A Short Review of Taking Morality Seriously by David Enoch

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.


Enoch begins his book Taking Morality Seriously by stating that he believes there must be some normative moral truths that are irreducibly normative, truths that are perfectly objective, universal, absolute, and that are independent of us, our desires, and our wills. These truths are not an expression of our practical attitudes but are truths we discover rather than create or construct. This realist view was in the minority when he first argued for it in 2003, but by 2011 some were saying it was now the majority view. He admits his robust realism has heavy ontological commitments, but he is willing to defend such commitments. He believes that anything short of this will not allow us to take morality seriously. Though he does not prefer the term Platonism because of the connotations that term has picked up over the years, he admits he would not be offended if people called him a Platonist. One scholar that specializes in Plato’s work has assured him that the term would not be totally out of place here. In fact, throughout the book Enoch refers often to Plato’s heaven where these moral truths exist. For example, he wrote “according to robust realism the normative truths are out there in Plato’s heaven, utterly independent of us and our motivations” (p. 217). In chapters 2-5 he presents positive arguments for robust realism, in chapters 6-9 he deals with objections, and in chapter 10 he makes his conclusions.

Enoch begins in chapter 2 by describing a view he calls ‘caricaturized subjectivism’ and shows how it must be false. He knows this view isn’t held by any professional philosophers, but then he shows how his arguments against it can be generalized such that they apply to many sophisticated non-realist metaethical positions. His main positive argument for robust realism is modeled after arguments from explanatory indispensability found in the sciences or in the philosophy of mathematics for arguing for the existence of things like electrons, abstract objects, and mathematical objects. He uses moral deliberation to show how, in our deliberating over moral issues, it is indispensable for us to believe there are objective moral truths; otherwise, our moral deliberations make no sense. By deliberating we commit ourselves to the existence of moral truths. He also argues that naturalism, as a metaphysical thesis, is false; there are sufficient reasons to believe in irreducible normative facts.

In chapter 6, Enoch covers the idea of supervenience. He noted that Blackburn said that supervenience itself calls for explanation; it just adds another mystery in need of explanation. This is refreshing because some wave supervenience around like it’s an explanatory magic wand. He accepts the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral but admits that this doesn’t make his model more or less plausible.

In chapter 7 Enoch tries to respond to the epistemological objection to robust realism—the fact that our moral beliefs just so happen to correspond to the moral facts that exist out there in Plato’s heaven is so unlikely as to be unbelievable. A robust realist may feel her only way of explaining the correlation depends upon there being some quasi perceptual faculty similar to our perceptual faculty that puts us in touch with empirical truths about nearby mid-sized objects. He discusses moral intuitionism and notes that many disparage moral realists that resort to this highly suspicious faculty. He wrote, “…isn’t the worry that in order to allow for the kind of access or relation to the purportedly independent truths the realist is going to have to resort to that awful trick, the mysterious faculty of rational intuition?” (p. 156). Thomas Nagel flirts with the claim that the correspondence between our moral beliefs and these moral facts is to be taken as brute, and perhaps necessarily so. But Enoch believes the robust realist should go farther and look for an explanation.

In this context Enoch discusses anti-realist Sharon Street’s influential paper where she argues how unlikely it is that our evolutionary path would cause our beliefs to match up with these proposed objective moral truths. He argues that this correlation can be explained by a godless (which just means it doesn’t include God in the explanation) pre-established harmony in that both stem from a third factor: evolution. For this to work, we have to assume that survival and reproductive success are morally good. Since selective forces have shaped our normative judgments with the aim of survival and reproductive success, it has also shaped us to have moral beliefs that match up with what is morally good, i.e., survival and reproductive success. He admits it’s true that if the causal forces shaping our normative faculties had been very different, had they aimed at things that are of no value at all or that of disvalue, we would have been mistaken in our normative beliefs. Because of this he still believes that a miracle remains that they do in fact match up, but he claims this doesn’t place a particularly heavy burden on robust realism. He notes that Erik Wielenberg proposes a similar third-factor explanation of this correlation but with a different third factor, namely, our cognitive faculties instead of Enoch’s proposed survival and reproductive success. There is another issue that he calls a miracle—the fact that our universe is such that it makes sense to us, that it is explanation friendly. He admits this epistemological problem would go away if we had an independent reason to think the universe was explanation friendly. This sounds like the beginning of an argument for theism, but Enoch doesn’t carry the conversation forward in that direction.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The first strong point of the book is Enoch’s humility. He works hard making good arguments but is forthright about where his argument is weak. At the end of the book, he lists all the weakest points in his argument and describes them as the points he’s least confident about. He realizes he can’t prove his model is true with absolute certainty, so he often refers to plausibility points, encouraging the reader to adopt the model that seems to have the most points. He makes a sustained case that basing our positions on which position has the most plausibility points is a form of inference to the best explanation. This, in turn, leads him to discuss the viability of arguing via inference to the best explanation.

The second strong point of the book is his rejection of moral theories that try to have their cake and eat it too, that is, that attempt to affirm objective moral truth but don’t want the ontological commitments that seem to come with it. Thus, he actually finds global meta-normative error theory to be the most respectable opponent to his view. This theory is very up front that moral truth cannot exist in a metaphysically naturalistic world.  

The third strong point of the book is that it contains numerous sophisticated arguments for the existence of objective morality, that is, the first premise in the moral argument for God. These are arguments that theists can use in building a strong moral argument for God’s existence. It’s for this reason that Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans often quotes Enoch in his book God and Moral Obligation.

The first weak point of the book is that it is very technical. Unless someone is very familiar with metaethics, large portions of this book are going to be over their head. However, readers shouldn’t avoid difficult material, because it will stretch them and introduce them to a deeper conversation that they may find fascinating. There are a tremendous number of metaethical positions out there including Error Theory, Ethical Naturalism, Ethical Non-Naturalism, Quasi-Realism, Cornell Realism, Expressivism, many forms of Constructivism, Response Dependence theories, Relativist theories, etc.

The second weak point of the book is that Enoch doesn’t take God very seriously. If we should take morality seriously, why not God? He brings God up playfully at times but not in a serious manner. He mentions Christian philosophers in passing, such as Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen, but he doesn’t interact with their arguments for moral realism. As I noted above, C. Stephen Evans really likes Enoch and surmises that Enoch doesn’t bring up God because he doesn’t want to add yet more ontological baggage to his model. I have a hard time believing that, considering the fact that Enoch was so adamant in maintaining that moral realists shouldn’t shy away from defending their heavy ontological commitments. I appreciate Evans’ point that Platonic moral truths don’t work well as an ontological ultimate because they cry out for an explanation, whereas God is a much more plausible candidate for being the supreme ontological ultimate.

Convincing Proof