Virtue is not something that’s commanded by God, the way a magistrate (or a whimsical alien overlord) might issue a legal code, but something that’s inherent to the Christian conception of the divine nature. God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard. And even when he issues principles or precepts through revelation (as in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) he isn’t legislating in the style of Hammurabi or Solon. Instead, he’s revealing something about his own nature and inviting us to conform ourselves to the standards that it sets.
Sanchez fires back:
Ross evidently thinks this counts as some sort of explanation of how there might be moral truths. I think it is a classic virtus dormativa—a series of grammatically well-formed strings masquerading as propositions. It’s not much of an explanation to say Zeus causes thunderstorms unless you have an account of how Zeus does it …
If God is the standard, why ought we accept the standard to emulate it? How could a natural fact about God—even if you call it a “supernatural” fact, whatever that distinction amounts to—constitute a reason? If the fact that some action will cause suffering isn’t adequate motivation to avoid it without something further, why is the fact that the divine nature abhors suffering (or sin, or whatever we think) supposed to do any better? Why do we imagine someone could (rationally?) greet the first fact with a shrug, but not the second?
Millman sides with Sanchez:
If you already think that Christianity “makes sense” – that is to say, is persuasive on its own terms – then you don’t need to have a conversation about whether believing in it is pragmatically necessary for society; you already believe it. If you don’t already think Christianity makes sense, then why is it pragmatically necessary to believe in Christianity in order to believe in human rights and human dignity? Why can’t you just believe in those things directly? That’s Sanchez’s question, and Douthat’s answer – that humanists don’t have strong reasons for their beliefs – is a non-sequitur. If there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in human rights, then there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity in order to believe in human rights either. And therefore there are no good humanistic reasons for believing in Christianity. In which case Sanchez is right.