Theism, Atheism, and Metaethics
In response to my comments on “Atheist Ethicist: Theism, Atheism, and Blame,” Keith Parsons rightfully pointed out an error and an inconsistency in my comments where I had denied that theism has metaethical implications. As is often (if not always) the case in philosophy, a lot of this depends on terminology. And although I responded in the combox on that post, I realized that the issue really warrants its own post.
Philosophy of Religion Terminology
Let me begin by rehearsing some terminology, following Ted Drange.
theological noncognitivist: a person who believes that the sentence, “God exists,” does not express a proposition.
theistic cognitivist: a person who believes that the sentence, “God exists,” express a true proposition.
atheistic cognitivist: a person who believes that the sentence, “God exists,” express a false proposition.
agnostic cognitivist: a person who believes that the sentence, “God exists,” expresses a proposition but does not know if it is true.
To which I will add three more definitions.
nontheistic cognitivist: an umbrella term which includes both atheistic cognitivists and agnostic cognitivists.
nontheist: an umbrella term which includes theological noncognitivists, atheistic cognitivists, and agnostic cognitivists.
doctrine of divine aseity: (1) God does not depend on anything distinct from himself for his existing; and (2) everything distinct from God depends on God’s creative activity for its existing.
Now Drange makes an important observation regarding the definition of the word “God.”
Since the word “God” has many different meanings, it is possible for the sentence “God exists” to express many different propositions. What we need to do is to focus on each proposition separately. Subscripts could be used for the different senses of “God.” Thus we have the proposition that God1 exists, the proposition that God2 exists, the proposition that God exists, etc., with each different sense of “God” suitably defined. For each different sense of the term “God,” there will be theists, atheists, and agnostics relative to that concept of God. A person might be a theist relative to one concept of God but an atheist or agnostic relative to a different one. If the question is raised whether God1 exists, then theists relative to that concept (of God) are people who answer that question affirmatively. Atheists relative to that concept are people who answer the question negatively. And agnostics relative to that concept are people who understand the question but who avoid committing themselves to a “yes” or “no” answer to it by maintaining that the evidence either way is insufficient.
I am primarily interested in what I will call “God1.”
God1: an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person who created the universe.
Since the subscripts are cumbersome to use, for the rest of this post I will simply use “God” to refer to God1. Similarly, in the rest of this post, “theism” and “atheism” shall refer to beliefs regarding that concept of God.
Following Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Moral Skepticism and Justification,” Moral Knowledge? (ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 4-8, let us define the branches of meta-ethics as follows.
- moral linguistics: the analysis of of what moral sentences mean, what effect the utterance of moral sentence causes, or what speech act is performed when uttering a moral sentence
- moral ontology: concerned with whether any moral properties and facts exist and, if so, what metaphysical status they have.
- moral epistemology: concerned with whether, when, and how substantive moral claims and beliefs can be justified or known
- definition of morality: this branch of meta-ethics captures debates about the definition of morality as opposed to religion, law, custom, etc.
- moral psychology: the nature and source of moral beliefs and moral emotions.
- deontic logic: studies forms of argument or inference or reasoning that depend on the normative and evaluative terms in substantive moral discourse
I am not aware of a universally accepted taxonomy for moral ontology, so allow me to present a couple of options.
Moral Ontology Taxonomy #1 (MOT1)
This taxonomy is taken from Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (3rd. ed). I have included non-cognitivism and cognitivism, but crossed them out to emphasize that they represent theses about moral linguistics, not moral ontology.
- Ethical Naturalism: the theory that value statements can be defined in terms of factual statements.
- Ex: Hedonistic Naturalism: reduces facts about goodness to facts about pleasure and pain.
- Ex: Aristotelian Naturalism: reduces facts about goodness to facts about human nature and flourishing.
- Ex: Theological Naturalism: reduces facts about goodness to facts about God or His commands, nature, will, motivation, etc.
- Ethical Non-Naturalism: the theory that moral facts exist but are not natural. They are discovered by intuition.
Theism clearly has at least one metaethical implication. To be precise, theism entails a thesis about moral linguistics: theism entails cognitivism (since otherwise God’s attribute of “perfectly morally good” and hence God Himself would be non-cognitive).
But theism does not seem to entail either of MOT1’s basic options in moral ontology, viz., ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism. Indeed, theism is logically compatible with both of them. Sometimes people assume that theism entails theological naturalism (aka ethical supernaturalism), but this confuses theism with sectarian versions of theism. There are sectarian versions of theism which affirm the doctrine of divine aseity, but divine aseity is an auxiliary hypothesis to (generic) theism. By itself, theism does not entail divine aseity and hence does not require that ethical supernaturalism be true. For example, Platonism is logically compatible with (generic) theism, while logically incompatible with the doctrine of divine aseity.
