Why Was Anyone Ever Impressed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

One interesting feature of recent debates about God’s existence is the use of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to deride the rationality of theistic belief (a colorful spin on Russell’s teapot case). What I’m interested in is why anyone was ever impressed with it.

Lately I’ve been studying the history of the Byzantine Empire: its military history, its religion and theology, its philosophy, art, and architecture. It’s amazing to me that there’s an entire empire, lasting one thousand years, that is wholly absent from popular Western culture. When was the last time you saw the Byzantine Empire mentioned in a movie, a television show, or a recent novel? And so what happened? Why did one thousand years of Greek Christian history go down the memory hole?

Anyway, I don’t know. But I am impressed by one thing that survives – neoplatonist influences. I’m impressed by neoplatonists’ ability to continually reinvigorate themselves over the centuries, especially by introducing and refining theological ideas that continue to have broad influence in Christianity. Neoplatonism played an essential role in the development of the doctrine of the trinity, the two natures of Christ (the hypostatic union), the doctrine of the immortal soul, and the Eastern Christian ideas of theosis, and the essence-energies distinction.

Neoplatonism was extremely influential in the Western Empire as well, among Augustine, who more or less introduced Platonism into Christian theology in the West, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others. Platonism was probably most influential in Christian Egypt, through Alexandrian theology.

So all around the Mediterranean, and deep into Europe, neoplatonism was the state of the philosophical and theological art for centuries and centuries.

For many neoplatonic thinkers (Christian or no), the existence of some sort of deity is philosophically obvious. God/master deity often served as the explanatory ground of almost everything: concepts, knowledge, morality, human purpose, the soul, freedom, and the basis of political order. This isn’t a coincidence. They believed they had arguments beginning from their philosophical commitments and extending to the existence of some kind of chief deity. Some kind of God served a central explanatory role in these philosophical and theological systems.

For neoplatonists, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) would have seemed a ridiculous analogy with the divine. The power of the FSM is to generate the intuition that God’s existence is random, unnecessary, and absurd. And just as no one should believe in FSM, no one should believe in God. But, again, the finest minds for over a thousand years, and really fifteen hundred years, would have been utterly unmoved because God’s existence was in no way random. In fact, God’s existence was the least random thing imaginable.

The truth is that a single, original deity isn’t going to seem random on any view that prioritizes the conceptual and the mental as ontologically fundamental. Deity just doesn’t look weird on such views. And, importantly, these views aren’t insane, since it is hard to see how the conceptual and the mental as we know them could even in principle originate in the material world. So there must be some mental point of origin or explanation, and that suggests at least one deity, and perhaps only one master deity. I take no stand here on whether those systems must lead to some kind of theism, just that it is entirely reasonable for these philosophical systems to yield arguments for some kind of theism.

So when did FSM start seeming like an interesting analogy? Not the 19th century, since idealism was dominant in many places, and idealists frequently affirmed the existence of either an immanent deity or a transcendent one.

No, it is the dominance of physicalism that gives the FSM its rhetorical power. But this suggests that all the FSM can do is convince people with tacit physicalist commitments that God’s existence is as random and unexplained as the FSM. For again, for centuries upon centuries, almost no reflective person with philosophical training would have been impressed. Instead, the only people who are impressed are those who have absorbed physicalist assumptions. And, while physicalism is influential, it is not only reasonably contestable, but it is probably in some trouble in the philosophy of mind and metaethics. It’s just hard to jam mental and moral properties into the physical world.

Now, of course, many people will say that the only reason various forms of monotheism were dominant for so long is that people were pressured into believing it and absorbed it from their culture. But, first, that wasn’t always true (it wasn’t true in the polytheistic ancient world in many areas). Second, the lines of argument they pursued weren’t at all absurd, or at least no more absurd than modern philosophical arguments for all kinds of things. And third, similar debunking explanations can explain away rational atheism too. One could argue that the reason atheism is common in the academy is that high status academics are often atheist physicalists, and atheism has filtered out of the academy in part because many academics are high-status atheists in the popular culture, like the late Stephen Hawking.

So that’s why I think the FSM impresses some people. It impresses express or tacit physicalists, but other reasonable philosophical systems won’t see a single God as an arbitrary and laughably random postulate. And the philosophical systems that do see God in this way are subject to various difficulties. Now, the Christian God may indeed seem random as a specification of the master deity, but even Christians admit that we only know about God’s Trinitarian structure through revelation. So if you want to impugn the Christian God with the FSM, you have to already think you have a good argument against the idea that the master deity can and has revealed itself as having a Trinitarian form. And that requires a bit more than ridicule, if the existence of a master deity is already on the table.

Black Hole Theories of Social Power

A black hole theory of social power holds that when an institution gets too much power, that power will snowball, making institution ever harder to stop. Left unchecked, the institution will control most or all of society and use various forms of coercion and violence to cement its power for good.

There are two big black hole theories in the recent history of political theory. Roughly, the simple socialist theory is that large capitalist firms (boss-dominated) are the black holes. And also roughly, the simple libertarian theory is that large states are the black holes.

I tend to think the libertarian theory is better than the socialist theory for familiar reasons. States have more coercive power to begin with, they have far more monopoly power, and so aren’t subject to the checks of competition. And I don’t think the history of markets illustrates the ability of capitalists to achieve hegemony through the market order. Real capitalism is just so chaotic, and generates so much creative destruction, that it’s hard for any firm to stay on top for long without help. So they tend to co-opt specific parts of the state to engage in the most severe forms of domination. (An oldie, but a goodie on this last point.)

I’ve become more worried about the simple libertarian theory with time for a few reasons. First, states can’t really be modeled as one big bad actor any more than markets can. States are huge conglomerations of agents with different interests and goals, as are firms in a market. And, while states tend to grow more than they shrink, they do seem to abide by more limits than you’d expect if the liberal theory were true. Social norms, social trust, religion, and ideology have big roles to play in determining social outcomes, so much, in fact, that they may often overwhelm economic and political centers of gravity.

I now think that there are probably no social black holes. Or better, there are centers of social gravity, but there are a number of them, and they interact and conflict in complex ways such that predictions based on black hole theories often turn out to be false. Many human institutions are rather fragile, and are subject to contestation and decay, and so don’t really have event horizons.

The good thing about having no black holes is that it is harder for a society to become permanently dominated than many fear. The “bad” thing about having no black holes is that we have fewer big, powerful enemies to fight against in order to give our lives meaning. Socialists often make big business their meaning-bestowing political foe, while libertarians often make big states their meaning-bestowing political foes. Sometimes these mindsets lead to improvements in well-being, sometimes not. Neither theory is probably a very good thing to bet your life on.

I prefer a Wittgensteinian* theory. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself. And the best way (though not the only way) to fight evil is to try and make moral progress, in small steps, each day, struggling to be kinder, more forgiving, and more loving than the day before. It may sound lame, but seriously, who do you have more control over in the end, yourself or other people? And how are you going to make the world a better place if you’re a bad person?

*Wittgenstein may not have said this, but it is often attributed to him.




Integralism as Christian Default

The new Catholic integralists have caught fire on the internet and to some extent outside of it Their proposal is simple. What should the state do? Promote the full authentic human good. For the integralist, the full authentic good is as Catholicism describes. What distinguishes integralist states from other kinds of political order is that the state uses coercion to promote expressly Catholic ends, even in matters of faith. Religious coercion has some limits, but it can be used to punish heresy and apostasy, and to ensure that Catholicism is the religion of the state. (See Thomas Pink’s defense of the position.)

The integralist proposal disturbs many people (including Catholics) because integralists reject liberal freedom of religion and embraces religious coercion. Given the untoward implications of integralism, most familiar with the view set it aside on the basis of an argument like the following:

  1. If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
  2. But religious coercion is wrong.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralist need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality. The more time I spent with their position, the harder I find it is to articulate attractive alternatives approaches that are compatible with Christian belief. I now think integralism can only be answered with some fundamental revisions to standard theistic ethical theories, in particular natural law theory and divine command theory. We need a theistic deontology, but one where side-constraints are grounded in the divine nature (most natural rights theorists ground rights in the divine nature only obliquely).

I think I can convey the power of the integralist challenge by using an analogy with act-consequentialism in normative ethics (which holds that the right acts are those that maximize well-being). Integralism and act-consequentialism are simple, elegant theories with seemingly untoward implications, but they are so elegant that many theorists will adopt the view and simply accept the implications. And even good men will do so, like Peter Singer (a lead consequentialist) and Adrian Vermeule (a lead integralist).

