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Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures?



Many have sought in God a supernatural vindicator of the virtuous—an other worldly being to right the evident wrongs of this world. In the debate that spawns this collection, William Lane Craig joins those with such a concep-tion of God's role, asserting: On the theistic view, God holds all persons accountable for their actions—evil and wrong will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated. Despite the inequalities of this life, in the end the scales of God's justice will be balanced. We can even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, which run contrary to our self-interest, knowing, in the end, these acts are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. (31) Craig goes on to claim that if theism were false, then even if there were ob-jective moral values and duties: [T]hey seem to be irrelevant because there is no moral accountability…Given the finality of death on the humanist view, it really does not matter how you live. Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inapt on this atheistic worldview. For such altruistic behaviors are then merely the result of evolutionary conditioning that helps to perpetuate the species. A firefighter rushing into a burning building to save people in danger, or a policeman who sacrifices his life for those of his comrades does nothing more praiseworthy, morally speaking, than an ant that sacrifices itself for the ant heap. On an atheistic view, this is just stupid…The absence of moral accountability from the philosophy of atheism thus makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice a hollow abstraction. (33) The desire to see justice prevail in the world is a common one and the
Empty and Ultimately
Meaningless Gestures?
Donald C. Hubin
Many have sought in God a supernatural vindicator of the virtuousan other
worldly being to right the evident wrongs of this world. In the debate that
spawns this collection, William Lane Craig joins those with such a concep-
tion of God’s role, asserting:
On the theistic view, God holds all persons accountable for their actionsevil
and wrong will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated. Despite the
inequalities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced.
We can even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, which run contrary to
our self-interest, knowing, in the end, these acts are not empty and ultimately
meaningless gestures. (31)
Craig goes on to claim that if theism were false, then even if there were ob-
jective moral values and duties:
[T]hey seem to be irrelevant because there is no moral accountability…Given
the finality of death on the humanist view, it really does not matter how you
live. Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inapt on this atheistic
worldview. For such altruistic behaviors are then merely the result of
evolutionary conditioning that helps to perpetuate the species. A firefighter
rushing into a burning building to save people in danger, or a policeman who
sacrifices his life for those of his comrades does nothing more praiseworthy,
morally speaking, than an ant that sacrifices itself for the ant heap. On an
atheistic view, this is just stupid…The absence of moral accountability from
the philosophy of atheism thus makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice
a hollow abstraction. (33)
The desire to see justice prevail in the world is a common one and the
belief that it
, in the end, do so, is much easier to maintain if one accepts
This paper appears in Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith,
Secularism, and Ethics, edited by Robert K. Garcia & Nathan L. King (New York:
Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 133-150. Parenthetical page numbers refer to the
pages in that volume that present the debate between William Lane Craig and Paul
Kurz that spawned the volume.
134 Donald C. Hubin
the existence of a cosmic enforcer of morality. Craig goes far beyond ex-
pressing a wish for ultimate justice or grounding his belief in a divine retrib-
utor on this wish. He implies (without argument, I think) that without such di-
vine retribution (both punishment of evil and reward for virtue), genuinely
altruistic actions—actions that involve “extreme self-sacrifice” and “run con-
trary to our self-interest”—would be “empty and ultimately meaningless ges-
Au contraire!
Far from conferring meaning and significance on altruistic
acts of genuine self-sacrifice, the thesis of theism (as understood by Craig)
undermines the very possibility of such actions; as a result, belief in such a
theism renders problematic any ethic grounded on self-sacrifice. In what fol-
lows, I will develop and defend three theses:
First, if Craig is right in asserting that theism implies that “evil and wrong
will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated,” then acts of morally
laudable, altruistic, genuine self-sacrifice are not consistent with the thesis
of theism. Such acts are possible only if righteous self-sacrifices sometimes
go unrewarded. The very possibility of these actions depends on the ab-
sence of universal perfect moral accountability.
Second, again on Craig’s understanding of “theism,” an ethic that imposes
a requirement of altruistic genuine self-sacrifice is especially problematic.
Such ethics can be advocated by theists like Craig only in a rather bizarre,
and perhaps insincere, manner.
Finally, I will examine the presuppositions of Craig’s claim that on an athe-
istic worldview, acts of extreme self-sacrifice are “particularly inept” or
even “stupid” and challenge the truth of that assertion.
In developing and defending this thesis, I will accept without challenge
some of Craig’s claims—even some I believe to be false. For example, I will
accept the assumption that theism entails the existence of a divine rectifier
one who, in the end, “rights all wrongs,” compensating for all unjustified
harms and wrongfully acquired benefits. I would use ‘theism’ more broadly,
but I have no desire to enter into the debate concerning the definition of ‘God’
and whether or not such a compensatory function is entailed by that
definition. If it is not, then my arguments will apply only to those theists who
accept this particular view of God’s role. My arguments do not apply to those
theists who believe that God does not “right the scales” morally speaking,
even if they believe that God is the source of moral values and the ground of
moral duties.1 Perhaps more surprisingly, if my arguments are correct, they
will apply with equal force to a conceivable atheistic view (though it is one
that, to my knowledge, no one has endorsed). Since the arguments turn not on
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 135
whether God exists or not but on whether, for each person, perfect moral
compensation obtains the arguments will apply with equal force to an athe-
istic view that holds that, by some conceivable mechanism, such perfect moral
compensation obtains. It is hard to imagine a plausible story about how
this would occur within a thoroughly naturalistic worldview, which is pre-
cisely what makes the thesis of theism attractive to those yearning for assur-
ance of such justice. But the important point is that the problems I will raise
for Craig’s view arise from his commitment to this kind of perfect moral com-
pensation. God enters the picture only in the alleged role of guarantor of this
measure of compensation.
