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L&FP, 48k: Dallas Willard on the key self-referentiality in the Relativist thesis that there are no generally knowable, objective moral truths


In the preface to his posthumous The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (2018), Dallas Willard begins:

Human life has an inescapable moral dimension. That is, it essentially involves choices with reference to what is good and evil, right and wrong, duty and failure to do what ought to be done. Any human community, whatever its scope, will exhibit patterns of such choices, more or less recognized as such by its fully formed members. Those patterns usually guide first responses to any question concerning what is to be done, and they provide a framework for further reflection on the appropriateness of actions, character traits, and social arrangements.

He soon adds:

Throughout history it has been knowledge—real or presumed—that was invoked to provide a place to stand in opposing, correcting, and refining moral and immoral traditions and practices. That stands out in Plato and in later Greek thinkers, as well as in the biblical experience, life, and literature—Jewish, and then the Christian. Biblical teaching (contrary to much contemporary misunderstanding) places a relentless emphasis upon knowledge of God and of what is good, as the basis for criticism and correction of human practices. For Plato and Aristotle, as well as for the Stoics and Epicurean teachers, it was putative knowledge of “the good” and of the human soul that served as foundation for their understanding of good and evil in human life and institutions, and of what should and should not be done . . . .

What characterizes life in so-called Western societies today, however, is the absence, or presumed absence, of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice: knowledge that might serve as a rational basis for moral decisions, for policy enactments, and for rational critique of established patterns of response to moral issues. This is what I term, in this book, “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.” That “disappearance” is not necessarily a matter of moral knowledge being impossible. Nor does it mean that no one actually has moral knowledge—though some have claimed that to be so. It is simply that knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, does not, for whatever reason, present itself as a [publicly] accessible resource for living and living together. Such knowledge is—again, for whatever reason—not made available as a body of knowledge by those institutions of Western societies which are regarded as responsible for the development and communication of knowledge crucial for human life and well-being.

He then acidly observes:

One way of thinking about the disappearance is, of course, to regard it as just the way things must be, or ought to be, and to hold that any enlightened person would accept that as the case. The moral life, from such a point of view, is simply the kind of thing of which there can be no shareable, [publicly] sponsored body of knowledge—if there can be any knowledge of it at all . . . . On the other hand, a sensitive observer well might recognize in such a position an essentially moral point, and one making no uncertain claim to knowledge of what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is how it usually comes over, at least, and there is a clear presumption, by the advocates of that position, that their view is based upon knowledge of what is the case—of how things stand in reality. After all, why should people not impose their “knowledge” upon others if that seems right or it suits them to do so? Why should such imposition be treated as morally repulsive, or as something only reprehensible or evil people would do, unless one had knowledge that it was so?

Thus, he gently alludes to the point of key incoherence in the relativist position discussed in 48a and again in 48d using the story of the Blind men and the elephant. He concludes:

Here is, I think, only one manifestation of the fact that morality in life—moral discrimination, moral judgment, moral emotions, moral evaluation of people, practices, or institutions—is simply unavoidable, and of the fact that morality requires and admits of some significant justification in knowledge.

However, such a self referentiality clearly leads to a reductio, as one cannot have a claimed objective truth regarding right conduct and duty etc, that denies that there are such truths.

Nor, is it a reasonable answer to say that this is a simple observation as to what is the case about moral truth or knowledge claims, without imposing prescriptions etc. Though such a retort may attract some, it fails to reckon that necessarily, anything that denies objectivity to any and all claims regarding our being duty bound to right conduct etc, is by direct implication a denial of such claims. That is, it claims to be the known, objective truth regarding morality and may properly be regarded as such a truth claim itself. That is, it is a meta- claim, a general moral claim of great scope.

And no, we cannot tell morality by whether a sentence issues a command or prohibition etc. To say, rape is a crime against the person and an evil, implies commands, though it is not itself a command.

Nor is it the case, that this misrepresents the position of key relativists. As was noted in 48a:

Relativists typically emphasise diversity of opinions among individuals and cultures etc, but that has never been a matter of controversy. Nor, do presumably well informed relativists merely intend [to confess their inexplicable] ignorance of such accurately described states of affairs regarding duty, right conduct etc, they imply longstanding want of warrant and no reasonable prospect or even possibility of such warrant. That is, my summary statement accurately reflects the bottomline stance of relativists.


manifestly, we are an error-prone race, and across time, space etc have many, many areas of profound disagreement. The normal procedure in such areas, is to identify sound first principles for the area, starting with first principles of right reason, logic. Then, if self evident first truths can be listed, a framework for the field can be identified and developed into a body of well warranted so reliable and objective knowable truth independent of the error proneness of our individual or collective opinion-forming. From which, we then have a body of knowledge and best practice to work with.

This, of course, was explored in 48g. Taking yardstick cases where conscience, shocked, cries out, such as a child kidnapped, sexually tortured and murdered for fun, we recognise that those who deny or evade such cases do not simply exhibit due skepticism — and that is already a demand for warrant, right reason and establishment of truth — but instead reflect moral defects. think here, of the holocaust etc. Such yardsticks then allow us to speak to the civil peace of justice which duly balances rights, freedoms and duties. From such a framework of reasonable moral knowledge can be developed.

However, a point Swinburne noted on inductive arguments to best explanation across competing hypotheses is relevant in response to hyperskeptical dismissiveness:

Note that it is no objection to a P-inductive or C-inductive
argument from e to h that some contrary hypothesis h*
is also compatible with e, as some writers on the philosophy of religion seem to think. They seem to think that if, for example, the order in the universe is compatible with ‘God does not exist’, then there is no good argument from it to ‘God exists’. But one has only to think about the matter to realize that this is not so. In any non-deductive argument from e to h, not-h will be compatible with e; and yet some non-deductive arguments are good arguments.

That is, the issue is a matter of balance on the merits, involving comparative difficulties across factual adequacy, coherence and balanced explanatory power. Where, no, an argument that misses facts or is incoherent — as is relativism — is not a good candidate to be deemed best explanation.

Even, if it is institutionally entrenched. END

–> discussion remains open at 48a