If you have watched debates between atheists and Christian apologists, you might have noticed that the former fail to comprehend the moral argument for God’s existence. Philosophically naïve, they perceive it as an attack on their moral integrity and take umbrage. In reality, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral behavior of non-believers. To explain why and clear other common misconceptions, I’ll spell out the argument from morality in detail and try to address various objections to it.
The former don’t fail at understanding the argument. Accusing us of not understanding the argument is an apologetic ploy. Also, we aren’t philosophically naive. After I school you, you’re going to see that. I don’t think you’re attacking my moral integrity. I think you’re writing about a dead argument. The Moral Argument for God is dead; it’s high time to admit it.
Let’s try to understand what exactly are “objective moral values and duties” and whether they can exist on a naturalist account. Almost all of us share deeply ingrained intuitions that certain acts are morally wrong, for example, torturing children (without any great overriding reason). But, what makes such acts really wrong and our judgement more than mere subjective preference?
And this is precisely the false dichotomy that is rampant among apologists—one that shouldn’t be coming from the side that isn’t “philosophically naive.” The false dichotomy created is objectivism versus relativism. When creating this false dichotomy, inconsistency becomes apparent. Christian apologists are the same people that attempt to pin nihilism on us; they’re the same people who accuse so called new atheists of not following atheism to its proper conclusion. Yet, for sake of bolstering the Moral Argument, moral nihilism is completely ignored; it isn’t even mentioned as an option. It isn’t an option I subscribe to; I simply felt it necessary to point out this inconsistency and expose this false dichotomy.
What reasons do we have to think that a psychopath who thinks of torturing little children as morally good is wrong and we are right? After all, if the naturalist account is true, humans developed as a result of a long unguided process of evolution and it doesn’t seem necessary that all our intuitions will conform to reality.
That we evolved via an unguided process isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s not because of naturalism being true that we evolved. Naturalism and evolution are independent of one another. One can argue that evolution bolsters the case for naturalism, at least from a philosophical perspective; such an argument isn’t necessary in the realm of science. But that is altogether a separate discussion.
Moreover, why think that there is any moral reality at all? Maybe, our hunches (no matter how strong) pertaining to “moral” issues are just matters of taste, no different than liking or not liking a particular flavor of ice cream and there are no “right” or “objective” set of morals, each person justified in embracing his or her own notion of “morality.” Moral relativism, if true, renders all our moral judgements meaningless, as they are mere opinion in the absence of an absolute benchmark. The question of how to justify moral realism on naturalism has long perplexed philosophers. David Hume, a distinguished philosopher, articulated his views on the issue quite remarkably in terms of the is-ought distinction. According to him, no amount of knowing the state of the world as it is can tell us how it oughtto be. In other words, deriving absolute moral standards by observing nature is futile. In A Treatise of Human Nature, he remarked:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
Let’s deal with common (albeit off the mark) objections to this kind of moral skepticism. Some people assert that the fact that a moral belief is universally shared across cultures might act as evidence for its truth. This is a rather naïve attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Consider the following counter-example. Suppose after the Holocaust, the Nazis took over the world and were able to indoctrinate everyone with the belief that the mass genocide of Jews was moral. Would that, according to you, make it moral? If not, then clearly, moral beliefs cannot be justified by appealing to how many people hold them. Don’t forget that slavery was once seen as justified by majority of people at one time.
The is-ought problem, while related to ethics, is also tangential. Honestly, you aren’t dealing with Hume’s naturalism at all. One quote from Hume doesn’t represent his views. Given the quote, I don’t see who’s arguing for morality deriving from majority opinion. I don’t see who’s deriving an ought from an is—as if that is somehow impossible to do. The philosophically naive, since they are usually laymen in the subject, think that there’s actually an is-ought problem. The truth is that we derive oughts from is’ all the time:
It is raining out; I ought to take an umbrella.
It is cold out; I ought to wear more layers.
It is the case that killing a person is murder; I ought to not kill my neighbor though I am angry with him.
It is the case that rape is wrong; I ought to not force myself upon my coworker though she is very attractive.
