fortuitous that the being who has the necessary metaphysical equipment also has the necessary moral character. Now, this weakens the claim that “God’s will” is the criterion of right and wrong.  For, the word “God” seems to suggest metaphysical attributes to many people more readily than it suggests a particular moral character.  For example, for Kai Nielsen (1966: 148) the word seems to signify most basically a “necessary being.”  And for many the first attribute suggested is omnipotence.”  Accordingly, despite the fact that theologians may claim that qualities such as impartial sympathy or loving kindness are as essential to the notion of God as the metaphysical ones, the thought will remain that a being worthy of the name God might be, in Aiken’s words, a “perfect stinker.”  After all, if we were convinced that there were an eternal, necessary, omniscient, supremely powerful creator, would we withhold the name God just because we thought this being was not morally perfect?  John Roth, Fred Sontag, and Eliezer Berkovitz certainly do not. So, no matter how much theologians claim it to be analytic that God is good, the thought will remain that God might be evil.  In other words, that God’s preferences would not necessarily coincide with those of a fully informed, impartial, sympathetic observer.

To remedy this situation, it would be necessary to show that the moral attributes of God in question (namely, impartiality and sympathy) follow from at least one of the metaphysical attributes.  This would mean refuting Stearns’ (1972:214) claim that, “given any metaphysical description of God, God’s goodness is logically contingent.”  This would show that, in terms of at least one metaphysical position, the metaphysically eminent being would necessarily be more morally eminent.

In terms of what metaphysical attribute can the link be made?  Most critics, in rejecting any linkage, pounce on omnipotence, pointing out that making the linkage on this basis would be to endorse the unacceptable view that “might makes right.”  Kai Nielsen (1966:147, 148) for some reason picks necessary existence, and indeed it would be hard to deduce necessary moral goodness from this charac-teristic.  But what about omniscience, which is the one metaphysical characteristic shared in common by the traditional notion of God and the ideal observer?  (I should perhaps point out that omniscience, defined as “knowledge of everything knowable,” need not include knowledge of the future.)  What if to know other sentient beings immediately with perfect knowledge is necessarily to share their enjoyments, their sufferings, and their desires?  Then an omniscient being would necessarily be sympathetic, and impartially so, since this being would equally share the feelings of all other sentient beings.

The idea of omniscience is the idea of knowledge that is not only complete but also direct and immediate.  There would be no knowledge based on inference, and in fact none that is mediated in any way.  On what basis can we plausibly contend that omniscience would involve perfect sympathy?  Only if it is true in general that the degree of sympathy we feel for others increases proportionately with the completeness and directness of our knowledge of them.  Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hart-shorne, among others, argue that this is the case.

Whitehead distinguishes what we ordinarily call perception, i.e., sense perception, from a more direct and fundamental form, which he calls “perception in the mode of causal efficacy.”  The big mistake of most epistemologists, he holds, is that they have assumed that sense perception, because it is clearer and more distinct in our conscious awareness, is the fundamental type of perception.  But this is backwards (Whitehead, 1978:162 [246]).  The basic or primitive type of perception involves a direct transfer of feeling, in which the perceiver’s experience conforms to the subjective forms (the emotions, desires, purposes) felt by the perceived. In short, perception in its most direct form is sympathy.  Here is Whitehead’s (1978:162 [246]) statement:

The primitive form of physical experience is emotional—blind emotion—received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion.  In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sym-pathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another.

Our best examples of this in our own experience are our perception of our bodily cells and our perception of our own immediate past experience.  Our body is that part of nature with which we have the most direct, intimate relations.  And clearly our knowledge of what goes on in it is sympathetic knowledge, as when we step on a nail, have a stomach-ache, or, more happily, when we enjoy good food or an orgasm.  Apart from telepathy, which most of us do not experience—at least vividly—the only “others” on our own level that we know directly and with any adequacy are our own past experiences.  And this is clearly a relation of sympathy; in fact, the sympathy is so strong that we have often thought that the relation was one of ontological identity.  But, once we see that it is not, that our soul is not an enduring substance but a series of discrete experiences, it becomes our clearest illustration of the coincidence of knowledge and sympathy.  We feel very strongly the disappointments, the boredom, the joys, the desires, and the purposes of our past experiences, especially those within the past few seconds.  They, along with the current feelings derived directly from the body, usually provide our strongest motivations.

