by John Ellis
“For in him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28
While reading Principia Ethica by G.E. Moore, I was struck by the simplicity of his complexity (if that makes sense), especially regarding his ability to helpfully narrow down the initial necessary question of moral philosophy. He explains that people, including philosophers, often jump to questions about actions – conduct. Instead, he argues, the primary and all-important question of “what is good?” needs to be answered. He explains, “Unless this first question be fully understood, and its true answer clearly recognized, the rest of Ethics is as good as useless from the point of view of systematic knowledge.”
Now, I understand that this may seem somewhat obvious to some readers. Of course, you already understand, defining what good is (and is not) is vital. I’m going to avoid the weeds on this, because it’s not my objective with this article, but I submit that we are all, to one degree or another, ethical heirs of G.E. Moore. Principia Ethica was published in 1903 and played a large role in shaping 20th century (and into the 21st century) analytic philosophy – the prevailing “school” of philosophy playing a role in the continued hold classical liberalism has on America (Canada and England, too). And this – Moore’s immense influence – is my point: idols in our heart that have been molded in part by G.E. Moore’s philosophy.
In reading Moore, I can’t get away from a specific claim that is central to his moral philosophy. It’s been tumbling around in my head, to the point where I felt compelled to post a Facebook comment about it (largely to help me corral and articulate my thoughts). That comment is in italics below:
I’ve been reading G.E. Moore’s ‘Principia Ethica,’ a landmark book within moral philosophy. In it, he contends, “propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic; and that is plainly no trivial matter.”
He’s right, of course, that is “no trivial matter,” he’s just wrong on the why.
This Kantian epistemology, and whether he or Kant would admit it, derives from Duns Scotus’ univocity of being. And whether we recognize it or not, the belief that “propositions about the good are all of them synthetic” is a large part (if not warp and woof) or *our* moral philosophy, meaning that our ontological debt is owed to Duns Scotus, too.
Idols are hidden everywhere in our beloved society and, ergo, in our heart.
With the understanding that words like “synthetic” and “analytic,” especially in this context, may be unfamiliar to many, not to mention “Kantian epistemology,” as well as what I mean by “Duns Scotus’ univocity of being,” I want to unpack that Facebook comment. My desire to do so is driven by how important I believe this to be. In fact, I’m excited about this because I think that by further articulating and expounding on my thoughts (written in my Facebook post) I will take another step forward – a better, clearer step – in explaining what I’ve been trying to say for the last several years: namely that white evangelicalism is largely a product of contra-biblical ideologies and philosophies. So much so – to such a syncretic extent – that I fear the white evangelical project should be abandoned by followers of Jesus.
In traveling to my thesis, Moore’s first question “what is good?” makes for an excellent starting point. For a Christian, the answer to that question is (should be), “God is good.” Or, to write it so that you can read the proper inflection in it, “God IS good.” It’s an ontological statement, not (solely) an ethical statement. God IS good. Goodness is His character.
Turning to the next question from the quote by Moore I posted on Facebook, “Is that proposition – God is good – synthetic or analytic knowledge? (don’t worry, if you’re unsure of what those terms mean, I’ll explain shortly). The answer, for a Christian, is (should be) “neither.” Knowledge of God is revelatory. What we know about God is revealed to us by God. It’s a gift from God, and our epistemic access to it does not originate within ourselves. And this is where Serpent-Satan’s lie about synthetic knowledge regarding goodness is so brilliant and sinister. But first, I have some explaining to do. As in, Moore’s use of “synthetic” and “analytic.” In fact, just prior to the quote I posted on Facebook, Moore admits that his use of the terms is based on the assumption that his “readers … are familiar with philosophical terminology.” Moore assumes that his readers are familiar with Kant.
Kant is notoriously dense, and his books are difficult to read, much less comprehend. Making his complex ideas even tougher to navigate, Konigsberg, Germany’s most famous citizen resorted to creating his own philosophical language; when existing words fell short in reflecting his meaning, Kant invented terms (and changed uses for other terms). I recognize I may be exhibiting a level of hubris in attempting to distill Kantian epistemology into a few paragraphs, but a cursory understanding of it is necessary to the cartography of my overall argument. To help, I quote Stanford philosophy professor Allen Wood in order to provide a summary of Kant’s goal and impact. Dr. Wood helpfully tells us, “[Kant] changed the very meaning of ‘metaphysics’ or ‘first philosophy’ from the first-order study of the supernatural or incorporeal realm of being to the second-order study of the way human inquiry itself makes possible its access to whatever subject matter it studied.” A few pages later, he adds, “Kant’s philosophy is self-consciously created for an age of enlightenment, in which individuals are beginning to think for themselves and all matters of common interest are to be decided by an enlightened public through free communication of thoughts and arguments.”
