I have indeed read my Euthyphro, and my response is basically the conventional Christian (and Jewish) response, which is that the dilemma Plato raises is a false one. Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature. God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets. [….]
Certainly no serious Christian moralist has ever suggested that moral problems are “a black box” that “we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about” because God will always tell us what to do. Rather, the possibility of God’s existence — and with it, the possibility that moral laws no less than physical laws correspond to an actual reality, or Reality — is what makes those problems genuinely meaningful and interesting (as opposed to just innings in an “ethics game”) and lends the project of moral reasoning its coherence. The idea of God doesn’t replace secular moral reasoning, in other words, but it grounds this reasoning in something more durable than just aesthetic preference.
This, I think, helps illustrate my original point quite nicely. Ross evidently thinks this counts as some sort of explanation of how there might be moral truths. I think it is a classic virtus dormativa—a series of grammatically well-formed strings masquerading as propositions. It’s not much of an explanation to say Zeus causes thunderstorms unless you have an account of how Zeus does it.
My claim had never been, for what it’s worth, that God is a “black box” because it removes the need for moral deliberation about which specific acts are right; it’s a black box because saying “God” or “divine nature” or whatever doesn’t actually solve—or even make a gesture in the direction of solving—the question of how there could be normative facts or properties. If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it? How could a natural fact about God—even if you call it a “supernatural” fact, whatever that distinction amounts to—constitute a reason? If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second? Why is it more meaningful and interesting for moral rules to “correspond to reality” than to exist in some sort of “ethics game”? Are “meaningful” and “interesting” also natural properties, or just part of a meaningfulness-and-interestingness game? Every canonical modern metaethical question can be repeated with undiminished force after we accept (arguendo) everything Ross says here.
Even if you were fully convinced of the existence of God, you’d still be better off consulting Moore or Mackie or Parfit or Nagel on these questions than any theologian. Many modern moral writers think they can show how (and that) objective moral truths exist, and reasonable people can disagree about how successful these accounts are. But every one of the more prominent ones is vastly more persuasive and sophisticated than this “God is the standard” stuff, again, even taking for granted the existence of a God. Some, like Parfit, assert that there are objective moral truths, while allowing they can’t (yet) give a fully adequate metaphysical account of what this entails. But neither does the theologian, beyond slapping a name on the question and confusedly calling it an answer. Parfit at least has some interesting things to say on the matter because he recognizes the need for a further argument—one that might, if nothing else, undermine our sense that nothing could possibly fit the bill.
One might suggest there is no further explanation to be had: That it’s a brute fact that normative properties are part of the furniture of reality (or Reality)—which is what the appeal to God amounts to, with a boatload of other baggage tacked on for good measure. But that answer works as well for the secular moralist, and parsimony mitigates against unnecessarily stapling that answer to a lot of not-particularly-plausible Middle Eastern folklore. If the answer has something to do with it being in our own (divinely created) nature to respond to these facts as reasons, then again, God’s role in the explanation is either redundant or question begging. If it’s enough for us to be configured with a disposition to accept certain facts as reasons, then Simon Blackburn’s quasi-realism, or an argument along the lines of Nagel’s in The Possibility of Altruism works well enough on its own. If it’s the divine origin of that disposition that’s supposed to make this account satisfying, we’re back to circularity.
There is, incidentally, a pretty intriguing analogy here with the contemporary mind/body problem. There, too, we have a domain of phenomena—specifically, well… phenomena—that fit uneasily with a materialistic picture of the world. If the eliminativist solution—asserting that the apparent domain is merely illusory—is unattractive in ethics, it is quite literally unbelievable with respect to experiential phenomena. An alternative in both spheres is to show that the tension is illusory: That natural facts just are phenomenal or normative facts, and to explain why this mistakenly seems conceptually impossible to us. A third option—in the modern era most prominently taken by Chalmers in the mental realm, Moore in the moral—is to allow that we need a metaphysically distinct domain of properties and facts whose relation to natural properties and facts remains somewhat obscure to us (perhaps in part because we’re fuzzy on exactly what we mean by “natural”). It is still more obscure, however, what we are supposed to believe is added to this third option by appending: “Oh, and God!” or “also… Souls!” All it really seems to do, if we find ourselves compelled to take option three, is to be satisfied with a maximally obscure understanding of the relationship—and obscure the obscurity with religious language.
In that sense, looking to something like a “divine nature” for answers to these questions is worse than superfluous; it’s a dangerous red herring. It’s like proposing an obscure form of matter as constituting the truth of logical propositions, or that the property of being morally right is identical with the property of being cerulean blue. It is not what the right answer to the question could possibly look like—even if we harbor no doubts about the existence of matter or cerulean—and tends to distract us from the effort to frame the question in a way that might be answered satisfactorily. It’s not that the theologians had a coherent picture that their secular successors have failed to replicate; it’s that only in light of the modest progress made in the past century does it become obvious how complete the failure of the preceding millennia really was. But as Socrates taught us at the outset, the recognition of ignorance should be welcomed as the beginning of wisdom.
Update: A commenter inadvertently illustrates my point more succinctly with the following—apparently sincere—argument for how theism “solves” the is-ought gap:
1. Everything God says is true
2. God says I ought to love my neighbor as myself
3. Therefore ‘I ought to love my neighbor as myself’ is true.
4. Therefore, I ought to love my neighbor as myself. (this follows from standard inference rules of deontological logic).
If we’re accepting that as valid, though, this is needlessly cumbersome. We can skip to:
1. “I ought to love my neighbor as myself” is true.
You can, of course, plug any proposition you like into the first version of the “proof,” including “square circles exist” and “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” If the question is how there could be normative truths, neither “proof” actually tells you that; both simply assert that there are such truths. God isn’t doing any work here; it’s just providing cover for smuggling in the premise.