This positive relation between knowledge and sympathy, which becomes identity in the supreme instance, is discussed often in Hartshorne’s writing, usually with an eye towards its ethical implications. He stresses the difference between inferential, indirect “knowledge about,” which we have of external things through intermediary signals or symbols, and the direct, intuitive, “knowledge by acquaintance,” which is sympathetic, and which alone should serve as the model for divine omniscience (Hartshorne, 1964: 241; 1968:196f.) And he stresses the importance of taking the mind-body relation as our basis for understanding unmediated knowledge, since, other than memory, this is the only type of knowledge that is obviously sympathetic (Hartshorne, 1968:208).  Using the mind-body relation as a model for the God-world relation leads to the view that God, as omniscient, naturally and necessarily is motivated by the interests of others, since they become God’s own interests (Hartshorne, 1964:162).  We can imagine this through a thought experiment: “suppose all ‘others’ were within the body, as its members; then, since the need of the body is for the flourishing of its own parts or members, bodily desire and altruism would be coincident” (Hartshorne, 1953:141).  This that God would not be altruistic: “Omniscience thus removes from God the sole reason for that form of altruism which seeks the good of another in partial disregard of whether or not it is good for self” (Hartshorne, 1953:140).  This lack of a need for altruism removes any basis for imaging that an omniscient being might not be sympathetic to the interests of other sentient beings, since omniscience makes for a “certain and absolute coincidence of other-interest and self-interest” (Hartshorne, 1953:141, italics added).  Is it then proper to call God “ethical”?  Hartshorne (1964:162f.) explains, in a passage that nicely summarizes the points being made here, that this depends on how one understands the term.

. . . if “ethical” means resistant to temptation, or willing to sacrifice joy (not just to suffer pain) for others, then in so far God is not ethical.  But if it means being motivated by concern for the interests of others, then God alone is absolutely ethical; for to know interests, fully and concretely, and to share them are indistinguishable.  The “simplicity” of God has here its true meaning, that there can be no duality of understanding and motivation in a being in which either understanding or motivation is perfect.  Both come down to love pure and simple and indivisible.  To fully sympathize with and to fully know the feelings of others are the same relationship, separable in our human case only because there the “fully” never applies, . . . .

The claim of the ethical autonomists is that every metaphysical description of God leaves God’s goodness logically contingent.  It only takes one counter-example to refute this sweeping claim. Hartshorne’s metaphysical description of God explicitly provides such a counter-example (and Whitehead’s does implicitly).  My argument has been designed to show that the necessary connection between divine omniscience and impartial sympathy for all sentient beings is not an ad hoc assertion, but one which follows from a general analysis of the nature of direct perceptual knowledge of other sentient beings.  Given this analysis, if God is omniscient, God could not be a “perfect stinker.” Since the idea that an increase in knowledge necessarily means an increase in virtue is in general so false (I am a Niebuhrian on this and most points), I should perhaps summarize the very restricted sense in which I am suggesting that it is true.  First, I am not speaking of the knowledge of propositional truths, but only of the knowledge of other sentient beings.  Second, I am not speaking of “knowledge about,” but of “knowledge by acquaintance,” i.e., of perceptual knowledge.  In the third place, I am not referring to the kind of “perception” most people probably first think of when they think of perception, viz., sense perception.  Rather, I am referring to knowledge that is “based on that non-sensuous type of perception we have of our bodily feelings and our own past thoughts and feelings.  Finally, I am not suggesting that this type of knowledge leads to moral virtue in human beings at all, since the only “sentient beings” of which we have this type of knowledge are our own bodily cells and past moments of our own soul1, and we usually think of moral virtue as involving relations to sentient beings beyond our-selves.  Rather, the suggestion is only that we have an experiential basis for seeing that divine omni-science, in which all sentient beings would be known with even more complete and immediate perceptual knowledge, would necessarily be impartially sympathetic knowledge.