The defense of my thesis will also require me to distinguish between the
virtue of altruism and the existence of morally laudable acts of altruistic self-
sacrifice. I do not deny that the virtue of altruism is compatible with the
existence of a god who ensures perfect moral compensation. The virtue of
altruism concerns the agent’s motivations for actions. Altruistic motivation,
even purely altruistic motivation, is independent of the possibility (and even
the believed possibility) of morally laudable acts of genuine self-sacrifice. So,
even if it were true that there are no morally laudable actions that result in a
long-run net loss to the agent and even if the agent believes this, she or he
could still be motivated byand indeed motivated only byaltruistic con-
siderations. Thus, regardless of whether God exists and functions as a divine
retributor, a person may be motivated altruistically and may, in virtue of this,
be worthy of the praise typically offered for altruism. What the existence of
such a god renders impossible is not the virtue of altruism but the existence
of morally laudable acts of altruistic self-sacrifice.2
I understand moral compensation to obtain when the costs wrongfully borne
(or the benefits wrongfully enjoyed) by a person are offset by the imposition
of corresponding benefits (or costs) in such a way as to leave that person at
least as well off as she would have been had the wrongful costs (or benefits)
not existed.3 Eschatology is the branch of theology that studies “final things”;
individual eschatology concerns the final things for the individual: an after-
life, divine judgment, and so forth. I understand the thesis of eschatological
moral compensation (EMC) to be the thesis that, for each individual, divine
intervention in an after-life will ensure that there is perfect moral compensa-
tion: “Evil and wrong will be punished and the righteous will be vindicated. De-
spite the inequalities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be
balanced” (31).4
136 Donald C. Hubin
The thesis of eschatological moral compensation provides motivation and
consolation to many. For some who might otherwise be tempted toward im-
morality, the belief in perfect moral compensation may well provide a motive
for complying with the outward requirements of morality. One seldom goes
wrong in assuming that self-interest is a strong motivator, even if it is not the
only one. And, many who are troubled by the suffering of loved ones find
consolation in the thought that there is, in the end, compensation for such suf-
fering. Finally, it is easier for some people to endure the unjust burdens in
their own lives if they believe that, ultimately, justice will prevail.
But the thesis of eschatological moral compensation comes with costs. And
one is extremely surprising. It is this: If the thesis is correct, thencontrary
to what practically all of us believethere
actions that are both
morally laudable and genuinely self-sacrificial. Let me begin to clarify this
claim by distinguishing it from three other claims that I do not assert:
Impossibility of self-sacrifice.
EMC entails that there are no actions by
which a person diminishes his well-being for the sake of some other end.
Impossibility of altruistic acts.
EMC entails that there are no altruistic ac-
Impossibility of altruistic acts of self-sacrifice:
EMC entails that there are
no altruistic acts that involve genuine self-sacrifice.
While the truth of any of these claims would cause serious problems for
Craig’s theism, I do not defend any of them. Here’s why.
Impossibility of self-sacrifice.
I do not assert that the thesis of eschatologi-
cal compensation entails that there are no actions by which a person dimin-
ishes his well-being for some other end. It does not. If “self-sacrifice” means
only diminishing your well-being for some other end,5 then there is no in-
compatibility between EMC and the existence of self-sacrifice. Indeed, on a
traditional Christian eschatology of punishment for unrepented sins, sinning
is a paradigmatic act of self-sacrifice, in the sense of being an action through
which one diminishes one’s overall, long-term well-being for some other pur-
poseperhaps immediate gratification or gaining power. But it is not a
morally laudable
act of self-sacrifice; it is not morally justified or morally
praiseworthy. My interest is not in the relationship between EMC and acts
that sacrifice well-being generally; it is in the relationship between EMC and
morally laudable
acts of self-sacrifice.
Impossibility of altruistic acts
. I do not assert that EMC is incompatible
with the existence of altruistic actions. As I have already suggested and will
discuss more fully later, the concept of
action concerns the agent’s
motivation for acting. Altruistic motivation is motivation grounded in the di-
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 137
rect (as opposed to instrumental) concern for the well-being of others. The
truth of EMC does not render altruistic acts impossible. Even if there is di-
vine reward for right actions and punishment for evil ones (and, indeed, even
if one knew this fact), one might well act partly or wholly out of a direct mo-
tivation for the well-being of others.
Impossibility of altruistic acts of self-sacrifice
. Finally, I do not assert that
EMC precludes the existence of altruistically motivated acts of genuine self-
sacrifice. Since altruistic acts are actions motivated by direct concern for the
well-being of others and self-sacrificial acts are those that result in long-term
net disbenefit to the agent, altruistic acts of self-sacrifice will be possible if,
and only if, it is possible for agents to perform acts that result in such long-
term disbenefit out of direct concern for the well-being of others. The consis-
tency of EMC with the existence of such actions is a complicated matter.
However, if it is possible for an agent to act from altruistic motivation in a
way that incurs some local cost to him and does not call for divine moral com-
pensation, then altruistic acts of self-sacrifice are consistent with EMC. Some
might think that this is possible, perhaps in cases in which the altruistically
motivated action is not, despite its motivation, a morally laudable one. Since
altruistic motivation is consistent with extremely selective concern for the
well-being of others, there could clearly be such cases. So suppose that, in or-
der to save a loved one who has committed a terrible crime from going to
prison, I falsely confess to the crime and, as a result, am convicted and pun-
ished for the crime. I neither expect, nor do I receive, any worldly benefit
from my action; I am motivated only by considerations of the well-being of
my loved one. To underscore the wrongness of this action, we can imagine
that I correctly anticipate that, not being punished, my loved one will repeat
the crime, thus harming another innocent person. In this case, I have inten-
tionally incurred some personal harm in order to benefit my loved one based
on an altruistic motivation for
this person’s
well-being. However, the act cho-
sen to effect this end imposes morally impermissible costs on other innocent
individuals and, arguably, violates moral constraints on actions. If we believe,
as seems plausible, that the action is morally forbidden despite its altruistic
motivation, then the costs it incurs for the agent may not be compensable un-
der the terms of EMC. The result will be that my altruistic action will result
in a long-term net loss in my well-being. In a case like this, then, EMC allows
for the existence of altruistically motivated acts of genuine self-sacrifice.
