Tag Archives: General Ethics

Resolving the Conflict Between Maximal Justice and Mercy

It is commonly thought that there is a tension between mercy and justice, and it is indeed not obvious how to make sense of God being both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. In this blog post, I characterize mercy and justice and discuss how God might be said to maximize both of these, building on recent developments in perfect being theology by Yujin Nagasawa, Mark Murphy, and Daniel Hill.

What are Mercy and Justice?

Mercy and justice are responses by an agent to the actions of an individual who is the recipient of mercy or justice. An agent responds to a recipient depending on whether the action is good or evil (positive or negative). A good action deserves reward, and an evil action deserves punishment. In short, justice is getting what you deserve (good or bad), and mercy is not getting something negative (i.e., punishment) you do deserve.[1] We can extend the characterization to add grace, which is getting something positive you do not deserve, but I will focus my discussion on mercy and justice for simplicity. There are two questions to ask to distinguish justice, mercy, and grace:

  1. Is the response deserved? (Yes: justice, No: mercy or grace)
  2. Is the response positive, negative, or non-negative? (Positive: grace or justice, Negative: justice, Non-negative: mercy)

The quadrants of answers to these questions can be summarized in Table 1 below. It is just to pay an agreed-upon wage for a job, or to give a misbehaving high school student detention. It is gracious to give someone a Christmas gift, especially one whom has never given you a gift (where there is definitely no obligation). It is merciful for a police officer that pulls you over for speeding to only give a verbal warning, or for a judge to drop or reduce a charge or sentence for someone who committed a crime.

ExamplesWages from jobJail, detentionChristmas gifts, free samplesNo sentencing, verbal warning from officer
Table 1: A summary of the attributes of justice, grace, and mercy

Thus, justice is deserved punishment or reward, mercy is withholding deserved punishment, and grace is giving undeserved reward. As it stands, it appears as though mercy and justice are incompatible in the sense that an action cannot be both merciful and just, at least at the same time in the same way with respect to the same people. In the case of justice, the result is deserved, while in the case of mercy, the result is undeserved; these seem mutually exclusive.

The Incoherence of Theism

Justice is good, and mercy is good. It is good to perform acts of justice and acts of mercy. So, just and merciful are likely attributes, or properties, that make agents good, or great. We naturally think that just leaders are better than unjust leaders, and merciful bosses (or friends) are greater than merciless bosses (or friends). Thus, we can call justice and mercy great-making properties (or good-making properties, or perfections). At the same time, God is commonly understood as the greatest possible being (or the greatest conceivable being). This is a commitment of perfect being theology. If God is the greatest possible being (GPB), then it seems as though God would possess all great-making properties (GMPs) to the highest degree possible. In other words, a GPB maximizes all GMPs.

If an action cannot be both merciful and just in an important way due to an inherent incompatibility, then there appears to be a problem with maximizing both of these properties. If there is a problem with maximizing all GMPs, then it looks like a problem for the existence of a GPB. If no GPB exists, and if God has to be a GPB, then God does not exist. This can perhaps be formalized (adapted from a previous Twitter conversation I had) as:

  1. God is (defined as) the greatest metaphysically possible being (GPB)
  2. Justice and mercy are great-making properties (GMPs)
  3. A GPB maximizes all GMPs
  4. It is not possible for both justice and mercy to be maximized in one being
  5. It is not possible for all GMPs to be maximized in one being
  6. If (5), it is not possible for a GPB to exist 
  7. It is not possible for a GPB to exist 
  8. Therefore, God does not exist

Let’s go through the premises to determine where we will focus in this post.

We will grant perfect being theology as characterized by (1) for the sake of the post, though I think it is quite reasonable to reject (1) and avoid the problem entirely, opting instead for a variant of perfect being theology or an entirely different fundamental characterization of God (i.e., metatheology). Alternative metatheologies include the creator of all else (creator theology), a worship-worthy being (worship-worthiness theology), the combination of creator and worship-worthiness theology (as Jonathan Kvanvig defends in his book, Depicting Deity, dedicated to exploring these options), or some mysterious fourth thing. I briefly motivated and do accept (2). I will briefly discuss later a reason to possibly exclude justice or mercy as GMPs due to their being unable to be maximized coherently.

The argument outlined above is a great opportunity to explore these ideas more in-depth, with a particular focus on premises 3-6. The first helpful item to explore is (3) regarding what sense a GPB maximizes GMPs. Are GMPs maximized individually or collectively? What are the interaction effects between the properties on their maximum values? With respect to (4), what does it mean to individually be either maximally just or maximally merciful? Is it possible to maximize them collectively? Finally, (6), if all GMPs cannot be maximized (in whatever sense we determine to be relevant), does that imply there is no GPB? We will discuss each of these in turn.

Introduction to Great-Making Properties

Before moving too far into our investigation, we need to understand exactly what is meant by great-making properties, what types of properties can be GMPs, and how to understand their maximums and their most valuable degrees. We can use some vocabulary developed by Daniel Hill in Divinity and Maximal Greatness to (hopefully) offer some clarity on this concept. Hill distinguishes between properties that have a maximum, a highest degree, and those that do not (such as set-theoretic cardinality due to the power set axiom), as well as those that have an optimum, a most valuable degree (not necessarily the highest possible degree), and those that do not.

The difference between the optimum and the maximum is that the maximum is just what is possible for a being to have more of, so a being has something maximally if it is not possible to have more of that thing (e.g., power). The optimum is where a property becomes less valuable when it is possessed to a greater or lesser degree than the optimum. In analytic terms, a being has property F maximally if and only if it is not possible that there be a being that has more F, and a being, x, has great-making property F optimally if and only if nothing could be greater than x in virtue of having more or less F.[2]

The optimum, as far as I can tell, is identical to what has previously regularly been called the intrinsic maximum of the value of that property. I find the language of optimum vs maximum much more helpful than the clunky ‘intrinsic maximum of value’ (not to mention misleading, since, if Atomism is false (see next section), then the ‘intrinsic’ maximum can be affected by external properties).

There are some properties whose maximum is its optimum, but other properties will have their optimum that is less than their maximum. Hill calls properties where the optimum = maximum maxi-optimality properties, and he calls properties where the optimum is not the maximum duality properties because they have a dual nature of a distinct optimum and maximum. In other words, a being possessing some duality property to its optimal degree is greater than a being that possesses that property to a greater degree (higher than the optimum).

Maximize Collectively or Individually?

A greatest possible being is said to maximize all great-making properties, but what if the GMPs themselves affect the maximum, or at least the maximum greatness, of one of the other GMPs? A common example is God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence: if God can do anything metaphysically possible, can God sin? This is a standard question. A standard response is: no, God cannot sin, but that is not a problem; it would actually be a kind of weakness in God to be able to sin, not a strength. It is a liability, not a capability. Thus, there is no true capability, as opposed to liability, that God lacks. Is this response adequate for showing that God can, in fact, maximize both power and goodness in the relevant sense? We will explore this question in a general way in this section. 

Overall, we need to assess two theses regarding how GMPs are maximized (Distribution and Atomism as termed by Mark Murphy in God’s Own Ethics[3]):

  • Distribution: for each great-making property that God exhibits, God exhibits that property to the intrinsic maximum of its value
  • Atomism: for each great-making property, what constitutes the intrinsic maximum of the value of that property is independent of that great-making property’s  relation to other divine great-making properties

Our stance on Distribution will determine if we think God has to maximize each GMP individually (independently), where each GMP is possessed to its most valuable degree, or collectively, where the GPB has the highest overall value and maximizes the set of GMPs rather than each GMP individually. For example, a Distributivist may say that a GPB can have more power, but not more power in a more valuable way. See Figure 1 for a visual depiction between a Distributivist and a non-Distributivist set of GMP values and maximums.

Figure 1: Left is a Distributive set of GMPs since all GMPs are possessed to the optimum (aka the most valuable) degree. On the right, one GMP, knowledge, is not at the optimum level and thus rejects Distribution. Note that if Atomism is true, then it seems the maximum values for power and knowledge would need to be reduced below the optimum values and would need to be motivated by the metaphysical impossibility of possessing that GMP to a higher degree. If Atomism is false, then it could be that the interaction between power, knowledge, and goodness results in a decrease of the optimum values of power and knowledge to their current levels.

Yujin Nagasawa in Maximal God rejects distribution and says that a GPB has the maximal consistent set of all GMPs. Thus, the GPM maximizes greatness overall, independent of whether each individual GMP is at its intrinsic maximum of value. It is perfectly acceptable to have less power than as much as one could most valuably have if the amount of power one can most valuably have produces an inconsistency with another maximized GMP, such as omnibenevolence. Murphy challenges Nagasawa’s view and defends Distribution, but I will not assess that argument here. (I think it fails, and Distribution is plausibly rejected for a parallel reason that one can reject Atomism.)