There is one other reason why philosophers who would not object to taking the preferences of a hypothetical ideal observer as the criterion of right might object to thinking of the will of an actual being as the criterion.  This is the fear that the ontological doctrine that the will of God constitutes the criteriological meaning of moral terms would imply an unacceptable epistemological doctrine of how to ascertain the right.  Those philosophical ethicists who accept the ideal observer criterion are generally committed to the view that trying to discern the right thing to do involves learning all the relevant facts, including the interests of all the parties concerned, and then deciding through impartial reflection what course of action would be best.  In other words, one tries to discern the right through rational procedures, with “rational” understood to involve empirical, deductive, and imaginative elements.  Autonomists are afraid that these rational procedures will be short-circuited if the criterion of right is the will of an actual being, since this will might be thought to be known through some means other than rational reflection.  One might believe that this being has revealed its will with adequate clarity in the past, and that this revelation is adequately reflected in some Scriptures.  For example, after arguing it to be a necessary truth that God’s moral judgments are always correct if God is understood as a perfectly omniscient, rational, and benevolent being, Richard Mouw (1970:65, 66) goes on to say that “that being has publicized his moral views,” and he contrasts “God’s moral advice” with “our own deliberations.”

Whether one believes that the process of rational ethical reflection can be supplanted or at least supplemented by some other means for discerning the will of God will depend upon one’s conception of God, especially God’s mode of relating to the world. For example, if one rejects the doctrine of divine omnipotence and with it the idea that God could unilaterally determine the nature of events of events in the world, one will not be able to believe in an infallible revelation by God.  This might lead one to conclude that taking God’s will as the criterion of right and wrong would not imply a different procedure for making moral judgments than that implied by taking the preferences of a purely hypothetical ideal observer as the criterion.  This move is made in two excellent articles by Charles Reynolds (1970, 1972), who has adopted Hartshorne’s view of God.

However, there is no gainsaying that taking the will of an actual being as the criterion might lead to the conclusion that a different procedure should be used to discern the right.  And this conclusion could well be based upon the kind of rational reflection that is usually urged by philosophical ethicists.  To see this point, we must distinguish between the procedure recommended for making actual moral decisions and the procedure for deciding how best to go about making these actual moral decisions.  The former decision procedure can be called the “existential decision procedure”; it is the procedure to be used when one is confronted with a concrete moral issue.  The latter can be called the “ivory-tower decision procedure”; it is the procedure used in a time of disengagement from concrete moral decisions.  One sits in one’s ivory tower and contemplates how one should make a concrete moral decision, the next time one comes up.  I am assuming that all parties would agree upon the ivory-tower decision procedure: One should consider all the relevant facts impartially.  But different people using this same ivory tower procedure may come to different conclusions as to the proper existential decision procedure, since they may have different ideas about the “relevant facts.” In one person’s list might be the “fact” that our moral sense and practical reason been corrupted by original sin, and the “fact” that an omnipotent God has provided a remedy for this in the form of revealed moral laws.  Accordingly, the ivory-tower reflecting may lead to the conclusion that existential judgments should be made by appealing to the Bible. Another person, using the same ivory-tower procedure but not including God and original sin among the facts of reality, may conclude that existential judgments should be made in the same way as ivory-tower judgments, that is, by impartial reflection upon all the relevant facts.  Still another thinker might reject the idea of a moral law infallibly given in the past and yet believe in a God whose present will can be discerned by those who have taken the proper measures to be open to the promptings of God’s Spirit.  And this thinker might conclude while in the ivory tower that sensitiveness to the present promptings of the Holy Spirit would, at least for some people, lead to correct existential judgments more often than the attempt to try to discern the right through purely rational procedures.