As we know, the cost of act-consequentialism is having to sacrifice some for others. The cost of integralism is similar, though less nasty. The integralist must embrace religious coercion of the baptized (as punishment for apostasy or heresy), which the vast majority of reflective Christians today think is gravely unjust, including practically all leading Catholic theologians, bishops, cardinals, and most recent popes. The integralists insist the cost must be paid, and try to contain the costs by pointing to the differing moral intuitions of prominent Catholics in the past.

Act-consequentialism and integralism are plainly quite different normative theories. They are elegant approaches to ethics and political theory respectively because they make the good the sole normative master conception in a straightforward way. So much so, that one might even think that they’re the default normative theories.

I think that work on act-consequentialism has shown why it is axiologically mistaken. But I don’t think we yet have an account of why integralist axiology is mistaken if we take the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, for granted.

Robert Nozick said of John Rawls that “political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory of explain why not.” Perhaps this is giving integralism too much credit, but I think that “Christian political theologians now must either work within an integralist framework or explain why not.” Christians need a satisfying explanation as to why the state should not promote the ultimate good, and after surveying the alternatives, I don’t think there’s a good candidate explanation yet.


Absolving the Six Deadly Sins of the Trust Literature: Reply to Nowrasteh and Forrester

Last week, Alex Nowrasteh and Andrew Forrester published a Cato working paper arguing that the empirical trust literature is so rife with weaknesses that we can’t learn much from it. Their central finding is that sub-regional trust levels in the United States don’t correlate with economic output, despite trust theorists arguing that trust promotes economic growth (primarily, probably, because trust lowers transactions costs, increasing the amount of exchange, and because of better policy implementation through a more trustworthy civil service).

My sense from the trust literature is that many of these concerns have been amply addressed. I’ve spoken with some trust researchers I know and thought I’d blog some of the responses. The basic worry is that Nowrasteh and Forrester are sort of selective in the papers they feature. The trust literature is actually pretty self-reflective, and have addressed a number of these worries.

Here are what Nowrasteh and Forrester claim are sins in the literature. SIN 1:

The first deadly sin of the trust-growth literature is that it contains no macroeconomic growth model that incorporates trust, either in its micro-foundations or otherwise (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 213). Furthermore, the trust-growth literature does not contain a formal theory of social capital formation broadly or one of trust specifically (Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales, 2011, p. 469). Most trust researchers aggregate assumed effciencies at the microeconomic level up to the macroeconomic level and assume that trust creates economy-wide growth: an illegitimate leap in the logic of micro- to- macro functioning (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 208). The relationship between an individual’s trust and income may not be true for society and cannot be aggregated up to form a truthful representation of the whole (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. 208).

Response: the authors don’t engage with the part of the trust literature that explores transmission mechanisms, writing just a bit about theoretical models in pp. 1-2. A number of papers, including this one, find that human capital and the quality of judicial-bureaucratic institutions are the two main transmission channels. In the US context, the first is hard to pinpoint because people often don’t work where they were educated. The second is also a problem since much institutional quality is defined at the federal level.

Another difficulty Nowrasteh and Forrester cite is supposedly that the literature “contains no macroeconomic growth model that incorporates trust.” Apparently this is false. If the likely transmission mechanisms are through institutions and human capital, there are plenty of growth models illustrating such effects. What the formal models miss is how to explain how trust affects institutions and human capital. However, see this paper, this paper, this paper, and Zak and Knack’s highly cited investment driven model. Oh, and this paper and this paper too. On to SIN 2:

The second deadly sin of the trust literature is that the trust question itself does not produce internally valid responses. Recall, the trust question is: \Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” There is no universal measure of trust because, in part, its meaning is culturally and contextually specific (Beugelsdijk and Maseland, 2011, p. xvii). The responses to the trust question are \Most people can be trusted,” \Can’t be too careful,” and \Depends.” The meaning of those responses is also unclear.

It’s not true that the trust question doesn’t produce internally valid responses. The primary argument they give is a twenty-year-old quote from Robert Putnam. But a number of studies do show that the generalized trust question does rather well: here, Sapienza 2013 which the authors cite but not on this point, and a Naef and Schupp 2009 working paper using the GSOEP dataset all show clearly that the question produces valid responses. Even Nannestad’s well-known 2008 review notes that the trust question has excellent test-retest stats. Now SIN 3:

The third deadly sin of the trust literature is that responses to the trust question do not generally predict trusting behavior in real-world micro-level experiments or in trust games.