The matter is complicated by the possibility that the altruistic motivations
of the agent are sufficient to provoke divine reward, even if the action cho-
sen is, and was known by the agent to be, morally impermissible. If the al-
truistic motivation itself is sufficient to trigger divine reward for the costs in-
curred by the agent, even where the altruistically motivated action was
138 Donald C. Hubin
morally impermissible, my arguments will, if successful, show that EMC is
incompatible with the existence of altruistically motivated acts of genuine
self-sacrifice in general. However, I do not pursue this issue here. My concern
is with the consistency of EMC with
morally laudable
acts of genuine self-
sacrifice. I am not concerned with the consistency of EMC with the existence
of acts of self-sacrifice generally, with the existence of altruistic acts gener-
ally, or with the existence of altruistically motivated acts of self-sacrifice.
The term “self-sacrifice” involves the self in two respects. Acts of genuine
self-sacrifice are acts of sacrifice
the self and
the self. Variations on the
hackneyed example of falling on the hand grenade illustrate the point: Inten-
tionally falling on hand grenade to save the rest of one’s platoon is a stan-
dard example of an act of self-sacrifice; pushing a platoon-mate onto a hand
grenade to save oneself and the rest of the platoon is not an act of self-sacri-
fice either for the pusher or the one pushed.
More importantly to my argument, genuine acts of self-sacrifice involve
genuine costs to the agent. Where there is no cost, there is no sacrifice, re-
gardless of the motives, beliefs or intentions of the agent. These other factors
bear heavily on questions of the praiseworthiness of the agent and, perhaps,
our moral evaluation of the course of conduct the agent undertakes. But with-
out cost, there is no sacrifice and, so, no self-sacrifice.
To clarify this point with an example, consider a participant in Stanley Mil-
gram’s famous experiments concerning obedience to authority. In these ex-
periments, volunteers believed that they were assisting researchers
investigating how aversive responses affect memory. These volunteers (called
“teachers”) quizzed people they believed to be other volunteers (“learners”)
and pressed buttons that the teachers believed gave electric shocks to the
learners for incorrect answers. In fact, the learners were confederates of the
researchers and they were only pretending to receive shocks. The teachers
were the true subjects of the experiments, which were designed to explore the
willingness of people to engage in behavior that is believed to be harmful to
othersbehavior they would ordinarily avoidwhen that behavior is sanc-
tioned by authority figures. Now, imagine that one of the actual subjects, a
“teacher,” rebels against the urging of the experimenters to increase the level
of the shock applied and attempts to “rescue” the learner with whom he is
working. He pulls the electrodes from this person’s body as the electrical
charge is apparently being applied, and he does this in the firm belief that he
will experience the shock himself as he removes the electrodes. In fact,
though, as he removes the electrodes, he feels nothing. This man’s act may
well be altruistic. He exhibits a disposition to endure a harm himself in order
to spare another from further harm and this may well be, as altruism requires,
from an immediate and direct concern for the well-being of the other person.
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 139
If so, he is morally praiseworthy. We want to say many of the same things
about him as we would about a person who actually experienced the painful
shock in order to save another. But, there is one thing that we can say about
a person who actually experienced the shock to save another that we cannot
say about our imagined rebellious subject: our rebellious subject
did not
gage in an act of self-sacrifice. He was disposed to; he was willing to; indeed,
he tried to engage in an action that he believed to be one of self-sacrifice. But
he did not sacrifice for another.
A personal cost is necessary for self-sacrifice. And, it has to be a
to the individual. Local costs that are compensated are not sacrifices. We of-
ten speak of someone sacrificing to get through law school, medical school
or even a graduate program in philosophy. But if these sacrifices are amply
rewarded by a welcomed financial success or, more plausibly in the last case,
by some sort of psychic satisfaction, they don’t constitute genuine sacrifice
of the self. They are, instead, investments in the future and ones that reap an
ample return. They may involve self-control, but they do not involve self-
sacrifice.6 There is an important difference between someone who works sixty
hours a week in order to accumulate enough money to go to college and qual-
ify for a career that he will find richly rewarding and a person who does the
same in order to put his children through college with no expectation of any
personal reward.
In the sorts of cases just alluded to, the agent typically anticipates the ben-
efit that compensates for the period of sacrifice; indeed, this anticipated ben-
efit plays a role in motivating the sacrifice. Let’s consider a case that is oth-
erwise similar but does not involve such anticipation of future benefit.
Helpful Worker 1:
Herb works at an amusement park emptying trash cans. He is
a contract worker, paid solely based on the number of bags of trash he hauls out
of the park. One day, he sees a child, crying because she is separated from her
parents. Herb parks his pick-up, buys the child an ice cream cone and spends an
hour walking around with the child until she finds her parents. As he does so, he
thinks from time to time about the loss of income he is causing, but it’s hard for
Herb to steel his heart against a child’s tears. What Herb doesn’t know is that
the manager of the amusement park, in an attempt to help encourage employees to
be more helpful to customers, has just instituted a (so far unannounced) program
of bonuses for employees who show extraordinary customer care. Herb’s altru-
istic action has been caught on the park’s security cameras and the manager de-
cides that a great way to announce the new program would be by giving Herb a
$10,000 surprise bonus and publicizing this award to all employees. Let’s as-
sume that the only cost Herb incurs from his action is the direct loss in per-
formance pay and that this is far more than adequately compensated for by his
cash reward.
140 Donald C. Hubin
Herb is motivated altruistically, we will assume, and he anticipates a net loss
to himself from his altruism. But he is wrong. He does suffer a local loss. His
next paycheck is less than it would otherwise have been. Herb does not,
though, suffer a net, long-term loss. His act of helping the child is not one of
self-sacrifice. This is true even though his act is one that shows his
indeed, his
to engage in self-sacrificial behavior for others.
Herb is praiseworthy. What he has done is right and laudable. But he has not
sacrificed for another.