Accordingly, it cannot be denied that taking the will of an actual God as the criterion of right might lead to an existential decision procedure that would differ from that advocated by non-theistic ethicists.  But that fact alone cannot be used by ethical autonomists to reject theological ethics without begging the question, since the question as to the “proper” existential decision procedure cannot be answered without answering the prior question as to the “relevant facts.”  One cannot begin with the assumption that rational reflection is always the proper decision procedure for making existential moral judgments; one can only establish this by first arguing convincingly that the relevant facts about reality do not include a God, at least a God who is impartially sympathetic to all and whose will could sometimes be best known through means other than rational reflection alone.



I have argued (in Section II) that one can move logically from beliefs about God’s will to ought-statements if one stipulates that “what God wills” is the criteriological meaning of “what is right” and “what one ought to do,” so that saying “God wills that I do Y” entails “I ought to do Y.”  But how can one justify the stipulation that what God wills is the criterion of what is right?  I have argued that many contemporary philosophers should find this stipulation unobjectionable, given a Whiteheadian-Hartshornean understanding of God, since this stipulation does not differ substantively from their own formulations of the criteriological meaning of right.  But one can still ask, Why should we take the preference of a fully informed, impartially sympa-thetic observer as the criterion of right and wrong? Is this a universally held criterion?  Obviously not, as many tribes have held that it is right to treat people in other tribes totally differently than those in one’s own.  The viewpoint of an observer who would be impartial as between the interests of the people in the various tribes was not recognized as a higher standard, and would have been rejected if proposed. And indeed there are philosophers today who say that the right thing is always that which promotes one’s self-interest as it is understood by the person in question, no matter how “selfish” those interests might be.  So, how can one simply say that the moral standard is a perspective that is impartially sympathetic to the interests of all people (or even all sentient beings)?

The answer seems to be that the philosophers who accept this standard do so on the basis of a perception of holiness.  In our Western tradition, biblical ideas of a God who is the creator of all people, who loves all people equally, wills equal treatment to those within and without one’s tribe, and is ‘‘no respecter of persons,” were combined with universalistic ideas and also the ideas about divine reason in the Stoic, Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophies, which were themselves developments out of earlier religious traditions.  For about twenty centuries this conception of the holy has been focused on in almost all the explicitly religious worship, and has been dominant in the various areas of thought and activity for most of those centuries. The perception of the holy among people in the West has thereby been heavily influenced.  Many people who no longer share the conception of the holy of holies that was for so long the orthodox synthesis, and who may not have replaced it with a reformed or radically different conception, still more or less see the world, especially in regard to fundamental moral issues, through lenses that were ground during centuries of trying to conform one’s perceptions to those of the Holy One of Israel, Rome, and Athens. This fact was the basis for Nietzsche’s criticism against the British moralists who had given up the Christian (conception of) God but still tried to retain the Christian morality, rather than seeing that a complete reversal of values was called for (i.e., by Nietzsche’s new view of the holy).

This influence can be seen in recent philosophical discussions of the nature of morality.  One of the major divisions within these discussions is between those who do and the “rational” point of view.  But both groups show the influence of the Christian conception of the holy on their understandings of the nature of morality.  G. J. Warnock is one who rejects the equation of morality with rationality.  He lists several ways in which one might reject morality, or at least seldom take its dictates to be overriding, without being guilty of irrationality.  For example, one simply might believe that aesthetic consider-ations were usually more important than moral ones, which are concerned with the amelioration and prevention of suffering and injustice (Warnock, 1971:157f.).  Or, concern for the welfare of the weak might be thought to be bad for the race in general.  So, there is nothing about “rationality” that dictates impartial sympathetic consideration of the interests of all human beings (or sentient creatures).  But Warnock builds this requirement into the meaning of “morality” itself.  The general object of morality as such, he (Warnock, 1971: 16) says, is the amelior-ation of the human predicament.  There is hence a universalism built into this definition by virtue of the term “human.”  One of the essentials of the moral point of view is a respect for persons simply as persons, and hence the principle that no human being is to be regarded as having no rights (Warnock, 1971:148, 141).  Accordingly, Warnock will not allow so-called “tribal moralities” to be called “moralities,” since their notions are not really moral ones.  This exclusion, he (Warnock, 1971 :149) says, is not arbitrary, but analytic, since it follows “from what morality is.”