The papers above also address this deadly sin, such as the Sapienza paper, which the authors cite, but, again, don’t draw the right conclusions from. Here’s another paper connecting trust responses and actual behavior. SIN 4:

The fourth deadly sin is that many of the major papers in the trust literature are contaminated by various types of sample biases.

The main findings in the literature can be replicated using much larger samples. And trust scores are so stable over time that slight demographic changes like those they describe are not relevant. SIN 5:

The fifth deadly sin is that even if the trust question were free from measurement error or sample selection bias, trust may be a proxy measurement for other deeper causes of economic development.

The trouble here is that the literature hasn’t found any examples of this. It’s also a bit of a cheap shot because that can be used as an argument against pretty much all findings in the empirical growth literature. SIN 6:

The sixth deadly sin of the empirical trust literature is that sub-national level data in the United States that is collected under better conditions do not indicate a robust positive relationship between trust and growth.

The sixth sin is only a problem if you think that regional trust should cause regional growth. But it might be that the different regions are sufficiently economically integrated with each other that isolating trust and growth in each region doesn’t tell us much.

In sum, Nowrasteh and Forrester seem to have missed some important papers that I think weaken their argument. It will be interesting to see how their paper develops once they take these papers into account. I think they’ll probably need to stop framing the paper in terms of identifying deadly sins, though.

Why Democrats Should Try to Restore Political Trust

The final question at the Democratic debate last night concerned the Ellen-W friendship and invited candidates to talk about a surprising friendship they have with someone across the political isle. Many viewers complained about the question, but I thought is it was appropriate and informative. A number of the candidates talked about the importance of restoring lost bipartisan trust. I appreciate that because bipartisan trust is inherently valuable. But I also think it makes political sense for Democrats. The societies that have the most extensive welfare states tend to be the most trusting, and that’s likely because high trust populations are more likely to support extensive redistribution. It is no coincidence that nation-states developed extensive social insurance following two world wars. Wars with other countries tend to unite nations, and create the solidarity necessary to convince richer and more powerful citizens to allow limits on their economic self-interest.

This is why restoring trust and lowering polarization is really important for Democrats’ policy goals, since they want large expansions of the welfare state. When Democrats act to increase polarization and sow distrust, they will often make their social democratic aims less politically feasible.

Unfortunately, Republicans lack the same incentives.

Joker’s Portrayal of Poverty and Mental Health [minor spoilers]

Perhaps the most important, yet understated event in Joker is that Arthur Fleck lost his medications and social worker. Due to budget cuts, publicly-funded social workers simply abandoned their cases, leaving Arthur with no easy way to refill his medication and no professional to talk to. These events, especially going off of one’s medications, can send people into psychosis, especially after a traumatic event like losing one’s job, being subject to violent crime, or having severe conflicts with loved ones. Arthur endures all three events within a short span of time, which was likely too much for him neurologically.

The movie doesn’t draw much attention to Arthur not having his medications. In fact, early in the movie, he says the medications aren’t working, and his social worker replies that he’s on seven medications, so they must be doing something. And I think it’s clear that they were helping to a significant degree. After going off of his medications, there seems to be a dramatic decline in Fleck’s mental health, from an entirely delusional relationship to dramatic mood swings, and thrill-seeking behavior. This is one reason it is hard to characterize Arthur as a villain. Even though he commits evil acts, it is doubtful things would have gotten so out of control if he’d been medicated and had someone monitoring his treatment (however overworked and depressed his previous help was). This is one way in which Gotham’s rich failed the poor. By not adequately funding basic mental health services, Arthur was deprived of one of his main tools for maintaining contact with reality.

I do not want to reinforce the dangerous stereotype that the mentally ill are violent. It’s not true. But all else equal, many of the severely mentally ill are more likely to commit suicide and engage in uncontrolled, risky, destructive, and even violent behavior without access to certain medications, especially antipsychotics. Joker helps to illustrate this even though we don’t know which medications Fleck was taking.

The movie does a fairly good job depicting the quality of mental health services for the poor in many parts of the country, at least in the early 1980s. I have a close family member who is a therapist, and she has worked with court-involved youth all over the country in prisons,  juvenile detention facilities, extremely impoverished homes, and psychiatric hospitals. She’s seen how mental health services for the poor often work, and fail to work. I have also, for various family-related reasons, become acquainted with mental health facilities for low-income and lower-income people. The depiction of the mental health worker as overwhelmed by case loads, underfunded, and emotionally exhausted fits our experience. And the gray, depressing, yet often shocking and deeply uncomfortable experience in visiting some mental health facilities also rang true, even for some facilities today.