If Distribution were false, there is a fairly easy way to avoid consistency issues by making God have the maximal consistent set of justice and mercy. If maximizing GMPs just means take the maximum of two things combined in some way that requires consistency, then coherence is baked into the definition.

  1. God is (defined as) the greatest metaphysically possible being (GPB)
  2. Justice, mercy, & grace are great-making properties (GMPs)
  3. The GPB has the maximal consistent set of all GMPs
  4. God has the maximal consistent set of justice, mercy, & grace

This sounds like a nice (though cheap) save, but, as Jeff Speaks has pointed out in The Greatest Possible Being, something fishy must be going on here. There is still more to explore about how to maximize the consistent set, whatever that is, of the two properties. It remains unanswered if this GPB meets some absolute standard of greatness (in case the GMPs are in tension to the extent that the “maximum consistent set” is not any greater overall than a human[4] or even a rock). I am not going to assume that Distribution is false in the rest of this, so I consider alternative ways to respond to the challenge of the consistency of the GMPs.

Even assuming Distribution is true, to say that each GMP is at their intrinsic maximum is not to say that there are no interaction effects between the GMPs. Namely, the GMPs might interact in such a way that reduces the intrinsic maximum of value of another GMP. Thus, our stance on Atomism determines if we think that the value maximum of a GMP can be affected by another GMP.

Without Atomism, we have no problem saying God can have more power with the ability to sin, but not power in a more valuable way, which means that God still maximizes all GMPs in the relevant way. An atomist would say that the maximum value of power does not depend on anything to do with the goodness of an action or as a property of that agent, which appears to imply that God would be greater if he could sin. Murphy does not think this (and Atomism generally) is implausible, but that seems to me to be pretty clearly incorrect. We can, in fact, say that one who can sin is not greater than one who cannot sin. Plausibly, one is greater if one cannot sin due to their impeccability (not due to a lack of power or ability) than if one can sin. Thus, power cannot be realized in a more valuable way by adding the ability to sin. 

The key takeaway from this section is that GMPs can interact with each other in such a way that affects what degree of that property is most valuable to possess, which is to say that Atomism is false. I am neutral on Distribution, but I find no issue with rejecting it. As Murphy contends, we need some absolute minimum overall standard to be met without Distribution; however, (as Murphy also defends) we might should include that absolute minimum either way.

This section applies to mercy and justice because (1) without Distribution, mercy and justice do not need to reach their individual maximum values for the GPB to maximize them collectively, and (2) without Atomism, mercy and justice can interact in such a way that their value maxima are changed compared to considering them individually.

How to Maximize Justice or Mercy?

When maximizing a great-making property, we need to understand what it means for that attribute to be exhibited to a greater degree (assuming it is, in fact, a degreed property), and what it could look like to exhibit that attribute at the greatest degree. In the case of justice and mercy, maximization is likely over numerous dimensions, including degree or magnitude, quality or type, recipients, times, and/or possible worlds.

Justice and mercy are relational properties, and they require multiple parties to be involved. Agents are the only objects that can be just or merciful, and agents are also the only objects that can be recipients of justice and mercy. Every act of justice and mercy has a recipient, someone who receives mercy or justice from an agent.

Let us consider a natural starting point for maximizing over all the dimensions listed earlier:

  • Maximal justice1 = just in the highest degree with respect to all people at all times in all possible worlds in the retributive, compensatory, and restorative aspects of justice.

Now, we will go through this piece by piece.

The highest “degree” aspect is probably redundant because one can only be just or unjust. If one gives less than the reward that is earned, it is weird to call that “partially just.” Punishment or reward is either fitting or it is not. We might instead understand that justice is exhibited to the highest degree if it is just in the way described by the rest of the definition. Consequently,  justice in the highest degree just is justice with respect to all people at all times in all possible worlds in the retributive, compensatory, and restorative aspects of justice.

Regarding the different qualities, or aspects, of justice, this would depend on our independent account of justice, but I think it is reasonable to say there are multiple aspects of justice, including retributive and restorative aspects.

The maximizing over all possible worlds makes sense, which is to say that God is necessarily just. We would need to clarify that, since justice is relational, it would be necessary relative to worlds in which God created agents. (See the next section for an objection along these lines).

We get a bigger issue when considering maximizing over all times and objects. The intrinsic maximum of the value of justice is likely not when all times and all objects are included. The reason is because it is likely morally better, or at least more valuable, for God to not act in this way at all times for all people. Namely, it is better if God were at least sometimes merciful, or sometimes gracious, at least with respect to some people. In the same way, it is better if God were not always merciful, but God at least sometimes gave people punishment they deserved rather than always letting people go scot-free.

Consider the videos that go viral on Facebook/YouTube of judges giving people mercy when they deserve a harsher sentence. We consider this praiseworthy but not obligatory, usually, and thus a supererogatory action on the judge. We would say that this judge is better than one who is a stickler and never lets people off the hook(never merciful).

Plausibly, it is worse to be always merciful, or always just, with respect to any given person, than sometimes merciful and sometimes just. So, in terms that we used earlier, there is a point at which justice could not be realized in a more valuable way, and the same with mercy.

What about being always just, but instead of with respect to any given individual, with respect to any persons? In other words, God may be just at all times, but not at all times for all people. This is how I used to reconcile the concept of maximal justice and mercy: God is just with respect to someone (anyone) at any given time, and God is merciful with respect to someone at any given time; alternatively, we could simply say: God, at all times, exhibits mercy and justice. Therefore, God is maximally merciful and just.[5]

However, there is a counterexample. Consider a possible world with only one person. God being always just would require God to be just with respect to this person at all times, but as we already considered, it is better if, for a given individual, there was a mixture of justice and mercy, at different times. Therefore, this cannot be the most valuable amount of justice. Obviously, we need a different analysis of the maximum value of justice.

I think the conclusion is that the intrinsic maximum value of justice maximizes over possible worlds, types of justice, and objects, but it does not maximize over all times. I think the analysis of mercy will be similar. If God never punishes the wicked, but always gives them mercy, that is worse than sometimes giving justice.

Crystallizing the Compatibility

Does justice or mercy have a true maximum? I explored in the previous section what maximizing justice or mercy might look like. One objection to this is that there is no maximum because God could always create more people to receive mercy, and that would make God more merciful to be merciful to more people.[6] A quite plausible response is analogous to what’s called “person-affecting” views in population ethics, which is where something is only important if it applies to an actual person. This means that it would not make God more merciful to create more people and be merciful towards them because if God did not create them, then they would not have done anything that warranted mercy in the first place (or existed at all). In this scenario, God is as merciful as possible per person, and that activity is all that is needed for maximal mercy.

We may say that it is greater to have mercy on 100 persons than have mercy on 10 persons, but that does not mean is greater in virtue of being more merciful by having mercy on 100 instead of 10 persons, particularly if we are comparing different possible worlds. It may be greater in virtue of other aspects of the ability to have mercy, such as the necessity of overcoming limitations in power, space, time, and knowledge to create and have mercy on 100 persons compared to 10 persons. (The same applies, even more clearly, to the parallel worry Murphy has about God being maximally loving). God can have the same level of being merciful whether he creates more people that he actualizes this ability or not, similar to how omnipotence does not mean God creates as many objects as possible because God does not need to actively use all his power to be maximally powerful. Thus, God can be maximally merciful without creating more people to be merciful toward, but by merely being maximally merciful towards the people that God does create.

A similar worry can arise when considering the necessity of God’s mercy. If mercy requires creatures, and God only contingently creates, then there might be a problem for God being necessarily just. For now, while I am engaging with Murphy on this, I adopt a parallel stance as Murphy on necessary love[7]: “given the existence of created persons, the Anselmian being necessarily [is just and merciful towards] them.”[8] One might press that even if God creates, that doesn’t imply that necessarily anyone has sinned and thus be a candidate for receiving mercy. One can appeal to a kind of transworld depravity, that any possible world with an agent will sin at some time and thus be a candidate for mercy. If all of this is unsatisfactory, I am perfectly fine with saying God is just and merciful in a contingent way, namely those worlds in which God creates moral agents, as there is no way for God to be merciful or just in worlds without agents and thus does not make God any less merciful or just.

Let us go back and reconsider properties that have an optimum that is distinct from their maximum, what Hill calls duality properties. In fact, Hill actually gives lenience (aka mercy), which he contrasts with justice, as an example of one! Hill says, “I contend that it is possible to be too lenient, i.e., that a maximally lenient being would not be optimally lenient… It is great, I think, to be lenient, and a more lenient being is greater than a less lenient being – up to a point, the point of being optimally lenient.”[9] I completely agree with him here. 

Hill further comments on the relationship between mercy and justice by saying, “[I]t seems that too much lenience implies not enough justice, and that being optimally lenient is compatible with being maximally (or optimally) just.”[10] Again, I completely agree. If one is always merciful, always forgiving and letting wrongdoers off the hook, then that is not enough justice. There is some optimum level, the exact level need not be identified, where value is maximized, and that optimum is not God acting always just towards every person at all times in all possible worlds, etc. Therefore, a visual depiction of the interaction effects between justice and mercy affecting the optimum values can be depicted by Figure 2.

Shows two graphs described by the figure caption. It shows how interaction between justice and mercy can cause their optimums to decrease below their original when considered individually.
Figure 2: The left depicts the GMPs of justice and mercy considered individually, while the right considers them collectively, including their interaction effects. In this case, there are interaction effects that result in a depression of the optimum degree of both justice and mercy to below the maximum degree, which constitutes a rejection of Atomism. This graphic suggests something like the optimum percentage of actions is 75% just and 25% merciful, which sounds reasonable, but I am not married to that ratio.

These considerations culminate in a new plausible account of maximal justice that is compatible with maximal mercy:

  • Maximal justice2 = justice with respect to all people in all possible worlds (that have agents) in all aspects of justice.

In this way, it appears as though maximal justice and maximal mercy, in the sense of maximizing them as great-making properties (i.e., achieving their value maximum), are perfectly compatible simultaneously. In this analysis, we made use of the interactions between the GMPs of justice and mercy, which suggest that the value maximum of each is affected by the other, and thus Atomism is false.


In this post, I proposed brief accounts of mercy and justice and analyzed what problems that might arise for God’s existence and perfect being theology. I analyzed what it might mean to be maximally just or maximally merciful, concluding that God would be just in all possible worlds (in which there are creatures that do morally relevant actions) in all senses towards all agents, but God does not need to be just or merciful toward all agents at all times. Mercy and justice have their intrinsic maximum of value affected by one another, which means that Atomism is false and each great-making property is not maximized purely individually. The optimum amount of justice and mercy is neither 100% just nor 100% merciful, but somewhere in between. Something that remains to be explored is how the Gospel so beautifully and perfectly combines justice, mercy, and grace in a way that punishes all evil and rewards all good while offering mercy and grace to all.

[1] I am neglecting a lot here and am giving a fairly naïve account, as I have not done much sustained reading on this front. This account of justice may be limited to retributive justice, which I am perfectly fine with. It may also be incompatible with compensation (e.g., for undeserved suffering), which again I am perfectly fine with for several reasons I leave for elsewhere. I also acknowledge this video for the featured image.

[2] Hill, Daniel. Divinity and Maximal Greatness. Routledge, 2004, pp. 10-11.

[3] Murphy, Mark C. God’s Own Ethics: Norms of divine agency and the argument from evil. Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 12. Definitions adapted for internal and external parallelism.

[4] This is Jeff Speaks’s Michael Jordan objection, that PBT may end in the conclusion that Michael Jordan is the greatest possible being, and thus we have clearly gone astray somewhere.

[5] There is a more general question I have here, and I’m not sure where to look for the answer (action theory? metaphysics?). How does one make inferences in either direction regarding attributes and actions? Given one’s set of actions over all time, how exactly do you make conclusions about the attributes of that individual? Or, more useful for doing perfect being theology, how do we make conclusions about one’s actions based on one’s attributes? Specifically, can one have the property of justice if one does not act just at all points in time? Does the property disappear if one does not “act out of justice”? Does the phrase “acting out of justice” even make sense? This is language that I have seen used, and use myself, when describing God’s actions. God is always loving, always just, always merciful, but that does not mean that all his actions are primarily out of mercy. Some actions are more related to his justice than his mercy. Is there a more robust way to make sense of this language? It may be that perfect being theologians have talked a lot about this in the context of maximal properties that I don’t know. There’s a lot of work here that I haven’t read yet. There is especially a lot of work on maximal love by Talbott and others that I have not yet adequately sifted through. I could add to this post based on what I have read thus far, but I’m trying to keep this short. 

[6] Thanks to Johnny Waldrop for raising this objection.

[7] The problem does seem worse than the problem of contingent love, since inter-Trinitarian relations can easily have love, but it is hard to make sense of justice or mercy as being contained in inter-Trinitarian relations.

[8] Murphy, p. 32.

[9] Hill, Daniel. Divinity and Maximal Greatness. Routledge, 2004, p. 11.

[10] Ibid.


Defining Objective Morality, Subjectivism, Relativism, and More


If you have ever been confused trying to figure out what someone means by “objective morality,” or got mixed up between moral subjectivism and relativism, you are not alone. Here, I will first define is meant by “objective morality” (or moral realism as it is known to ethicists), as well as subjectivism, relativism, absolute vs contextual moral claims, and first- and second-order moral judgments. In short, objective morality (or “moral realism”) is the view that there are true moral statements that are true independent of anyone’s desires, beliefs, or subjective states about those moral truths.

Defining Objective Morality

When people talking about objectivity, or objective facts, they are talking about things that are independent of what people believe or feel. Feelings and desires can be called “subjective states,” where subjective is the opposite of objective and depends on the individual. Gravity holds a person walking on Earth down, even if that person believes they can fly or not. In metaethics, objective morality often goes by another name, which is moral realism. “Realism” is a term used about pretty much every field, such as scientific realism. It implies that certain things exist.

Objective morality, or moral realism,[1] is taken to be the combination of three claims about moral reality: a semantic, alethic (this has to do with what things are possibly true), and metaphysical claim,[2] which together can be summarized as saying “there are objective moral truths.”[3]

  1. Semantic: Moral claims are either true or false
  2. Alethic: Some moral claims are true
  3. Metaphysical: Moral facts are objective (independent of subjective states about that fact), relevantly similar to certain amoral [non-moral] facts  

Objective morality means there are some moral truths that are independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about that truth

The semantic thesis is that moral claims (or propositions) are the type of thing that can be true or false, as opposed to something like an emotion, which cannot be true or false. In other words, moral claims are truth-apt. The semantic thesis distinguishes cognitivism (moral propositions represent cognitive states) from non-cognitivism (moral propositions represent subjective states). This truth-aptness is consistent with moral relativism, as they can identity moral claims as true relative to some framework.[4]

The alethic thesis is that some moral propositions are true, as opposed to all of them being false. All moral propositions being false is called “moral error theory.” The most famous defender (and the first proposal to my knowledge) of moral error theory is J.L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.[5] Error theory is cognitivist, since it says they are either true or false, but the alethic claim that some are true distinguishes realism from error theory.

Finally, the metaphysical thesis is that moral facts are similar to amoral [non-moral] facts in that they are objective, independent of any subjective states about those facts.[6] Objective facts are taken to be “mind-independent.”[7] There are also subjective facts, such as I am happy, which depend on subjective states. However, the metaphysical thesis is limited to the types of amoral facts that are not dependent on subjective states. Another way to phrase this objectivity thesis is, “Which moral judgments are true does not depend on what we (either individually or collectively) accept.”[8] Additionally, the caveat that moral facts are independent of subjective states about those facts is important. If “torture is wrong” is true independent of any subjective states whatsoever, then we cannot say, “Torture is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering or pain,” because suffering is itself a subjective state. Torture may be wrong in virtue of subjective states of suffering, but not in virtue of my approval of the statement “torture is wrong” or my disapproval of torture.  

Overall, objective morality is the claim that there are some moral truths (i.e. values or duties) that are objective, which means that they are independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value. There are additional technicalities to consider on these semantics (independent of human subjective states vs any subjective states, including those of aliens, God, or an ideal observer) when considering some edge cases, including theistic morality.[9] The arguments for objective morality need to be carefully analyzed to consider whether they are arguments for independence from any subjective states or only independence from human subjective states while possibly leaving other subjective dependencies open.[10]

It is common in Christian circles to hear that ‘of course, morality is objective’ and also that without God, there are no objective moral values and duties. Given the frequency of this claim, and the centrality of ethical discussion in the Christian life, I am interested to see what the Bible has to say on the topic of the objectivity of Christian morality. This topic I take up in a future post.

Distinguishing Objective/Subjective, Universal/Relative, and Absolute/Contextual

Above we distinguished objective from subjective, but we need to introduce two more distinctions that are important and often get confused and intermixed with the objective/subjective distinction. Namely, we need to clarify the distinction between universal and relative moral theories, as well as absolute and contextual moral theories.