Now the problem for EMC is pretty clear. If, after all, there is a deity that
effects full moral compensation in each life, then it is impossible for anyone
to engage in morally laudable self-sacrifice. Even if EMC is true, there can,
of course, be acts that involve sacrificing one’s well-being. Imposing a cost
on yourself through action that is not morally laudable would involve such a
sacrifice. The truth of EMC, furthermore, poses no problem for the existence
of altruistic actions. And, finally, even if EMC is true, it appears possible for
there to be altruistic acts of genuine self-sacrifice.7 But the truth of EMC
means that any morally laudable act that involves a localin this case,
worldlysacrifice will be adequately rewarded and, so, involve no net, long-
term sacrifice to the agent. It is the very nature and function of God’s role (as
assigned by Craig) as a cosmic retributor to ensure that worldly losses in-
curred from right action are not net, long-term losses for the agent.
Craig worries that atheism “makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacri-
fice a hollow abstraction.” (33) But if theism implies EMC, as Craig ap-
pears to believe, then theism grounds any ethic of self-sacrifice on an im-
So far, I have been discussing some implications of the truth of EMC. I turn
now to the question of the implications of
in EMC. First, some clarifi-
catory comments on my use of terms like “theistic self-sacrificers” and “al-
truistic theists.”
For argument’s sake, I have granted Craig’s assumption that theism implies
EMC. But, even granting this, it is still an open question whether it is possi-
ble for a theist to deny EMC. We ordinarily assume that acceptance of a the-
ory does not require belief in all of the logical implications of the theory. We
are not, after all, logical saints and some of the logical implications of a the-
ory may be hidden to even the most penetrating minds. On the other hand, if
a theory is defined by a specific thesis or that thesis is an obvious implication
of those that define the theory, it is hard to understand what it would mean to
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 141
say that someone accepts the theory but not the thesis in question. I have no
idea whether Craig takes the thesis of EMC to be definitional of “theism” or,
if not, to be such an obvious implication of the theory that anyone who could
be said to understand the theory would see the implication. If so, then my use
of the terms “theistic self-sacrificers” and “altruistic theists” can be taken at
face value given this (I think) idiosyncratic account of “theism.” He may be-
lieve, on the other hand, that EMC is a subtle, non-obvious implication of the-
ism. If so, my terminology may be misleading unless we understand the en-
tire discussion to be about those theists who are close enough to logical
sainthood to understand that EMC is an implication of theism. Let us restrict
our attention to those theists I shall call “clear-headed theists.” What I’m in-
terested in is the implications of belief in EMC, and I’m using “clear-headed
theist” or “theist” as shorthand for a theist who accepts EMC.
The theist (in the clear-headed sense) believes that all morally laudable acts
that involve local sacrifices of the agent’s well-being will be, at least after
death, fully compensated for in such a way that the agent will not sufferat
least not as a result of performing the act in questiona net, long-term decrease
in well-being. Does this mean that a theist cannot engage in morally laudable
acts of genuine self-sacrifice? Of course not. For the theist may be wrong
about the existence of God (understood now as one who secures perfect moral
accountability). In that case, the local, worldly sacrifice of well-being may
well be a net, long-term sacrifice. So, a clear-headed theist can certainly en-
gage in morally laudable acts of genuine self-sacrifice provided his theism is
false. But a clear-headed theist cannot
to engage in such actions. Be-
lieving, as he does, that any morally laudable act that involves a local sacri-
fice will receive complete compensation, he cannot consistently believe that
he will suffer a net, long-term decrease in well-being as a result of perform-
ing a morally laudable act that causes a local decrease in his well-being. Thus,
he cannot consistently believe that he is able to engage in an act of morally
laudable genuine self-sacrifice because he is committed to the belief that
there are no such actions. Indeed, if he understands the implications of his
brand of theism, he will believe that nothing he can do will be an instance of
morally laudable altruistic self-sacrifice.9 And, if he believes that he cannot
perform such an action, he cannot intend to perform such an action.10
It is worth reminding ourselves that this argument applies only to clear-
headed theiststhose who see that their theory implies EMC and that EMC
implies that no morally laudable altruistic act will result in a genuine self-sac-
rifice for the agent. Those theists who fail to appreciate that a consequence of
their views is that they are unable to engage in acts of morally laudable altru-
istic genuine self-sacrifice can still intend to engage in such actions. They can
do so in the same sense that I can accept the axioms of Euclidean geometry
142 Donald C. Hubin
and, nevertheless, intend to prove that the interior angles of a triangle in Eu-
clidean space do not sum to 180 degrees. Which is to say, they can do so only
as a result of confusion.11
The confusion in question would have to be relatively obvious, too. We are
understanding a theist, as Craig apparently does, to be someone who accepts
the thesis of EMC. In order for such a person to intentionally engage in a
morally laudable act of genuine self-sacrifice, she or he would have to believe
both that all morally laudable acts of (short-term) self-sacrifice are at least ad-
equately compensated by divine reward in an afterlife
that her or his in-
tended act of (short-term) self-sacrifice would not be so compensated. Clear-
headed theists accept the thesis of EMC and understand that it implies that
there are no acts of morally laudable genuine (long-term) self-sacrifice.
This makes a theistic ethic of self-sacrifice extremely problematic. Such an
ethic would require actions that (clear-headed) theists cannot intentionally per-
form. This point should be troubling for someone like Craig, but we must be
careful not to misstate the problem. It is important to see that even clear-
headed theists can be altruistic; theistic belief does not rule out altruistic ac-
tions. Remember that altruism concerns the agent’s motivation and it is man-
ifestly possible for someone to be motivated altruistically even if she or he
believes that her or his altruistically motivated action will not result in a long-
term net disbenefit to herself or himself.
We can illustrate these points by considering a variation on the story about
the Herb, the helpful worker.
Helpful Worker 2:
Henrietta works at the same amusement park as Herb. Like
Herb, she sees a lost child and stops her work to help the child find his parents.
This is a morally laudable thing to do and results in lowered productivity for
Henrietta and, as a result, a decrease in her paycheck. Unlike Herb, Henrietta
has heard of the manager’s reward program and she fully expects to be richly re-
warded under it.
Suppose that, unknown to Henrietta, the manager has ended the employee
re-ward program. Then, her laudable act of helping the child find his parents in-
volves, let us assume, not just a local reduction in well-being as a result of her
diminished paycheck, but a net, long-term reduction in her well-being.12 On
this variant of the story, Henrietta is analogous to a theist who engages in a
laudable, genuine (net, long-term) self-sacrifice unknowingly because, con-
trary to her belief, EMC is false. It is important to note that she may well be
motivated altruistically. Henrietta may be adequately motivated by direct
concern for the well-being of the child. The generous financial reward she ex-
pects under the manager’s program may not play any role in her decision to
stop work to help the child. Or, it may play a role but not a necessary one.
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 143
That is, Henrietta may well feel
motivation to help the child given
the prospect of reward, but be sufficiently motivated to help even in the ab-
sence of this prospect. In either case, her action is altruistic. But, so long as
she believes that she will be adequately compensated for her assistance, she
her actionat least in prospectas one of altruistic self-
. Just as a clear-headed theist, Henrietta is fully convinced that her ac-
tion will not be one of morally laudable self-sacrifice. She cannot, therefore,
intend such an action. And, this is true even if, as it turns out, it is an act of
If it is known that, in helping the child, Henrietta cannot intend to perform
an act of morally laudable self-sacrifice, then any demand that she help the
child as an act of morally laudable self-sacrifice is a strange demandwhat I
will call a “deviant demand.” The standard point of issuing a demand is to se-
cure compliance through intentional action. The typical point of demanding
that my children clean up their rooms is to get them to clean their rooms as a
result of forming an intention to clean their rooms. Demands can, though, be
issued with nonstandard purposes. So, as a Marine drill instructor breaking in
new recruits, I might well pick out the weakest of them and demand, threat-
ening punishment for failure, that he do fifty push-ups, knowing full well that
he cannot comply and, moreover, that he knows that he cannot. All of the fol-
lowing seem true of this case:
The recruit cannot intend to satisfy my demand. If he drops to the floor and
begins doing push-ups, it cannot be with the intention of doing fifty push-
ups. He might have the intention to do as many push-ups as he can, perhaps
to show me his resolve in the hopes of ameliorating his punishment. But he
cannot intend to do what he firmly believes he cannot do.
I cannot intend that my demand be satisfied. That is to say, whatever my in-
tention in issuing the demand, it is not the intention that the demand be met.
This results from my knowledge that the recruit cannot do the task I’ve de-
manded of him.
I cannot intend for the recruit to intend to do fifty push-ups. If I know that
the recruit cannot complete fifty push-ups but do not know that he is aware
that he cannot, I could intend my demand to create in him the intention to
do fifty push-ups. However, since I know that the recruit knows that he can-
not satisfy the demand I’ve made, I cannot even intend that my demand
cause him to intend to do so.13
What might my intention be in issuing the demand? Perhaps I intend to
send a message to the entire group that any failure is unacceptable and will
be met with punishment. Perhaps I intend to brand the unlucky recruit as a
144 Donald C. Hubin
weakling for the group to despise and define themselves in contrast to. How-
ever we fill in the story, my demand has a nonstandard or deviant purpose for
two independent and individually sufficient reasons: I believe that what I de-
mand is not within the capability of the recipient of the demand, and I believe
that my demand cannot cause in the recipient an intention to satisfy the de-
This is what I mean by a deviant demand. A demand of Henrietta that she
engage in a morally laudable act of self-sacrifice, would be a deviant demand,
if it came from someone aware of her inability to perform such an action and,
as well, to intend to perform such an action.
Similar things can be said of the case of an ethic that requires or encour-
ages acts of self-sacrifice. In a world where EMC is true, the demands of such
an ethic are deviant; their point cannot be to secure compliance; compliance
is impossible. And the demands of such an ethic, when addressed to an audi-
ence of known, clear-headed theists, could not have the point of typical moral
demands. These demands could not be intentionally followed by clear-headed
theists. If the point of advocating such a morality were to cause the audience
to intend to follow it, the advocacy would make sense only if the expectation
was that the audience would give up its theism or, at least, the clear-headed
version of it.
This means that a theist of Craig’s sort, one who accepts EMC, is in a rather
awkward position to promote an ethic of self-sacrifice. Such a theist will be
advocating actions that she or he knows to be impossible. She or he knows
that the moral demands she or he asserts cannot be met, and that the like-
minded theists to whom she or he addresses these demands can intend to meet
them only if they are confused about the implications of their theism.
What is, perhaps, most disquieting about Craig’s view of the relation between
morality and the existence of God is his thought that what he calls “moral ac-
countability” is necessary for morality to be anything but an empty and mean-
ingless gesture or a hollow abstraction. Craig’s claim that objective moral val-
ues can exist if, and only if, God exists is philosophically problematic. It
seems to rest on a simplistic, though unanalyzed, conception of what it would
mean for something to be objective. The same is true of his assertion that
God’s existence, and only God’s existence, can provide a sound basis for ob-
jective moral duties. But Craig’s idea that “moral accountability”—by which
he means perfect eschatological moral compensationis necessary for
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 145
morality to be meaningful and important is not only philosophically prob-
lematic; it is morally troubling.14
To many non-theistsas well, I imagine, as to many who would consider
themselves theists of a different stripe than Craigit seems bizarre to assert
that unless there is perfect eschatological moral compensation, “it really does
not matter how you live.” If my children suffer as a result of my neglect, then
my children suffer. That is enough for it to matter to me how I act with re-
spect to my children. Indeed, for many it is precisely because there is no guar-
antee of perfect moral compensation that it matters so much how we live our
lives. If I really believed that every unjustified harm would garner compen-
sation in the end, the unjustified harms I cause would seem
troubling for
their effect on the victim. If, in the end, victims of unjustified harm receive
perfect compensation, it seems less urgent that I help those who are victim-
ized by others. At least the urgency of my assisting them doesn’t seem to be
grounded in considerations of their long-term net well-being. Perhaps it is
grounded in considerations of my own; perhaps I can secure eschatological
reward for such assistance. But
well-being seems of less intrinsic con-
cern. It is precisely the absence of perfect moral compensation that makes the
unjustified harms to others so morally urgent and the sacrifices that we make
to help others so laudable.