The main thing that’s objectionable in the movie’s portrayal of mental health services is their failing to depict at least some mental health workers as loving, passionate, and kind. All too often, popular culture assumes that people in the mental health field, especially those who work with the poor, are overwhelmed by their experience, and have the joy drained out of them. But that’s not true, not even usually.

So, Joker struck me as a broadly accurate portrayal of the dangerous game we play when mental health services for the poor (public or private) are inadequately funded and staffed.

There is much to comment on in the movie, which I can only describe as jolting, but it’s important to recognize that one of the prime precipitating factors of his descent into darkness was a failed mental healthcare system in Gotham City.

Many have commented on the importance the movie places on accessible mental health services. So my take is by no means original. But the movie illustrates the way in which mental illness has a life of its own, and how crucial it is to have the right help at the right time.

Beto Makes Politics War

Last night, Beto O’Rourke said that religious institutions that refuse to accept same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. That’s a sure fire way to make politics war: use the federal government to stigmatize half the country. Every conservative mosque, synagogue, and church in the country would be tarred by their own government as bigoted and fined for what they believe. Note that even the most committed judicial leftists would not revoke the tax-exempt status of mosques, synagogues, and churches, just certain non-profits and universities. And even that remains a distinctly minority position.

Comments like this are why many people of faith don’t trust the left to protect their liberties. The worry is that Beto let slip what most politically and socially powerful leftists believe in their hearts. I hope that’s not true, but in a country riven by polarization and mistrust, it is natural to wonder.

And yes, it’s a cliche, but a true one: this is how you get Trump. What are conservative people of faith supposed to do if this is what Democrats would do in office?


Operationalizing the French-Ahmari Debate by Measuring Trustworthiness

I think the recent intra-conservative French-Ahmari debate can be partially resolved by determining the extent to which secular progressives can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion for religious traditionalists with conservative views about human sexuality.

If secular progressives are trustworthy, at least by and large, then French’s strategy of working within liberal democratic institutions makes sense. Conservatives should hold secular progressives to a constitutional order that they accept in general, but chafe at in certain cases. Secular progressives cannot always be trusted to uphold robust freedom of religion, but they’re trustworthy enough not to fundamentally undermine Christianity in the United States. They will obey liberal democratic norms on the whole; conservatives just have to fight to keep them honest.*

However, if secular progressives aren’t trustworthy, then Ahmari’s approach starts to make sense. Secular progressives will tend to undermine robust protections for freedom of religion in a systematic way, and so ignore constitutional constraints whenever they can get away with it. In that case, politics is war regarding freedom of religion, and conservatives may be permitted to respond in kind. Perhaps the liberal legal settlement is therefore unstable because the left cannot be trusted to uphold it, and so the only truly feasible arrangement is cultural and political victory in the fight against the left. There’s no peace and no middle ground because the other side isn’t trustworthy, and so can’t be trusted to keep a liberal democratic peace.

Social scientists have ways of measuring trust and trustworthiness in society and in institutions (I discuss them here), and we could probably use these tools to figure out the extent to which secular progressives can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion. It would involve trying to systematically determine the extent to which secular progressives respect freedom of religion when they hold enough political power to violate it. At present, I’m not sure we have enough data to know for sure. There are certainly warning signs that make Ahmari’s position attractive to some, but I think we are far from the point where it is clear that we must overturn our liberal democratic peace.

* Yes, yes, conservatives need to be kept honest too.

Six Reasons Why Ellen is Right to Remain Friends with George W. Bush

There’s been a bit of a Twitterstorm over Ellen DeGeneres’s friendship with George W. Bush, which became clear when they were seen at a football game together. Some complained on the grounds that a good person like Ellen shouldn’t be friends with an ex-president with problematic views and who did terrible things in office. The Huffington Post recounts the incident here. Here’s a CNN article on the same.

Ellen defended herself:

“I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres said Monday on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.”

I think this is the right response for six reasons.

(1) We have little effect on political outcomes, so basing friendships on politics will undermine friendships based on factors one cannot change. By foregoing the friendship, then, little is gained. And much is lost if the friendship is otherwise worthwhile.

(2) Politics isn’t all that matters even if we can change political outcomes by rejecting friends because of their politics. We should base friendships on many factors, not just shared beliefs.