These aren’t extreme examples. And of course there are more. Modern philosophers, though they find the distinction interesting, aren’t convinced that such a problem exists. In any event, moral skepticism isn’t a view that states that what is moral is what the majority accepts. I really don’t see how this section even works. If anything it needs clarification and/or revision.
Others assert that there is objective morality and it consists of those set of norms that are conducive to the stability of society. The very fact that we live in a society that’s much more stable than those in the pre-Christian era is supposed to vouch for our moral standards being closer to truth. (Note that humans with the instinct to kill others indiscriminately rather than cooperate would not have been able to pass this trait to successive generations as they would have died fighting rather than reproducing and caring for off-spring.) The implicit argument here is that we ought to follow such standards because they lead to stable societies. The flaw is that it imputes intrinsic worth to the stability of society. It is no more justified to value stability than it is to value any other natural property. Indeed, there have been attempts to derive morality by defining ”good” in terms of several natural properties like “pleasant” or “desirable.” G. E. Moore, an English philosopher, quite famously called this committing the naturalistic fallacy. Deriving morality by defining a natural property X as good just begs the question “Why is X good?” rather than solving the problem!
I would argue with your second sentence. Thankfully, David Marshall and Phil Zuckerman debated concerning that very notion (watch here). Zuckerman does a better job than I can in refuting your second sentence.
After reading this section, along with the previous one, I’m starting to realize that you’ve created a straw man. You don’t adequately represent Humean ethics. You then go on to supposedly address moral skepticism. You don’t. You conflate moral skepticism with a view that states that what’s moral is what’s accepted by the majority. In this section you build another straw man. You push aside the people who think that what’s moral is what’s conducive to individual happiness. Before a stable society, stable individuals are necessary. Happiness is a part of stability. In any case, why isn’t it the case that the individual imputed an extrinsic worth on the stability of society? If there’s one thing I truly don’t understand, it’s the apologist’s obsession with the term intrinsic. I’ve still to read an account that successfully demonstrates that intrinsic properties, consequences, results, etc. are better (as in more preferable) than extrinsic properties, consequences, results, etc. If it can be shown that x is good, an extrinsic result of x would be a stable society. In other words, if we can demonstrate that giving to charity is good, more stability in that given society extrinsically follows from giving to charity. This actually makes more sense than this false notion you’ve assigned to your opponents.
One of the common examples given is that of the density of an object and the weight of the object. Like weight, which is an extrinsic property of an object, the extrinsic result and/or consequence of actions will have a varied effect on a stable society. That is to say that not raping may be more conducive to a stable society than giving to charity; the opposite can also be the case. Somehow quantifying the effects the consequences of actions have on society as a whole will prove difficult to do.
Ultimately, given what I just said, there’s no fallacy to be had. I, unlike your straw man opponent, am not committing the naturalistic fallacy because I’m not deriving morality from some natural property. Rather, like the consequentialist, I am deriving morality from the extrinsic consequences of a given action. Thus, on such a view, rape would be wrong because of its extrinsic consequences whilst not raping would be right because of its extrinsic consequences. I don’t subscribe to consequentailism. Though realism is quite appealing, I’m once again in moral limbo; I’m currently fielding options. That’s precisely what Christians have stopped doing. They’re not simply realists, however; they’re theistic realists. That is to say that their realism falls apart in the absence of god. Thus, if someone can successfully demonstrate the nonexistence of their god, their form of realism vaporizes. That conveniently leads us to the Moral Argument and my rebuttal.
The moral argument for God’s existence capitalizes on this seeming impossibility of grounding morality in the physical world. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig puts it in this manner:
Premise 1: Objective moral values and duties exist.
Premise 2: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Conclusion: Thus, God exists.
And who’s philosophically naive? You didn’t even state the argument correctly. This is the Moral Argument for God:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C Therefore, God exists.
Since I fear that you won’t follow a link, I’ll reproduce what I wrote in a recent response:
Without providing any alternatives just yet, I’ll attack this argument directly. Starting with P1, it’s useful to point out the predilection that’s hiding in that sentence. How can you know that objective moral values and duties can’t exist even without a god? You can’t know that. Thus, you’re simply assuming that that’s the case; it follows that you’re imposing faith rather than knowledge. I agree with P2. P2 is the only sound premise in the argument. However, it is possible to have true premises and a false conclusion. That makes for an invalid argument. Let’s assume both premises are true. Though this would require a separate discussion, C is demonstrably false. The Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. God, according to Christianity, is triune. Thus, I can demonstrate that there’s no father or no son or no holy spirit. Those are my options. I am very adept at demonstrating the nonexistence of the father and the son based on the empirical methodology of history. By default, the holy spirit is cancelled out since they’re one. It follows that the argument is then invalid.
Now to your second point. You state that morality becomes relative if god doesn’t exist. Yet we seem to agree that it’s objective though, on my view, it can be demonstrated that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. The question is, how then is it objective without god? Can we offer an explanation? Ethics has become one of my focuses for precisely this reason and I’ve come across a few explanations that are compelling. Granted, some are incomplete. Some are less compelling than others. But the fact that an explanation is incomplete is no reason to reject it and it certainly doesn’t warrant certainty that there is no possible explanation. That’s precisely what you claim, however: without god, not only can we not have objective morality, but we can’t offer an adequate explanation for its existence. This is false. Thus, relativism isn’t the consequence of morality without god. Relativism and objectivism do not have to be at odds. After all, even William Lane Craig acknowledges what I call moral classes (compare that to socioeconomic classes). For instance, the West has more moral knowledge than the Korowai in Papau, New Guinea and thus, Westerners are a higher moral class than the Korowai are. This relativistic knowledge rests on moral epistemology and not on moral ontology. Something can be objectively wrong though some culture or some person refuses to recognize it.
Moral ontology can rest on coherentism rather than foundationalism. In other words, we can firmly establish our moral knowledge on the strength of intertwined parts. In this, a god wouldn’t be necessary to serve as the foundation of morality. Such an explanation can consist of the following parts: evolution and/or neurobiology, genetics, cultural evolution, etc. The reason I offer a choice between evolution and neurobiology is because people have questioned whether evolution is necessary when explaining morality. In other words, who’s to say we evolved to be moral? What if our moral instincts find their origin in our brains? This is Churchland’s line of thinking in her book Braintrust. Then again, contrast that with Korsgaard’s view, which is based on Nietzsche’s internalization of man. She maintains that we, as primates, may have internalized what was once external authority. In other words, when you look at most primate societies, you’ll find an alpha. This alpha serves as an authority. As h.sapien became a separate biological population, this sort of authority was seldom needed. Eventually, we developed autonomy and upon doing so, we internalized the authority that was once external. In this sense, evolution can serve as morality’s foundation. This view is similar to Scanlon’s contractualism. On this view, we haven’t internalized authority, but we have bound each other by a social contract—thus acting as authorities over one another. Because of this contract, we obligate or perhaps motivate one another to act morally. This is perfectly in line with the law. The law is the codification of such a contract. All of these are possible explanations. Though they’re incomplete, neither of us can say that this or that view is mistaken or on the wrong track. As a matter of fact, it seems more probable that at least one of these is on the right track.
Allow me now to add to Nietzsche’s internalization of man. This notion seems to serve as a good basis for voluntarism. According to Thomas Hobbes, we are the sovereign people are looking for; this is precisely why he was accused of atheism. Rather than saying that god is the sovereign from whom morality proceeds, he said that men and women are the sovereigns from whom morality proceeds. According to his view, we get the following:
- The sovereign makes the law
- So The sovereign can unmake the law
- So the sovereign is not bound by the law that he makes
I don’t agree with these bullet points, especially when considering Korsgaard’s reflective endorsement. Also we don’t make the law in the same way we don’t make the laws of physics. Moral laws are contingent on people that existed before I did; that is why I learn of these laws and how to adequately apply them. Being that I didn’t make the moral law, I can’t unmake the moral law; it follows that the third point doesn’t apply to me. The second point has issues of its own. That’s an issue I discuss in a recent post; I’ll provide a link toward the end.
