What Does Invoking God Get You in Ethics?

Not much, says Julian Sanchez, and he’s right.

Over the past decade, I’ve moved away from religious faith as an explanation for why the universe exists, why it is the way it is, and why I ought to act in one way and not in another.  The reason for this change in my religiosity has to do with what Sanchez so ably explains: positing God doesn’t sufficiently answer these questions, and the ethical problems that arise in the “secular” sphere arise also in any theistic framework.  Here’s Sanchez:

At best, God gets you two things: First, a plausible prudential internal motivation to behave “morally” (because God will punish you if you don’t), though of the same formal sort as the motivation you might have to obey a powerful state or a whimsical alien overlord. Second, a potential form of “expert validation” for independent moral truths we lack direct epistemic access to, as when we accept certain propositions on the grounds that mathematicians or scientists have confirmed them, even if most of us are incapable of comprehending the detailed proof.

Sanchez is responding to Ross Douthat, who’s arguing the line that, without God, there is no absolute basis for how to live, no absolute moral truth.  The problem with this line of thought is that it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve.  Even if we assume 1) the existence of God and 2) that God has established a metaphysical and moral order, we still haven’t reached an absolute, first, fully-answered ought.  As Sanchez remarks, appealing to God defers ethical questions rather than answering them.  Ethics still has to make the arduous trek. Telling me what God has done doesn’t tell me why I should care or act according to God’s design and will.

The moralist who invokes the necessity of God will say that the secularist hasn’t reached an absolute ought when arriving at ethical principles, such as the valuing of pleasure over pain or happiness over misery.  This moralist will reply something to the effect that these principles have no firm basis: why should one act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering?  Why is this principle obligatory?  Good questions, but here’s the thing: they apply just as surely to principles derived after appealing to God.  Why should I act so as to achieve eternal union with God rather than eternal separation from God?  Why should human beings act in accordance with their God-given nature?  Why obey the divine law?  These questions remain after invoking God.

In my own thinking, I’ve floated toward the position that ethics, useful as it is, practically necessary as it may be, doesn’t give us moral certitude.  Whatever basis ethics gives us, that basis ain’t absolutely solid.  It’s not that I harbor doubts that, say, murder is immoral in all times and in all circumstances; rather, I can go only so far, with or without invoking God, in explaining why murder is absolutely immoral.  Whatever first principles I could possibly come to and posit as the answer would be vulnerable to that question young children love to ask, “But why?”

I’m okay with that.  I can sleep at night having to act without an absolute, first, fully-answered why.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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55 Responses

  1. Rose says:

    Yes. Totally.

  2. Matty says:

    Do we need that much certitude in morality? I would certainly have trouble with someone who faced with a moral choice delayed acting till he had proven he was justified to some epistemic standard.

  3. Jaybird says:

    If God exists, there are a lot of other things that might exist… including, of course, the opportunity to talk to passed loved ones. Perhaps even the opportunity to hang with them as peers rather than as the old (wo)man and the young toddler.

    Less selfishly(?), the knowledge that what we do matters is a great comfort to some (just as great a comfort as “what we do doesn’t matter” is to others).

    Now, for this last part, know that I’m coming from (apparently) the opposite direction that you’re coming from: It also might be nice to know that there are, in fact, answers to certain questions. It might be nice to hear them.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The existence of God, if true, has significance for what we might call “the meaning of life,” but it doesn’t translate into God being a solution to the problem of the “ought.” Anyhow, I tend to shy away from religion as a warm blanket just as I steer clear of religion as explanation. Not my cup of tea.

  4. DensityDuck says:

    “This moralist will reply something to the effect that these principles have no firm basis: why should one act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering? Why is this principle obligatory? ”

    …wow, just wow. And they say that Republicans are heartless bastards.

    “I’ve floated toward the position that ethics, useful as it is, practically necessary as it may be, doesn’t give us moral certitude.”

    Which means that you don’t have ethics. You have preferences. And, y’know, obviously you’re okay with that, but it’s hard to make moral judgements when your first moral principle is that there’s no such thing as morality.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You might say I’m a heartless bastard, but I don’t think the principle of maximum happiness/minimum suffering is always obligatory: it leaves no room for what strike me as intrinsically immoral acts, acts that are immoral no matter what the situation or circumstance.