Warnock, incidentally, believes that theistic religious beliefs can help instill a moral point of view, but that such beliefs do not make any difference in principle.  People are capable of arriving at the feeling of respect for all persons without seeing them as the object of deity’s care; and in civilized religions religious sanctions are simply attached to things that would anyway be regarded as moral or immoral (Warnock, 1971:140-141).  Warnock has evidently so come to see as holy those things (i.e., people qua people) that were made derivatively holy by the Christian God that he believes the perception of this holiness to be independent of any perception or conception of deity.

Paul Taylor (1961:113) provides an example of one who builds universalistic requirements into the concept of rationality, rather than directly into the concept of morality.  He says that we must speak of the moral codes of head-hunting societies and of street gangs as moral codes.  How does one choose among moral codes?  In particular, how can one justify an impartial morality, in which everyone’s interests should be taken into account (Taylor, 1961: 146, 148)?  Taylor argues that Kurt Baier’s answer to this question is circular, in that Baier presupposes the way of life that includes this “moral point of view” in the very attempt to justify it.  Taylor (1961:146f.) argues that we must have a procedure for justifying the inclusive way of life itself.  But Taylor’s own procedure is circular.  His procedure is to see which way of life would be rationally chosen.  He (Taylor, 1961:164f., italics his) stipulates that “a choice is rational to the extent that it is free, enlightened, and impartial.”  We see here the characteristics of our old friend, the ideal observer, indeed, Taylor (1961:165) points out that no human being can fulfill these conditions.  Impartiality includes disinterestedness, which requires that “the choice is not at all determined by . . . desire to protect one’s privileges (or those of one’s family, friends, or class), or by any emotional prejudices . . . .” (Taylor, 1961:170).

Now, many people, including many philosophers, would say that a choice is rational (although perhaps immoral) if it is well suited to achieving what a person wants, to furthering an interest (whether that interest be selfish or impersonal).  But Taylor will not allow “rational” to be so used: to be rational, a choice must be completely disinterested. Hasn’t Taylor simply built the perspective of a universalistic deity into his concept of rationality, thus guaranteeing that the only moral codes that could be “rationally chosen” would be ones that would be in harmony with the will of a universal, impartial, sympathetic deity?  Taylor denies that he has built a commitment to his own way of life into his concept of rationality, so that his procedure would be circular.  Rather, he (Taylor, 1961:176) claims, the conditions of rational choice that he has specified “are the conditions which I presume anyone, in any way of life, would accept as defining a rational choice, in the ordinary sense of the word ‘rational.’”

But a definition of rational that includes the notion of complete impartiality is clearly a normative definition.  It appears that Taylor, through being raised in a tradition whose people had so long believed in a holy reality that combined the universalistic aspects of Hebrew, Greek and Roman thought, has come to perceive impartial rationality as itself holy, and to be unable to grant the term “rational” to any process of thinking that does not strive for and achieve a significant degree of impartiality.

My argument is that the reason why the preference of a fully informed, impartially sympathetic observer can be regarded as the criterion of right is that this perspective is implicitly conceived as holy.  This means that the criteriological meaning of right is not really distinct from the religious meaning insofar as it deals with the conceived holy, which, I argued, is the ultimate basis for the justification of moral judgments.  The only difference is that sometimes it is not explicitly recognized that the acceptance of something as an ultimate standard involves an acceptance of this something as holy.  Once this is recognized, it becomes evident that the transition from is- to ought-statements depends upon the psychological fact that we have an interest in being in harmony with that which is holy.

