This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
A close look at the moral argument of Scottish philosopher William Ritchie Sorley (1855–1935) reveals an approach that, rather than being dated, remains a lively, instructive, and germane model to follow. Whether he’s integrating or reconciling life and work, finite and infinite goods, the temporal and transcendent, the moral law and evil, philosophy and poetry, or morality and metaphysics, his mind was expansive and integrative, and his heart was open and capacious. His prescient insights have endured the test of time, demonstrate what a long and intimate acquaintance with the world of ideas can generate, and his enduring example serves as an inspiration and corrective to much of what passes for apologetics today.
This essay examines five germane aspects of his work: (1) the seriousness with which he undertook an understanding of morality and God; (2) his assiduous resistance of the temptation to confuse moral and nonmoral goods, thereby not falling prey to domesticating the categories of morality and, in the process, vitiating their evidential power; (3) his adherence to Lotze’s Dictum, which says morality is the key to metaphysics (rather than deciding metaphysics first and then making morality fit in); (4) his integration of poetry and philosophy, head and heart; and (5) while enduring unspeakable loss, boldly reconciling the moral law with the problem of evil, insisting on neither trivializing this world’s travails nor allowing them the final word.
When the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga was asked which argument from natural theology he thought to be the most effective, he appealed to the moral argument. Similarly, the contemporary Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when he goes to college campuses and debates God’s existence, has identified the moral argument as the most persuasive. The moral argument for God’s existence and its robust historical place in Christian apologetics has always had a unique capacity to speak to both the head and heart of both supporters and critics. Its basic idea is that careful attentiveness to the varied features of morality requires for its best explanation something beyond the resources of the physical world.
Many people credit C. S. Lewis with developing the moral argument, due to his popularized version in Book I of Mere Christianity. Both before and after Lewis, though, plenty of accomplished thinkers devoted some of their best intellectual efforts to laying out diverse variants. Immanuel Kant is an example, but between Kant and Lewis, several notable European thinkers even gave Gifford lectures on it. Among luminaries in the field who discussed the argument(s) in this famous Scottish lectureship were British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and Oxford and Cambridge professors Clement Webb, A. E. Taylor, and William Sorley. The heritage of these thinkers deserves to be celebrated rather than lost to history.
This article will zero in on Sorley specifically and his work’s broad application to our current cultural and apologetic milieu. In 1900, Sorley succeeded his old professor Henry Sidgwick at Cambridge, a post he held until his retirement in 1933. Not a Christian himself, Sidgwick said it was a relief to have a Christian philosopher replace him. Sorley gave his Gifford Lectures in 1914 to 1915. They were later published under the title Moral Values and the Idea of God. J. H. Muirhead wrote of this volume that he could remember the sense of freshness and power the book gave them all at the time.1
Sorley represents a philosophy and apologetic approach that is gentlemanly, rigorous, scholarly, and irenic. By examining his unique approach, we discover a model of excellence to follow in thinking through evidential questions about God’s existence.
A MORAL PHILOSOPHER
As an apologist, Sorley argued that there are good philosophical reasons to take belief in God seriously. Yet, like British idealist philosopher A. E. Taylor in this regard, he wasn’t as likely to call himself an apologist, preferring instead to be known as simply a philosopher. Even then, perhaps, apologetics carried unpalatable implications in certain quarters, such as the ranks of professional philosophers who saw apologetics as more about advocacy than reason. Sorley wanted to be known more as a truth seeker than a partisan and saw arguments more as lifelong friends with whom to live than as tools in an arsenal for purposes of persuasion. Because he took evidence and argument seriously, he was averse to see them reduced to divisive weapons of intellectual warfare.
What struck those closest to Sorley was how seriously he took ethical issues, not just as a theoretician but also as a practitioner. G. F. Stout depicted Sorley with descriptions of his vigor, his ability, his cordial friendliness, and lively wit, a “most loyal and devoted friend,” a man of “strong and warm feelings.” What struck Stout most in Sorley’s character was “the consistent way in which he was guided both in his private and public life by moral standards and practices.”2 This ensured a resonance between Sorley’s life and work, because so much of his professional work revolved around issues of ethics and morality. For Sorley, morality provides a touchstone of reality, and his life demonstrated he took the moral project seriously, not only merely investigating the argument but also embodying it.
The phrase “moral apologist” is potentially ambiguous. It could mean an apologist who gives a moral argument for God or the afterlife. Or it could mean, more straightforwardly, an apologist who does his work and lives his life ethically, with integrity and character. Of course these aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, Sorley is an example of a moral apologist in both respects, which Biola ethicist David Horner argues is a crucial ingredient for effective apologetics today.
Horner distinguishes between credibility and plausibility. Making theism and Christianity credible involves giving our interlocutors reasons to think them true; making theism and Christianity plausible helps people to think of them as possibly true. If someone, for whatever reason, doesn’t think Christianity is even possibly true, then no number of credible reasons to believe will have much effect. Usually the forte and stock-in-trade of apologists is enhancing credibility, but some listeners with bad attitudes toward Christians may find Christianity implausible, not even possibly true. This is where doing apologetics in the right way — with kindness, gentleness, winsomeness — can help render the gospel plausible. It also can remind us that Christianity is not merely a set of propositions to espouse but a transformed life to be lived. Horner argues that, although there’s important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent today to soften “the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.”3
WHAT IS GOOD?
Much of what preoccupied Sorley’s attention was the issue of moral values, and a question that arises concerning moral goodness is, What sorts of things can be called “good”? Nowadays, a secular trend is afoot to explain morality by implicitly blurring lines between moral and nonmoral goodness. Atheist Sam Harris suggests that since we know pain is bad and pleasure is good, on this foundation we can construct our ethical systems. DePauw University philosopher and atheist Erik Wielenberg speaks of how the intrinsic nature of intense suffering renders it “bad,” offering us all the moral reasons we need to avoid it for ourselves and others. This way of explaining ethics, however, risks explaining some of its most important features away.
Religious scholar and Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has written that among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, the longing for moral goodness is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics — the view that the natural world is all that exists. When we apply the notion of goodness to situations, things, or states of affairs, we risk domesticating moral goodness, reducing it to a matter of producing pleasant consequences or avoiding harmful ones, without coming to terms with the fact that it’s people and their decisions, wills, and characters that are, by turns, morally good, bad, or some admixture of the two. Pain, though unpleasant, isn’t morally bad. Intentionally inflicting harmful and needless pain is a morally bad action, but note that it’s the action of a person. When human beings are seen as the appropriate subject of ascriptions such as “moral goodness” or “moral badness,” the intriguing and revelatory nature of such predicates can emerge. Otherwise, the result is typically domestication, and the evidential power of this dimension of morality is lost, narrowing the focus to material circumstances rather than allowing for talk of transcendence.
Sorley recognized with prescience the emerging tendency to confuse this matter. He saw that the category of intrinsic moral value rightly applies only to persons. Surely it’s bad to experience excruciating pain, but it’s not morally bad as such. The distinction here is between nonmoral badness and moral evil. Kant recognized this distinction, insisting that the latter is the more distinctively moral category, which is closely related to his insistence that the only truly good thing is a good will — a feature of persons — and also related to his point that morality is less about happiness per se than about deserving to be happy. To conflate nonmoral badness with moral evil contributes to quite a bit of confusion nowadays, and is a real weakness in a number of contemporary efforts to construct a moral theory, however rhetorically effective at garnering adherents.
Sorley, to his credit, saw clearly the need to avoid this mistake, keep alive the vital organic connection between moral goodness and persons, and allow moral values in all their profundity and mystery — their authority, their beauty, their compelling nature — to do their work.
William Lane Craig credits Sorley with the most sophisticated development of the moral argument prior to recent times. Much of what empowered Sorley’s analysis was that he thought it incumbent to make the basis of our theory of reality as broad as possible, and to realize that it will lack breadth and completeness if moral facts and ideas are excluded from the outset. The result is a truncated picture of reality. Sorley thus argued strongly for attentiveness to such data and a deep inquiry into its evidential significance.
In most systems of philosophy, ethical inquiry gets postponed until questions of metaphysics — What is the nature of reality? — are settled, but Sorley thought this to be a radical mistake. Instead, he sided with “Lotze’s Dictum” that says the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics. Hermann Lotze’s conviction here is ethical ideas about value or worth hold a certain primacy for the interpretation of reality — metaphysics ought to be founded on ethics, objectively construed.
On this point, Sorley stood foursquare against the stance of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who warned against any strategy that aims to figure out the nature of reality by considering morality:
Driven from the particular sciences, the belief that the notions of good and evil must afford a key to the understanding of the world has sought a refuge in philosophy. But even from this last refuge, if philosophy is not to remain a set of pleasing dreams, this belief must be driven forth. It is a commonplace that happiness is not best achieved by those who seek it directly; and it would seem that the same is true of the good. In thought, at any rate, those who forget good and evil and seek only to know the facts are more likely to achieve good than those who view the world through the distorting medium of their own desires.4
Here, Russell’s dismissal of the evidential significance of morality was more than a little premature. The idea residing at the very foundation of moral arguments for God’s existence is morality provides a veridical window of insight into reality.
The moral argument is based on this powerful idea: a close examination of morality in its distinctive features, true to our rich moral experiences, functions evidentially to provide reasons to think the merely temporal and finite goods of this world are neither the only nor the most important goods there are to secure. Moral values and duties radically impinge on us and this world by, it would seem, pointing beyond this world. They suggest the way the world ought to and one day will be, most assuredly not the way it already is. Sorley embraced, rather than severed, the connections between morality and metaphysics.
AN IMAGINATIVE APOLOGETIC
As a philosopher, Sorley had a refined aesthetic and imaginative taste. His reading wasn’t myopic or provincial; it didn’t include only philosophy but also a wide range of great literature, and he possessed prodigious literary ability himself, a trait he passed down to his son Charles. Sorley and his wife Janetta would have four children, two sons and two daughters. Their highly gifted and eldest son, Charles Hamilton Sorley, was a noted World War I poet. William once compared his own achievements with those of his son’s: “He will be remembered when I am a dead and forgotten scholar — there is in his poetry the truth I sought, and beauty such as I have never found.”5
Sorley knew that human beings aren’t merely mechanically rational, which likely contributed to his draw to an argument that appeals to both the intellect and affective — the full range, in fact, of our relational, aesthetic, and imaginative faculties. Nor was he alone in this regard; the fertile history of moral apologetics is filled with profound thinkers who could see that our efforts to apprehend reality in all of its fullness requires a broad approach to knowledge and keen, intentional attentiveness to the expansive array of evidence at our disposal — moral and relational, aesthetic and discursive. John Henry Newman, Clement Webb, William James, and others saw that this requires openness to an interdisciplinary approach. A. E. Taylor echoed this insight:
Plato was so much more than the author of a philosophical theory; he was one of the world’s supreme dramatists, with the great dramatist’s insight into a vast range of human character and experience, an insight only possible to a nature itself quickly and richly responsive to a world of suggestion which narrower natures of the specialist type miss. By moralists I do not mean primarily men who have devoted themselves to the elaboration of ethical systems, the Aristotles, or even the Kants, but men who have lived richly and deeply and thought as well as lived, the Platos, Augustines, Dostoevskys, and their fellows.6
Sorley, like Taylor, like John Henry Newman, like Clement Webb, could see that the head and heart must come together, that philosophy and literature must converge, that an inquiry into truth requires the full panoply of our resources.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
When Sorley said we must be attentive to the moral evidence, he wasn’t blind to the suffering of the world. He saw it clearly as a sign something was awry and in desperate need of fixing. There was nothing Pollyannaish about his approach. He wrote his Gifford lectures in the throes of World War I, sending early chapters to his son Charles, who was in the middle of the fight. Sorley acutely recognized that ignoring the sufferings and evils in the world wasn’t an option. He couldn’t merely speak of the evidential power of the moral law; he had to acknowledge and somehow come to terms with the broken and dysfunctional (dysteleological) elements in the world, the sense in which the world clearly isn’t yet what it ought to be.
Then something happened that brought the problem of evil home in the most personal way possible. News arrived that Charles had been killed in the battle of Loos. There was already inextricable connection between Sorley’s work and life, but now it became a dramatic, dynamic collision of heartrending loss and his life’s work. His grief over and abiding faith despite his son’s untimely and tragic death resonates on every page of Moral Values. The problem of evil was no mere academic discussion for Sorley; it couldn’t have been a more gripping existential reality. The moral law is real, he was convinced, but equally undeniable was evil. The moral evidence vividly contains both intractable realities.
Sorley came to see that this very recognition makes sense of a dispute between Kant and David Hume. Kant’s formulation of the moral argument suggests that the moral law (the inexorable fact of duty) requires us to assume the being of God as what he calls a practical postulate necessitated by moral reason. But of course the facts of morality have also been used to argue against theism, especially in the form of the problem of evil, a point Hume pushed vociferously. How could reflection on good and evil lead Kant and Hume in such opposite directions? Sorley realized they were approaching the question from different points of view. Hume directed his attention to the struggle of mankind, what men suffered, the cruelty of the world, and havoc of life. Kant, though, wasn’t looking at outward performance but on the inward law of goodness and the power it reveals in the mind that is conscious of it.
Might nature after all be regarded as a fitting field for the realization of goodness? The question Sorley was considering is not what a perfect world looks like but what a world might need to look like in order to make growth in goodness possible and likely. Real agents, rather than marionettes and automatons, require the possibility of missing the mark; only by this means might they come to have goodness and consciousness of the good — not to mention communion with God Himself.
On the evidential role of evil and the difference between Kant and Hume, Sorley agreed with Kant, and used the very fact of evil as the foundation for a theistic argument. He argued that both the moral order and the order of nature belong to the essence of reality, and if it’s synthesis and rapprochement we seek, they can be harmoniously united in one universe only when nature is understood not merely in its present appearance but as working out the purpose of making moral beings. The problem of evil, Sorley thought, is often cast in a way that overlooks the creation of beings who will achieve goodness only freely, requiring experience of all sorts of circumstances that it may develop into secure harmony with the moral order.
Sorley’s argument wasn’t a straightforward inference from morality to God, but a bit more circuitous, with a wider range. Little surprising that Sorley’s moral argument, forged in the crucible of unspeakable personal loss, insisted on neither trivializing this world’s travails nor allowing them the final word.
AN INTEGRATIVE MIND
Charles Taylor writes that the secular age into which we’ve entered features exclusive humanism, a vision of life in which the immanent takes primacy, a humanism accepting “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”7 In contrast with this remarkable trend, such historical moral apologists as William Sorley gave extended arguments that morality functions semiotically — as a sign — by pointing beyond itself to eternal goods that, rather than trivializing or devaluing earthly or temporal goods, imbue them with sacramental significance.
What a close look reveals is Sorley’s approach, rather than dated, remains a lively, instructive, and relevant model to follow. Whether he’s integrating or reconciling life and work, finite and infinite goods, the temporal and transcendent, the moral law and evil, philosophy and poetry, or morality and metaphysics, his was an expansive and integrative mind and an open and capacious heart whose prescient insights have endured the test of time. He demonstrated what long and intimate acquaintance with the world of ideas can produce, and his enduring paradigm can serve as an inspiration and corrective to much of what passes for apologetics today.
David and Marybeth Baggett teach philosophy and English, respectively, at Liberty University. Their most recent book is The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God (InterVarsity Academic, 2018). Their website is MoralApologetics.com. Their first collaborative book project was At the Bend of the River Grand (Emeth Press, 2016).
- H. Muirhead, “In Memoriam: William Ritchie Sorley,” Philosophy 11, 41 (1936): 120.
- F. Stout, “W. R. Sorley (1855–1935),” Mind 45, 177 (1936): 124.
- David Horner, “Too Good Not to Be True: A Call to Moral Apologetics as a Mode of Civil Discourse,” Moral Apologetics, http://moralapologetics.com/too-good-not-to-be-truea-callto-moral-apologetics-as-a-mode-of-civil-discourse/.
- Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1919), 30–31.
- Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Charles Hamilton Sorley: A Biography (London: Cecil Woolf, 1985), 12.
- E. Taylor, Faith of a Moralist (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1930), 16.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 18.