      Now one of my favorite books on ethics is called “Against Ethics,” but I’m not so antagonistic to ethics as the author. In any case, my rejection of moral certainty doesn’t leave me with only preference. I can and do point to first principles beyond my own subjective preferences. I may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that those first principles are what I say they are, but, even so, my underlying uncertainty doesn’t prevent me from deliberately acting in accordance with the principles of which I’m not 100% certain.

      An aside: I suspect that preference does play a large role in a lot of supposedly ethical thought, but that’s another topic.

      • DensityDuck says:

        You’re declaring that there’s no such thing as moral certainty and then telling me that it’s necessary for a system to describe “intrinsically immoral” acts?

        “I may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that those first principles are what I say they are, but, even so, my underlying uncertainty doesn’t prevent me from deliberately acting in accordance with the principles of which I’m not 100% certain.”

        Acting in accordance with principles of which you’re not 100% certain. Congratulations, you believe in God. “But I don’t believe in God!” Neither do most of the people who say they believe in God; not the way you mean that you “don’t believe” in God. “God” is most people’s name for the principles of which they are not 100% certain, but still act in accordance with.

        • Matty says:

          “God” is most people’s name for the principles of which they are not 100% certain, but still act in accordance with.

          Wow so God – did not create the universe, has no conscious awareness and certainly has never communicated with humans? Cause my principles don’t do any of those things, but then again I don’t call my principles God or insist that everything is either written into the fabric of the universe or completely arbitrary and unjustifiable.

          • Michael Drew says:

            Yeah, considerable downsizing from the traditional concept there. But then at this point that is basically a standard opening move any time the topic is discussed between nominal believers and nominal nonbelievers.

          • DensityDuck says:

            So the enlightened intellectual position is that there’s only one possible meaning for the term “God”, and that meaning is “magic sky ghost”?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I need no certainty to make moral descriptions. I need no certainty period.

      • Michael Drew says:

        I’ve had a similar intuition of late: that a large part of morality is essentially a matter of, or at least dependent on, preferences. But in my thinking the word that I centered on was *desires*.

        Now, perhaps I am a monster. But it does seem to me that it would be something of a fascinating irony if it were to turn out that morality – largely a concept invented in order to constrain human action from being dictated solely by desire (which invention we should all be profoundly glad occurred!) – is actually something that turns essentially on desire itself. I.e., that where something is wrong, its wrongness is simply identical to the fact someone has a desire that we not do the thing, which desire we recognize we would also have, and which we would expect to have recognized as legitimate and heeded, if positions were reversed.

    • GordonHide says:

      “it’s hard to make moral judgements when your first moral principle is that there’s no such thing as morality.”

      I think you are ignoring the practical situation. Whatever society you live in you are required to conform to that society’s moral code of conduct. It’s not necessary for you to have moral principles it’s merely necessary for you to conform. If you don’t the society will punish you more or less severely depending on the seriousness of your infraction, (and whether you get found out).

      On top of that you are genetically programmed to conform. For those who don’t most of them suffer guilt and anxiety.

      And on top of that, if almost everybody conforms there is a tremendous advantage that accrues to everyone when one lives in a society that functions really well because of conformance.

      • DensityDuck says:

        “it’s merely necessary for you to conform. If you don’t the society will punish you more or less severely depending on the seriousness of your infraction…”

        So what? Why do you care? “Because I want to be part of society.” Congratulations, you’ve invented morality. It’s a very basic hump-kill-eat-shit morality, but it’s morality none the less.

        • GordonHide says:

          Well, I don’t know about you but I want to avoid the unpleasant and perhaps fatal. One way of doing this is to contribute to society by obeying its moral code of conduct. – That’s why I care. I guess I have a personal preference to go on living and enjoying life.

