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Is there a basis for loving all people?

Many ethical systems hold that there are obligations to love and value all human beings. This essay assumes the existence of such universal obligations, and argues that a divine command meta-ethical theory provides a better account of these obligations than secular meta-ethical theories, such as the evolutionary biology and contractual meta-ethical accounts that are favored by many psychologists. God's command to humans to love their neighbors as themselves not only explains the existence of such obligations, but also gives a plausible account of the psychological motivation for acting in accord with such a duty.


Many ethical theories hold that human beings have at least some moral obligations that extend to all human persons. A famous example can be found in the renowned theory of Immanuel Kant. Kant (1785/1993) gives a number of different formulations of "the Categorical Imperative," which he claims is the supreme principle of morality. One of the best-known is as follows: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means" (p. 36). Kant holds that every human person, every member of "humanity," has intrinsic worth or dignity and therefore must be treated as an "end" and never simply viewed merely as a means to some other person's happiness. Such an ethic clearly implies that the moral obligations of a human moral agent cannot be limited to people who belong to the same family, ethnic group, nation, or race as that agent.

Let us call an ethic that posits obligations that transcend such distinctions a "universal ethic." I shall not take this term as implying that moral obligations are limited to human persons. A universal ethic may also hold that there are obligations to animals, and, if there are any such creatures, aliens from other worlds. (Not to mention God and angels, if Christianity is true.) However, a universal ethic must at least hold that moral obligations apply to all human persons, regardless of gender, class, nationality, etc.

Kant's ethic is by no means the only example of a universal ethic. Utilitarians, while fundamentally disagreeing with Kant about the nature and ground of moral obligations, also typically hold that such obligations are universal in character. John Stuart Mill (1998), the most famous proponent of this type of ethic, says that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (p. 55). To apply such an ethic, one must of course determine whose happiness must be taken into account. Here Mill says clearly that the answer is simply the happiness of anyone who may be affected by an action (p. 64). It is true that most often it is the case that human actions only affect a limited number of people, and thus the moral agent only needs to consider the particular people who will be affected rather than something so grand as the happiness of all humankind (pp. 65-66). Nevertheless, Mill says that the end of morality is "the greatest amount of happiness altogether," and he believes the moral agent must not only consider the happiness of "all mankind" but should even go beyond the consideration of human persons to the happiness of "the whole sentient creation" (p. 59).

The concept of a universal ethic is by no means alien to psychologists. Arguably, such an ethic provides the foundation for the American Psychological Association's (2002) Code of Ethics. (1) Principle D, for example, dealing with "Justice," affirms that "psychologists recognize that fairness and justice entitle all persons to access to and benefit from the contributions of psychology and to equality in the processes, procedures, and services being conducted by psychologists" (p. 1062). Principle E strikes a similarly universalist tone, affirming that "psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people" (p. 1063).

Universal ethics are not limited to western ethical theories. Similar perspectives can be found in some eastern thinkers, notably in Confucius' (2003) famous admonition, "Do not do to others, what you do not want done to yourself" (p. 15:24) (2), and in some Buddhist texts. However, such a universal ethic is certainly not uniformly present in eastern or western ethical thought. It is at least arguable that Aristotle did not believe in universal moral obligations, (3) though the Stoics do seem to have a fairly clear notion of such obligations. (4) However, the idea that there are universal ethical obligations, with one of the central obligations being to love all other humans, is clearly central to Christian thinking. It is certainly no accident that western culture, since it is so heavily shaped by Christianity, should give rise to ethics such as Kant's and Mill's.

Christianity here, as on so many points, is heavily indebted to Judaism, but an ideal of impartiality is especially prominent in the teachings of Jesus himself. According to Luke, Jesus, when asked what must be done to inherit eternal life, appealed to Deuteronomy 6:5: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind', and 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Luke 10:27, New International Version). After giving this answer, Jesus famously goes on to tell the story of the "good Samaritan": A story which certainly implies that it is wrong to attempt to evade responsibility to others by limiting the category of "neighbor" to those who are part of one's own religious or ethnic group. According to Jesus, the Samaritan, a member of a group looked down upon by the Jews of his day, "showed himself to be a neighbor" in Jesus' story by stopping to help a man who had been ignored by his fellow countrymen, including religious leaders. This element in Jesus' teachings is given added weight by his admonitions in the "Sermon on the Mount," in which he urges his followers to go beyond the moral standards generally accepted by "pagans," who held that it was all right to "hate your enemy." Instead, Jesus says,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be
sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and
the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew

It is not surprising, then, that Christian ethical teachings have been predominantly universal in character. (Sadly, of course, actual Christian behavior has often fallen far short of these teachings.)

In this essay, I shall not attempt to defend the truth of a universal ethic. Rather, I shall assume the soundness of this type of ethic. The questions I want to raise concern the philosophical and psychological foundations of such an ethic. If there are obligations to all human persons, how do such obligations arise? Can an explanation be given as to why there are such obligations? Finally, can we given an account of such obligations that makes psychological sense? Can love be a universal obligation? Obviously, these questions are not identical. However, I hope to show that a philosophical explanation of the existence of such obligations has psychological implications. The philosophical and psychological questions are interconnected in such a way that a good answer to the philosophical question as to why these obligations hold should also help answer the question as to why human beings should care about such obligations. A good philosophical account of the existence of universal obligations should make psychological sense as well, by helping us understand what might motivate moral behavior.

Questions about the foundation of moral obligations are commonly referred to as "meta-ethical questions." We shall see that rival meta-ethical accounts are closely related to rival worldviews. I shall argue that a religious worldview, of the type seen in Christianity and other theistic religions, has some significant advantages over its secular rivals in explaining why universal obligations hold and also why humans should care about such obligations. Secular meta-ethical accounts of a universal ethic not only face significant philosophical difficulties; they also undermine motivation to follow such an ethic by those who accept them, and this is a significant problem for a meta-ethical account. This latter problem is particularly acute, I shall argue, if our universal obligations include an obligation to love others.


