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Review of Religion and Morality


Book coverReview: William J. Wainwright. 2005. Religion and Morality. Altershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing. 252 pp.

William J. Wainwright is a respected, erudite philosopher of religion from the analytic tradition. So it is no surprise that his Religion and Morality is a thorough, thoughtful, and generally rigorous and fair-minded discussion—from a theistic perspective—of the relationship between religion and morality. It examines moral arguments for God’s existence (Part I, Chapters 1-4), the pros and cons of divine command theories of morality (Part II, Chapters 5-8), and possible tensions between “human morality and religious requirements” (Part III, Chapters 9-11). The final part covers pacifism, the philosophical import of the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22, and the relationship between mysticism and morality; and it manifests a significant knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy that is unusual in an analytic philosopher of religion. Another striking virtue of Religion and Morality is Wainwright’s willingness to criticize even the ideas of theists that he admires; there is no special pleading on behalf of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, or any other favored thinker. The book is a valuable—indeed an indispensable—addition to the philosophical literature on religion and morality, and I can scarcely do justice to its richness in this short review.

Any worthwhile substantive work on religion and morality is bound to be philosophically controversial, and Wainwright’s book is certainly no exception. Particularly from a nontheistic perspective, it is loaded with debatable though interesting claims! Since Wainwright addresses my own work on the divine command theory and the Euthyphro question, I will focus my remarks on several debatable claims from Part II. I will also offer a few brief critical comments about the philosophical methodology that Wainwright employs. But there can be no substitute for reading and wrestling with this important book itself.

Let me begin with methodological worries. First, many of Wainwright’s replies to claims or arguments initially take the following form: ‘It is not clear that…’ Sometimes he goes on to offer serious doubts about the claim or argument in question (e.g., p. 45), but other times he does not (e.g., p. 15). In the latter cases, he seems to be placing a strong burden of proof on his philosophical opponents that he says little or nothing to justify. This somewhat cavalier strategy falls far short of the rigorous argumentation that we so often do get from him.

The second methodological worry may or may not be related to the first one. At times Wainwright appeals to intuitions that his opponents do not share; for example, he accepts J. L. Mackie’s controversial view that the objective prescriptivity of moral facts is built into common sense (pp. 51-52), and takes controversial intuitions for granted in his discussion of Robert Adams’s version of divine command theory (pp. 94-96). And yet following Philip Quinn he criticizes others for doing precisely the same thing (pp. 112-113). Perhaps it would be unfair to expect Wainwright to explore the epistemological significance of philosophical intuition in the book under review, but I wish he had said at least a little more about it.

I am grateful to Wainwright for his use of my paper “Arbitrariness, Divine Commands, and Morality” (p. 91), and for his attention to my paper “Why Adams Needs to Modify His Divine Command Theory One More Time” (pp. 92-93).[1] Although he accurately summarizes the main argument of the latter paper, he falters, I think, at several points. I am glad to have the opportunity to respond in this review. But now I’ll provide the somewhat elaborate context before I do so.

Robert M. Adams has a well-earned reputation as one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated defenders of the divine command theory. Over several decades he has developed a very interesting and plausible modification of the theory in which morality is based not merely on the commands of God, but on the commands of a loving God.[3] Part of the point of this modification is to avoid the common objection that divine command theories make morality thoroughly arbitrary, and thus have morally counterintuitive or implausible implications concerning cases in which God commands horrendous actions such as gratuitous cruelty to children. Since the late 1970s Adams has also made use of influential work in the philosophy of language—particularly Hilary Putnam’s causal/historical theory of reference for natural-kind terms. As Adams applies this theory to the moral term ‘ethically wrong,’ wrongness turns out to be roughly whatever feature of actions systematically explains our use of the term as it is reflected, for example, in many of our moral beliefs. As a believer in a loving God who designed our moral faculties, he argues that the best candidate for that feature is contrariety to the commands of a loving God.