In the decade following Kant’s birth, the great Scotsman David Hume upended the Enlightenment project by taking the sledgehammer of skepticism to Cartesian certainty. As Hume saw it, inductive reasoning was based on a huge problem because it takes us (epistemologically) outside of our experience – and for the radical empiricist Hume, knowledge is dependent on experience and not reason – and, instead, takes us into assumptions and speculation. One of his more famous examples was the striking of one billiard ball by another.
Reading that previous sentence, it is likely that you imagined a billiard ball on a pool table hitting another ball. No doubt, in your imagination that second ball moved after being hit. Hume says that you don’t have epistemic justification for that belief because you can’t observe (experience) what takes place between the cause (the first ball hitting the second) and the effect (the second ball moving). In his words, “every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.” For Hume, reason (rationalism) is inadequate as an epistemological guide because it’s dependent on ideas and ideas are mediated through the senses (empiricism). Because our senses are limited (to the point of inability in this instance) when “experiencing” one billiard ball striking another, the “idea” of causality is an unwarranted assumption.
Moving on with a word of caution: based on my way too brief and way too simplistic explanation of Hume, don’t make the mistake of believing that you can easily answer the challenge of his problem. You likely can’t – not easily, at any rate, especially not within the Enlightenment framework in which most of us are conditioned to view and interact with the problem. Trust me. Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason in large part to answer the challenge. Whether he succeeded or not is still up for debate, depending on whom you ask. But that circles us back to Kant.
Intent on wrestling knowledge out of the stifling grasp of the skeptics, Kant defended objective knowledge, or as he would term it, transcendental idealism. In helping readers understand Kant’s program, Roger Scruton writes, “The world is objective because it can be other than it seems to me. So the true question of objective knowledge is: how can I know the world as it is? I can have knowledge of the world as it seems, since that is merely knowledge of my present perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings.” Because if we can’t, as Scruton explains, “Science, common sense, theology, and personal life all suppose the possibility of objective knowledge. If this supposition is unwarranted, then so are almost all the beliefs that we commonly entertain.”
To sum up, access to the world as it is (objective knowledge) had suffered what appeared to be a death blow from the pen of David Hume, and Kant set about creating an all-encompassing philosophical system that shut the debate down once and for all. Don’t take my word for it, though, listen to Kant, who wrote in his introduction to the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason, “In [this book] I have chiefly aimed at comprehensiveness, and I venture to maintain that there ought not to be one single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here, or at least to the solution of which no key has not been supplied. In fact, pure reason is so perfect a unity that, if its principle should prove insufficient to answer any one of the many questions stated by its very nature, one might throw it away altogether, as an inadequate and unreliable response to any of the questions.”
Even when ironing out Kant’s arguments (pure reason) for simplicity’s sake, the terms “synthetic” and “analytic” stand out. One of the hallmarks of Kant was his belief that reason and experience act together during epistemic activities. Experience provides the form of knowledge; reason provides the content. In combination, they provide knowledge that is objective, or “transcendental idealism” as Kant named it.
Because of our experience, our reason includes a priori things we (non-philosophers) take for granted: time, substance, space, and causality. Scruton drills it down by saying, “Hence in describing my experience I am referring to an ordered perspective on an independent world.”
Kant knew, and taught, – and again, I’m moving way too fast – that all this is dependent on the existence of a priori truths. What set him apart from his predecessors and peers was his division of a priori truths into synthetic and analytic, specifically his belief in a priori synthetic truths.
Synthetic truth “affirms something in the predicate that is not already contained in the subject.” Analytic truth, on the other hand, can be summed up in this example: every material body (human, car, billiard ball, whatever) is extended; it’s not one-dimensional. While we experience material bodies, our senses give way to our reason in the realization that all bodies have extension. But that “realization,” which is probably an unhelpful word for it, is a priori in the sense that it’s part of its terms; as opposed to synthetic, the predicate is affirmed in the subject. Roger Scruton’s example of “all bachelors are unmarried” may be a more helpful example of an analytic truth.
