Moral Argument


God necessary for moralityIf there is no God, there is no morality either.  Only a transcendent, personal being like God can serve as the ontological foundation for transcendent moral truths and moral duties. Cultural norms and mores may still exist without God, but not moral truths. Without God to provide the ontological grounding for objective moral values, what we refer to as “morality” is nothing more than expressions of our subjective preferences or human pragmatism.  To say “murder is wrong” is no different than saying “chocolate ice-cream is gross” or “you shouldn’t drive on the left side of the road.” Moral obligations fall by the wayside, for in the name of what ought anybody submit to cultural preferences or pragmatic mores?

To believe morals exist but God does not is like believing books exist but authors do not. There wouldn’t be any books in the absence of authors, and there wouldn’t be any moral truths in the absence of a transcendent, personal, holy God to ground those moral truths in reality. Put another way, to believe moral truths exist in the absence of a transcendent source like God is like believing books exist in the absence of authors. And to believe that we are obligated to behave in certain ways in the absence of a moral law maker and judge is tantamount to thinking one is obligated to obey the laws in a nation without legislators.

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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.

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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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