Yet More On Moral Hallowing

Following up on my post clarifying and deepening the argument that everyone engages in what I've described as "moral hallowing," I want to make one more comment.

To recap, the argument I've made is that ethics and morality are grounded in presuppositions that have to be assumed as given. In math these givens are called axioms. In physics they are called first principles. In philosophy they are called a priori propositions.

And in legal theory, thanks to Drew's comment on my last post, I've discovered that these givens are called "basic norms." The notion of a basic norm comes from Hans Kelsen's celebrated theory of legal normativity. The basic idea is that every legal and ethical "ought" flows out of a higher, authorizing "ought." This can't go on forever, however, so eventually you get back to a foundational "ought," the basic norm. The basic norm is an authorizing norm that is not authorized by any other (higher) norm. Consequently, the normative authority of the basic norm (i.e., why we must obey it) has to be presupposed as valid and authoritative. That's the only way to stop an infinite regress.

Kelsen's theory is similar to the point I've been making: since you can't get an "ought" from an "is" at some point in the chain the "ought" has to be presupposed. That is, the only way to prevent ethics and morality from slipping into emotivism is to presuppose an authorizing "ought," a basic norm. This basic norm is metaphysical in that, as a presupposition, it stands above/outside the system it is authorizing and regulating.

Again, ethics requires moral hallowing.

Now in the comments of my original post a couple of confused readers made the following observation, in different sorts of ways. Specifically, doesn't Christian ethics face the exact same problem? Aren't God's commands hanging in the sky as an "ought" that can't be justified without descending into circular reasoning? Isn't that the problem with "divine command theory"? That something is good because God wills it, and if God wills it then has to be good?

In short, isn't the ethical reasoning of Christians doing the same thing as the atheists?

And the answer is: Yes!

That was the point of the original post!

The original post wasn't trying to prove God's existence. Nor was the post arguing that the ethical reasoning of Christians was different or superior to that of atheists. The point of the post was that everyone engages in moral hallowing. The point of the post was to show how both Christians and atheists ground in their ethics in metaphysics, in presupposed "oughts," basic norms taken as givens.

All that to say, when confused readers asked and belligerent atheists blustered "But don't you Christians do the exact same thing!?" I have to wonder if they were paying attention to what I had wrote.

Because the answer is, "Yes."

Everyone engages in moral hallowing.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply