Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 7

Richard Taylor’s book Virtue Ethics: An Introduction (formerly published as Ethics, Faith, and Reason) provides a very readable and interesting defense of the view that the modern conception of morality originates with religion, especially with Christianity.

William Craig quotes from Chapter 11 of this book as his primary support for his second objection to AMR. So, in order to evaluate Craig’s second objection, we need to evaluate Taylor’s argument(s) for the claim that duties are always owed to some person or persons.

Before I examine Taylor’s reasoning, I want to mention a general concern. Part of the appeal of Taylor’s view, at least for skeptics and atheists, is something like the genetic fallacy:

1. The modern conception of morality originates with religion, esp. with Christianity.

2. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are anti-humanistic and mistaken viewpoints.


3. The modern conception of morality is anti-humanistic and mistaken.

I don’t think that Taylor presents such an obviously fallacious argument, but I suspect that his readers, especially his readers who are atheists and skeptics concerning religious belief, may be tempted to reason along these lines. The problem with this argument is that false, mistaken, and harmful ideas can sometimes give rise to true, correct, and helpful ideas.

The historical origins of an idea do NOT determine its truth nor its usefulness. But an unstated assumption of the above argument is that EVERY idea that has its historical origin in religion or in Christianity suffers from EVERY defect or problem with religion or Christianity. There are obviously many exeptions to such a broad generalization. So, this argument makes the conclusion only somewhat probable, at best (once the generalization is qualified to something more reasonable).

One counterexample to the false unstated generalization is the saying of Jesus that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This seems pretty clearly an early hint of humanism. The idea is that ethics or morality serves human needs and/or purposes. It may well be the case that many Christian ideas and beliefs are anti-humanistic, but in this particular case Jesus taught something that looks a lot like a humanistic conception of ethics.

One reason given by Taylor involves an appeal to etymology. Whenever I read an appeal to etymology in support of a conceptual claim, alarm bells ring in my head, and red flags begin to wave. Etymology is a dubious way to support a conceptual claim.

Etymology is a worthwhile approach to asking questions. For example, ‘philosophy’ comes from root words meaning LOVE of WISDOM. So, one can ask ‘What is wisdom?’ and ‘What is the love of wisdom?’ and ‘Is philosophy the love of wisdom?’ But it would be foolish and simple-minded to immediately draw the conclusion that “Philosophy is the love of wisdom, because the word ‘philosophy’ comes from root words that mean ‘love of wisdom’.” If only it were that easy to analyze the meanings of important concepts. If it were really that easy, there would be no need for philosophy!

Etymology is a dubious basis for conceptual claims because words change meaning over time. For example, the word ‘let’ in the King James version of the Bible sometimes means ‘hindered’ (see Romans 1:13), but it means ‘allowed’ in modern English. Since the meanings of words change over time, it is clear that etymology can, at least in some cases, be misleading and fail to point to the correct (current) meaning of a word.

Also, etymology tends to be speculative. Nobody documents the creation of a new word (at the time the new word is coined) with notes about why the particular root words were selected to form the new word (‘agnosticsim’ being a rare exception). Thus, somebody has to guess at how and why the root word or words came to be used as the basis for a new word in the English language, usually hudreds of years after the word entered the language. Some such guesses may be plausible and well-educated guesses that can be rationally defended. But, such explanatory claims about the historical origins of a word are inherently questionable and not subject to firm proof, as we shall soon see in the case at hand.

Taylor gives one argument on the basis of the etymology of the word ‘obligation’ :

…to be obligated is, literally, to be bound. …one can have no obligation just as such; it must, again, be an obligation to some person or persons, for the idea of being bound or tied, yet bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.

(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11)

There are at least three problems with this reasoning.  First, Taylor is using etymology as the basis for a conceptual claim, which is a dubious and weak sort of argument.   This is NOT a solid argument, even if there are no other problems or issues with it.

Second, obligations can have more than one sort of object.  If I promise to take care of my friend’s child while he is out of town, then I have an obligation to my friend (the person to whom I made the promise) but I also have an obligation to the child (the person whom I promised to care for and whose interests are most at stake in the question of whether I keep my promise or break it).  So, if an obligation requires being bound to someone, it could require being bound to the child in this case, rather than to the person to whom I made the promise.  

Taylor is assuming that the ‘binding’ meant was to  a person with whom a negotiation or agreement was made, but it could be that the ‘binding’ was a reference to the object of the obligation (the child in this case). If this is how ‘binding’ is involved, then we can conlude that ‘binding’ does NOT necessarily refer to binding to a person, because one can promise to take care of a cat or a garden, and a cat is NOT a person. Taylor’s speculation about the relationship of the concept of ‘binding’ to the concept of ‘obligation’ might be correct, but there are other possible explanations available.

Third, Taylor himself admits the obvious, which is that a person can be bound to a thing, to a tree or to a post. A tree is NOT a person. Thus, Taylor says that the idea of being “bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.” We could grant this assumption, and yet nothing follows about ‘binding’ requiring that an obligation always involves one person being bound to another person. Thus, even if we assume that the concept of ‘binding to something’ is part of the meaning of ‘obligation’ it could be the case that ‘obligation’ implies that the person with the obligation is bound to some thing rather than to some person.

Taylor gives a similar argument about the meaning of the concept of ‘duty’:

A duty is something that is owed, something due, … .  But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as a duty in isolation, that is, something that is owed but owed to no person or persons. 

(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11, from the section on ‘The Relational Character of Ethical Terms’)

As with the previous argument about ‘obligation’, this is a weak argument, at best, because Taylor is making a conceptual claim based upon the etymology of the word ‘duty’.

Because a duty, like an obligation, can be ‘to’ or ‘for’ someone in more than one way (my promise to take care of my friend’s child involves a duty to my friend and a duty to the child) it is not clear which sort of object of a duty is in view in terms of who or what is ‘owed’ the action. If in this case I owe it to the child to care for the child, then that sort of object of a duty need NOT be a person, since I can also promise to care for a cat or for a garden.

Thirdly, the words ‘owed’ and ‘due’ are not used exclusively of relations to persons:

You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

I owe my love of classical music to my dearly departed grandmother.

We are due for a big earthquake in the next ten years.

The recent string of hot days in spring may be due to global warming.

These may not be central or the most common uses of the words ‘owe’ and ‘due’, but these uses of these words shows that their meanings can be stretched beyond the confines of ‘person X owes Y to person Z’. Since the root words upon which the term ‘duty’ is based can be used in ways that do not require a relationship between persons, this suggests that the term ‘duty’ might also not be strictly limited to situations where

‘Person A has a duty B towards a person C’. If ‘owed’ and ‘due’ do not necessariy imply a relation between two or more persons, then the word ‘duty’ might not necessarily imply such a relation either.

To be continued…