The Disapperance of Moral Knowledge: An Interview with the Editors (Part Three)

October 17, 2018
Posted by Joe Gorra

Earlier this year, Routledge released the posthumously completed volume by Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (DMK), which was edited and finalized by Dallas’ former students: Steve Porter (Biola), Aaron Preston (Valparaiso), and Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola). Below is Part 3 of an interview with Steve, Aaron and Gregg (enjoy Part 1 and Part 2). This final part of the interview unpacks some of the implications of Dallas’ DMK, along with how one might think about the prospects for an institutional ‘return’ to moral knowledge. Update: To learn more about the DMK, visit In 2019, Dallas Willard Ministries also launched a Moral Knowledge Initiative that is worth considering and supporting.  

Thinking of your own work, which has been shaped by Dallas as your teacher and friend, what do you find in DMK to be the most challenging to your own thinking and assumptions, even to the point of puzzling, “Hey, Dallas, what did you mean by . . . ?”

Aaron: The final chapter contains a criticism of certain longstanding trends in Western ethical theory generally, not just in the 20th century. Plato’s Republic, for instance, comes in for some heavy criticism, as does the notion of the summum bonum, so central to Thomistic ethics. I found this surprising, because the impression I got from Dallas in the classroom and in other writings was that he thought well of these approaches to ethics. So I’ve had to refine my understanding of Dallas’ attitude toward them. I still think it’s true that he agreed with certain aspects of the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc., but prior to working on DMK I didn’t realize that this was coupled with some very deep disagreements as well.

Gregg: Willard’s moral epistemology involves a fairly high confidence in the ability of ordinary people to simply recognize good, bad, right, and wrong in their interactions with others. He did not claim infallibility here. But he did seem to think people the world over could be counted on to fairly reliably track these things. At the same time, I believe he recognized the possibility of being trained out of reliable acquaintance with these things — not only that this could happen but that it has indeed happened at various times and places. I’d love to have talked to him more about (i) the grounds for his confidence in the general reliability of people the world over to recognize the ethical demand in the face of the other and (ii) whether or not anything can be said about how to recognize those situations wherein cultural training takes us away from moral knowledge. After all, on many of the more difficult questions in ethics (sexuality, war, punishment, distribution of resources), good people seem to experience the ethical demand in the face of the other quite differently.

Steve: In connection to Gregg’s point above, I was recently listening to a talk by Dallas in which he was saying that human persons ‘naturally’ respond to animals with care when animals are hurt or in trouble. He used as an example the response humans have when they find an animal caught in a net or in a fence. As a funny aside he said that animals do not stop to help us when we are caught in a fence. There was not much context to these comments in his talk, but I take it that this ‘natural’ response to the needs of others (including non-human others) in the course of human life is the practical basis for his confidence in the reliability of moral insight. Of course, from a Christian point of view we can turn to the intentionality of a morally good God in creating persons in his image, but Dallas did not think you had to accept Christian premises to ground the reliability of moral insight. Although, in his original talk on this topic — “The Redemption of Reason” — he does argue that “only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason, in our time, and for the future.” I would have liked to hear him expand on these points in greater detail.

Are there chapters in DMK that might be more fruitfully read and appreciated if understood side-by-side with other articles or books by Dallas? If so, which chapters and sources do you recommend?

Steve: Certainly reading the chapter on the disappearance of moral knowledge in Knowing Christ Today would be helpful, and in many respects the whole of that book is relevant. The “Redemption of Reason” manuscript is also helpful background information. There are at least two chapters in the collection of Dallas’ essays (Renewing the Christian Mind, edited by Gary Black) that are relevant: (1) “The Foundations of Moral Realization” and (2) “Truth in the Fire.” Lastly, the article in Philosophia Christi entitled “How Concepts Relate the Mind to Its Objects: The ‘God’s Eye Point’ of View Vindicated?” (1999) provides a clear presentation of the epistemology behind Dallas’ positive view of moral knowledge in DMK.