Before sketching my argument about the superiority of a religious meta-ethical account of the universal obligation to love others, I must first give a brief analysis of the notion of a moral obligation. Let me begin by discussing the notion of obligation generally, since in addition to moral obligations, there are legal obligations, social obligations of various types (such as those grounded in etiquette), family obligations, etc. In general an obligation is a duty, something that a person ought to do or must do, or something that is required of a person. (For simplicity's sake, I will speak only of obligations to perform or refrain from performing actions, but it makes perfectly good sense to extend the notion of obligation to virtues or character states and speak of an obligation to become more kind or compassionate.) I believe the most plausible account of obligations sees them as derived from social relationships of various kinds and the social institutions that make possible those relationships. (5) I am obliged to obey the laws of the state of Texas by virtue of being a Texan. I take on marital responsibilities by entering into the relationship of marriage, and I possess certain duties towards my children by virtue of having become a parent. I acquire certain duties to my students and colleagues by virtue of having become a university professor.

As I have already said, obligations as such are not necessarily moral obligations. Of course many of the obligations I have to my family, employer, country, etc. are also moral obligations. But this is not necessarily true. For example, in a racist society one might be legally obligated to treat people of a different race in an immoral way.

Moral obligations are a special subclass of obligations that overlap substantially with other forms of obligations, such as familial and political obligations, but are not identical with these other forms. In general, moral obligations are distinguished from other kinds by two characteristics. First, moral obligations are over-riding. If a person is morally obligated to perform an action, then that is what that person should do, all things considered, even if the act is not a legal or social obligation: indeed, even if it contravenes a legal or social obligation. Secondly, moral obligations are objective in character; it is possible to be right or wrong about them, to believe one has an obligation that one does not have and to fail to recognize an obligation that one does have. In particular, the fact that a person does not wish to perform an act does not mean that the act is not a duty and cannot serve as a valid excuse for failing to do one's duty.

On my view, the notion of moral oughtness or duty is not explicable simply in terms of the concepts of goodness and badness. Thus if an action is productive of goodness, it is not necessarily obligatory, even if it produces more goodness than any alternative action. If I am driving on the autobahn in Germany, it may well be a good thing for me to drive at 80 miles per hour or less, since I and others riding with me are less likely to be in an accident if I do not drive at an excessive speed. However, if there is no speed limit on the highway, then I have no legal obligation to drive at a lower speed. The legal obligation is created by the nature of the relevant social relationship, and in this case the government has not created a speed limit.

Someone might object that moral obligations, unlike legal obligations, are simply equivalent to a duty to produce the greatest possible amount of goodness. However, cases of supererogation, in which a person does good that goes beyond duty, shows that moral duty cannot be identified with what produces the most goodness. Think, for example, of a person who decides to donate a kidney to a perfect stranger who is in need of a kidney. Most people would regard this as a very good act, and--assuming the donor is not hurt and the operation is a success for the recipient--the result would appear to be very good. Yet few would argue that the donor had a moral duty to donate the kidney. Even if one rejects the social theory of obligation I have just explained, it seems to me that some account of duty must be given that does justice to its unique character.


The idea that humans have a universal obligation to love their fellow humans may seem implausible for several reasons. First, one might wonder whether love can be a duty at all. Love, on many accounts, must be something that is freely and spontaneously given, and one might think that love that is commanded cannot have this free character and hence is really impossible. Furthermore, duty seems to be the kind of thing that must be under one's control. I can have a duty to perform an action only if it is within my power to perform or not perform the action. However, love is an emotion, according to some, and emotions are claimed not to be under our control. I cannot simply decide to love or not love something or someone. It is this involuntary character of love that leads us to speak of someone "falling in love."

To deal with this problem I must distinguish love as a transitory feeling from love as a settled disposition. (6) It is true that affectionate feelings towards another cannot simply be turned on and off or easily manufactured through an act of will. My wife loves me, but she does not always have such affectionate feelings towards me; indeed, at times she has angry or exasperated feelings toward me. What does her love then consist of? I would say it a complex, long-term disposition, a disposition that manifests itself in many ways. Those ways include a disposition to have affectionate feelings toward me when appropriate; to have various thoughts and beliefs about me (such as that I am a person who is not unworthy of her love); to generally want and will what is good for me; and to act in ways that advance my good and please me (when pleasing me does not conflict with advancing my good). Love in this complex, dispositional sense certainly cannot be created in a moment by an act of will, but it is the kind of thing that can be willed in the sense that a person can work at developing such a disposition. Good marriage counselors, for example, know how to help couples do just that. Even affectionate feelings are to some degree subject to our control; that is, we know what kinds of circumstances are likely to foster and what kinds of circumstances are likely to inhibit such feelings. Unexpectedly shouldering an unpleasant task for a spouse and spontaneously buying flowers are likely to do the former. If I leave my spouse with an unpleasant task while I play golf, or if I forget an anniversary, negative feelings are likely to result.

Once we recognize that love is an emotion that exists dispositionally in this way, we can understand how love can be a duty, how it is possible, for example, for two people to vow to love each other until death. Keeping such a vow may not be easy, but it is not usually impossible. I believe that this disarms the objection that love cannot be a duty because it must be spontaneous. The truth is that love as a complex disposition cannot be completely spontaneous. Love can be free in the sense that it can be wholeheartedly affirmed and can be (partly) the result of genuine choices on the part of a person. However, if it is possible freely to keep a promise, it must also be possible freely to love.