In “Why Adams Needs to Modify His Divine Command Theory One More Time”[2] I raised the following Euthyphro-like problem for Adams’s modified theory. (For convenience, let’s call this problem the referential Euthyphro problem.) If love is supposed to be the only motive that explains all of God’s commands, then the modified theory—when combined with the causal/historical account of reference—dissolves into an agapeistic ethical theory: wrongness is simply contrariety to the dictates of love. For it is love, not God’s commands, that begins the causal/historical chain underlying our use of the term ‘ethically wrong.’ Even if there are multiple motives for those commands, as Adams sometimes suggests—”not merely love but also justice, an interest in human excellence, and a desire for certain relationships with human beings”—the start of the causal/historical chain will still be this complex of factors. In that case we seem to end up with a messy pluralistic theory of moral wrongness, rather than a monistic divine command theory. Either way, the divine command theory seems to drop out of the picture (p. 76).

Having raised this problem for Adams, I suggested the following solution, taking my cue from some neglected remarks by Putnam about special cases of natural-kind terms to which the causal/historical account of reference applies. According to Putnam, some diseases turn out to lack a distinctive hidden structure (or even a small number of hidden structures), such that “‘hidden structure’ becomes irrelevant [to the reference of the corresponding natural-kind terms], and superficial characteristics become the decisive ones.”[4] He gave multiple sclerosis as a possible example; philosopher of science J. D. Trout tells me that schizophrenia is a plausible one. Thus Adams might modify his divine command theory by arguing that “God has so many … reasons or motives [for His commands] that the first semantically important link in the [causal/historical] chain [underlying our use of ‘ethically wrong’] is His commands themselves” (p. 77). Perhaps appealing to this motivational complexity is ad hoc, I added, but it remains open to Adams to adduce independent evidence for it (pp. 77-78).

Now Wainwright raises several doubts about the referential Euthyphro problem, though he does call it a powerful objection to Adams’ divine command theory. He also dismisses out of hand the solution I offered. I think these doubts are misguided, and this dismissal demonstrably confused. Let me explain.

Wainwright’s first doubt about the referential Euthyphro problem is apparently that God’s motives need not be sufficient for His commands, so that the commands become the starting point of the causal/historical chain of reference underlying our use of ‘ethically wrong’ (p. 93). But earlier in my paper I discussed essentially this very possibility and argued that it leaves Adams’ theory open to the standard charge that it makes morality objectionably arbitrary (pp. 73-74).

Wainwright’s second doubt is that even if the problem is genuine, God doesn’t drop out of the resulting picture of morality, since it is His love rather than “[l]ove in general or in the abstract” that begins the causal/historical chain (p. 93). But if divine love can play this role, why not the general property consisting of love itself (understood realistically or perhaps nominalistically)? Indeed proponents of the causal/historical account of reference do often apply it to at least some terms for general properties, and so presumably do intend such properties to serve as the initial links in the relevant chains of reference (e.g., Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality, p. 244 on ‘red’).

Wainwright criticizes in the following way my proposed solution to the referential Euthyphro problem that I raised for Adams’s theory as follows: “Putnam does not think that diseases are constituted by their superficial features, whereas Adams wants to say that moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands. Sullivan’s suggested modification would prevent him from saying that” (p. 93). But here I think Wainwright has simply misread Putnam, for whom the superficial features or symptoms of some kinds can indeed turn out to be their essential features. (Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality, p. 241 is pretty clear about this, especially in discussing a hypothetical case involving water. See also pp. 242-244 on artifact terms.)

Despite my doubts about many of Wainwright’s claims and arguments, I have benefited greatly from reading Religion and Morality. Serious students and practitioners of moral philosophy and the philosophy of religion, whether they believe in God or not, are in his debt.


[1] Stephen J. Sullivan, “Arbitrariness, Divine Commands, and Morality.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 33(1): 33-45 (February 1993); Stephen J. Sullivan, “Why Adams Needs to Modify His Divine Command Theory One More Time.” Faith and Philosophy 11(1): 72-81 (1994).

[2] Elaborating on a hint at the end of “Arbitrariness, Divine Commands, and Morality.”

[3] In particular, see his Finite and Infinite Goods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), which I reviewed for the Secular Web in 2005.

[4] Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning'” in Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Mind, Language and Reality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 240-241.

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