        • GordonHide says:

          Oh, by the way, I don’t think we as individuals get to invent morality. We are born into a society and we can either conform or not to its moral code of conduct. Think of yourself as being signed up to a contract. You surrender certain freedoms and you get the advantages of being a society member. Default with non-compliance and there are penalties. Of course you didn’t sign up for this personally but, if you live in an advanced Western country, it’s a very good deal indeed.

  5. BlaiseP says:

    Poor old Douhat. There’s no sadder spectacle than a Young Fogey.

    I’m a religious sorta guy. I read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. When it gets to morality in the Bible, especially in the words of Christ, guess what Jesus has to say — “even the pagans know to do these things”

    The very idea, that without God we’re just so many blinded, witless worms, wandering around the moral landscape without a clue. It’s absurd and frankly un-Biblical. If there is any benefit to be gained from invoking God in a moral debate, it is this: that a perfect God loves an imperfect mankind, that to be forgiven, we must forgive. That sort of thing. Christ preaches the parable of the Unforgiving Servant who was forgiven an astronomical sum, only to grab one of his own debtors, who owed him a small sum, by the neck and demand immediate repayment. The story ends very badly for the man forgiven much.

    That’s pretty much where we stand when we start invoking God in Ethics. What’s the point, really? Our crimes and ethical shortcomings damage our fellow men and women. If there’s to be any discussion of Ethics, it’s in in that context: God doesn’t enter into that discussion. Christ commands us to forgive others their crimes against us. If a little less harsh justice and more forgiveness were to be seen in this ruthlessly consequential world, we should all see a bit more of God’s light in that world and less of the darkness residing in the vicious, grinning, self-excusing, legalistic little hominids, them and their Stern Ethics of Retribution. Justice is blind and carries a naked sword. Mercy’s eyes are open to the suffering of the world.

    • DensityDuck says:

      Note that Christ’s argument wasn’t “the pagans are smart”, but rather “God doesn’t care if you’re a pagan, because God is all-pervasive, so moral behavior is inherently Godly.”

      When a secular atheist claims that altruism is common sense, he’s making the same argument-from-authority as the most solid churchgoer in the world. He just has a different name for God.

      • GordonHide says:

        I think the more common interpretation of altruism by atheists is that we are pre-programmed to be altruistic by natural selection.

      • Michael Drew says:

        I don’t think very many secular atheists claim that altruism is common sense. On the contrary, I think they almost uniformly would say that it’s rather a dicey proposition to demonstrate to a certainty that it is good, to say nothing of morally obligatory, even if some think that that is ultimately clearly able to be demonstrated. (And far from all do think that).

        None of which is to say that most or all don’t have the intuition – just the feeling – that altruism is good, or in any case warm and fuzzy. Maybe that’s what you’re saying God is.

        • GordonHide says:

          There is a respectable argument that maintains that altruism in one sense doesn’t really exist in that we all always do what we think is best for us otherwise we wouldn’t do it. That is, what we think of as altruistic actions appear to the perpetrator as the best solution, perhaps avoiding, self loathing, dishonour, accusations of cowardice, disloyalty or whatever.

          I personally think altruistic action occurs in the world because it was originally selected for as a contributor to the survival of related genes.

          • Michael Drew says:

            I was just saying that the group he invoked don’t actually tend to take it as received wisdom that altruism is, well, whatever he was saying they say it is. They actually make arguments about it that can stand or fall on the basis of reason. Obviously though, where they do do what he says, they do it. I just think it’s not actually all that often.

          • GordonHide says:

            @Michael Drew – I have to say I’m not quite sure what “common sense” is anyway. Is it an intuitive feeling or is it a sound argument from observable premises?

  6. Brandon says:

    I think both you and Sanchez are conflating distinct ethical questions; for instance, asking why a principle is obligatory is simply a different question from why you should care.

    Also, I think Sanchez’s claim about the “at best” only two things God could get you is hasty at best: first, because neither of the things he mentions is small change — one’s accounts of prudential motivation in morals and of validation of moral claims will affect almost everything in one’s ethics, directly or indirectly — and, second, because even someone like Kant, who is very much against claiming that morality has a divine foundation, recognizes that it gives you more than these two, and thus Sanchez really needs to put more effort than he does into supporting the claim. For that matter, even people like Feuerbach and Nietzsche, who aren’t theists, recognize that it gets you more than this.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      No, I would distinguish between whether something is obligatory and why I should care. The former is about the thing, the act, whereas the latter is about me and what I ought to do.