However, even if it is possible for love to be a duty, one might think that such a duty to love cannot be a universal duty. Is it possible for a finite person to have love for all other human persons? Clearly, this is not possible in the sense of conscious love, in which one has specific feelings for particular individuals, wills the good of those individuals, etc. There are several billion human beings, and no one of us can even know more than a small fraction of that number. However, ethical theories such as those of Kant and Mill, that hold that there are universal obligations, do not usually construe those obligations as meaning that one must consciously seek the good of every human person. Rather, they hold, as Mill does, that the obligation is to take into account the good of all those with whom one has some real connection, to be concerned about all who will actually be affected by one's actions. There is an open-ended character to moral obligation. I do not have an obligation to feed or clothe every needy person, for it is not possible for me to do so. However, I cannot excuse myself from helping some particular needy human being on the ground that this person is of a different race or nationality or religion than myself.

One might think that this universal obligation cannot be an obligation to love, but at best an obligation to act in a loving manner towards others. Kant (1785/1993), for example, holds that the obligation to love others consists in a "practical love" that expresses itself solely in actions. A person "loves" in this sense by acting towards another as one would act if one loved the other (p. 12).

I grant that on some ethical theories, including those of Kant and Mill, our universal obligations to others do not really extend to loving the other in a full-blooded sense. However, I believe it would be a mistake to abandon too quickly the Christian view that one is actually obligated to love others. For one thing, it is very difficult to act in a loving way towards others if I do not care about those others. For another thing, it would seem that we have not really satisfied our obligations towards others if we have no emotional involvement with them. I write these words in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which has devastated the lives of millions of people along the U.S. gulf coast. I certainly believe that I have an obligation to help the people who have been hurt, donating money as well as food, clothing, and furniture to refugees. However, it seems to me that if I simply performed such actions and had no emotional involvement, there would be something morally substandard about my response. I should not only try to help these people, but I should in some way allow myself to care about them, to hurt with them. I think that it is only if I am emotionally involved in this way that I am likely to be willing to help them in costly ways, giving of my time as well as my possessions.


There are a number of ways religious theorists have attempted to show that moral obligations have a religious foundation. Space does not permit a survey of these alternatives; rather, in this paper I shall briefly explain and defend one type of account by showing its superiority to some secular rivals. The particular account I wish to defend is a version of a divine command theory of moral obligation, the view that holds that moral obligations are identical with the commands of a loving God. (7) Various moral concepts that are related to the concept of obligation can also be defined in similar ways: Morally prohibited acts will be those that violate the commands of a loving God, and morally permissible acts will be those that do not violate those commands.

The first point that must be made is that this theory only applies to moral obligations or duties and not to other aspects of morality. In particular, it is not a general theory of goodness or value. Rather, it presupposes or rests on some account of the good, since a crucial part of the theory is that God's commands are not arbitrary or pointless but are directed to the good, and so it cannot be the case that God makes something good by an act of will. This enables the theory to overcome one standard objection to divine command theories, the so-called "Euthyphro objection," since the objection is often thought to be analogous to an argument raised by Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue.

In this dialogue, Euthyphro defends the claim that piety is "what is loved by the gods." (8) Socrates raises a dilemma for this claim. He asks whether the gods love what is pious because it is pious, or rather whether it is the gods' loving an act that makes it pious. If the former is the case, piety would seem to be a characteristic independent of the gods' love. If the latter is the case, then the gods' love for piety would be seem to be arbitrary, since anything they love would have the quality of being pious. In a similar manner, critics of a divine command theory have sometimes asked whether God commands morally dutiful acts because they are morally right, or whether it is his commanding the acts that makes them morally right duties. If the former is true, then moral rightness would seem to be independent of God's commands. However, if the latter is true, then the critic charges that God's commands are arbitrary.

The way around this dilemma is to hold firmly to the claim that it is indeed the case that God makes an act morally right (or obligatory) by commanding it, but that the commands are not arbitrary, because God's commands are directed to the good. Only the commands of a loving God create moral obligations, and the commands of a loving God would be for the good. The fact that a moral obligation is not identical to some quality such as "productive of the greatest possible goodness" then allows for God's commands to give some actions that would be good anyway the additional quality of being obligatory.

One popular secular moral theory that might be seen as a rival of a divine command theory is called an "ideal observer theory." On this view, what is morally right should be identified with the judgments of an "ideal observer," an observer who knows all the relevant facts about a situation, is truly impartial, and cares about the good. (9) On this theory the ideal observer is only hypothetical, and thus the demands of morality are equated to what such an observer would will or require if there were such a being. Such a theory has strengths, but a major weakness, in my view, lies in its psychology. Since the hypothetical observer is only hypothetical, why should an actual moral agent care about what such an observer would will or command? Why should I identify with a nonexistent person?

A divine command theory has the strengths of an ideal observer theory without this weakness. For God, being omniscient, does indeed have the relevant knowledge, and being completely good and just, cares about the good and is impartial. However, God is a reality, not simply a hypothetical being. God is a real person that we humans have good reasons to identify with and even to obey.

What are those reasons? There are several, if Christianity is true. First, there is the fact that God created us and has given us every good that we have. It is natural and fitting to be thankful to the giver of such gifts, and to wish to please him by obeying his commands. Furthermore, according to Christianity the greatest of all these gifts is God himself, who is supremely good, and thus is supremely worthy of love. To enjoy a relationship with God, a relationship that could be called "the beatific vision" if it were fully actualized, is to enjoy the greatest possible good and experience the greatest possible happiness.

Recall that obligations in general are generated by social relationships. According to divine command theory, God is a real person and thus our relation to him, like our other relations, can generate obligations. If God issues commands or directives to us, we have good reason to obey those commands, from gratitude for the gifts he has bestowed upon us, and out of love in response to his love, as we come to know God and enjoy God. And we can be confident that God's commands are fair and good: grounded in his superior knowledge of his creation and the natures of the things he has made, directed to the good, and shaped by his impartial love for all.