Is all that clear? If not, no worries; the lack of clarity is likely a product of my inability to adequately and helpfully summarize, but it’s not necessary to fully grasp Kantian epistemology in order to understand my thesis’ argument. What I want you to take away (and carry forward) is that Kant believed that he had developed a nearly unassailable defense of humans’ ability to have access to truth (objective knowledge) – or, to put it in his terms because the word “objective” has lexical implications his Critique of Pure Reason rejected, we have truthful access to what the object is. Contrary to Hume, Kant believed that access to the thing itself wasn’t necessary for true knowledge. And, contrary to Berkeley’s idealism, of which Kant was accused of mimicking, objects are dependent on our cognizing of them as much as our cognizing is dependent on the object. We don’t need to have access to the thing itself to have true knowledge. He believed that we, in relationship with the world (objects) around us, contain all that’s necessary to discover truth for ourselves.
Returning to G.E. Moore, and the book that prompted me to write the Facebook comment that has morphed into this article, we come back to the claim that propositions about goodness are synthetic as opposed to analytic. In fact, Moore’s defense of that claim is a masterclass in differentiating between synthetic truths and analytic truths. He contrasts “yellow” with “horse.” Moore makes the point that definitions of “horse” are analytic because of the subject matter’s complexity. Even if we didn’t have the word “horse” signifying the object we know as a horse, we would still know a horse when we saw it and we’d still be able to communicate it to others. The definition of horse (the predicate) is found in the subject.
“Yellow,” on the other hand, Moore explained, is a simple (more unified) concept, meaning that truth about it is synthetic. “You cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is.” He then adds, “so you cannot explain what good is.”
To be clear, G.E. Moore’s epistemology took a linguistic turn in a way that differentiates it from Kant’s. The necessity of defending the a priori nature of synthetic and analytic truths was far less pressing for Moore than it was for Kant. Make no mistake, Moore’s epistemology owed a great debt to Kant. Specifically, the epistemic autonomy that it is believed, and that Kant taught, humans possess. As opposed to the skeptics (or relativists), this autonomy, Kant believed, reestablished the validity to the claim that we have access to objective truth or, in better Kantian terms, we have access to what the object is (this is why I attempted to explain a little of Kant’s philosophy).
Now, even if you believe that Kant (and Moore) was/were successful in demonstrating not only the existence of objective truth but our ability to access it, Christians should still see a (rebellious) problem. Kantian epistemologies are innately anthropocentric in ways that preclude the need for Divine revelation. This extends to “what is good?” (ethics). Thinking back to how I claim Christians are to answer that question – God IS good – and the problem, if previously hidden, should begin to reveal itself. And this brings us, finally, to Duns Scotus’ “univocity of being.”
For those who don’t know, Duns Scotus believed that, as an abstract concept, being applies to everyone and everything that exists. Taking this to its logical conclusion, being (existence) is a concept that God is subject to. This view states that God isn’t being within univocity of being (which would be problematic, too, in the way Duns Scotus set the ontological “game” up). Instead, God has being. And we have being. Ergo, aided by our contemporary autonomous epistemologies, carrying it through to its logical conclusion, we’re like God, just lesser.
In contrast, a biblical ontology recognizes that God is being. God IS being. Our being isn’t like His being. That’s important – our being is not like His being; it’s not the same thing, to the point that the use of the word “being” becomes problematic considering how we generally use it. Our “being,” is dependent on Him to the point that it’s not even the same concept. Nothing exists apart from God. God, on the other hand, exists in and of Himself – He’s so different (separate) from His creation that our finite words trip us up in their inability to describe God and the Creator/created distinction. Furthermore, our being (existence) is solely mediated via relationship (covenant). All humans are either in a relationship of love with God or a relationship of wrath.
In terms of ethics – moral philosophy – this means that what is good is a reflection of who God is. Our actions are always to be funneled through the rubric of “what does this say about God?” Sex before marriage lies about God (you can read about that by clicking here). Defending our “right” to our property over preserving the life/health of others lies about God (you can read about that by clicking here). Our modern emphasis on individual rights is idolatry. Our embrace of expressive individualism (found in both Republicans and Democrats) is idolatrous. In a biblical ontology, there can be no expressive individualism. You are not fill-in-the-blank. You are either in a relationship of love with God or a relationship of wrath. Everything else about you (your identity) reflects you relational (covenantal) standing with God – you’re in Christ (the second Adam) and being conformed to the image of the Son by the Spirit, or you are in the first Adam and under God’s wrath that will constitute your relationship with your Creator if you enter eternity without repenting of your sins and placing your faith in Jesus.