But Craig thinks otherwise. On his view, if there is no eschatological moral
compensation, self-sacrifice “is just stupid.” In nonphilosophical settings, the
charge of stupidity covers a broad range of disparate errors. Craig says little
to help us understand what, precisely, he means by the charge or why he
thinks it justified. But the context suggests that lying behind Craig’s yearning
for perfect moral accountability is more than the fear that psychological ego-
ism, or something close to it, is true. Lying behind Craig’s yearning is an ac-
ceptance of some form of
To establish this point, let me explicitly define some terminology I’ve al-
ready used. I have argued that EMC is incompatible with the existence of
morally laudable altruistic acts of genuine self-sacrifice. Given this, it is dif-
ficult to evaluate Craig’s suggestion that (presumably morally laudable) al-
truistic acts of self-sacrifice make sense and are not stupid on his theistic
view. There can be no such acts to praise, if EMC is true. But there are cer-
tainly acts that appear to those of us who do not accept EMC to be genuine
acts of self-sacrifice, and some of these are morally laudable and altruistically
motivated. These are the morally laudable altruistically motivated acts that re-
ceive no worldly compensation. For those who reject otherworldly compen-
sation, these acts involve genuine self-sacrifice. Let us call the acts that
on the atheistic worldview to be acts of genuine self-sacrifice “worldly
self-sacrificial”—they involve costs not compensated for in
world. Using
146 Donald C. Hubin
this terminology allows us to leave open the question of whether these acts
self-sacrificial. If they are morally laudable and altruistically
motivated, the believer in EMC says “no”; the EMC denier says “yes.”
Now, why does it appear that Craig is committed to some form of norma-
tive egoism? First, let’s distinguish normative egoism from descriptive ego-
ism (which includes psychological egoism). Normative egoism offers us a
theory of how people
to act; descriptive egoism purports to describe
human behavior or, more commonly, human motivation. The most common
descriptive egoist theory, psychological egoism, holds that human motivation
is exclusively egoisticthat the only considerations that move humans to act
are considerations of benefit to the self. It’s easy to see why one would find
it desirable for there to be widespread belief in perfect eschatological moral
compensation if this is your theory of human motivation. Such moral com-
pensation achieves by external brute force what many philosophers have
sought by philosophical argumentation: the perfect reconciliation between
self-interest and morality. Even if one rejects, as surely we should, the thesis
of psychological egoism, it would be Pollyannaish to deny that there is more
than a little selfish motivation in humans or that this motivation can often lead
people to act in morally reprehensible ways. Even on a much weaker, and cor-
respondingly more plausible, theory of human motivation such as what Gre-
gory Kavka calls “
egoism,”15 one can see the attractions of
widespread belief in a divine retributor.
But no descriptive theory of human behavior or psychology will result in
the conclusion that, in the absence of perfect moral compensation, altruistic
acts of worldly self-sacrifice are “stupid.” That is clearly intended as a nor-
mative judgment; purely descriptive theories of human behavior and motiva-
tion will not provide adequate warrant for such judgments. To justify a charge
that altruistic acts of worldly self-sacrifice are stupid on a worldview that de-
nies EMC, one needs a normative claim. It must be the case that when such
acts are thought by the agent to be (morally laudable, altruistically motivated)
acts of
self-sacrifice, they necessarily fall short of what is required
by some
of actiona norm the failure to satisfy warrants a charge of
stupidity. And, since Craig clearly doesn’t believe that such acts are stupid on
the assumption of the theistic worldview he embraces, he must believe that
this norm of action is met when EMC is true.
But what norm would condemn an act of morally laudable altruistic
worldly self-sacrifice on the atheistic worldview that rejects EMC and not
condemn such an act on the assumption of EMC? It seems that the only sort
of norm that would allow us to condemn these acts on the atheistic view but
not on Craigian theism would be some sort of normative egoism.
The best-known variant of normative egoism,
egoism, isn’t quite
right for this purpose. Ethical egoism is the view that the morally right thing
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 147
for an agent to do is what will promote his long-term well-being. Ethical ego-
ism would condemn as immoral all acts of (unnecessary) genuine self-sacri-
fice. But the charge Craig is making here is not a moral one. He does not seem
to believe that the atheistic worldview entails that altruistic acts of worldly
self-sacrifice are immoral, much less that morally laudable acts of altruistic
worldly self-sacrifice are immoral (whatever one could mean by that asser-
tion). He claims not that, on the atheist’s worldview, such acts are immoral,
but that they are stupid.
Now, with some trepidation at taking this speculative step, I suggest that
Craig means by this charge that, on the atheistic worldview, acts of (morally
laudable altruistic) worldly self-sacrifice do not “make sense,” that they are
not “the thing to do.” He is endorsing a norm of evaluation, I’m suggesting,
in what Allan Gibbard calls a flat, flavorless way.16 When he implies, by call-
ing them stupid, that on an atheistic view, morally laudable acts of altruistic
worldly self-sacrifice ought not to be done, he is expressing his endorsement
of norms of action that condemn the doing of such acts.