You have indicated to me that Chapter 1, “Moral Knowledge Disappears,” is ‘underdeveloped’ compared to the detailed history and analysis that appears in chapters 2-7. I take that to be less of a criticism of chapter 1 and more of an invitation toward an opportunity for scholars to take-up. If you had to conceptualize further work to be done, what would that consist of?  As a result of working on this book, are there other ‘disappearances’ that come to mind, which perhaps you wonder about in light of Dallas’ account?

Steve: Yes, I think there is a nearby disappearance when it comes to the disappearance of knowledge regarding Christian formation. I do not simply mean that if moral knowledge disappears then, by implication, Christian moral knowledge also disappears (there is that point, which Willard makes in the introductory chapter of Divine Conspiracy). Instead, I think there is a unique though similar story to be told about the disappearance of knowledge of spiritual growth. This is what the church historian Richard Lovelace termed ‘the sanctification gap’. Lovelace’s thesis is much broader in historical reach (going back at least to the Puritans) and only pertains to theological knowledge regarding sanctification, but I think some of lessons Willard draws about the disappearance of moral knowledge can be applied to the disappearance of spiritual knowledge.

Dallas thinks that there are two mistakes when it comes to ethical theorizing in the 20th century that in part kept ethical theory from getting much traction in grounding moral knowledge:

First, Dallas argues that there was a changing subject matter: the form of the good, the good person, the greatest good for the greatest number, the good as indefinable, etc. Dallas wonders how any theoretical progress can be made without a stable subject matter. I think we can see an analogue to this in Christian theology and spirituality. When you look over the history of Christian reflection on the nature of spiritual growth, you see it discussed in quite different ways. In some periods reflection is focused on experience of God, in other periods it is focused on church rituals, in still others we have a focus on an intellectual understanding of the Bible, charismatic experiences, behavioral obedience, and so on. In some ways, Richard Foster’s six streams of Christian spirituality (holiness, charismatic, contemplative, social justice, evangelical, incarnational) are representative of a changing subject matter that can stall coming to have any sort of agreed upon understanding of life with Christ. When it comes to spirituality, we are often not talking about the same phenomenon.

The second mistake Dallas uncovers when it comes to moral knowledge is that theorists approach ethics as an abstract, deductive science, like Euclidean geometry. But Dallas maintains that moral knowledge is not of this form. Moral knowledge is more like geography or medicine than geometry. The idea here, I think, is that you don’t study medicine in the abstract. It is a practice developed in life with persons (human anatomy, disease, cure, etc.). And you do not study or theorize about geography in the abstract. You need to walk the terrain and pay attention to the land.

Ethics, like geography and medicine, is a lived reality and theorization about ethics needs to take place in lived interaction with persons. This is equally true regarding knowledge of Christian spirituality. Knowledge of spiritual formation is a lived reality as well and we need to pay attention to the actual dynamics of spiritual formation in Christ in the lives of actual persons (this is sometimes called ‘spiritual theology’). Dallas would sometimes define spiritual formation as “a field of play for grace.” It’s a field of knowledge–a field of play–for grace.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, “Prospects for a Return to Moral Knowledge,” offers a general sketch of what needs to be done in light of the ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge. In light of those prospects, what are some implications – some ‘lessons to be learned’ – here for professional philosophy?

Steve: The main two lessons from the history of 20th century moral thought are those I mentioned above: (1) a changing subject matter and (2) an inappropriate form of knowledge. But the other lessons to be learned are Dallas’ constructive proposals regarding (1) and (2). As a stable subject matter, Dallas recommends “the good person.” As the appropriate form of knowledge, Dallas recommends a phenomenological form. I imagine the implications of these points for professional philosophy depends on how far one judges the field has strayed from these points of view. Also, Dallas thought that one of the social factors in the disappearance was turning moral theorization and teaching over to professional philosophers. In one sense, Dallas thinks the university and the discipline of philosophy is the appropriate place for the development of moral knowledge simply because the university is meant to be the center of knowledge in our societies and philosophers have within their domain of study the nature of value. But, of course, he thinks the university–and philosophy in particular–has abdicated this role in society. Part of the abdication has to do with professionalization within philosophy where the field is driven more by getting published in the leading journals and impressing the guild than finding things to be as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience (i.e., knowledge).