Before concluding, I need to piece together a philosophical puzzle:
To be clear, one of the things Kant is famous for is his spectacular takedown of Duns Scotus’ version of the ontological argument. Sweeping the philosophical legs out from under the ontological argument, Kant pointed out that existence is not a predicate. Kant didn’t believe that you could ascribe existence to being. Responding to Leibniz, Kant argued that existence is not a property in the way you would say that an eagle has (the properties of) feathers, a beak, and talons. Think Moore’s comparison of “yellow” being synthetic with “horse” being analytic. This implies, as Roger Scruton points out, “that all existential propositions are synthetic.” This explains further why Moore can say that propositions of good are synthetic. My point is that I’m fairly confident that Kant (and Moore) would resist my connecting them to Duns Scotus. In my defense, I’m not the only one. Philosopher James K.A. Smith go so far as to state, “Behind the politics of modernity (liberal, secular) is an epistemology (autonomous reason), which in turn undergirded by an ontology (univocity and the denial of participation). The modern turn to epistemology – and specifically, representational epistemologies – is predicated upon the shift to a univocal ontology.”
To get to autonomous epistemologies, univocity of being is the necessary ontology. To be clear, if you live in the United States of America (or Canada, England, or the other Anglo countries), and assuming you don’t consider yourself a postmodernist, if you haven’t taken great pains to deconstruct your epistemology (and ontology), your epistemology is autonomous (and, frankly, if you do consider yourself a postmodernist, your epistemology is autonomous, too). Meaning that your ontology is univocity of being. Whether you’ve recognized it or articulated it, you have bought the lie that you, too, can be like God because you are already like God.
Autonomous individualism (autonomous liberty/freedom) is an idol that is part of our Enlightenment and classical liberalism heritage. It’s a repackaging of Serpent-Satan’s lie that we can be like God. It’s how we’re building our bricks we use to build our Tower of Babel.
The embrace of individual rights is made possible by an acceptance of univocity of being (and autonomous epistemologies). The clinging to and defense of individual rights, and “my liberty,” is reflective of the idolatrous belief that I, too, am like God. Shamefully and sinfully, defending individual rights and liberty is warp and woof of white evangelicalism in America (which, ironically and sadly, makes their arguments against abortion ineffective and philosophically deceitful). If this is true, and I believe it is as I’ve argued (here and in other articles), one of the pressing questions for followers of Jesus in America concerns our relationship with white evangelicalism. That’s a hard and scary question to ask, but a necessary one.
Soli Deo Gloria
 G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, INC., 2004 – first published by Cambridge University Press in 1903), 5.
 Analytic philosophy is contrasted with continental philosophy – you know, those weird French existentialists, deconstructionists, and phenomenologists. Guess which “school” I tend towards (if you read this blog on a regular basis, you don’t need to guess – I’m not completely sold out to continental philosophy, not even close, but I do believe that it offers very helpful questions and critiques of the prevailing spirit of classical liberalism that dominates this country).
 Note that I didn’t write “part of His character” because wording it that way does damage to the doctrine of Divine simplicity. God is indivisible. Not to be sacrilegious, but think of a recipe: a cake is eggs, flour, water, sugar, yeast, etc. God is not good, just, love, merciful, etc. like a cake is all the things that make up a cake. A cake is divisible; God is not. He’s ontologically whole because He IS being – which is part of my main point in this article.
 Moore, Principia Ethica, 6.
 Allen W. Wood, Kant (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 1.
 Wood, Kant, 14.
 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 ), 32.
 I don’t care how many Apologetics books you’ve read – actually, I do care. If you like to read Apologetics books, my confidence in your ability to adequately answer Hume goes way down. Stop reading Apologetics books. And, yes, this was a largely unnecessary dialectical elbow to the face of Apologetics. My pettiness being acknowledged, though, doesn’t make it less true. Read more about my “disdain” for Apologetics by clicking here.
 Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 19.
 This is driving me crazy because much more can (should) be said. Broad brush stroking Kant (and Hume) is ill-advised, but I believe that my overall objective with this article is best served to do just that.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason ed. and trans. Marcus Weigelt (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 8.
 Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction, 27.
 Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction, 28.
 Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t fully grasp Kantian epistemology. And that’s okay because on one not named Immanuel Kant fully grasps Kantian epistemology.
 Moore, Principia Ethica, 7.
 Although, ultimately it’s revealed that we don’t actually believe we’re “lesser” than God. We believe that we are sovereign over God. One of the ways this is commonly demonstrated is in the protest, “I could never worship a God that fill-in-the-blank-with-a-biblical-teaching.
 James K.A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004) 99-100.