(3) Having friends with different views helps you to understand the rationale for your own views, to change your mind and/or the mind of your friend. So there are lots of epistemic benefits to having friends with diverse perspectives. The case for Millian free speech writ small!

(4) One might reply that one shouldn’t be friends with W because of the Iraq War. That is a reason to criticize him, but it’s also a reason to try to connect with him and be a safe place for him to express remorse and to heal.

(5) I think it’s clear that W has real remorse, given his intense practice of painting the portraits of soldiers he sent to war. If someone expresses remorse, even privately, we should praise and encourage such a person, not shun him.

(6) In a heavily polarized culture, we should praise high-status people who form friendships with people with opposing political views. They set an example for depolarizing and restoring trust by showing that we can connect to others for reasons other than politics. They show that our differences can be overcome. Ellen has made a choice that helps others to reconcile.

I’ll end the post with more of Ellen’s fine words: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.” Yes, indeed.


When Did Moral Philosophy Become Overwhemingly Secular?

Lately I’ve been poking around the history of moral philosophy, and I decided to read all of F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, first published in 1876. Philosophers will remember Bradley for his essay “My Station and Its Duties,” which is one chapter.
I finished the book a few days ago, and I was surprised that the last chapter is about religion and morality (it’s called “Concluding Remarks,” so the content is not too obvious!). Especially interesting is that Bradley says that his moral theory, “My station and its duties,” is incomplete. Here’s what he says, with my comments in brackets:
[T]he hunt after pleasure in any shape has proved itself a delusion [Bradley rejects utilitarianism], and the form of duty a snare [Bradley rejects Kantianism], and the finite realization of ‘my station’ was truth indeed, and a happiness that called to us to say [Bradley likes his view! And yet …], but was too narrow to satisfy wholly the spirit’s hunger; and ideal morality brought the sickening sense of inevitable failure. Here our morality is consummated in oneness with God, and everywhere we find that ‘immortal Love’, which builds itself forever on contradiction, but in which the contradiction is eternally resolved.
So, basically, morality cannot be understood in secular terms, which you’d never know from just reading the “My Station” chapter. I’ve also just read Robert Stern’s Understanding Moral Obligation which compares Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard’s theories of obligation, and the divine looms much larger in Kant than I’d realized. I was surprised by its centrality for Hegel, though I knew it was important in some respects. And, well, obviously the divine is central for Kierkegaard’s moral theory!
I’ve come away struck by the thought that purely secular moral theorizing is actually pretty rare in the history of moral philosophy. Almost everyone up until the 18th century had some kind of deity (pantheist, classical theist, etc.) play a central role in their moral theory. Even Hobbes! (Sharon Lloyd does a great job bringing this out.) But from what I’m reading, the divine plays a role even in a lot of 19th century moral theorizing, especially in the idealist tradition, which was obviously extremely influential well into the 20th century.
In the 19th century, utilitarianism seems to me to be the main tradition of wholly secular moral theorizing. A lot of secular thinkers in the 19th century actually eschewed what we’d traditionally think of as classical moral theory, with Marx as Exhibit A.
So I’m curious: when did moral philosophy become so overwhelmingly secular, such that divinity can barely be seen in the history of ethics classes? I mean, we don’t even read any divine command theorists, certainly no contemporary ones like Bob Adams or John Hare. Instead, we have students read the Euthyphro, which we take to have obviously refuted any role for God to play in morality. But the Euthyphro isn’t about divine command theory at all. It was written centuries before the best theistic ethical theories were developed. And divine command theorists have reasonable replies.
Further, divine command theory barely scratches the surface of the ways in which the moral facts and the divine facts might be related.
What happened? I admit I don’t know. My best guess is the huge impact that Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore had on the formation of analytic ethics. They also had a pretty big impact on a number of high status British intellectuals. Moore’s Principia Ethica had a big impact on Keynes as a young man, along with many of his associates in the Bloomsbury Group. And since their moral theories are abnormally secular, historically speaking, contemporary analytic ethics has inherited its abnormal secularity from them.

Interviewed at 3:16 AM on Must Politics Be War?

Richard Marshall interviews me at 3:16 AM, a popular site for discussion of new work in philosophy. We primarily discuss my book, Must Politics Be War? (which you can buy from a link on the right of the blog or at the link), but we also talk about American politics, my biography, and my work on the proper role of religion in the public square. My work on religion in the public square can be found in my first book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation.