Comments about The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Part 1 | Dallas Willard

Gregg Ten Elshof

Comments about The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Part 1

Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)

I’d like to thank Professor Soames, Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and everyone else who helped organize and make this event possible. It’s an honor for me to participate with a few comments about this very important project. I got to know Dallas as a graduate student here at USC in the 90’s and I know that this project had been foremost in his thinking for as long as I knew him.

The book seeks both to explain and to provide a way back from the disappearance of moral knowledge that Professor Soames referred to in his opening remarks. I’ll say a few words here about his explanation of the disappearance. Then I’ll hand it over to Professor Porter to say something about Willard’s proposed way back.

Willard thinks of the disappearance of moral knowledge as a social and historical phenomenon whose explanation has more to do with a number of historical factors than with any philosophical demonstration (or even proposed demonstration) of the impossibility or non-existence of knowledge in the moral domain. These non-philosophical causes include such things as these:

  • The discrediting of religion as a source of knowledge together with the (mistaken) conviction that religion is the only plausible source of moral knowledge.
  • The rise of empiricism and the corresponding disappearance of the human self from acceptable domains of knowledge.
  • Increased sensitivity to moral differences between cultures and to the harms associated with the mishandling of the moral dimension of life.

…and more besides.


While the disappearance of moral knowledge is not primarily driven by philosophical argument, however, it is solidified by a certain progression of philosophical thought in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  And it is Willard’s conviction that an understanding of these philosophical developments is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a return to the availability of moral knowledge.

You’ll be relieved to know that I’ll not attempt here a summary description of that whole progression. Instead, I’ll focus on one point in the progression from which, I think, it’s easiest to telescope forwards and backwards.

Willard begins chapter three of the book (a chapter entirely given over to the moral theory of G.E. Moore) this way:

“G.E. Moore hangs like an iron curtain between 20th Century ethical theory and its past. Looking backward, everything seems to stop with him – or to start with him, coming toward us.”

The preceding chapter (chapter 2) is given over to the moral theory of T.H. Green. Green’s theory is put forward as, perhaps, the last great attempt to develop a “science of ethics” grounded in careful examination of the inner structures of the moral agent. Moore, too, thought of himself as having developed a science of ethics. But, quite contrary to his intentions, his attempt did more to set the stage for the disappearance of moral knowledge than it did to establish the possibility of anything like a systematic body of knowledge in that domain.

How so? In at least the following 3 ways:

First, there is the style with which Moore approached philosophical questions generally. He takes the most important technique of ethical theorizing to be the detection of logical or conceptual mistakes – the sniffing out fallacies.  This methodological conviction set the stage for the largely dialectical nature of the treatment of moral theory thereafter.  The non-cognitivists who followed Moore identified his conceptual confusion. The multi-functionalists, in turn, identified the logical confusions of their emotivist predecessors. And so on. One consequence of this pre-occupation with the identification of conceptual error has been the loss of focus on the inner structure of the moral agent which characterized the theoretical endeavors of Green and his predecessors.

Second, Moore identifies goodness itself as the primary subject matter of ethics. This, together with his insistence that goodness itself is a non-natural property, effectively divorced the primary subject matter of ethics from the real concerns of the lived moral life. Ironically, Moore, who insists elsewhere on concrete particulars as the starting point for theorizing, grounds his moral theory in the abstract, non-natural, indefinable conception of goodness itself. And the relationship between goodness itself and those persons or states of affairs that instance it is never clarified. This failure of clarification all but invites the non-cognitivist response which follows and the subsequent attempts to reclaim a kind of rationality for moral conviction characteristic of the multi-functionalists and (more recently) the social constructivists like Rawls and MacIntyre.

Third, Moore’s commitment to consequentialism, together with his (rather plausible) conviction that we cannot know with respect to any action what all of its consequences will be, entails that we can never actually know that a given action is right or wrong. In Moore’s own words, “We never have any reason to suppose that an action is our duty.” And that, of course, is a disaster for moral knowledge.

It would be a mistake, of course, to suggest that Moore’s ethical theory gained (or retained) anything like universal acceptance – though the intuitionism inspired by his work is alive and well in the contemporary discussion. On the other hand, these three features that characterize Moore’s approach to moral theory do persist in the movements that follow and contribute significantly to the disappearance of moral knowledge.  With few exceptions, moral theory continued in the wake of Moore to focus on the consequences of behavior (or, later, policy). And Ethical theory has not yet recovered from the departure from its most promising subject matter – the inner structure of the moral agent. 

I hand things over now to Professor Porter who will have more to say about Willard’s proposed way back from the disappearance.

Gregg was first introduced to Dallas through his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines -- a book that significantly disrupted his life for the better. In 1996, Gregg went to USC primarily for the purpose of studying with Dallas. Dallas chaired Gregg's dissertation committee and continued to be a teacher and mentor to Gregg until his passing. Gregg is currently Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University. 

See also:

- On Dallas Willard, Husserl and the Perennial Problem, published by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, May 15, 2013 is co-sponsored by the family of Dallas Willard, Dallas Willard Ministries, and FiveStone.