Moral Ontology Taxonomy #2 (MOT2)
This taxonomy and most of its definitions are taken from Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Introduction: The Many Moral Realisms,” Essays on Moral Realism (ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Cornell University Press, 1988), 1-23. (The exceptions are divine command success and error theories, which are mine.) As before, I have included non-cognitivism and cognitivism, but crossed them out to emphasize that they represent theses about moral linguistics, not moral ontology.
Non-cognitivism: moral claims, when literally construed, are not literally true or false Cognitivism: moral claims, when literally construed, are literally true or false
- Success Theory (Moral Realism): at least some moral claims are literally true.
- Objectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make no reference at all to
people, their capacities, practices, or their conventions; and at least some moral claims are literally true.
- Intersubjectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make essential reference to the capacities, conventions, or practices of groups of people; and at least some moral claims are literally true.
- Subjectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make essential reference to an individual; and at least some moral claims are literally true.
- Ideal Observer Theory
- Ex: Divine Command (Success) Theory: the divine command theory captures the correct meaning of ethical claims, and at least some moral claims are literally true
- Error Theory (Moral Anti-Realism): no moral claims are literally true.
- Objectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make no reference at all to people, their capacities, practices, or their conventions; and no moral claims are literally true.
- Intersubjectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make essential reference to the capacities, conventions, or practices of groups of people; and no moral claims are literally true.
- Subjectivism: the truth-conditions of moral claims make essential reference to an individual; and no moral claims are literally true.
- Ex: Divine Command (Error) Theory: the divine command theory captures the correct meaning of ethical claims, but all such claims are literally false.
Based upon these definitions, it would appear that theism does entail at least one thesis about moral ontology, namely, success theory (moral realism). Since theism entails the existence of a morally perfect person (God), this implies that at least some moral claims are literally true. (If no moral claims were literally true, then it seems it would be impossible for God to be “morally perfect.”) If we move down to the next level of the hierarchy, however, it’s not obvious that theism entails any beliefs about the type of metaphysical properties required for true moral claims, e.g., objectivism, intersubjectivism, or subjectivism. To be precise, there may (?) be a reason to suppose that theism rules out intersubjectivism, but it seems to me that theism is clearly logically compatible with both objectivism and subjectivism, where divine command success theory is considered a type of subjectivism.
Moral Ontology Taxonomy #3 (MOT3)
This taxonomy is taken from David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics.
Non-cognitivism: Emotivism: Prescriptivism Cognitivism:
- Constructivism: there are moral facts true moral propositions, but such facts or truths are constituted by some function of those beliefs that are our evidence in ethics.
- Moral Realism:
- Ethical Naturalism: the claim that moral facts and properties just are natural facts and properties. Natural facts and properties are presumably something like those facts and properties as picked out and studied by the natural and social sciences (broadly conceived).
- Supernaturalism: the claim that moral facts and properties just are supernatural facts and properties. Supernatural facts and properties are studied in other ways (e.g., by religion).
- Nonnaturalism: the claim that moral facts and properties are neither natural nor supernatural facts and properties; they are sui generis.
Moral Ontology Taxonomy #4 (MOT4)
My notes are incomplete, but I believe the source for this taxonomy is J.P. Moreland’s book, Scaling the Secular City. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Moreland’s book at this time to confirm.
Non-cognitivism: Emotivism: Imperativalism: Cognitivism:
- Ethical Naturalism
- Ethical Nonnaturalism
- Private Subjectivism
- Cultural Relativism
 Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (3rd. ed., Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999), 210.
 Peter Singer, “Naturalism” in A Companion to Ethics (ed. Peter Singer, Blackwell, 1991), 422.
 Singer 1991, 422. Singer writes:
Naturalists, in short, resort to all sorts of supposed facts — sociological, psychological, scientific, even metaphysical and theological — so long as they are not driven back on a realm of irreducibly moral facts or properties. Since some of these facts are metaphysical or supernatural, rather than natural in any ordinary sense of the word (facts about the natural world) you may well wonder how such a disparate group of moral theories came to wear the same label. The answer is historical. According to G.E. Moore they all stand accused of the naturalistic fallacy (of which, more later). He called this (supposed) fallacy naturalistic because it was more common among philosophers of a narrowly naturalistic stamp — those who wished to base morals on the kinds of facts that science could countenance. But these were only a subclass of those who — according to Moore — commit the fallacy. Nevertheless the name has stuck.
 Pojman 1999, 276.
 David O Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 19-20.
 Brink 1989, 22.