Moral Argument


Theists argue that God is the best explanation for objective moral truths.  Atheists typically appeal to the Euthyphro Dilemma (ED) to show that God cannot be the foundation for morality.  The ED asks whether something is good only because God wills it as such, or if God wills something because it is good.  If something is good only because God considers it good, then goodness seems arbitrary and relative to God’s desires.  If He had so chosen, murder could have been right and truth-telling could have been wrong. On the other hand, if God wills the good because it is inherently good, then goodness would be a standard that exists outside of God.  He is subject to the moral law just as we are.

So either goodness is arbitrary or it is independent of God.  Either God arbitrarily declares what is good or He recognizes what is good based on some standard outside of Himself.  If the good is an arbitrary expression of God’s will, then the good is subjective rather than objective.  While God may serve as the foundation for His subjective morality, He cannot serve as the foundation for objective moral truths.  On the other hand, if God wills something because He recognizes it is objectively good, then something other than God is the standard of objective moral truths.  He may inform us of those moral truths, but they do not depend on God for their existence.

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PlatoVirtually all moral theories end up with a subjective version of morality (including evolutionary explanations of morality), in which moral values have their genesis in the human will in one way or another. In our moral experience, however, we have a basic moral intuition that moral values are objective.

To say a moral value is objective is to say its truth value does not depend on any human knower. So, for example, to say that killing Jews simply because of their ethnicity is immoral in an objective sense is to say that killing Jews is wrong whether anyone believes it to be wrong or not. If Hitler had won the war and eliminated everyone that thought the Holocaust was immoral, such that everyone believed it was moral, it would still, in fact, be immoral.

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Garret Merriam

Professor Garret Merriam argues that if God exists, then we can’t be moral.   In other words, we can only be moral if morality is not grounded in God’s existence.  This is a reversal of the moral argument for God’s existence.  It’s a moral argument against God’s existence.

Like many new atheists, Merriam argues that the Christian God commands and commits evil, so if morality is rooted in God and our moral duties are based on God’s commands, morality is impossible.  I don’t accept the premise that God commands or commits evil, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.  Does his conclusion follow?  No.

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MoralityThere are two senses in which something can be considered good.  Something can be good in a pragmatic sense: that which is the most effective means for obtaining some desired outcome.  For example, if we desire to eat an ice cream cone without getting ice cream on our clothes, it is “good” to start eating from the top of the cone rather than the bottom.  This kind of goodness is judged by something’s utility.  It is considered good because it works well, and the human subject values the fact that it works well.  We might call this kind of goodness “pragmatic goodness.”

Something can also be good in the sense that it has intrinsic moral virtue/character.  For example, it is “good” to try to save someone who is drowning.  This kind of goodness is judged by the intrinsic moral character of the act itself, rather than its utility.  Indeed, risking one’s life to save a stranger has little utility for the rescuer, but great moral virtue nonetheless.  This sort of goodness is not determined by what we desire or the value we attach to the outcome, but is rooted in the moral character of the act itself, wholly independent of what any human may think about it.[1]  We might call this kind of goodness “moral goodness.”  This is the kind of goodness moral philosophers have in mind when they talk about objective morality. (more…)

Dr. William Lane Craig has produced another video illustrating a primary argument for God’s existence: the moral argument.  Enjoy!

 

In case you missed his videos on the kalam cosmological argument and the design argument, see here and here.

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.

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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