In the contemporary world, commands are often seen as onerous and burdensome, restrictions on freedom. Some might see God's commands as burdensome in this way, or even see them as infantilizing humans, taking away our dignity and reducing us to the status of children who must be instructed. However, the divine command theorist does not see things this way. God extends us the freedom to obey or not to obey his commands. The commands do not take away our freedom but give us a structured, moral universe in which the significance of our freedom is increased. And God does not treat us as infants, but gives us general moral precepts that we ourselves must creatively interpret and apply to our situations in light of our knowledge and understanding of those situations.

In any case the Biblical writers did not see God's commands as burdensome or onerous. The book of Deuteronomy contains repeated exhortations to obey God's commands or law, along with assurances that to choose the way of obedience is to choose blessing. Deuteronomy 11:1 is typical: "Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always." Such exhortations are always accompanied by promises of blessing for those who keep God's laws, and it is therefore not surprising that Psalm 119 celebrates the joys and delights of keeping God's law:
 I will always obey your law,
 for ever and ever.
 I will walk about in freedom
 for I have sought out your precepts.
 I will speak of your statutes before kings
 and will not be put to shame,
 For I delight in your commands
 because I love them.
 I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love,
 and I meditate on your decrees.
 (Ps. 119:44-48)

Nor is this joyous embrace of God's commands limited to the Old Testament. Both the Gospels and the Epistles are full of exhortations to keep God's commands, whether given through the Hebrew scriptures, or through the words of Jesus or apostles. Jesus' words in John 15:10 express this powerfully: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love."

One could of course think of the blessings attached to obeying God's commands and the negative consequences of disobedience simply as external rewards and punishments, and doubtless much of popular Christianity thinks of heaven and hell as the best reasons for obeying God's commands. However, many theologians understand heaven and hell not as external rewards and punishments that are contingently connected to God's commands, but as internally and essentially connected to God. Having a relation to God in which we follow his commands is the greatest good; to lose a connection to God is the greatest evil. (10) God's laws are not only directed to the good, so that those who lose sight of those laws go away from the good. Fundamentally God is himself the chief good; heaven as union with God and hell as separation from God are not external rewards contingently connected with moral goodness.


When asked to summarize God's commands, I have already noted that Jesus replied by citing Deuteronomy 6:5: we are to love God unconditionally and our neighbors as ourselves. I also noted that Jesus goes on to make it clear that the neighbor we are called upon to love cannot be confined to those who are our friends or who are like us in some way, but extends to all other persons. On the divine command theory I have just sketched, God necessarily commands us to love himself because he knows that it is the key to our greatest good. (11) And we can certainly understand why it would be good for him to command us to love all human beings, because according to Christian theology, every human person is made in the image of God. Even without a command from God, the person who loves God has a reason to love all humans, because one cannot truly love God and not love what is made in God's image. By commanding love for the neighbor, God makes this connection between love of God and love of other persons even tighter; no one who truly desires a relationship can be indifferent to God's commands. We thus see that grounding love for others in God provides multiple reasons for loving other persons.


Recall that in this article I am not arguing for the truth of a normative, universal ethic. I shall not address here someone who embraces something like a "lifeboat ethic," or who candidly holds that we only have obligations to those of our own ethnic or national group. (12) Rather, I wish to address the person of good will who accepts the reality of universal obligations but does not believe they require a religious foundation. Can a secular ethic provide an adequate meta-ethical account of such obligations? Of course there are many secular accounts that could be considered. I shall briefly address two of the more popular views. The first strategy to be considered is the attempt to give a scientific basis for universal duties by grounding them in evolutionary theory. The second is to see universal duties as linked to a social contract or agreement.

Before giving my arguments, I want to clarify that the issue concerns the ontological foundation of moral obligations, not whether and how they can be known. I am not arguing that someone who is non-religious cannot be aware of moral obligations or reasonably believe in their validity. The view that moral obligations are in fact divine commands does not imply that one must believe in God to be aware of moral obligations. Rather, if moral obligations are divine commands, then people who do not believe in God fail to know something important about the nature of moral obligations, but they can still be aware of their reality. This is no more mysterious than the fact that scientifically uneducated people can be aware of the reality of water without knowing that water is in fact [H.sub.2]O.

1. Evolutionary naturalism

Since science has great prestige in contemporary culture, it is not surprising that there have been repeated attempts at a "scientific ethic." Given the intellectual prominence of Darwinian theory and its obvious relevance to accounts of human nature, it is therefore also not surprising that there have been repeated attempts to ground ethics in evolutionary theory. In looking at scientific accounts of ethics, it is crucial to distinguish two types of theories. On the one hand, there are what are sometimes called "error theories," theories which assume that moral principles are not in fact objectively binding, but try to explain why human societies nonetheless accept morality. One could, for example, theorize that cultures with moral beliefs are likely to be more cohesive and cooperative than cultures that lack such beliefs, and thus would have an advantage over such cultures. Such a theory does not explain the existence of moral obligations or the truth of moral beliefs, but only why some cultures continue to hold beliefs in such obligations or why they might have feelings of obligation. No attempt at all is made to explain why such obligations in fact hold, much less hold universally. This type of view could be described as giving explanations of morality that in reality explain morality away, because one who accepts the particular scientific theory has in fact abandoned belief in the validity and objectivity of morality. From a psychological point of view, such a theory not only fails to explain morality in a way that shows we have good reasons to be moral; it actually undermines moral behavior by supporting the view that morality is a kind of illusion. As I have already said, I shall not in this article try to engage someone who rejects the existence of moral obligations, and so I shall not consider further this type of scientific account of morality.