Recognizing the religious nature of all morality has several advantages.  First, it undercuts the claim that explicitly religious moralities are illegitimate in principle.  Second, it has the purely philosophical advantage of increased understanding by uncovering the appeals to ultimacy that are often made only covertly.  Third, by revealing that there is no purely “rational” justification for moral judgments, and getting the appeal to the holy out in the open, it makes clear what the quest for justification has to deal with, i.e., the conception of the holy.  Fourth, as stated earlier, it allows us to see that that which is the final ground for the justification of moral judgments is also a basis or a motivation to be moral.2  Accordingly, it does not leave those who want to promote morality in the position of having to hope passively that people will have the emotions, attitudes and interests that are the precondition for moral reflection and action.  Rather, they can promote the moral life by promoting the vision of the holy reality.  In the words of Kenneth E. Kirk, the way to promote morality is not to set codes of behavior before people, but to “stimulate the spirit of worship.”



1 At least this seems to be true of most of us, especially so far as conscious awareness is con-cerned.  Some “sensitives” do seem to feel sympa-thetically the feelings of other people.  And, according to Abraham Heschel’s interpretation, the prophets were consciously sympathetic to God’s feelings.

2 To avoid misunderstanding, I should add that I do not assume that to know the good is, for humans, necessarily a sufficient motivation for doing it.  Beyond the fact that we will never adequately know “the good,” in that our partial perspective will always distort our perception of it, our anxieties about our own place in the scheme of things will inevitably hinder an uncompromising pursuit of the good even insofar as we have glimpsed it.  (Of course, I am assuming here that we have a vision of a good that transcends our partial perceived interests.)  Also, while our religious drive to be in harmony with the holy provides some motivation for acting, and especially to the extent that our perception and conception of the holy coincide, the religious drive varies greatly in strength from person to person, in comparison with other drives.  Also, even in the most integrated people there will surely be some divergence between the perceived and conceived holies.



Aiken, Henry David

1958 “God and evil: a study of some relations between faith and morals.” Ethics 68/2 (January):77-97.

Brown, Patterson

1963 “Religious morality.” Mind 72 (April):235-244.

Frankena, William

1976 ‘‘‘Ought’ and ‘is’ once more.”  Pp. 133-147 in Kenneth E. Goodpaster, editor, Perspectives on Morality: Essays of William K. Frankena. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.

Hartshorne, Charles

1953 Beyond Humanism: Essays in the Philosophy of Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. (Originally published in 1937.)

1964 Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books. (Originally published in 1941.)

1968 Reality as Social Process: Studies In Metaphysics and Religion. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

Kirk, Kenneth E.

1931 The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum. London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company.

Mouw, Richard J.

1970 “The status of God’s moral judgments.” Canadian Journal of Theology 16:61-66.

Nielsen, Kai

1966 “Some remarks on the independence of morality from religion.” Pp. 140-151 in Ian T. Ramsey, editor, Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy. London: SCM Press.

Nowell-Smith, P. H.

1966 “Morality: religious and secular.” Pp. 95-112 in Ian T. Ramsey, editor, Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy. London: SCM Press.

Porter, Burton

1968 Deity and Morality: With Regard to the Naturalistic Fallacy. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Reynolds, Charles

1970 “A proposal for understanding the place of reason in Christian ethics.” The Journal of Religion 50:155-168.

1972 “Elements of a decision procedure for Christian social ethics.” Harvard Theological Review 65:509-530.

Stackhouse, Max L.

1976 “The location of the holy.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 4/1 (Spring): 63-104.

Stearns, J. Brenton

1972 “The naturalistic fallacy and the question of the existence of God.” Religious Studies 8:207-220.

Taylor, Paul W.

1961 Normative Discourse. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Warnock, G. J.

1971 The Object of Morality. London: Methuen & Company Ltd.

Whitehead, A. N.

1978 Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press. (Pagination to the 1929 Macmillan edition given in brackets.)

David Ray Griffin Page