  • Objective moral truth = moral truth independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value
  • Subjective moral truth = moral truth dependent on a belief, feeling, or preference about the claim’s truth value
  • Universal moral truth = moral truth that applies to all moral agents (usually an ethical theory)
  • Relative moral truth = moral truth that is true relative to a framework (individual or culture)
  • Absolute moral truth = moral truth that that holds for all agents in all contexts at all times
  • Contextual moral truth = moral truth that holds depending on the situational context

Subjective vs Relative

The first thing I want to emphasize is that moral relativism is logically independent of moral subjectivism. Neither implies the other, either can be true while the other one is false, both can be true, or both can be false. The Ethics Toolkit states that “it’s wrong to identify, as so many do, relativism with subjectivism.”[11] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states, “the subjectivist need not be a relativist.”[12] Susan Wolf states, “In principle, one may be a subjectivist without being a relativist.”[13] The ideas of subjective and relative truths are fairly well-defined ideas from epistemology, and these are the adaptation specific to moral truths. 

First, an ethical theory can be subjective but not relative. There is a prominent ethical theory, ideal observer theory, that is subjective but not relative (thus a form of universal subjectivism). It says that moral truths represent the preferences of a hypothetical “ideal observer,” where an ideal observer is one is neutral, fully informed, dispassionate, etc. In other words, when considering right and wrong, you ask, “What would an ideal observer do?” Ideal observer theory is also an example of the distinction between “independent of human subjective states” and “independent of all subjective states.” Ideal observer theory is consistently identified as a universal subjectivist theory, so its closely resembling theistic version, divine preference theory, is also universal subjectivist. Ideal observer theory is an example of why subjectivism cannot be equated with or logically connected to relativism.

Secondly, an ethical theory can also be relative but not subjective. As The Ethics Toolkit says, “Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”[14] For example, those reasons could include “the objective conditions of scarcity, the distribution of wealth, or, as some have argued, even the climate of that society.”[15] The SEP states, “It may be that what determines the difference in the two contexts [different individuals or cultures] is something ‘mind-dependent’—in which case it would be subjectivist relativism—but it need not be. Perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist relativism.”[16] Susan Wolf has a section in her paper “Two Levels of Pluralism” dedicated to explaining a form of “Relativism Without Subjectivism.”[17]

As Richard Joyce summarizes, “In short, the subjectivism vs. objectivism and the relativism vs. absolutism polarities are orthogonal to each other, and it is the former pair that matters when it comes to characterizing anti-realism.”[18] That moral relativism is (or can be) a form of moral realism, or objective morality, was also made by Gilbert Harman (though this reflects a recent change of mind).[19]

Although we have seen that subjectivism is or can be independent of relativism, they are often combined (call this subjectivist relativism or relativist subjectivism), since most theories that are relative are based on the preferences of individuals or cultures, and most of the time, theories that are subjective also hold that moral truth is relative to individual or culture. Susan Wolf states that “commonly relativism and subjectivism are linked: one suspects that moral standards may legitimately differ from one individual or society to another and” the offered explanation for why and how they differ is the “subjective judgments of the people to whom the standards apply.”[20] I think this common linkage between subjectivism and relativism is why they so often get confused,[21] even in philosophy or ethics journals or books.[22]

Absolute/Contextual Distinction

The last distinction to make is between absolute and contextual moral truths. Is it ever okay to lie? Most people would say yes, depending on the context. Consider the dreaded words, “Do I look fat in this dress?” Do you really need to think about it? The correct answer is always no. More seriously, the most common example of when it is considered okay to lie is if a Nazi came to your door asking if there were any Jews home. A true absolutist, such as Immanuel Kant, would have to say it is wrong to lie in this scenario, even if it resulted in the deaths of one or more people as a (more or less) direct result.[23] But just how far can this ‘context’ go?

We can distinguish between two types of context, agential context and situational context. There may be other types of context we can discuss, such as spatiotemporal context,[24] but this is less helpful for producing a taxonomy of ethical views. Agential context is what distinguishes between relative and universal ethical truths, and situational context is what distinguishes between contextual and absolute truths.

Agential context addresses how many agents and on which agents the moral truth depends. Starting small and expanding our scope, we can go from individuals, to cultures, to the universal. Thus, we have the two types of relativism: individual relativism and cultural relativism, where truth is relative to the individual and culture, respectively. In relativism, the same ethical claim (e.g. abortion is wrong) can be true relative to America and false relative to Africa. That is, true for an American and false for an African, given their cultural context. A universal morality, which applies to all moral agents, is not considered a form of relativism.

By situational context, I mean different general situations or states of affairs that one may find oneself in or choose to do. For example, cheating on the ACT (versus cheating simpliciter, aka cheating without qualification), or killing during war (versus killing simpliciter). The situational context might be significant to moral truths. It may be morally permissible to kill someone for self-defense or during war, but not as a hitman or just for fun. If you agree, then you think context is important and are not a true absolutist. Situational context can get even more specific, such as hurting Susy’s feelings, which can potentially be a combination of agential and situational context where all the relationships involved matter.

However, the absolute-contextual spectrum is just that – it is a spectrum, and it is based on how much context is taken into consideration for the rightness or wrongness of an action. As you move up the ladder from individual to universal, you think ethical truths are less agent-specific, and up from contextual to absolute, you think ethical truths are less situation-specific. Most ethical theories are universal theories (though they can be relativized), meaning they intend to apply to all moral agents, or at least all human moral agents, and they take some type of situational context into consideration and are contextual theories. Act utilitarianism is about as contextual as you can get, where each action is evaluated completely independently, whereas rule utilitarianism generalizes this a bit. Graded absolutism, which is probably the most prominent evangelical Christian ethic, resolves some moral dilemmas by permitting violations of divine commands as long as it is required to obey some other divine command of greater magnitude. Figure 1 displays the relative-universal and contextual-absolute scales, where agential and situation context are shown is the relevant factors in distinguishing these scales, respectively.

Figure 1: Spectra representing the (left) universal vs relative distinction, which depends on agential context, and (right) the absolute vs contextual distinction, which depends on situational context.

In an approximate sense, the entire contextual spectrum, including agential and situational context, ranges from relative to contextual to absolute (which may be preferred since absolute is often understood as the opposite of relative), which is shown in Figure 2. Since most ethical theories that are universal are also contextual, this is not too problematic. It is conceptually possible to have a form of cultural or individual relativism that ignore situational context (and would be absolute in this respect), but this would be widely implausible and not worth discussing.[25] Another way of putting this is that only universal theories tend to restrict context even further beyond agents into specific situations, getting into forms of graded or ungraded absolutism. Cultural and individual relativism also contextualize with respect to situations, so they should be lower down the overall contextual spectrum, below “contextual.”

Figure 2: The full relative-absolute spectrum, including agential and situational context.

Overall, we have a continuous restriction of context from individual relativism to absolute, starting with ethical truths relative to specific agential frameworks in specific situations and then being true for all agents in relevant situations, finally ending in ethical truths that do not depend on the agent or the situation. In the next section, we look at three types of moral judgments: first- and second-order moral judgments as well as moral principles.

Types of Moral Judgments

Philosophers like to distinguish between first-order and second-order things, such as beliefs, evidence, or ethical judgments. A first-order belief would be something like “I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this could be represented as Bp, or belief B in some proposition p. A second order belief would be “I believe that I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this is BBp. You can have parallel results for knowledge, knowing that you know p would be KKp. Second order evidence, or evidence of evidence, might be a book that documents arguments and evidence against the textual reliability of the Bible; however, you have not read it so you do not know what first-order evidence the book presents. Knowing that there is first-order evidence for or against a position is second-order evidence. The first-order evidence could be the papyrus manuscripts from the first three centuries CE, for example.

Similarly, you can talk of first- and second-order ethical (or moral) judgments, which, roughly, correspond to applied ethics and metaethics, respectively. “Cheating on a test is wrong” is a first-order ethical judgment, while “moral truths are objective” is a second-order ethical judgment. Additionally, we can talk about moral principles, which are general principles that are prominent in normative ethics. Thus, we can give definitions of these three types of moral claims, noting that “judgments” here could just as easily be replaced with “facts,” “propositions,” or “truths.”

  • first-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments with a specific context, such as those in thought experiments like the trolley problem, drowning child, violinist argument, etc.
  • second-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments about first-order ethical judgments (metaethical judgments), such as “ethical facts are relative to the individual”
  • moral principles = general abstract principles in ethical theories, such as “maximize the good”

These three types of moral claims are important in ethics for various reasons. For example, it is (or may be) consistent for a relativist to claim that first-order moral truths are relative to specific frameworks, but second-order moral truths are absolutely true (true in all frameworks). Thus, moral relativism may not be self-defeating.[26]

Let’s talk more about the distinction between moral principles and first-order ethical judgments, as their difference is not well-defined. If push came to shove, moral principles should probably be classified as a subset of first-order ethical judgments, as first- and second-order judgments should be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of morality (at least, of the relevant moral claims of interest to us). However, it is helpful to distinguish the “up-close-and-personal” judgments of the first-order, those arising frequently in thought experiments, and the “impersonal” judgments of abstract moral principles, usually seen in the broad statements of normative ethical theories. This difference is important in moral epistemology and our reliance on intuitions during thought experiments. For example, Peter Singer is skeptical of the reliability of intuitions in thought experiments, but he accepts intuitions about abstract moral principles.[27] I think I tend to agree with this.


Various questions for the Christian arise upon investigation of the above topics, such as the objectivity of Christian morality. Additionally, the above distinctions raise the question of where the proper Christian ethic lies on the full relative-absolute spectrum, and why. I hope to investigate these questions and others in the future.  

This blog post set out to establish some working definitions to have more rigorous and productive conversation around objective morality (moral realism), moral subjectivism and relativism, absolute and contextual moral truths, and types of moral judgments. All of these definitions will important as to dive into arguments for and against objective morality and relativism, as well as other metaethical topics.

In sum, objective morality (moral realism) is the commitment to the view that there are some objective moral truths, truths that are independent of any subjective states about the claim’s truth value. Subjective moral truths are those that depend on someone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the moral claim in question.  Subjectivism is distinct from relativism, where relativism says that moral truths are true relative to a framework, either individual or cultural. Absolute moral truths do not consider any context, while contextual moral truths consider situational context. There are first-order moral judgments, which are up-close-and-personal judgments with specific context, while second-order moral judgments (metaethical judgments) are moral judgments about first-order moral judgments. Finally, there moral principles, which are general abstract principles used in ethical theories.

In upcoming posts, we will explore various arguments for objective morality as well as whether the Bible teaches objective morality or not.  


[1] Moral realism and objective morality (moral objectivism) are not exactly synonyms, but we are simplifying terms for now. I elaborate on some of the complications with terms such as minimalism moral realism, moral universalism (moral objectivism), universal subjectivism, and more throughout the other footnotes.

[2] Simplified from Väyrynen, Pekka. “Moral Realism” in Borchert, Donald M. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition. Vol. 6. (2005), p. 379-380.

[3] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61

[4] If we used “objectively” true rather than true in the semantic thesis, then the combination of (1) and (2) would be objective morality, and then (3) could be the distinguishing factor for “robust” moral realism (1-3) vs minimal moral realism (1 and 2). Moral relativists would still say moral truths are “really true,” so torturing children is “really wrong” to (presumably most or all) moral relativists, so the charge that moral relativists cannot say what Hitler did is “really wrong” is false. It is just that the claim is made relative to a framework. I can’t remember or find where I saw this point made, but unfortunately this idea still seemingly pervades the metaethical literature, where “really” is often (intentionally) assumed as a synonym for “objectively.” However, to say something is “really” true just is to affirm its truth. If by really you mean objectively, then just say “objectively.” Then, obviously relativists would disagree but the point is obscured by this handwaving tactic. The claim “you can’t call the Nazis really wrong” reduces to “you can’t call the Nazis objectively wrong” and the reasonable response is, “Uh yeah, that’s the definition of relativism.” A similar point is made on IEP.

This assumption of equating “really” and “objectively” is made by Tan, Seow Hon. “The problems with moral subjectivism.” Think 46 (2016): 25-36, p. 31, 34-35; Dworkin, Ronald. “Objectivity and truth: You’d better believe it.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 25.2 (1996): 87-139, throughout; Bennigson, Thomas. “Is relativism really self-refuting?.” Philosophical Studies (1999): 211-236, p. 211 (this paper defends moral relativism but says relativism claims, “There is no sense to, or at least no answer to, the question of which is really right – there are no framework-neutral facts.”); Kramer, Matthew H. Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine. Vol. 3. John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p. 200-201. Strangely, Kramer cites Simon Blackburn (a quasi-realist) in support of his reasoning here when Blackburn is essentially making the same point that I am making. Claims about what is “really true” reduce to things that are “true.” Blackburn talks about these word additions, “We can add flowers without end.” Relativists affirm that there are moral truths, just that they depend on what people believe. To claim that it is objectively true is to claim more than just that something is true (in the strictest sense and in the dialectical context here it is relevant). I think Blackburn may be assuming a type of truth minimalism here though, which I do not defend. In sum, saying relativists can’t say Nazism was “really wrong” is mere rhetoric and not substance.

[5] Mackie, John. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin UK, (1990). His main argument is 1) moral propositions aim to be objective (they are implicitly objective truth claims), 2) there are no objective moral propositions (i.e. moral values or duties), 3) therefore, all moral propositions are false. He summarizes the argument on p. 35 as “But the denial of objective values will have to be put forward not as the result of an analytic approach, but as an ‘error theory’, a theory that although most people in making moral judgements implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false. It is this that makes the name ‘moral scepticism’ appropriate.” He then uses two arguments for the second proposition, that there are no objective moral values or duties, which are the argument from relativity (which is really from disagreement), and the argument from queerness.

[6] There are also substantial metaphysical complications that I would prefer to minimize. First, there is the question of whether there are moral properties in the external world (in the fabric of reality). The “metaphysical thesis” from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Moral Realism” article affirms moral properties, which is what makes moral facts “obtain,” but I wanted to ensure this wording does not commit myself to a particular metaphysics like truthmaker theory. If we say there are moral properties, there are still “robust” or “modest” forms of moral realism referring to primary vs secondary status of these properties, where secondary properties may be response-dependent, such as color properties. A final problem with identifying moral properties is that it is hard to make sense of a very prominent understanding of substances (Aristotle’s substance theory) with this (as opposed to Hume’s bundle theory). Moral discourse is covered with identifying actions as having properties, but on substance theory objects have properties but an action (as an event) does not (I may return to this problem in the future). If we neglect the idea of moral properties, a difficulty comes here when we consider non-human subjective states, such as the subjective states of an “ideal observer” or God. If a moral truth is categorical in the Kantian sense, then it is independent of any rational agent’s subjective states; this truth would be objective in a rationalist sense, then. I will only really be considering the rationalist or robust ontological senses of objectivity.

On any understanding of objective morality, with or without identifying moral properties, “There is some ‘reality’…that ‘makes true’ certain claims.” (Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. “What does moral phenomenology tell us about moral objectivity?” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (2008), p. 272.)

[7] A final problem arises from the generic definition of objective as “mind-independent.” If God is a mind, then everything in the universe is mind-dependent in some sense because a (disembodied) mind created the entire universe. Does that mean that all facts about the world are subjective? This hardly makes any sense. A parallel is seen when taking about mental causation: human minds can exert causal effects resulting in changes in the external world that is mind-independent, but this causal type of mind-dependence is not the sense in what we mean by mind-independent. This point is made by William Lane Craig here. Thus, it is better to explicitly render “mind-independent” as independent of any subjective states.

[8] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61.

[9] A less robust definition would be to say that objective morality is independent of any human subjective states. However, this could leave the option of alien preferences being the guidelines of morality. Additionally, one moral theory, ideal observer theory, identifies moral truths with the preferences of an ideal observer (the question of the existence of the ideal observer is irrelevant). This theory is called a universal subjectivist theory since it is independent of any human and thus applies to all (i.e. universally), but it depends on subjective states of an observer. If one affirms that the ideal observer exists and is God, it is called divine preference theory (see Thomas Carson’s work). However, there is a substantial distinction between divine preferences and divine commands. Divine preferences are clearly subjective, but divine commands are not clearly dependent on God’s subjective states. For example, William of Ockham famously bit the bullet on the arbitrariness objection by not allowing any restriction on God’s commands from God’s moral nature, which maximizes God’s freedom. Therefore, an Ockhamist DCT would seem to be independent of any subjective states (since commands are not subjective states, especially when one identifies those commands as exegeted from the biblical text).

However, most modern DCTs are not Ockhamist and have a grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature or His commands and His will. A grounding relation (I think) confers a dependence of some sort, especially in this sense because God’s nature or His will puts a restriction on the range of possible divine commands (if this is included in the grounding relation). A grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature would allow for DCT to remain objective, and this view is considered a hybrid view where moral values are based on God’s nature and moral obligations come from God’s commands, and values are more fundamental than obligations. This view is presented by Adams’ Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, William Lane Craig accepts and defends this view, and this is a plausible solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The grounding or identification of moral obligations in or with the divine will, however, is more likely to still be considered subjectivist. I don’t know enough about this view (defended by Mark Murphy and Philip Quinn) to say much. Christian Miller in “Divine Will Theory: Desires or Intentions?” suggests that while Murphy and Quinn focus on grounding moral obligations in divine intentions, it would be better to focus on divine desires. I think now (according to Christian Miller’s “Divine Desire Theory and Obligation”) these theories are considered distinctly and identified by divine intention theory and divine desire theory, respectively. Either way, my understanding is that intentional states are very much mind-dependent and subjective, and desires are explicitly subjective states. Therefore, it seems like divine will theory in either desire or intentions form would be a type of universal subjectivism. However, a divine command theory with commands grounded in God’s nature (or ungrounded) would remain objective. I will investigate these ideas more in-depth when investigating theistic morality and its objectivity.