      Anyhow, what else would you say invoking God gets you in ethics?

      • Brandon says:

        Then your parallel in your middle paragraph seems to fail, since it switches from one to the other.

        Besides the new factor in moral motivation and moral epistemology? It pretty clearly changes the topography of how we interpret what we are doing in morals, and the relationship between our obligations and the world at large (this is why Kant doesn’t kick God out of ethics altogether) and changes the modalities — even if you don’t think it gets you the full-scale obligation others claim, it would be nonsense to claim that introduce a necessarily good agent of perfect knowledge and universal scope of action doesn’t have any effect on any of the modal operators attached to any major moral claims. And with those four — motivation, validation, interpretation, and modality — so much of ethics is covered that we’re at least getting some major differences between secular and theistic ethics, even if there’s still a lot of overlap. I think you can make a perfectly reasonable argument by claiming that the Douthat side is claiming far more than they have a right to claim — but it is clear that the Sanchez side is doing exactly the same thing.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Not so. There’s no switch. I mention two distinct things that do not follow simply from what God has done.

          I follow you in seeing how the existence of God would change the “topography of how we interpret,” and result in a different ethics, but the question then whether this change and resulting theistic ethics can take us further down the road to an “absolute, first, fully-answered why.” I don’t see that it does, but maybe you can enlighten me.

          • Brandon says:

            OK, but as it reads it sounds like you are saying that the two are parallel and not two examples having nothing to do with each other on their own.

            I have no clue whatsoever what is meant by “absolute, first, fully-answered why” beyond the fact that it’s supposed to indicate a strong modality; but I explicitly addressed this already: saying that God doesn’t get you a strong modality is much, much weaker than what Sanchez is arguing.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Methinks you read more into the conjunction than was warranted.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Not just a strong modality, but moral certainty about a first originary principle or set of principles.

  7. GordonHide says:

    “What Does Invoking God Get You in Ethics?”

    The Euthyphro dilemma? – I can’t believe someone has not mentioned this already. – Or have I missed the point?

  8. GordonHide says:

    “It’s not that I harbor doubts that, say, murder is immoral in all times and in all circumstances”

    For me this is a tautology. Murder is illegal killing. If something is illegal in a particular jurisdiction it is almost certainly immoral in that jurisdiction also.

    The more interesting question is “Does the definition of what constitutes illegal killing remain the same in all jurisdictions?”. And I think the answer in no. But when you made your statement I assume you were refering to some “one size fits all” morality or subset of possible moral actions? What makes you think that such a universal, absolute or normative morality does or should exist?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I disagree. The drinking of alcohol has been illegal at particular times and in particular places; I wouldn’t ever say it, in itself, has been immoral. Immorality and illegality are two very different things.

      In answer to your question, practical reasoning leads me to think that some action are, in themselves, immoral. Whether there’s a “universal, absolute” objective morality I cannot say for certain, but I’m also not sure I need get so far as that to condemn some actions in all times and all circumstances.

  9. GordonHide says:

    My post was badly worded. What I should have said is that illegal killing is immoral in all jurisdictions. What is at issue is what constitutes illegal killing in different jurisdictions.

    It is true that a substantial body of law does not deal with the immoral. Nevertheless society uses the law to deter and legitimise punishment for the most serious moral offences. A sensible addition to a moral code in a democratic country is obedience to the law and even where civil disobedience is called for to be prepared to suffer the penalty for that disobedience.

    I think you are too certain that you can identify the universally immoral. Is it, for instance, immoral to murder by assassination an evil dictator for the deaths he has caused and those he may yet cause when no other option is available?

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Mr. Hide, yr remarks have posed an interesting challenge to “natural law,” which posits a universal morality for some actions.

      It might be fair to replace “illegal” with “unjust”: murder is an unjust killing. What then?

      • GordonHide says:

        The parable of the good king who sacrificed his soul for his people.