Larry Arnhart (1998) has recently taken on the harder task of giving a scientific account of morality that supports the existence of real obligations. Of course Arnhart is only one thinker, and there are alternative accounts of how morality might be rooted in science. However, it is not possible to survey all the possibilities in one paper, and I believe Arnhart's work is both representative and instructive of the problems that will attend many such attempts, since Arnhart is philosophically clear-headed and attuned to the crucial issues. Hence, I shall focus on his work. Of course no critique of a particular view can show that no variation of this view is defensible, but such a critique can highlight areas of difficulty that such views must face.

The heart of Arnhart's account lies in the idea that the scientific study of human nature can give us insight into human nature. According to Arnhart, some human desires are universal because they are grounded in human nature as this has evolved, and these universal desires can be discerned and explained by evolutionary biology, views that many psychologists have found appealing. (13) Ethics must take account of this human nature, and recognize that what is naturally desired must be seen as desirable. (14) I believe there are large questions about whether one can actually derive a viable account of what is good or desirable in this way. However, even if we believe it is possible to derive an account of the good in this way, it does not follow that we can there by give an account of moral obligations, especially not if we think that there are universal obligations. (15)

Some Darwinists have hoped that this would be possible. As Arnhart (1998) tells the story, Darwin himself, at some points, expresses a hope that the social feelings that human beings have developed as the result of a need for cooperation with others might become a sympathy that can be extended "to the men of all nations and races" or, going beyond human persons, become a "disinterested love for all living creatures" (p. 146; see Darwin, 1981). Later Darwinians echo these types of hopes. Richard Dawkins (1976), for example, hopes that we can find ways of "deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism--something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world" (p. 215).

I think that it is clear that this kind of view is an inadequate account of moral obligations as actually binding or holding on humans. Instead, we are offered a hope that, as a result of education, nurturing, and social engineering in general, human beings might be persuaded or induced to behave in altruistic ways. However, even if some or many humans were inclined to behave in such ways, or had a preference for such behavior, such a preference would hardly constitute an obligation that holds for all people and that extends to concern for all people. For it is essential to obligations that they hold whether people prefer to behave in accordance with them or not.

Arnhart (1998) himself recognizes that this kind of universal altruism cannot be derived from biological facts, and he describes ethics that prescribe such behavior as utopian. There is no actual "universal sentiment of disinterested humanitarianism," and if we want to ground our ethic in biology, we must recognize the hard truth that "deep conflicts of interest between individuals or between groups can create moral tragedies in which there is no universal moral principle or sentiment to resolve the conflict" (p. 149). A universal ethic, according to Arnhart, would require "some transcendental norm of impartial justice (such as Christian charity) that is beyond the order of nature" (p. 149). On that point I think Arnhart is entirely right.

As noted already, Arnhart himself wants to ground moral obligations in actual biological desires. Once we identify those desires that are natural and inescapable aspects of our nature, we will have a basis for judging some actions as good and even for condemning some actions as morally impermissible. However, when we look at the desires that Arnhart identifies as natural on the basis of biology, it is very difficult to see how the actual moral obligations most of us think of as binding can be justified. I shall briefly consider two test cases for his theory to see if it gives us correct moral judgments. One is the issue of slavery and the other is the issue of so-called female circumcision, which critics say should really be termed female genital mutilation. I shall assume that both of these practices are morally wrong and indeed morally forbidden.

Slavery constitutes a problem for Arnhart for several reasons. One is that slavery has been practiced for centuries in many cultures, and still survives today. Though hardly universal, it is practiced widely enough, even today, that it has frequently been regarded as natural. It is a particular problem for Arnhart, because he believes that one of the biological desires that we must recognize as part of our nature is a desire for dominance and economic advantage. It is for this reason that Arnhart (1998) believes that it is utopian to think that war can be eliminated. He does not think war will ever be eliminated because "it is rooted in natural desires of human beings as political animals" (p. 148). However, one could easily regard slavery as grounded in this same natural urge. There are even instances of slavery in the natural world among insects. Slavery seems as "natural" as many aspects of human culture.

Arnhart, however, wishes to condemn slavery as morally wrong. On what basis does he do so? His argument is that justifications of slavery generally are rooted in claims of natural superiority of slave-owners to slaves. The slave-owner wants to argue that slaves are incapable of freedom and are actually better off under the paternalistic care and guidance of the master. However, Arnhart (1998) claims that these justifications do not work, because it is not in fact the case that slaves are generally inferior to their owners, and as a result slaves naturally desire freedom and are "naturally inclined to assert their independence as human beings with a moral sense governed by sympathy and reciprocity" (p. 240).

I believe it is painfully obvious that this account of why slavery is wrong will not work on Arnhart's premises. It is certainly true that slaves are not in fact naturally inferior and will naturally seek freedom. However, those facts are not disquieting to the slave-owner who wants to continue to practice slavery and has the power to do so. The fairy tale about the "natural inferiority" of the slave and the beneficial effects of slavery is certainly false. But why suppose that this story is anything but an attempt to weaken the slave's will to resist? At some level slave-owners themselves know the story is untrue, though they may sometimes self-deceptively assuage their consciences by believing it. The slave-owner knows that the institution of slavery depends on superior force and the willingness to use that force. That the slave resents being a slave and desires freedom is simply a fact that the slave-owner must take into consideration as part of the cost of doing business. There is no principled reason, on Arnhart's own view, why the slave-owner must extend "sympathy and reciprocity" to the slave, unless an appeal is made to some universal principle of morality of the sort that Arnhart has already dismissed as utopian and inconsistent with a biological morality. If I have moral obligations to all human persons, and those enslaved are persons, then of course I ought to take into account the slave's desire for freedom. However, if a slave-owner does not accept such a universal moral obligation, it is not clear why the owner should not continue to practice slavery if he has the power to do so.