[10] Additionally, perhaps “subjective” could mean subject-dependent, dependent on anything about some subject, instead of dependent on the subjective states of some subject. That would be a different story, as subject-dependent is different than mind-dependent. However, I have never seen anyone ever use this definition, so I will not consider this further.

[11] Baggini, Julian, and Peter S. Fosl. The Ethics toolkit: A compendium of ethical concepts and methods. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007, p. 130. All references are to the pdf of the epub version (no page numbers are given).

[12] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html

[13] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786.

[14] The Ethics Toolkit, p. 133.  

[15] Ibid, p. 130.

[16] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html (Emphasis in original).  

[17] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, pp. 792-797.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harman, Gilbert. “Moral relativism is moral realism.” Philosophical Studies 172.4 (2015): 855-863.

[20] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786. She explains the full line of reasoning to get to subjectivism as (p. 786), “Pondering the existence of persistent disagreement leads one to relativism. Pondering the conditions under which relativism would be true leads one to subjectivism.”

[21] This agrees with a point made in The Ethics Toolkit on p. 133. “Tt may be possible to speak of a subjectivism that’s collective or social. For this reason many conflate social relativism with social subjectivism. But while different social subjects are likely, according to subjectivism, to yield different moralities, relativism is possible even if subjectivism is wrong. Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”

[22] I might prepare a giant list of all the places I have seen relativism confused with subjectivism or vice versa, as this distinction has caused me much pain to sort out (and is in part why I was so delayed in finishing this post). Two such places I have seen it that are absolutely inexcusable are The Professional Ethics Toolkit and Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism.

[23] Kant himself used an example of lying to a murderer at your door who is looking for the would-be victim, and he says it is wrong to lie in such a scenario. This example was, post-World War II, adapted to be a Nazi at the door looking for Jews, and this example is commonly used to show the absurdity of Kant’s absolutist deontology. However, this seemingly obvious extrapolation of Kant’s views has been challenged, see Varden, H. (2010), “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door…One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis.” Journal of Social Philosophy, 41: 403-421. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2010.01507.x. I do not know enough to comment.

[24] By spatiotemporal context, I mean something like “France in the 1800s” or “1920s USA” or “at the McDonalds down the street in Texas in 2021.” These give a time (or time period) and spatial location or geography. This type of context is likely more important for a cultural relativist that thinks moral truths are relative to a culture (or a subjectivist who thinks moral truths depend on cultural subjective states), which usually has spatiotemporally significant moral factors that contribute to moral truth values according to a relativist or subjectivist.

[25] An example would be saying that lying is always wrong for Bob, but lying is always permissible for Alice, no matter the situation of either of them. Another example could be that in France, abortion is always wrong no matter the reasoning, but in China, abortion is always permissible for any reason whatsoever.

[26] I will likely revisit this in the future to see how well a relativist can hold her ground here. There are different ways of pushing on this claim. I am not sure if it works or not. Naïve global relativism is straightforwardly self-defeating, though.

[27] Singer may use a strong intuition to justify the principle, “We ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance,” but reject the reliability of intuitions in his own Drowning Child thought experiment. Singer even offers an evolutionary debunking argument for these types of intuitions in Singer, Peter. “Ethics and Intuitions.” The Journal of Ethics 9.3-4 (2005): 331-352. However, this is consistent for Singer to offer an argument of this sort, since his interlocuters accept the reliability of first-order contextual intuitions. This point was made in my least favorite paper ever: Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212, p. 211. The way he words it is that Singer “famously rejects the reliability of intuitions about first-order normative judgments” but “is not similarly skeptical of the reliability of intuitions about abstract moral principles.” It is for this reason I mention this dichotomy, with which I have great sympathies. This is the same idea behind talking about “up-close-and-personal” intuitions versus “impersonal” intuitions, which I take to correspond to first-order moral claims and moral principles, respectively. These two ‘types’ of intuitions, in connection to Singer’s views and evolutionary debunking argument, was discussed but challenged in Holtzman, Geoffrey S. “Famine, Affluence and Intuitions: Evolutionary Debunking Proves Too Much.” Disputatio 10.48 (2018): 57-70.

A Roadmap into Ethics


Questions of morality enter our lives every single day. For any adult, breaking the speed limit or paying taxes. For student, cheating on exams or homework. For an academic, plagiarizing someone else’s work or finding. Or how about, should I call in sick to work today so I can relax? How much of my work time can I spend on personal issues and phone calls, even if my boss will never know?

How about more general questions: how do I decide what is the right thing to do in any of the above situations? Do I base it on what I feel like doing in the moment? Should I have a robust system in place? Is something only wrong if I get caught?

Now even more general questions: where do moral obligations come from? Are moral values and obligations specific to me, or are they the same for every human? Did God implant these values and duties, did they evolve over time for survival, or do humans just make up a system and run with it?

Each of these sets of questions corresponds to the three subfields of ethics: applied ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics, respectively. In this article, I will outline and describe these topics and how I will approach them systematically in this blog.

Outline of Ethics

Ethics is broken down into three subfields (given in my first post):

  • Metaethics (what are morals, and what grounds them?)
  • Normative ethics (how do we decide what is moral?)
  • Applied ethics (what specific action is moral?)
Figure 1: Outline of Ethics

These fields flow naturally into each other, but your stance in one field does not usually commit you to particular views in other fields (though this is less clear-cut from meta- to normative ethics). For example, I can be a moral objectivist and hold to utilitarianism or virtue ethics. I can be a deontologist and be for or against abortion. Any normative ethical theory can be used to analyze any particular applied ethical issue.  


The most fundamental problem in metaethics, and perhaps ethics as a whole, is the “is-ought problem” (attributed to Hume): how can we derive moral obligations from mere factual statements? It is a fact that the dirty dishes are piled high by the sink. Does that necessarily imply that that I am obligated to wash the dishes today? It is a fact that this person on the street is choking and will die unless I perform the Heimlich. Does that mean that I am obligated to perform the Heimlich? Does the answer change if I do not know how to perform the Heimlich (this is Kant’s “ought implies can” principle)? These questions populate the realm of metaethics.

Metaethics also asks questions like, “Is morality objective or relative?” “Is moral obligation actually just emotion?” “Can there be a secular grounding for objective morality?” “Is objective morality only possible if there is a God?” These questions and their connection to Christianity is quite obvious. Additionally, there is the area of moral epistemology: how do we know right and wrong or the moral guiding principles for ascertaining right and wrong? Finally, moral psychology discusses our motivations for performing moral actions.

From where do moral obligations originate? How do I decide when action is necessary?

Normative Ethics

The connections between normative ethics and Christianity may be less obvious. This might explain why I felt no compelling interest to explore the ethical theories once I learned about them in my Ethics and Engineering class. I thought the ethic of the Christian life was pretty much “Obey God; therefore, follow the commands in the Bible” – that is what makes a faithful Christian.  This roughly translates to divine command theory as a normative ethical theory. Right and wrong, aka moral obligation, is based on God’s commands. This is a form of deontological ethics and is the predominate Protestant view, which can be seen in a psychological study on Christian opposition to consequentialist reasoning.[1] However, Western Christianity was dominated by a completely different view for over 1,000 years, natural law ethics, [2] which says that the right thing to do is based on properly seeking the ‘end’ of humanity, which is happiness.[3] The most predominate thinkers in this tradition are St. Augustine (4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (12th century).[4] This type of ethical norm is of a completely different sort, teleological rather than deontological. Now, this is still grounded (in metaethical terms) by God creating humans and empowering them with reason and grace. Therefore, we have two examples of Christian normative ethical theories (divine command ethics and natural law ethics) with two opposing frameworks: deontology and teleology. Which, if either, is correct?

Therefore, normative ethics seeks to find guiding principles for ascertaining what is right or wrong. The key disagreement is if the justification for the right action should be based on consequences (consequentialism), rules (deontological ethics), or character (virtue ethics). There are many variants and disagreements within each of these umbrellas, and they are not 100% separate (pluralist consequentialism can draw on multiple virtues, rule-consequentialism can implement rules), but their framework remains distinct. Normative ethics also seeks to understand the importance of intentions or motivations when performing any ethical action. 

