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Getting back to basics

Philosopher J. Caleb Clanton builds foundational knowledge on morality.

By Janel Shoun-Smith | 

Clanton on some stairs

Dr. J. Caleb Clanton likes asking very basic questions.

Few would describe Lipscomb’s resident professor of philosophy, who holds two graduate degrees in philosophy from Vanderbilt University, as basic, but Clanton says that the “office of a philosopher” is essentially all about the basics.

“We like to talk about ethics mattering in this society, but so little of the time do we stop and think about where those ethics came from,” he said. “As a philosopher, I am committed to addressing some very basic questions.” Such as, “Is God real?” or “What makes something right or wrong?”

In fact, just by looking at Clanton’s prolific writing and editing career, including nine books in print, one can see his philosophical scholarship spiraling in from broad societal issues of behavior to the ever more basic questions that undergird that behavior: from values to religious beliefs to morals.

His first books in 2008  and 2009 were Religion and Democratic Citizenship: Inquiry and Conviction in the American Public Square and The Ethics of Citizenship: Liberal Democracy and Religious Convictions

He then turned his pen toward a closer look at religion with: The Classical American Pragmatists and Religion; Restoration and Philosophy: New Philosophical Engagements with the Stone-Campbell Tradition; Philosophy of Religion in the Classical American Tradition; and The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell, which won the Lester McAllister Prize.

In 2021 he co-edited the textbook Great Ideas in History, Politics, and Philosophy, with fellow Lipscomb Professor Dr. Richard C. Goode (BA ’82). The book is a streamlined compendium of the seminal passages from some of the most important texts in human history that have influenced and enriched human experience. The textbook is used today in Lipscomb’s general education curriculum.

Then going deeper into the foundations of ethics, in 2022 he published Nature and Command: On the Metaphysical Foundations of Morality, and a few months later he released God and Morality in Christian Traditions: New Essays on Christian Moral Philosophy. Both of these books were published with Clanton’s longtime co-author Dr. Kraig Martin of Harding University.

Clanton - Book New

“A few years ago I said to myself, I only want to research topics that matter to me a great deal,” said Clanton on his progression to writing about the presuppositions that shape our view of morality today. 

“How do I teach an ethics class or a moral philosophy class if I haven’t thought through these things myself. Otherwise I run the risk of leading my students down the wrong path. I am trying to teach them to think through these questions themselves in light of the best reasons. I can help them in that discernment process, but only if I have invested myself in trying to discern the truth on the front end.”

Philosophy is not a common topic for the bestseller list, but his latest book, God and Morality, was spawned by a strong popular demand within the scholarly community. Clanton and Martin were asked to guest edit a special edition of the journal Religions. The special issue “God, Ethics, and Christian Traditions” has been downloaded about 25,000 times worldwide. So the authors decided to release the content as a book. 

“We invited some of the leading philosophers in the nation to reflect on God and morality, such as C. Stephen Evans, Daniel Bonevac and Francis Beckwith, among others. These are some wonderful thinkers… Christians from across denominations—some were Reformed, others Evangelical, Pentecostal or Catholic—all reflecting on the relationship between God and morality,” said Clanton. “This book offers a fine display of the work that philosophers can do. It gives lie to the claim that philosophers’ work isn’t really being looked at.”

His 2022 book, Nature and Command, laid the foundation for much of his work to come, as it laid out the central contention about the relationship between God and how moral obligations arise. Since at least the time of Plato, religious explanations of the metaphysical foundations of morality have typically fallen into one of two camps, Clanton wrote. First, natural law theory explains morality by appealing to facts about human nature—facts that God is responsible for. Secondly, divine command theory holds that moral obligations arise directly from God’s commands or some other prescriptive act of the divine will. 

Clanton and Martin provided an accessible analysis of these traditional views, reconstructed the various arguments for and against them, and offered an extended consideration of the historical emergence of the divide between these positions within the Christian tradition. Nature and Command goes on to develop and defend a theory that combines these two views—a metaethical approach that has not yet received much scholarly attention, says Clanton.

All of Caleb Clanton's book on a shelf

“No one has really explored a combination theory in recent years. We think this is a position that is a decidedly Christian account. So we asked ‘What if we tried, in the theme of the Stone-Campbell tradition, to unify those threads,’” said Clanton. “This kind of work is important, because it’s stepping back from the whole and looking at the stability of our foundations. There is an important role for philosophers in Christian universities.”

Nature and Command is part of a larger project to one day explain other elements of ethics and character that would follow downstream from its philosophical foundations, said Clanton. In fact, Clanton and Martin already have a contract for a book to do just that – The Good and the Right: A Christian Introduction to Moral Philosophy – but it could be some years before that book materializes, he said.

In the meantime, Clanton is busy as a research fellow at the Abilene Christian University Center for Restoration Studies. In November, he presented “What are the Philosophical Foundations of Morality? (And Does the Stone-Campbell Tradition Have Anything Unique to Say about Them?)” at the ACU center.

He also has held a courtesy appointment at Vanderbilt as adjoint professor of engineering management, where he has regularly given lectures related to ethics over years.

With all these career accolades under his belt, when you get down to the basics, Clanton says he just wants his work to “have a lasting impact on knowledge. I want to know more than a fleeting truth. I want a truth that has lasting power.”