Review : Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik Wielenberg

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Erik Wielenberg forensically, succinctly and comprehensively dissects and demolishes any shred of a case for theism advanced by authors William Lane Craig, C S Lewis, John Cottingham et al. He argues convincingly that ethics must be independent of a God, even if God were to exist. Ethics are therefore valid within a naturalist account, and do not justify a theist account. On the contrary, the highest human virtue can only be demonstrated in an atheist supposition (p92). Basing ethics on religion is dangerous (pp 145-149).

He then has difficulty hypothesising how this can be so – ‘necessary ethical truths are part of the furniture of the universe’ and ‘constitute the ethical background of every possible universe’ (p52). ‘Ethical truths lie at the very bedrock of reality, created by no one, under no-one’s control, passing judgment on the actions and character of God and man alike’ (p67). This is reasonable observation and even conviction, but lacks explanation. He follows Kant’s definition of moral obligation – ‘it seems clear enough that we have some such obligation’ (p116). Virtue is objective. It is simply so. Through the example of a person delighting in a perverse action, he takes perversity to be objectively defined, and so dismisses the thesis that virtue is chosen and adopted by humanity. His scheme opts for physicalism (p135). He dismisses the existence of an extra-natural soul (p110). He does not explore the alternative interpretation that the human soul is a prevenient metaphysical extension, generated and hosted by the physical.

His dismissal of the theist claim is erudite and excellent. His construction of the naturalist claim is limited. Arbitrary human choice of virtue and a prevenient soul are valid naturalist options. His eloquent dismissal of theist ethics requires an urgent programme to define naturalist ethics beyond the examples of humility and charity he sketches. Naturalist ethics has to be more comprehensively defined and must face the dilemmas of any moral programme. André Comte-Sponville’s ‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’ is a good complementary text which moves the discussion on.

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