Moral Argument


Subjective ObjectWhen talking about subjective and objective truths, I’ve heard it claimed that every truth claim is “subjective” since humans are subjects.  On this view, there can be no such thing as objective truth since all truth claims are made by subjects.

This is often applied in the context of the moral argument.  Theists argue that morality is objective, and finds its ontological grounding in the character of God.  In response, some will argue that since God is a subject, His moral commands are subjective, and hence even theistic ethics cannot provide an objective basis for morality.

This is a gross misunderstanding of the terms.  Subjective and objective tell you what a statement is about – not where it comes from.  To say a truth is “subjective” is to say it is about the subject himself; to say a truth is “objective” is to say it is about a mind-independent object in the world.

Right and WrongIf moral realism (the notion that moral values exist independently of human minds) is false, then there is no reason to talk of “morality” as if it were something distinct from personal preference.  Given moral relativism, moral beliefs are just personal/social preferences.  What we call “morality” is nothing more than a set of personal preferences regarding certain dispositions and behaviors, or a set of normative social preferences – both of which are subjective in nature and can change over time.  Saying “vanilla ice-cream is better than chocolate ice-cream” and saying “telling the truth is better than lying” are the exact same kind of claims: personal, subjective preference.  No oughts are involved.  They are just autobiographic or (to possibly coin a new term) sociobiographic statements.  They describe rather than prescribe.

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Good without GodSaying “I can be good without God” is like saying “I can be married without a spouse.”  If God does not exist, then there is no ontological grounding for goodness.  While atheists can surely behave in ways that humans have traditionally called “good,” their acts are without moral significance because morals as such cannot exist in an atheistic world.  They are just socio-cultural preferences.  Only the existence of God can ground objective goodness, and thus one can only be good if God exists.

See also:

Moral relativism – the notion that there are no moral truths, and thus “morals” are subjective preferences relative to individuals or societies – is widespread in our day, particularly among the younger segments of society.  I would venture to say that moral relativism appeals to so many people because it gives them the intellectual justification they need to engage in their sins of choice.  This cheap form of moral justification is not without its costs, however.

While moral relativism is an easy way to justify participation in acts that others consider morally objectionable, it also makes it impossible to condemn the acts of others that one finds morally repugnant.  And believe me, every moral relativist has a list of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that they think are morally wrong – not just for them, but for everyone!

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In the context of the moral realism vs. moral subjectivism and theism vs. atheism debates the question of moral semantics is often raised: How do we define goodness?  Some are under the mistaken impression that if we cannot define goodness (a question of moral semantics) then we cannot claim to know goodness exists (a question of moral ontology) or identify what is good (a question of moral epistemology).  

I do not want to focus on whether it is possible to provide an adequate account of moral semantics, but rather to point out that even if we are unable to do so, it does not follow that there are no objective moral goods or that we are incapable of knowing them.  Greg Koukl illustrates this point beautifully.  He notes how our experience of goodness is similar to our experience of color.  We recognize color as color when we see it.  If someone were to ask us how we know what green is, we would respond, “I just see it.”  We don’t need to define green to know it when we encounter it.  Similarly, we do not need to define goodness to know that we have encountered it.  God has given us moral intuitions to recognize good and discern between good and evil. 

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That’s the claim anyway. Michael Shermer is fond of using this kind of argument in debates.  He reasons that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality because even if God didn’t exist, people would still think killing, stealing, and lying were wrong.  Want proof?  If it could be proven to you today that God doesn’t exist, would you go out and kill/steal tomorrow (particularly if you knew you could do so without getting caught and punished by the authorities)?  No.  There are still good reasons to act morally even in the absence of God.  Therefore, it follows, claims Shermer, that God is not necessary for morality.

While this has great rhetorical force in a debate, Shermer misses the point completely.  The question isn’t whether one needs to believe in God to know and do good, but whether God’s existence is necessary for the good that we know to actually be “good.”