How might Christian scholars [regardless of discipline] help contribute to this ‘return’ even though it is not just the responsibility of Christian scholars to contribute in this way?

Steve: Well, there is certainly something for everyone. I think the main thing Dallas would want for Christian scholars is that they come to see that they are working with knowledge and that Christianity is a knowledge-tradition. The first two chapters of Knowing Christ Today are key here. If Christian scholars can accept that there is moral knowledge and come to hold their moral beliefs as knowledge, then that puts them in a position to offer moral guidance. Dallas realized there is all sorts of societal resistance to this idea of offering moral guidance (e.g., the will to power), but he believed that having moral knowledge was the key to not getting caught up in the abuses of the past when it comes to moral teaching (e.g., moralizing or indoctrination). This is in part because moral knowledge is knowledge of the good person and the good person cares about the needs of others, including their need for autonomy.

Overall, there are several implications to be drawn from DMK for understanding culture, society and its institutional nodes of authority. For example, what implications do you see for issues of spiritual formation?

Steve: While this is not a book on spiritual formation, there are several ways the argument of this book connects with Dallas’ work in spiritual formation. Of course, that is clear from Dallas’ own writings in spiritual formation. In both Divine Conspiracy and Knowing Christ Today, Dallas situates Jesus’ on-going invitation to life in the kingdom of God, at least in the west, against the backdrop of the disappearance of moral knowledge.

So, the first way DMK connects with Dallas work in spiritual formation is that the comprehensibility of formation in Christ depends on the perceived possibility of moral knowledge. It is difficult to take Jesus’ answers to the fundamental questions of human existence seriously—as knowledge—if it is generally agreed upon in our culture that there are no right answers to those types of questions—there is no knowledge of such matters.

For instance, in Knowing Christ Today, Dallas writes,

Today, given the prevailing intellectual and cultural atmosphere, you are likely to pick up from your surroundings, with no special thought on your part, the conviction that there is no knowledge to be had of good and evil, no knowledge of God, and no divine presence in our world that enables us to transcend its merciless regularities. If that conviction settles in on you, you will live in terms of it and never enter the kingdom of God (140).

The second major connection has to with Dallas’ positive account of moral knowledge, which centers on an analysis of the good person as the fundamental subject matter of ethics. In DMK Dallas makes clear that a good person will seek out the means for becoming good and it is in Dallas’ spiritual formation writings that he develops the view that the means for becoming good involves confidence in the person of Jesus. Dallas writes in DMK:

A good person, then, is one who is committed to the preservation and enhancement, in an appropriate order of importance, of all the various goods over which he or she has influence, including their own moral goodness and well-being and that of others. Clearly, then, a good person will be one who cultivates their understanding of the various goods of life, and cultivates their capacity to reason clearly about those goods and about the conditions of their preservation and enhancement . . . A good person is one who chooses to be a good person, and who seeks out and implements, the means for becoming good. It does not just ‘happen’ (DMK, 373).

Of course, the means for becoming good include Jesus. In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas writes:

A really good person, as Jesus teaches, is anyone pervaded by love…How do you become a really good person? You place your confidence in Jesus Christ and become his student or apprentice in kingdom living. That amounts to progressively entering into the abundance of life he brings to us. You learn from him how to live in the kingdom of God as he himself did (KCT, 53).

This concludes the final part of a three-part interview. Enjoy part one and part two. In light of Dallas’ passing in 2013, the Evangelical Philosophical Society featured several tributes to him and his work. His work was also featured and often discussed in the pages of Philosophia Christi. The EPS website will continue to develop content related to “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge” and its implications.