In Search of Moral Knowledge, R. Scott Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Surveying the history of ethical thought, it argues for the possibility of universal moral knowledge contrary to contemporary theories consigning moral propositions to the realm of subjective, relative values.
Instinctively, we know that some things are just right, and some wrong. Cold-blooded murder, rape, child abuse, and genocide are just wrong. Sacrificial love of a parent for a child, or a spouse, impartial standards of justice, and marital faithfulness are just right. Yet moral theory since Kant considers moral statements to simply be assertions of value or sentiment, as opposed to statements of fact. Moral knowledge is not possible in the same sense as scientific knowledge.
R. Scott Smith believes in the possibility of religiously based moral knowledge that may afford universal moral knowledge. But before making his case he surveys the history of ethical thought on these questions. First of all, he considers classical and early Christian ethical theories, including that of great thinkers from Augustine through Aquinas that rooted ethics in the transcendent. Following the Enlightenment and the focus on human reason, Smith traces the rise of naturalism, and the fact-value dichotomy, modern moral theories of John Rawls’ political liberalism and Christine Korsgaard’s constructivism. He turns to post modern theorists and the efforts of Christian ethicists, Alasdair McIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.
In the final part of this work, Smith outlines his own argument for religiously based moral knowledge, rooted in the case for the existence of the Christian God, basing this in the cumulative case for God’s existence and thus the basis for universal moral knowledge in the transcendent. The veracity of historical evidences for Christian revelation justify this as a source for moral knowledge.
I think this work offers a great survey of ethical thought that makes it a valuable text for a course in ethics in a Christian college or seminary context, or a valuable “alongside” reading for the student in a similar course in a secular context. It is thorough, extensive and carefully argued. It also reveals the conundrum of modern ethical thought in making assertions about morality absent any basis for arguing for moral facts.
Given the thoroughness of the survey, the author’s statement of his own theory of universal moral knowledge seemed quite brief. He does deal with some objections, but I would have liked to seen a fuller defense of the premises of his argument, particularly because the title adverts to “overcoming the fact-value dichotomy.” Adding the word “toward” would probably be more accurate. This, however, is valuable in itself as a critical survey of moral thought that may be adequate for the needs of many and lay the groundwork for further reading of more extensive treatments in other works.