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David Baggett and jerry Walls have written an excellent book exploring God’s relationship to morality.  The book aims to provide a moral argument for the existence of God, and to answer criticisms to theistic ethics.  After showing how various non-theistic foundations for ethics fail, the authors take a close look at the most common objection to theistic ethics: the Euthyphro argument.  They critique both horns of the dilemma: pure voluntarism (X is good because God commands it) and non-voluntarism (X is good wholly independent of God and His will).  If goodness is determined by God’s commands, then morality seems arbitrary.  Indeed, if God willed that rape is good rape would be good (abhorrent commands objection).  There is also the epistemic problem.  How would we know what God has commanded, or if God has changed His mind?  The problem with non-voluntarism is that it makes God irrelevant to morality.  Goodness stands outside of God.  Indeed, God is subject to the good in the same way we are.  At best His role is to communicate to us what is good.  He is like the divine meteorologist who reports the weather rather can creating it.  If goodness is independent of God, then God’s aseity (self-existence) is called into question.  He cannot be the metaphysical ultimate.

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There’s a difference between how we know something to be true (epistemology), and what makes that something true (ontology).  Keeping this distinction in mind would illuminate many debates.  For example, atheists often claim that one doesn’t need God to know morality and act morally.  That’s true, but it misses the point.  Just because one can know moral truths and behave morally without believing in God does not mean God is not necessary to explain morality.  As Greg Koukl likes to say, that’s like saying because one is able to read books without believing in authors, authors are not necessary to explain the origin of books (author-of-the-gaps).  In the same way books need authors, moral laws need a moral-law giver.

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A friend of mine made a point the other day that I thought was insightful.  If matter is all that exists, and there is no free will because everything is either determined or indeterminate, then there is no real distinction between rape and consensual sex since the distinction relies on the notion of free will.  If the will is not free, then strictly speaking, no act of sex is chosen—even so called consensual sex is not chosen.  Every act of sex is chosen for us by forces that lie outside of our control.  We may think that we choose to engage in sexual activity or choose to refrain from doing so, but these are just illusions.  Prior physical processes cause us to either have the desire to engage in sex or the desire not to engage in sex.  

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While I have already written an assessment of Stephen Law’s evil god challenge, after listening to Law engage in an informal debate on the topic with Glenn Peoples on Unbelievable, I have a few more observations to make. 

Law seems to take as his starting point the idea that people reject the existence of an evil God based on the empirical evidence: there is simply too much good in the world for an evil god to exist.  Then he reasons that if the presence of good in the world makes the existence of an evil God absurd, people should also recognize that the presence of evil in the world makes the existence of a good God equally absurd.  The success of his argument depends on three assumptions:

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While I do not think the objectivity of moral values makes sense in an atheistic or purely naturalistic world, many atheists and naturalists affirm the objectivity of moral values anyway (for which I am happy).  When you press them to explain what makes it wrong to steal, rape, or murder, however, they will often respond that such things are morally wrong because they cause unnecessary suffering.  This is unhelpful.  The question seeks to know the ontological grounding for the moral values that exist in the world.  Rather than provide that grounding, the atheist appeals to another moral value (any X that causes unnecessary suffering is wrong).  But you can’t explain what makes moral values “moral” by citing another moral value.  The moral value that it is wrong to cause harm unnecessarily needs to be grounded ontologically just as much as the moral value that it is wrong to steal or right to tell the truth needs to be grounded ontologically.  Since it can still be asked what makes it wrong to cause unnecessary harm, the ontological grounding for morality must go deeper.

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J. W. Wartick has written a nice article evaluating the case for atheistic ethics, particularly as presented by philosopher Louise Anthony.  She represents a brand of atheists (such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer) who refuse the nihilism of an earlier generation of atheists who admitted that if there is no God, there are no objective moral values.  She thinks God does not exist but moral values do.  Or so she says.  When she defines what those moral values are and how they are determined, it becomes clear that they are subjective, not objective.  Something has value if she values it, and something is wrong if it causes suffering.  But these are mind-dependent, and thus subjective by definition.  For meaning and morality to be objective, it must have an existence independent of human thinkers such that even if conscious beings did not exist, moral values and meaning would still exist.

Ultimately, atheists can only put forward various ways that humans can know what is moral (epistemology); they cannot explain what makes those moral values moral.  Secular ethics lack an objective foundation.

There’s been a lot of buzz in both theistic and atheistic camps regarding Stephen Law’s evil-god argument, and many think it poses a serious challenge to the theism. Edward Feser sums up the essence of the argument nicely when he writes:

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.”[1]

Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t think the evil-God “argument” is actually an argument against God’s existence at all, yet alone a good argument. Consider the following three points:

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I just finished reading an article in the Irish Times by Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland.  Titled “Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality,” Nugent argues that the question of God’s existence is really just a distraction from the social need to determine what is right and wrong.  If there is no God, we must determine what we think is right and wrong.  And if God does exist, we still have to determine what it is that he/they thinks is right and wrong.  Either way, it is a human responsibility to determine right and wrong.