Applied Ethics

Next, there is applied ethics. This topic is usually where the rage comes flying out. Merely the words abortion, homosexuality, or racism can bring substantial emotional baggage to the forefront (not saying it isn’t deserved!). It is often and increasingly associated with political association, unfortunately.[5] I am interested in a robust analysis of a variety of these practical issues from a purely ethical perspective. The “correct” answer to the applied ethical questions hinge on what we take to be the best normative theory, so we need to know how to evaluate normative theories (and whether or not there is a “correct” answer depends on our metaethical views).

Christians and non-Christians end up on all sides of any number of modern ethical issues, including abortion, animal rights, gay marriage, wealth and altruism, etc. I plan to be very selective about topics in applied ethics, as they are quite controversial and I want to only talk about those things I am informed about (i.e. can adequately engage with what contemporary ethicists have written on the topic). Therefore, for the foreseeable future, I only plan to talk about 1) wealth and altruism/theology of possessions, 2) abortion, and (probably) 3) animal rights and human dignity (which relate closely to abortion). These topics played an important role in how I got interested in ethics in the first place.

Beyond these highly controversial practical questions, ethics can be applied to things like Christian doctrine or philosophy of religion in a multidisciplinary setting (not technically the conventional ‘applied ethics’). I find two topics particularly interesting here: the atonement and the problem of evil. The problem of evil is rich with ethical thought and extends to other questions about God’s nature, such as God’s own moral obligations and moral agency. I plan to address both of these topics, the atonement and the problem of evil, in detail.

My Approach to This Blog

There are many possible topics to discuss, and I very much like a systematic approach. Therefore, I will be systematically working through the field of ethics from the top down (metaethics > normative ethics > applied ethics), exploring various topics and connecting the ideas to Christian thought as we go. I will likely do a detailed “first pass,” hitting on the most interesting and central ideas in each of the 3 fields, and then come back and revisit other relevant issues that warrant further attention.

Next time, I will be kicking off our series on metaethics, which consistent of some of the deepest and toughest questions in all of ethics. I will begin by discussing arguments for the objectivity of morality.

In what topics or questions are you particularly interested? Do you have any suggestions for things you would really like me to discuss or (attempt to) address? Let me know!

[1] Piazza, Jared. ““If you love me keep my commandments”: Religiosity increases preference for rule-based moral arguments.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 22.4 (2012): 285-302. Piazza, Jared, and Justin Landy. “” Lean not on your own understanding”: belief that morality is founded on divine authority and non-utilitarian moral thinking.” Judgment and Decision making 8.6 (2013): 639-661.

[2] “Natural law ethics – Christianized and church-controlled – more or less dominated the West for over a millennium.” in Perry, John, ed. God, the Good, and Utilitarianism: Perspectives on Peter Singer. Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 21.

[3] Summa Theologiae, First Part of Second Part, Question 1, Article 8. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2001.htm

[4] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/#NatLaw

[5] For a collection of essays and critical responses that are ethical analyses on important political issues, such as immigration, minimum wage, environmental regulation, health care, abortion, privilege, feminism, affirmative action, racial profiling, and more, see Fischer, Bob (ed.). Ethics, Left and Right: The Moral Issues that Divide Us. Oxford University Press (2019). For a discussion on how people end up so up in arms with their tribe about this stuff, see Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage, 2012.

My Winding Journey into Ethics

Upon reflection, it is surprising to me that it took me so long to get interested in the academic field of ethics. I have been interested in and passionate about many issues in ethics since high school, long before I knew what the field of “ethics” actually included. I will give some background on my life, especially how a preliminary (unknown) interest in ethics developed into an academic interest in ethics (in other words, how we got here).


For starters, ethical issues surrounding the Atonement and their beautiful coherency[1] were the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago (16 years to this day: September 13, 2004). The parallel ethical issues in Islam of sin, judgment, and the afterlife remain, by far, my biggest concern with Islam, given their apparent incoherence.[2] My “extreme views”[3] on the ethics of wealth and possessions has caused a couple of Sunday School teachers, a pastor, and several friends to be uncomfortable or upset. I debated the ethics of abortion in my high school debate club. I made a survey of questions on abortion as a project in my sophomore government class that was intended to show the immoral absurdity of abortion. Abortion also played a central role in an admissions essay[4] to my current university (Texas A&M).

The ethics of the the Atonement was the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago.

Given all this, you would think ethics would be a natural extension of the above; however, my actual journey into academic ethics was a bit more complicated. My first encounter with ethics as a field of philosophy was a class called “Ethics and Engineering” during my sophomore year. I was the only person I knew that enjoyed that class[5] and learning about the ethical theories (ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics specifically). I did not find any of them compelling in and of themselves though, mostly because I saw no connection at all to what I viewed as correct ethic and decision-making framework, which was following Christianity/the Bible. However, I did “incorporate some of the framework of utilitarianism into my life philosophy.”[6]

At this point in time, my only knowledge about philosophy came from twice-a-year discussions with my cousin Nathan, who was already interested in philosophy. In fact, I likely would not have gotten interested in philosophy at all if it were not for my cousin Nathan and the very difficult questions he was refusing to leave inadequately answered, especially on issues of epistemology (how do we know anything?), predestination, free will, and arguments for God’s existence. I would thus mark my true initial interest in philosophy probably with watching the William Lane Craig vs Christopher Hitchens debate in July of 2017 (which I re-watched last month to see how I felt after studying the arguments in depth for 3 years).[7] The next step for me was listening to Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast (which I highly recommend), which talks about a wide range of issues in philosophy and Christianity. This led me to considering issues of logic, epistemology, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence more in depth by reading Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, books, and academic papers. This, in turn, lead to the avalanche that resulted in where I am today. Thankfully, this journey was taking place parallel with my doing undergraduate research and literature reviews, so I was learning how to ‘Google things’ at a scholarly level. My philosophical interests, therefore, reside pretty squarely within philosophy of religion, epistemology, and ethics.

Into Academic Ethics

It was not until my last semester of undergrad (January 2020) that my political science professor’s silly comments about abortion gave me the prompting I needed to do a rigorous investigation into abortion (now that I knew how to do a rigorous investigation). It started with legal issues and the history of abortion,[8] then into metaphysical issues about personhood.[9] A couple of the latter papers mentioned the ethical impact, but not often. I was also first exposed to the violinist argument at this point. In the summer, I finally was able to dive into the ethical aspect, including the arguments from the violinist, embryo rescue case, future-like-ours, and much more. However, I did not recognize at this time that I was reading applied ethics papers. I was just so engrossed in a topic that I was passionate about that I wasn’t paying attention to what journals these papers were being published in or the broader field in question. In my mind, I was just reading “papers on abortion.” Thus, the ethics of abortion was the real breaking ground into the field of ethics. It helped me realize that thought in applied ethics could even help us tease out the ethical implications of Scripture and the relationship between ethical intuitionism, divine command theory, and situational ethics.

The next stage of ethical inquiry came from my friend Emily sharing her moral case for veganism. She mentioned the name Peter Singer several times, whom I had not heard of previously (or, at least, I thought I had not).[10] I began to (try to) think seriously about these ideas, which is still an ongoing process. I watched a video on Singer’s ideas, and his name came up several times by CosmicSkeptic (a vegan, atheist YouTuber) in his 50 book recommendations. I began reading a little bit on the moral argument for veganism based on opposition to industrial animal farming practices that result in massive amounts of animal suffering. I have not quite come to a position on this topic.

I soon realized via his website that Singer was not just the guy who is the front-man for principles that can support abortion, selective infanticide, and euthanasia, but also for ideas that support substantial giving to charities under the name of effective altruism (see his book, which you can get for free, The Life You Can Save). At this point, I was extremely intrigued: there are secular proponents of giving substantial amounts of our income to charities? There are secular arguments for a moral obligation for the wealthy to give possibly a majority of their income to charity? I had discovered plenty of secular pro-life organizations via Twitter,[11] but I was honestly surprised at this.

I found out that Peter Singer wrote a game-changing paper in 1972 called “Famine, affluence, and morality” (cited over 3500 times!), and this paper has inspired many critiques, further development by Singer, and more. I think the effective altruism was really the cake that led me to really jump into ethics, knowing I wanted to go deeper. But it wasn’t Singer’s positive arguments that really sealed the deal, it was two revolting responses I read that were so incredibly stupid I couldn’t believe they existed. Namely, “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown”[12] and “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.”[13]

Figure 1: Probably my least favorite philosophy paper in the world. I label it as the philosophy paper that annoyed me the most, even beating out all the abortion papers I’ve read.

