Dallas Willard: The Shape of Moral Knowledge

November 17, 2011
Posted by Joe Gorra

Professor Dallas Willard’s plenary talk at the 2011 EPS annual meeting is a helpful snapshot of his long-standing work on moral knowledge, especially in light of his forthcoming book on the “Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.” Below is a summary of his presentation with my headings and some modest narration:

The Problem

“Our current social situation is one in which there is no knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, duty and virtue, presented as knowledge by our institutions of knowledge—primarily those of “higher education,” including divinity schools.”

The Consequences

  • “An inability to settle on the primary subject matter for moral analysis.”
  • “Insistence upon something like an axiomatized system for moral knowledge, or at least deductive order in some fairly rigorous sense.” But “The unity of moral understanding and knowledge cannot be forced into a ‘deductive’ mold … The unity of moral knowledge lies primarily in object, not in a logical system.”

Because of the “disappearance of moral knowledge,” Dallas wants to say, in our institutions of knowledge, “ethics” has become nothing more than a discussion about the dialectic of theories; contact and integration with moral reality is not the focus today.

But, Dallas counsels, “To force moral knowledge into an inappropriate form, and to fail to identify a constant primary subject, is to insure its failure.”

The Need

“The recovery of public moral knowledge and its effective presentation to the world is going to be up to Christians and, more specifically, to the “evangelical” Christians, regardless of denomination. “Evangelical” thinkers and scholars—because of their calling and training—must be at the center of such a recovery. They will have to assume the role of ‘teachers of the nations'” (here, see Dallas’ wise chapter, “Teachers of the Nations,” in Knowing Christ Today)

The Solution

  • “… make THE GOOD PERSON the subject of moral theory. In real life the good person stands out as one who characteristically evokes trust, admiration, support, desire to associate with, and to imitate. He or she is not necessarily talented, successful or prosperous, etc., and they are not “perfect” by any sensible standards, even moral standards. In the measure to which a person is not good, they fail to evoke the attitudes listed and similar ones. In the degree to which a person is bad or evil, they evoke contrary attitudes.”
  • Bring knowledge to bear upon the three main dimensions of the good person (care for neighbor, cultivation and exercise of virtues, respect and conformity to moral laws).

Dallas Willard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. More info available at www.dwillard.org.