        There once was a good king whose queen bore him handsome twin sons. His firstborn and heir he named Richard for his own father. His second son was called Frederick. The king was well pleased as the succession was assured.

        From an early age he began to have his sons suitably educated and inculcated with the ethos of noblesse oblige.

        Unfortunately Richard proved not very bright and subject to fits of rage, irrationality and spitefulness. When the boys were ten years old he decided to separate them sending Frederick to live with his own old tutor and mentor Cedric Goodheart. Meanwhile the team he had assembled for his sons’ education, training and wellbeing would concentrate on his heir Richard to ready him for his position in life and address his problems.

        When the boys were eighteen years old the kings health started to fail. And there was worse news for the kingdom. Barbarians from the north were in the process of overrunning the neighbouring kingdom despite his efforts to render assistance.

        The king realised the kingdom would not survive if Richard ascended to the throne. Meanwhile he had glowing reports from Cedric about Frederick’s progress. One night the king caused a strong sleeping potion to be administered to Richard. He then smothered Richard in his sleep.

        He new that he had damned himself but was content that the kingdom would be in good hands at the price of his immortal soul.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Doing evil in the furtherance of good is the modern conceit, Mr. Hide. Some say modernity started with Machiavelli: the Prince cannot afford to be moral.

          • GordonHide says:

            Nevertheless, even though I couldn’t kill my own son even to save the kingdom I wish I was more certain that the king acted immorally.

            As for damning doing evil in the furtherance of good, if this is always immoral someone whose effective choice has been reduced to the lesser of evils is a bit stuck. Don’t you think your remark may be somewhat simplistic not to say trite? Apart from that Machiavelli was not the first person to note that Princes were wont to raise pragmatism above moral considerations.

            Anyway, I’ve had another thought about redefining murder as “unjust killing”. One notes that in the US a far higher proportion of black murderers receive the death sentence as compared to white murderers. I think this must definitely be unjust but I struggle to consider it murder. – Then there’s the matter of “collateral damage” in warfare – hardly just also.

            This is what I find trying to defend “natural law”. For every assertion that some action is always immoral and is therefore part of natural law one can usually find instances where the immorality of the action is in question. Even where one can’t one is left with a gnawing suspicion that one would by spending more time thinking about it.

            Natural law is a very old idea with a few variations championed today notably by the Catholic Church. I find it too nebulous to serve a useful purpose in understanding reality.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Perhaps my reply is simplistic and trite, Mr. Hide, or maybe it’s based on years of study and pondering.

            Yes, “natural law” is out of fashion. What is in fashion seems insufficient and quite unsatisfactory to persons such as yourself though, although it’s welcome news that you wouldn’t kill your 18 yr old child.

            And I do not think the moral reasoning that executing a black murderer is unjust if we don’t execute a sufficient number of white ones. That would confuse justice for “fairness,” which is a counterfeit of justice.

          • GordonHide says:

            Mr Van Dyke, instead of bragging about your scholarship, justified as that might be, perhaps you should enter a logical defence of natural law.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Mr. Hide, just teasing out where your baseline might be. I embrace a pre-Socratic approach to the Important Things. On the other hand, in practice these things often turn into kabuki, where we perform the ritual pretending you’re not arguing Rawls or Rorty and I’m not arguing Aquinas.

            BTW, I adore[d] Richard Rorty’s honesty. Good man, RIP.

  10. GordonHide says:

    Mr Van Dyke,
    I think fairness is an aspect of justice. I am surprised that you want to represent the current situation vis-à-vis black executions as a just one. I’m pretty sure that human justice systems arose from our instinct for fairness. If you don’t think this imbalance is unjust one wonders what you do think is unjust.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Mr. Hide, fairness isn’t synonymous with justice. If we agree on $100 for my day’s work, then you go and pay somebody $100 for an hour’s worth of work inferior to mine, you have not been unjust to me.

      • GordonHide says:

        For something to be considered just it must also by moral as well as fair. You appear to be trying to tell me that executing people because of the colour of their skin is moral although you seem to agree that it’s not fair.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          “…executing people because of the colour of their skin…” This is pure nonsense from beginning to end, Mr. Hide, as is

          “For something to be considered just it must also by moral as well as fair.”