This made me start thinking back to my plans I made a long time ago. During my sophomore year of college, after being influenced by David Platt (which I will elaborate on in the next post), I started studying theology of possessions, which could be considered an area of applied Christian ethics. A prominent Christian view is stewardship theology, which says that God made us stewards over the planet (which gives us an obligation to take care of animals and the environment) as well as of our money and our possessions. In practice (not necessarily in theory), this seems to be taken to mean that I can pretty much do what I want with my money and you can’t tell me anything I ought to do because “Christian liberty.” I find this both revolting and starkly unbiblical. The short version is, I thought of a stronger form of a theology of possessions and developed it slightly along with my dad (who even gave presentations on it to at least one church). I made plans to come back and study the topic more rigorously in the future, even contemplating doing a master’s degree in theology where my thesis would be on this topic. This discovery of effective altruism and applied ethics, however, made me realize that I could incorporate Singer and related arguments into a type of theology of possessions for an even stronger case.

During this same timeframe, I was also beginning to study metaethics. I was introduced to William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence awhile back. I plan to study some of the other moral arguments for (and against) God’s existence in the future and discuss them here. I read Andrew Fisher’s introduction to metaethics this summer and saw a lot of interesting questions there, especially those surrounding divine command theory. I started to think about the connections between metaethics and normative ethics. Can someone believe in subjective morality and still think right and wrong is based on God’s commands? Can someone think morality is grounded in God but think that right and wrong is based on “natural law?”

At some point during this process, the two strands above (theology of possessions and meta-normative connections) came together such that I realized that I could turn some theological ideas that I’ve had, namely the ones about our purpose in life and my “life philosophy,” into a normative ethical theory. Glorifying God is really what I saw as our primary obligation the whole time, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Glorifying God is what I saw as our primary obligation, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Next, I was looking into normative ethical theories, especially utilitarianism, and came across the demandingness objection frequently. I started thinking about how that objection would apply to Christianity and Christian ethics, which made me think of the name What the Gospel Demands, then I had this idea for a blog! I started the website two years ago, as I originally set out to start a blog on discipleship and missional community, but I didn’t have/make the time and energy to do this. So this is take two. Considering I didn’t even make it to my first blog post last time, we’re doing great so far.


Here we are today! In summary, my pathway into ethics was abortion > animal rights > altruism > theology of possessions > normative ethics. As you can see, I have interests in all three fields of ethics: meta, normative, and applied. I just started diving into academic ethics this summer, so I’m still kind of a n00b. It’s been a good journey to get here, and I’m excited for the path forward, exploring many new ideas.

What areas or questions in ethics do you find interesting? How did you get interested in ethics?

[1] In Christianity, God rewards every good deed and punishes every wrongdoing (e.g. Romans 2:6, Ephesians 6:8, Revelation 22:12). Given that this is the definition of justice, God is perfectly just. God’s perfect mercy is displayed by Jesus voluntarily taking on the sin of humanity to offer forgiveness to all. There are complications here worth exploring, but in the end, only the innocent are rewarded and only the guilty are punished, and yet all have the opportunity for reconciliation.

[2] In Islam, God does not reward every good deed nor punish every wrongdoing. The two most problematic cases are 1) nullification and 2) the 70,000 that skip Judgment Day. Nullification refers to the 10 or so groups of people (based on specific sins they have committed) who will have their good deeds “nullified,” i.e. cancelled or ignored, on Judgment Day. Secondly, there are 70,000 individuals who will not have an account of their good or bad deeds, and will be sent to heaven regardless (source: the most authentic Islamic tradition collection, Sahih al-Bukhari). There are more problems to be explored here.  

[3] See Divine Glory Utilitarianism for my proposal of Christian ethics and its application to wealth and possessions at the end.

[4] When I reread this essay, which was on interacting with people of different beliefs, I cringed at my use of language and terminology. My entrance into philosophy, especially analytic philosophy that emphasizes clarity and precise argumentation, has made me a bit more careful about definitions and precision in speech (and not being so unnecessarily charged).

[5] This is probably because every other person in the class were graduating seniors, to whom the class is normally restricted. By the grace of God, they let me take it as a sophomore because I had no other options.

[6] This is what I told the teaching assistant of my 2016 Ethics and Engineering class in an email dated January 2019. It is clear that at this point, the seeds of ‘divine glory utilitarianism’ had already taken hold. I did not yet think of it as an ethical framework, but more about the purpose of our lives being to maximize God’s glory rather than that being our (primary) moral obligation and reason for things being right or wrong. It is worth noting that Alasdair MacIntyre argued in After Virtue that the purpose of our lives (aka the telos of humanity) informs and should be the source of our moral obligation, which would connect my understanding of ‘life philosophy’ and ethical framework.

[7] In case you were wondering, like most debates involving Craig, Craig was victorious and widely admitted as such on both sides due to his precise and (relatively) rigorous philosophical argumentation. Though, I find who “won” a debate to be irrelevant, but the soundness of the arguments is what matters. The funniest part when re-watching was Hitchens’ summaries of free will. He describes free will on atheism as, “We have no choice but to have free will,” and on theism as, “Of course we have free will. The boss demands it.”

[8] See this video for example. It is made from a very pro-life organization, Live Action, but I was surprised to see that a preliminary investigation confirmed pieces that I had time to look at. It was confirmed in part, for example, by the whopping 1200 page book Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History by Joseph Dellapenna published by Carolina Academic Press.  

[9] Usually humans are seen as “persons” when they have a certain developed form of rationality. It is usually said that “persons” have rights, rather than humans, including the right to life.

[10] It turns out, I wrote a response essay to Singer’s “All Animals are Equal” in my Ethics and Engineering class, but I had no recollection of this whatsoever.

[11] Especially Secular Pro-Life, Feminists for Life, and Pro-Life Humanists.

[12] Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212.

[13] Kekes, John. “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.” Philosophy 77.302 (2002): 503-517.

Welcome to “What the Gospel Demands”

Is morality absolute, objective, or subjective? How do we know what is right and wrong? Is morality rooted in God’s commands, God’s will, or something else? What should be our decision-making criteria? How do we import morals from the Bible into principles or specific applications? What is the importance of ethical intuition and situational context? If these types of questions pique your interest at all, you’re in the right place.

Welcome to What the Gospel Demands! This blog will be talking about issues in ethics (also known as moral philosophy) and how those issues intersect with Christian thought. When I initially heard about “ethics,” I thought to myself, “How boring. My ‘ethic’ is to live by the Bible. The end.” My mind has since changed (on the first part, at least). I have also found the wondrous ways in which ethical theory intersects important Christian issues and greatly affects how we understand the relationship between God and morality, obedience to God, decision-making criteria, and how these apply to specific (and often controversial) issues like abortion, death penalty, wealth, war, animals, and more.

Is morality absolute, objective, or subjective? How do we know what is right and wrong?

This project is now very different than how I originally conceived it in 2018 (and when I bought the domain name). However, I realized that the name, What the Gospel Demands, still applies quite nicely (see my next post to learn the origin of the name). “Demandingness” is one of the most discussed topics in ethics when evaluating ethical theories and applications of those theories. It is often posed as an objection (the demandingness objection) and is the subject of entire books, such as The Limits of Morality by Shelly Kagan. In popular discourse, the “demandingness” of Christian morals is perceived negatively as disgruntled obedience to a list of rules. However, the transformative life-change from the Holy Spirit causes a decrease in the desire for worldly things and a desire to mimic God and obey Him. One way this is reflected in the Psalms when David perceives God’s laws as beautiful, refreshing, and as a means of meditation. There is much more to be said here that I will leave for another time.

One thing I want to clarify is that I will be discussing “ethics and Christianity” rather than “Christian ethics.” The difference is that “Christian ethics” is its own field, with which I am much less familiar, but “ethics” is the broader field in academic philosophy. There is obvious substantial overlap, and I am interested in exploring this area. One reason I am focusing on the broader field is that it has a well-defined structure and seems to cover many more topics, and they are all relevant to Christianity.

Ethics is broken down into three main fields: metaethics (what is the source of moral values and duties, and what grounds them?), normative ethics (how do we decide what is moral?), and applied ethics (what specific action is moral?). A fourth field is sometimes included, descriptive ethics, which is more of an empirical social science focused on what people believe about morality. We will focus on the first three. There are questions in each of these fields that are (or at least should be) important to every person on Earth, especially to the Christian.

Figure 1: Outline of the Field of Ethics. Thanks to Abner Telan for the design.

If these topics interest you, then great! This blog is for anyone who wants to join me on this journey as I navigate the various topics within ethics and how they relate to Christianity. Really, I think one reason I’m doing this blog is to help me formulate and refine my own thoughts on these issues both through the writing process and also from getting feedback and pushback on my ideas from readers (you guys and gals). Along the way, perhaps someone can learn from my always-tortuous journey of trying to learn far too many things.

I hope to connect and engage with you. Feedback is appreciated and encouraged. Let me know if you disagree and why. You can reach out by filling out the contact form, leaving comments, or at my Twitter, @AStrasser116.