The second issue I shall briefly consider is what is often termed "female circumcision," practices of clitoridectomy and infibulation that critics of the practice describe as "female genital mutilation." On Arnhart's biological account, men and women are different. Men have a stronger desire for sexual promiscuity and dominance; women have a stronger desire for intimate companionship and nurturance (1998, p. 123). (16) Given these differences, it is therefore not surprising that men have often dominated and oppressed women, and the practice of cutting off the clitoris and sewing up the vulva of women would seem to be one that can be explained by these biological differences. The reason for this is that in the cultures where this practice occurs, it is believed that it safeguards female virginity and "dampens the sexual appetite that might tempt a woman to infidelity" (p. 150).

Given Arnhart's own premises, these male desires seem "natural" and therefore one might think that the practices would be accepted as morally permissible. Of course it is true that female circumcision significantly damages the ability of women to experience sexual pleasure, and it also poses significant health risks for women. From a woman's perspective, the practice certainly looks dubious. But why should this matter to men, on Arnhart's view, assuming that the practice does serve their ends and that they have the power to enforce the practice? Arnhart wants to argue, as he does in the case of slavery, that female circumcision is wrong. But why is it wrong?

The reason Arnhart (1998) gives is that the practice in fact "probably frustrates the sexual and familial desires of men as well as women" (p. 160). As evidence for this he cites the fact that "many men in societies with female circumcision have found that sexual intercourse is more pleasurable for them if their wives have not been mutilated" (p. 160). I have little doubt that this is true, but it seems grossly inadequate as a reason to view this practice as immoral. First of all, though this is doubtless true for "many men," it is probably not true for all. If a man cares only or mainly about his own pleasure, it may not matter to him whether his wife receives pleasure. In any case, even if this is a problem, given the importance attached to women's virginity and fidelity, some men may regard the loss of women's pleasure as a price worth paying. In the end, the real problem with Arnhart's view of female circumcision is that he tries to argue the practice is wrong because it is bad for men. An adequate moral theory should recognize that the practice is wrong if it is bad for women, regardless of whether it produces advantages for men.

In the case of both slavery and female circumcision, we can see the inadequacy of a naturalistic foundation for universal moral obligations. Arnhart can see no natural or biological basis for universal sympathy, and so he dismisses any universal obligation as utopian. This requires him to argue that slavery is wrong because it is bad for the slave-owner, and female circumcision is wrong because it is bad for men. The Christian divine command ethic provides what is lacking here, because it demands love for all human persons, and provides a motive for such love that is not present in a naturalistic ethic. Of course there are many other thinkers than Arnhart who have attempted to develop a biological foundation for morality, and I do not here pretend to have surveyed all the alternatives. However, I believe the problems seen in Arnhart's views are suggestive of similar difficulties that are likely to beset these alternatives.

2. Humanistic Naturalism: Social Contract Views of Morality

Of course evolutionary theory is not the only option for a naturalist who wishes a secular foundation for universal moral obligations. Another option is to see morality as a kind of social bargain, an agreement that humans make that is motivated by self-interest. If we see humans as "rational maximizers," in accordance with standard models in economics, then a strong argument can be made that it is indeed in humans' self-interest to make such an agreement. If people consistently seek to satisfy their own preferences and ignore the desires of others, we have a situation similar to what Thomas Hobbes famously described as the "state of nature," a "war of all against all." Hobbes (1996) concluded that in the state of nature human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (pp. 88-89). It seems rational, then, for human persons to agree to the rules of morality as a constraint on their behavior if others are also willing to accept those limits. We will all be better off if we become, in the language of David Gauthier (1986), "constrained maximizers" rather than "straightforward maximizers" (pp. 250-279).

Can we understand universal moral obligations as motivated by such a self-interested agreement? Many psychologists seem to assume that this is so. (17) However, there are several major problems with this idea. First, we must ask about the nature of the agreement. Is the agreement supposed to be an actual agreement, something people have really consented to, or is it to be thought of as a hypothetical agreement, the kind of bargain people would make if they were fully rational, fair, impartial, etc?

On the latter scenario, the rules of morality would be the outcome of the kind of agreement that would be produced by people who are in what John Rawls (1971) called "the original position," in which people make decisions on basic principles "behind a veil of ignorance," not knowing what their positions in life will be or even what their basic views about the good life will be. (18) The difficulty with this scenario is that it is difficult to see why actual people should be obligated by such rules or care to live by them, unless we see this story as simply an imaginative device to help us discern the moral principles already recognized as binding. If we believe that people have a responsibility to treat all other people fairly and justly, then a thought-experiment such as Rawls' may have value in helping us understand what kind of society such moral duties would call for. But in this case, the moral duties are regarded as binding independently of the hypothetical agreement. We are not morally obligated to others because that is what we would promise if we were in the original position. Rather, if we believe we are morally obligated to others, we will recognize that at least some features of Rawls' story express the obligations we actually have. We cannot generate actual obligations from a hypothetical agreement. Suppose that it is true that if I were in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel, I would agree to promise to give money for its maintenance. The fact that I would be willing to make such a promise does not imply that I actually have such an obligation.

Suppose we think of the agreement as an actual agreement rather than a hypothetical one. In this case a host of different problems emerge. First, it is of course unclear just what the agreement includes, when it was made, and who was a party to it. Any agreements made by actual people will be agreements that reflect the differences in power and resources that are present, but this means that any unfairness in existing social arrangements will simply be reflected in the agreements. Gilbert Harman, who thinks morality is a conventional social agreement, argues that this is in fact the case. If we look at morality, according to Harman, we see that there are strict rules about harming others, but much weaker principles devoted to helping others. For example, morality strictly forbids killing one person to harvest that person's organs for transplants, but does not strictly require the rich to render help to the poor. The explanation for this is simple, according to Harman (2000): "The rich, the poor, the strong, and the weak would all benefit if all were to avoid harming one another. So everyone could agree to that arrangement. But the rich and the strong would not benefit from an arrangement whereby everyone would try to do as much as possible to help those in need" (p. 11). So the idea of morality as an agreement seems to founder whether we take the agreement as hypothetical or actual. A merely hypothetical agreement would be fair but would not actually obligate. An actual agreement, even if such a thing existed, would not necessarily be fair to all concerned.