          See Mr. Likko’s latest post on how not to argue.


          • GordonHide says:

            Declaring something to be nonsense is no argument.

            One online dictionary definition of just: Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair. So fairness is not “a counterfeit of justice” but an integral part of it. Now I am familiar with the fact that the nature of justice is a permanent ongoing philosopher’s controversy. But I think you should concede that my view of it is one of the recognised positions.

            If I have misrepresented your view of the disparity between black executions and white executions wouldn’t it be better to make yourself clearer rather than stoop to insults?

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            I explained why it’s nonsense, Mr. Hide, I didn’t simply declare it so.

            You stopped responding to what I wrote quite awhile ago. Don’t give me the “online dictionary.”

            >>>>So fairness is not “a counterfeit of justice” but an integral part of it.”<<<<

            remains patent nonsense, and you will never be able to argue such a cliche reasonably, because it's a falsehood.

  11. Kyle,

    I think you wanted to make a narrower point than you are making here, since what you’re saying now is way to inconsistent with things you’ve said in the past. Your argument in this post is against the sort of “God of morality” who would be the capstone of a universal moral system – a God who serves as an ideal mind who we posit in the confidence that every problem has a sure solution. That’s at least how I read your concluding line. But this sort of argument would only make appeals to God of little value to morality if we assume that the only role that God has to play in morality is as some absolute normative value or value-giver for all values (which, oddly enough, seems like a very Nietzschian God, regardless of whether we call “values” “meaning”)

    Throughout your post “morality” seems to mean simply “what I ought to do”. But God is very much involved in this question even if he is not the absolute maker of values. The Gospel account, for one, argues that we simply cannot do what we ought to do without divine help, for in the concrete, existential situation of our own life we find ourselves “not doing what we would do, but doing what we hate”. We “invoke God” in morality for many different reasons: out of an inveterate sense of guilt and sin, out of a sense of hopelessness, because conscience seems like a personal voice, because of a sense we need grace, because we want our rebellion against the universe to be against a person, etc.

    A basic problem here is that the claim “Morality rests on God” has been made by everyone from St. Paul to the Marquis de Sade; Plato to Robespierre; Numa to Augustine to Sartre to C.S. Lewis. There is just a lot of work to do on the question; but I don’t think you meant to deny God a role in determining what ought to be done, but to deny the need for some narrow conception of God – the rationalist God who is the guarantor of our perfect and flawless moral system.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Sounds like you’re reading me about right. I believe, for example, in the Incarnation and that Jesus was (and is) a moral teacher, among other things. What I deny is that bringing in Jesus or some other God figure gets us, in ethics, to a moral certainty in which all questions of why are or can be answered.

      • Then, it seems to me, your post is only half-written. The second half is a critique of Sanchez about the (crucial?) role that God must play in the moral life. How exactly is the divinity of Jesus crucial to the morality he sets out? Even prescinding from the question of Jesus (and you mentioned him only as an example) there is a pretty strong critique of Sanchez’s claim in Buber, Marcel, Levinas or Viktor Frankl, who are all significant because they insist that it is precisely because God is not some value giver or source of absolute certitude that he is crucial to the moral life. Morality does not demand some ultimate “it”, or impersonal ground (like a form in some Platonic museum), or upon a merely relative instance of alterity – there is even a contradiction in an “ultimate it” or “impersonal ground” or “comprehensible transcendent”.

        This is why I thought you were making a much more narrow claim. It’s more in keeping with your philosophy to say that Sanchez is only right so far as the notion of God he is dealing with is false. You really only follow him to the extent that he is denying that there is much value to an “Absolute It” or “Comprehensible (and thus epistemically certain) transcendent”. But Buber, Marcel, and Levinas all deny this too – and far more radically than Sanchez does. And yet all of them would deny that the question of God is irrelevant or not very valuable to the question of what we ought to do.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Yes, my claim is a narrow one. By ethics, I mean the use of reason to discern how one ought to act. Ethics, however, does not have the last word on this. Moral theology has something to say, as does poetics.