And what is it about such acts that he condemns? Since he does not simi-
larly condemn such actions given the assumption of EMC and the only dif-
ference between these two background assumptions is whether worldly self-
sacrificial acts are
self-sacrificial, it appears that the norm that
Craig is embracing here is a norm condemning genuine self-sacrifice. His
idea appears to be that
self-sacrificial behavior makes sense (is not
stupid) only if it is not
self-sacrificial. It is this thought that I allege
is morally troubling. It is a challenge to any demand made on our actions that
is grounded ultimately in the well-being of others. If acting for the well-be-
ing of others without a guarantee that this will result in a personal benefit
or worse, with the full expectation that it will notis really stupid, what are
we to say of the virtue of altruism?
An act of worldly self-sacrifice, undertaken by someone who rejects EMC
(and, indeed, even one who denies any otherworldly rewards and punish-
ments at all) will seem stupid, only if we think that consistency with self-in-
terest is a requirement of “nonstupidity.” But why should we accept this? A
father may value his children’s well-being above his own. Unless this very
value is stupid,17 there is manifestly no stupidity in such a man sacrificing his
worldly well-being for that of his children, even in the full expectation that
this will result in a long-run, net harm to himself.
It is important to see that Craig’s thought that atheism renders acts of worldly
self-sacrifice stupid is not implied by the rest of what he says about moral ac-
countability, or even what he says about the relation between morality and God
in general. One can believe that God is the source of all moral value, that it is
only with the existence of God that there can be moral duty, that only God’s ex-
istence can ensure moral accountability, and even that such moral accountabil-
148 Donald C. Hubin
ity is essential for moral motivationone can believe all of these things and
still deny that acts of
(long-run, net) self-sacrifice for the benefit of an-
other would be stupid if EMC were false. One can hold that such an act of al-
self-sacrifice would be a fine and noble thing, which “like a
jewel, . . . would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value
in itself.”18
The assurance of “moral accountability”—which seems plausible only on a
theistic worldview is, Craig claims, required for an adequate morality, that
is, for a morality that doesn’t render “acts of extreme self-sacrifice . . . empty
and ultimately meaningless gestures” (31). What we have seen, though, is
that the sort of moral accountability Craig apparently accepts, perfect escha-
tological moral compensation (EMC), has damaging implications for the
ethics of self-sacrifice. EMC renders morally laudable acts of genuine self-
sacrifice impossible. Furthermore, when addressed to a known believer in
EMC, the demands of such a morality are necessarily “deviant” in the sense
that they cannot be issued with the intention that they be followed. And, fi-
nally, the absence of the assurance of moral accountability does not render al-
truistic acts of worldly self-sacrifice “stupid” unless one accepts a troubling
form of normative egoism. When, with full conviction that there are no other-
worldly rewards or benefits, an agent engages in an act that he or she believes
will involve worldly self-sacrifice for the benefit of another, he or she need
not be acting stupidly or engaging in an empty, meaningless gesture. On the
contrary, if the agent values the well-being of the others more than he or she
values his own well-being, he or she is acting sensibly and rationally. And to
have such values is not to be stupid; it is to love others as oneself.
For help in thinking through these issues and helpful comments on
drafts, I’m grateful to Daniel Hubin, David Merli, and Julie Carpenter-Hubin and to
the editors of this volume, Robert Garcia and Nathan King.
1 I believe that the debate between Paul Kurtz and William Craig gets framed un-
helpfully when Craig follows what he alleges to be Kurtz’s use of ‘theism’ as hold -
ing necessarily that “moral values are grounded in God.” I use theism more broadly, in
such a way that theism is consistent with secular moralism, the view that moral val-
ues are independent of God’s existence.
Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures? 149
2 Because my argument does not raise a problem for the virtue of altruism, a the-
ist who believes that God ensures perfect justice may see the problems I raise as pro -
viding reasons for rejecting act-oriented ethical systems in favor of a virtue-oriented
ethical system. What morality requires, one might insist, is that we act virtuously, not
that we sometimes engage in acts of self-sacrifice. I’m grateful to Robert Garcia and
Nathan King for pointing this out to me.
3 This roughly follows the notion of compensation that Robert Nozick embraces in
Anarchy, State, and Utopia
N.J.: Rowman
57. It
is subject
to all of the problems that he “shamelessly” ignores there. Our purpose is not to hone the
notion of moral compensation to be a fine-tuned philosophical instrument. Rather, we are
trying to get a rough handle on a concept that plays a role in Craig’s argument.
4 Some theists believe that rewards and punishments in the afterlife are infinite.
This opens up the possibility of both reward and punishment that would be, on most
accounts of retributive justice, out of line with the acts that provoked them. I leave
aside many thorny theological matters here and note only that Craig seems commit-
ted to the view that wrongdoers receive
at least
enough divine punishment to offset
any gain from their wrongdoing and those who engage in morally laudable self-sac-
rifice receive
at least
enough reward to offset their costs in this world.
5 The word “sacrifice” has its origins in religious rituals involving the presenta-
tion of gifts to deities. I’m assuming, though, that in this context we are using it in a
secular sense that involves intentionally giving up something of value for oneself for
some purpose other than one’s own good.
6 To be sure, matters are a bit more complex if we adopt a Parfitian view of a per-
son’s survival through time. On Derek Parfit’s view, the relation in which we stand to
future stages of our lives is more like that in which we stand to other persons than we
ordinarily suppose. (See Derek Parfit’s
Reasons and Persons
(Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1984) especially Part IV.) I set these difficulties aside with only the reflection
that Parfit’s view of personhood through time would provide little solace for Craig in
this context. EMC depends on a very strong theory of individual identity not only
throughout, but beyond, one’s natural life.
7 This is subject to the worries previously expressed: if the altruistic motivation
calls for moral compensation by Godcompensation sufficient to outweigh the per-
sonal cost of the actionthen EMC will pose problems for altruistically motivated
acts of genuine self-sacrifice.
8 Because Craig doesn’t offer an explicit definition of “an ethic of compassion
and self-sacrifice”, this charge may be challenged. The charge makes the (reasonable,
I think) assumption that such an ethic would require the existence of morally laud-
able, altruistic acts of self-sacrifice.
