Moral Argument

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.


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.


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.


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:

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