While one might expect for Nugent to go on to discuss how we should determine right and wrong irrespective of what we believe the foundation of morality to be, instead he goes on to critique moral theories that are based on the existence of God or gods!  Apparently he does think it makes a difference as to whether or not you believe morality is real or imagined, and based on God or in human will.  Through one side of his mouth Nugent claims the question of God’s existence is irrelevant to our quest for moral knowledge, but through the other side he says belief in God/gods will interfere with that quest.  How’s that for a self-contradiction!

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A few weeks ago the famed atheist and philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, wrote a response in the Guardian to the question, What can Darwin teach us about morality?  Ruse’s multifaceted answer is accurate, intriguing, and at times, incoherent – but always and thoroughly enlightening about where atheistic and evolutionary thought leads. 

Ruse admits that without God “there are no grounds whatsoever for being good.”  Morality, he says, is just a matter of emotion and personal taste on the same level as “liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers.”  But he’s quick to point out that just because there are no grounds for being good, it doesn’t mean we should be bad.  While this is true insofar as it goes, it fails to answer the more important question: Why – in the absence of a moral law giver, and thus in the absence of any objective moral law – should anyone behave in ways traditionally thought to be “good” if and when it is in their own self-interest to do otherwise?  In the name of what should they deny their own impulses?  In the name of the Grand Sez Who?

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I just love Greg Koukl!  In his most recent issue of Solid Ground he provides a wonderful response to a challenge atheist Michael Shermer likes to lodge against theistic moral objectivists: “If there was no God, would you still be good?”   

Shermer expects an affirmative answer from his theist detractors.  If theists would be good even without God, he reasons, then God is not necessary for morality as the theist claims.  While this is a clever rhetorical device, it misses the point entirely.  The theist’s argument is not that one must believe in God to behave in ways people generally consider “good.”  Our argument is that if God does not exist, there is no such thing as “goodness” at all.  As an individual or as a culture we might prefer to help a grandmother cross the street as opposed to running her over with our car, but neither behavior is morally superior to the other.  All human acts are just molecules in motion, and the last I checked, neither molecules nor motion come in “good” and “bad” varieties.  Morality is not a quality of matter, but of mind.  

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William Lane Craig has written a “fairly” condensed article (30 pages) consisting of five arguments for God’s existence, and examines how the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins have responded to these arguments.  This is probably the most lay-accessible, condensed written treatment I have seen from Craig on this topic.  Highly recommended.  

You can read it in HTML, PDF, or at Scribd.

HT: Justin Taylor

Theists often offer the moral argument in support of God’s existence.  While the argument can take many forms, the essence of the argument is that objective moral values exist, and are best explained by the existence of a transcendent, personal being whose very nature is good.  The common response offered by atheists is that one need not believe in God to be moral and loving.  “After all,” they say, “I am a moral person and I don’t believe in God.  Surely, then, belief in God is not necessary for morality.”

There are two things amiss about this response.  First, it misconstrues the theist’s argument.  He is not arguing that one must believe in God to recognize moral truths (a claim about moral epistemology) or to behave morally, but rather that God must exist for there to even be such a thing as morality (a claim about moral ontology).  God’s existence is necessary to ground moral values in objective reality.  If there is no God, there can be no such thing as objective moral values.  We might choose to call certain behaviors “good” and certain behaviors “evil,” but such ascriptions are subjective determinations by human communities; i.e. they merely describe the beliefs and preferences of human subjects, not some object that exists transcendent to them.

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42-16341014To determine if someone believes morals are merely social constructs ask, “If no humans existed, would objective moral values exist?”  If they say “no” then they are moral constructivists.  If they say “yes” then they believe morals exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture.

If they do exist in some objective sense independent of the human mind and human culture, what exactly is their source?  God…maybe?!?!

“They don’t seem to realize that their moral outrage presupposes an objective moral standard that exists only if God exists. … In effect, they have to borrow from a theistic worldview in order to argue against it.  They have to sit in God’s lap to slap his face.”[1]–Frank Turek, speaking about atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.


[1]Frank Turek, “Sleeping with your Girlfriend”; available from http://townhall.com/columnists/FrankTurek/2009/03/02/sleeping_with_your_girlfriend; Internet; accessed 10 April 2009.

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