9 It is not as if such a theist is incapable of, say, throwing himself on a hand
grenade to save his platoon mates. But his belief in EMC and his clear-headedness
about its implications, imply that he cannot see this as an act of morally laudable, al-
truistic genuine self-sacrifice. Some of the properties of actions are determined by the
history or the future course of the universe. Furthermore, my beliefs about the nature
of my actions are constrained (if I’m thinking clearly) by my beliefs about the past
and future of the universe. If I am an executioner assigned to impose the death penalty
150 Donald C. Hubin
on a person I am firmly convinced is innocent, I can carry out the execution, of
course, but I cannot view my action as one that extracts retribution. If I am a doctor
who is giving immunizing inoculations for a disease that I am convinced is extinct, I
can inject the serum, but I cannot view my actions as being ones that prevent con-
traction of the disease.
10 Matters are complicated if we allow degrees of belief. If one only “mostly be-
lieves” that one is unable to bring about a result, it may still be possible for him to in-
tend to bring it about. His intention is, then, predicated on a belief that he mostly re-
jects (if he is consistent in his beliefs).
11 I’m indebted to Daniel Hubin for pushing me to see how a defender of EMC
could still intend to perform actions of morally laudable genuine self-sacrifice.
12 This need not be so, of course. Most people derive psychological rewards from
helping others and, so, reductions in income that result from helping others may not
be reductions in overall well-being. We are, in these examples, using decrease in in-
come as a proxy for decrease in well-being.
13 The matter is a bit more complex than this, but not in a way that affects the ar-
gument I’m making. The complexity is this: I could know that someone believes that
he cannot perform an action but believe that my demanding that he do so would change
this belief. Perhaps he trusts me not to demand anything of him that he cannot do.
Then, I could intend that my demand cause in him an intention to perform the action
by also causing in him the loss of the belief that he cannot perform it. (If I believe that
my demand could actually create in the recipient the ability to perform an action he
was otherwise incapable of performing, then a similar point could be made with re-
spect to the last point.) However, this will offer little consolation to a defender of EMC
who advocates an ethic of self-sacrifice. The demands of that ethic would avoid being
deviant only if they could succeed in causing the recipients to give up their belief in
EMC. For theists, that would mean causing them to not be clear-headed theists.
14 It’s worth a reminder that Craig sees the issue of moral accountability as sep-
arate from the issues of whether there can be objective moral values and duties. And,
he believes that moral accountability raises an
problem for the atheist. He
says, “If theism is false, then what is the basis for moral accountability?
there were
objective moral values and duties under atheism
, they seem to be irrelevant because
there is no moral accountability” (33, emphasis added).
15 Gregory Kavka,
Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory
(Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1986), 6480.
16 Allan Gibbard,
Wise Choices, Apt Feelings
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1990), 69.
17 Craig may think that holding this value is stupid if one rejects EMC. But this
simply pushes back one level his troubling normative egoism. So, instead of (or in ad-
dition to) using long-run self-interest as a test for the nonstupidity of actions, he
would be employing it as a test of the nonstupidity of an agent’s values.
18 Immanuel Kant,
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
, trans.
Thomas Kingsmill chap. 1. Available online at
... In reply, one sympathetic to Craig's view might point out that, even if one could not make a difference to others by preventing 7 See Wielenberg (2005, pp. 91-94), Hubin (2009), andMaitzen (2009 death or harm to them, one could make a difference to them by conferring 'pure' benefits on them, by which I mean goods that do not consist of the removal of a bad. 8 One could direct someone's gaze to a beautiful moon, offer her chocolates, or give her a backrub. ...
On the rise over the past 20 years has been ‘moderate supernaturalism’, the view that while a meaningful life is possible in a world without God or a soul, a much greater meaning would be possible only in a world with them. William Lane Craig can be read as providing an important argument for a version of this view, according to which only with God and a soul could our lives have an eternal, as opposed to temporally limited, significance since we would then be held accountable for our decisions affecting others’ lives. I present two major objections to this position. On the one hand, I contend that if God existed and we had souls that lived forever, then, in fact, all our lives would turn out the same. On the other hand, I maintain that, if this objection is wrong, so that our moral choices would indeed make an ultimate difference and thereby confer an eternal significance on our lives (only) in a supernatural realm, then Craig could not capture the view, aptly held by moderate supernaturalists, that a meaningful life is possible in a purely natural world.
... Indeed, some critics try to strengthen the point: perhaps helping others is instead pointless on the supposition that everyone will live forever (Wielenberg 2005: 91-94;Hubin 2009;Maitzen 2009). Imagine that we could not die and that, upon the disintegration of our bodies, our selves would continue to live on in a better place. ...
... A third prominent argument for thinking that more meaning would come from an atheist world 28 turns on the impossibility of making certain kinds of moral sacrifice in a world with God (Wielenberg 2005: 91-4;Hubin 2009;Maitzen 2009;Sinnott-Armstrong 2009: 114). In at least one atheist world, people could face the prospect of undeserved harm, where substantial meaning in life intuitively would come from an agent making a sacrifice so that others do not suffer that. ...
Part of the Elements Philosophy of Religion series, this short book focuses on the spiritual dimensions of life’s meaning as they have been discussed in the recent English and mainly analytic philosophical literature. The overarching philosophical question that this literature has addressed is about the extent to which, and respects in which, spiritual realities such as God or a soul would confer meaning on our lives. There have been four broad answers to the question, namely: God or a soul is necessary for meaning in our lives; they are not necessary for it; one or both would enhance the meaning in our lives; and they would detract from it. These views have been largely advanced in chronological order through the history of Western philosophy, with the view that life would be meaningless without God and a soul having been most prominent in the medieval period, the rejection of this claim having arisen in the modern era, and then sophisticated positions about enhancement or reduction having appeared in earnest only in the past 20 years. This book addresses all four positions, paying particular attention to the more recent views. Beyond familiarizing readers with these positions, it presents prima facie objections to them, points out gaps in research agendas, and suggests argumentative strategies that merit development.
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