However, there are other grave objections to the idea that morality could be grounded in a human agreement. One fundamental problem concerns the motivation for actually keeping such an agreement. We might grant that it would be rational to promise to behave morally towards others on the condition that others make the same promise. However, it is one thing to make such a promise and another to keep it. Why should a person be willing to keep such an agreement? One answer might be that if I break the agreement, then others who observe this will be less likely to keep the bargain as well. However, this does not really provide a reason to keep the agreement absolutely, but rather a reason to keep the agreement when I believe that my non-compliance is likely to be detected. And there are surely many occasions on which a person can break the rules of morality with no significant risk of being detected.

Nor is this fact unimportant. On the "morals by agreement" theory, my motivation for making and keeping the agreement is conditional on others being willing to do the same. But if I have good reason to think that others will cheat when they believe they can do with impunity, then I have good reason to think others will not always keep the agreement. Think, for example, of the situation of a student contemplating cheating on a test in a case where it is highly unlikely that the student's cheating will be detected. One can hardly argue that the student should refrain from cheating so that others will be less likely to cheat, since by hypothesis the others will not know about the student's cheating. In any case, if the student knows that a large number of other students are going to cheat anyway, which seems to be the case in many schools, then the student can reasonably argue that the agreement no longer applies. The student has at best agreed not to cheat if others do the same, but if others are in fact cheating, the condition for the agreement has not been fulfilled. In the language of economic theory, the morals by agreement theory has no adequate answer to the problem of the "free-rider" or "parasite," who benefits from an agreement but does not abide by the rules.

There is one weakness in the morals by agreement theory that is particularly evident when one considers moral obligations that are universal in scope. Any social agreement that is supposed to constitute morality would necessarily be an agreement among some particular community. How wide should this community be? Since the motivation for the agreement is maximization of self-interest, the answer is that a decision to expand the moral community surely depends on whether including or excluding some other group would add to the well-being of the existing community.

David Gauthier (1986) tries to deal with this problem by describing a fictional world in which one people, "the Purples," live in justice and prosperity on one island, while "the Greens" live in squalor and immoral chaos on another (pp. 282-288). If the Purples should encounter the Greens, how should they treat them? They might wish just to ignore them, or they could even decide to exploit and oppress them if they could do so successfully. However, Gauthier gives three reasons why the Purples might wish to extend their own moral rules and treat the Greens equitably. First of all, if the Purples are hostile or behave uncharitably, this may provoke hostility from the Greens in return. Secondly, the Purples may simply have developed into the kind of people who cannot help but act charitably towards others. Finally, the Purples may simply find their emotions engaged by the plight of the Greens, as they have developed a "sympathy for all whom they consider human" (p. 286).

None of these reasons is an adequate account of why the Purples have obligations to the Greens. First, it is not true that domination and oppression are always counter-productive. Take, for example, the way in which native Americans were displaced and largely wiped out by North American colonists. Secondly, even if humans are sometimes disposed to be cooperative and charitable, this is not universally true and could not be the basis of a duty or obligation. Gauthier's third reason is just as inadequate. On the Christian ethic, humans have an obligation to love others, as we have seen. But this means that they have a duty to cultivate concern and sympathy for all others; it can hardly be presupposed that such a universal concern and sympathy actually exists as a basis for the obligation. It is true that to the degree that people have become genuinely moral beings, they are more apt to respond with sympathy and concern for those who are of different cultures, or of a different race, or different religion, etc. This is in sharp contrast to the general human record or distinguishing between "us" and "them," usually to the detriment of those who are "them." However, I think it is more plausible to think of such sympathetic feelings for those who are different as a product of morality than as a foundation for them. In any case, someone who appeals to such feelings as a foundation for morality has abandoned the claim that rational self-interest is that foundation. For it is exactly when humans are emotionally concerned about others that they are most likely to transcend self-interested behavior. This helps us see how the Christian view that humans have an obligation to love their neighbors embodies a realistic grasp of human nature. For only an emotion such as love can really motivate us to be universal altruists.


I have tried to show that a particular Christian meta-ethical account, one that sees moral obligations as grounded in God's command to human persons to love our neighbors as ourselves, has some significant advantages over some of its secular rivals. This divine command account explains why all humans have an obligation to love others, and it explains why the obligation to love extends to all human persons. The development of such love, understood not as a transient feeling but as a complex, stable disposition, is a difficult task, perhaps one that cannot be finally accomplished in this life. It may even be, and Christian teaching supports this, that little progress can be made on these lines without divine assistance. However, we can understand how such love is possible psychologically and the reasons why humans should want to love their neighbors. This ethic of universal love makes not only philosophical sense but psychological sense as well, since it implies that humans who love their neighbors are in fact pursuing their own good also. This is the case even when they appear to be sacrificing personal happiness, because they are developing a relationship with God that is their own highest good and that will lead to their own deepest happiness. Those who love God will naturally want to obey God's commands, especially a command to love those who are made in God's image.

If we compare this account with naturalistic alternatives, alternatives that are commonly assumed by psychologists, it is clear that the naturalistic accounts, at least in the forms I have considered, fall short on several counts. There is no plausible biological desire that can be viewed as the basis for an obligation for universal love to others. Nor is it reasonable to view such an obligation to love others as rooted in any kind of social bargain or contract, particularly if the "others" include people from other societies and groups who cannot plausibly contribute to the good of my community. The secular accounts neither explain why such obligations hold or give a plausible view of why we should be motivated to follow them. The divine command theory does both.

Of course there are other secular alternatives, and the options I have considered could be developed in other ways. However, I hope I have shown that a religiously grounded ethic is not only a serious philosophical competitor, but that it also makes psychological sense in a way that its rivals do not.


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Annas, J. (1993). The morality of happiness. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle (1941). Nicomachean ethics. In The Basic Works of Aristotle (W. D. Ross, Trans.). New York: Random House.

Arnhart, L. (1998). Darwinian natural right: The biological ethics of human nature. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Confucius. (2003). Analects (E. Slingerland, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Darwin, C. (1981). The descent of man (Vol. 1). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1824)

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Evans, C. S. (2004). Kierkegaard's ethic of love: Divine commands and moral obligations. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Gauthier, D. (1986). Morals by agreement. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Hardin, G. (1977). The limits of altruism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hare, R. M. (1981). Moral thinking. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Harman, G. (2000). Moral relativism defended. In G. Harman, Explaining value and other essays in moral philosophy (pp. 3-19). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

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Kant, I. (1993). Grounding for the metaphysic of morals (J. W. Ellington, Trans; 3rd. ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. (Original work published 1785)

Mill, J. S. (1998). Utilitarianism (R. Crisp, Ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1861)

Plato. (1963). Euthyphro (L. Cooper, Trans.). In Plato: The Collected Dialogues (E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Eds.; pp. 169-185). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Quinn, P. (1990, Fall). The recent revival of divine command ethics. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50, (suppl.).

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Roberts, R. C. (2003). Emotions: An essay in aid of moral psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wallach, M., & Wallach, L. (1983). Psychology's sanction for selfishness: The error of egoism in theory and therapy. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.


EVANS, C. STEPHEN: Address: Department of Philosophy, Baylor University, One Bear Place, #97273, Waco, TX 76798-7273. Title: University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities. Degrees: B.A., Wheaton College; M.Phil., Ph.D., Yale University. Specializations: Kierkegaard, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology, Philosophy of Psychology.


Baylor University

I would like to express my gratitude to the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University, which provided support for the writing of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to C. Stephen Evans, Ph.D., University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Department of Philosophy, Baylor University, One Bear Place, #97273, Waco, Texas 76798-7273, USA. E-mail:

(1) I am aware that the Introduction to the Code denies that these principle are "obligations" but rather affirms them as "aspirational goals" (p. 1061) for psychologists. This qualification is probably for the legal protection of psychologists; to avoid establishing universal, enforceable rights that might lead to lawsuits, since such general principles are necessarily vague. Nevertheless, the principles enunciated seem rooted in the convictions that all human beings have an intrinsic worth and therefore possess human rights.

(2) In the text I use the most common version of this Confucian saying, but Slingerland translates it as "Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire."

(3) There is one obscure passage in Aristotle that may or may not imply that there are such obligations. See Aristotle (1941, 1161b, p. 1071).

(4) For a good discussion of how the Stoic notion of impartiality developed see Annas (1993, pp. 262-276).

(5) For a spirited defense of this social theory of obligation, see Adams (1999, esp. pp. 231-248).

(6) The discussion of emotion that follows is strongly influenced by Robert Roberts' account of emotions as "concern-based construals." See Roberts (2003). However, I disagree with Roberts on the question as to whether emotions can be dispositional in character. See Evans (2004, pp. 191-198).

(7) Several philosophers, including Robert Adams and Philip Quinn, have recently defended such a view. See Adams (1999, pp. 249-276) and Quinn (1990, pp. 345-365). There is a large and complex literature on divine command theory, and many philosophical issues are raised therein that cannot be addressed in this essay, since it has psychologists as its primary audience. However, it may be worth pointing out that the kind of theory I develop is one that might be described as "moderately strong." A stronger version of divine command theory would be one that holds that all moral properties are grounded in the divine will. A weaker version would hold that God's commands give actions the property of being "obligatory," but that what God commands is determined by the natures he has given to things. A moderately strong theory holds that God's commands are directed to the good and take account of the natures he has given to things, but are not determined by those natures. For at least some acts that God commands, there are alternatives that he could have commanded. See Evans (2004, pp. 112-155).

(8) This is a paraphrase of the view Euthyphro defends. See Plato (1963, p. 174).

(9) A good example of such a moral theory is the one defended by R.M. Hare. See Hare (1981).

(10) I hope it is clear that in saying that our relation to God requires our following his commands, I am not implying that we humans can establish such a relation simply by following God's commands. Orthodox Christians hold that because of sin, our ability to have a proper relation to God has been lost, and can only be re-established by God's grace. That is consistent with saying that humans who have been redeemed by God have a renewed relation to God that will include following God's laws.

(11) It is important that the divine command theory I accept does not say that all of God's commands could have been different. Since the commands are directed to the good, God cannot but command humans to love God, who is the supreme Good.

(12) For an example of such a "lifeboat ethic," see Hardin (1977).

(13) What follows is a critique of an attempt to show that evolutionary theory supports a naturalistic account of morality. I make no judgment here about attempts to show that evolutionary theory might be interpreted in ways that are consistent with Christian morality, or, for that matter, about the plausibility of evolutionary theory itself.

(14) Arnhart (1998, pp. 17-49) contains a sustained argument for this claim.

(15) For a more detailed analysis and critique of Arnhart, see Evans (2004, pp. 223-249).

(16) I don't want to endorse Arnhart's factual claims here, but accept them for the sake of argument.

(17) For many examples of the way psychologists assume and even nurture an egoistic view of morality, see Wallach and Wallach (1983).

(18) I do not assume that Rawls himself is attempting to derive the fundamental principles of morality in this way. Rather, I think his account of the "original position" rests on deeper moral truths that he sees as holding independently of any social contract.
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Date:Mar 22, 2006
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