But does this kill realism? No it doesn’t. What you’re arguing for is substantive realism. I can still get to Korsgaard’s procedural realism. It naturally descends from Kant’s categorical imperative, though her views differ, in some respects, from Kant’s. I also find that curious: if you’re going to even mention naturalistic ethics, why not mention Kant. His views, in my honest opinion, are more cogent than Hume’s; even if someone disagrees with that statement, they would agree that he merits mention.
Note that the above argument is logically valid, that is it cannot be the case that the premises are true and the conclusion false. Thus, if both the premises are more plausibly true than not, a rational person is obligated to accept the conclusion.
It is not logically valid. Because I can demonstrate the falsity of the conclusion, the argument is rendered invalid. An invalid argument is one in where the premises are true but the conclusion is false. In this case, P1 isn’t true. That renders the argument unsound. Therefore, a rational person is obligated to reject the argument altogether—even if one accepts the conclusion a priori. That is to say that, based on your faith, you can maintain that god exists; however, you cannot subscribe to the argument as it stands.
Premise 1 appeals to our strongly held intuition that there do exist objective moral values and duties. No matter how much we deal with skeptical arguments, this intuition doesn’t go away. Craig calls moral realism a properly basic belief. Basic or foundational beliefs do not depend upon justification from other beliefs. They are self-evident or incorrigible.† No amount of evidence can rule out that you aren’t a brain in a vat being fed perfect simulations of the world and yet you wouldn’t be considered irrational for rejecting such a hypothesis. Our beliefs in the objective reality of the physical world, other minds and our memory are foundational or basic. Prima facie, there seems to be no better reason to deny existence of objective moral values than to deny the aforementioned beliefs. (Still, hard atheists do deny it.)
And this is precisely the nihilism I mentioned. Nietzsche and Freud denied this as well. The views aren’t exactly indefensible.
But, wait! Didn’t I say that it’s hard to justify existence of objective morality on naturalism? That is what the Premise 2 is about. It asserts that without the existence of a transcendental reality or God, there is no way to ground objective moral values.†† It is crucial to realize that the claim here is not that a person cannot be moral or know moral values without believing in God. In fact, under the Christian doctrine, it is believed that moral values are “written on the hearts” of every human, atheists included. Many non-believers misconstrue this premise as an attack on their moral integrity, when in fact it is absolutely not the case. Still others appeal to horrific acts in the Bible or other texts. But that has little to do with the substance of this premise or the overall argument and thus serves as a red herring.
Given my reformulation, which is actually Craig’s formulation, you mean the first premise. The first premise is unsound and I hope to have shown that. The appeal to such verses in the Bible aren’t red herring. When asked to justify the notion that moral values and duties are grounded in god, the Christian responds by saying that god is good by nature. However, when pointing to the Bible, we don’t see a god who’s good by nature. We see a god who commanded the murder of infants and children. He commanded rape, slavery, and rapine. So the question atheists mean to ask is, how can morality be grounded in such a monster? That’s precisely why the Euthyphro Dilemma is invoked. That was one of the points I made when reducing Divine Command Theory to absurdity. This is the link I promised to provide.
So, does the argument carry through? Important as the question is, the purpose of this post isn’t to take a firm position on the soundness of the moral argument, but to critique common retorts offered by atheists. Of course, I have barely scratched the surface on these issues. I would advise consulting the entries on moral philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further information!
†The philosophically inclined reader should note that I have assumed foundationalism.
You made it quite obvious that you assumed foundationalism. That’s why I included it in my response.
Unfortunately, these aren’t common retorts. In my experience, atheists on Tumblr understand what the Moral Argument is trying to say. An argument’s purpose is found in its conclusion. The Moral Argument for God is an argument that attempts to show that god exists. It isn’t really an argument for moral realism. In essence, it’s actually an anti-realist argument because it argues that morality is contingent on god. However, what if someone successfully demonstrates his nonexistence? Are moral values and duties also nonexistent? If one subscribes to the argument then that conclusion is inescapable; thus, they are subscribing to veiled anti-realism. I maintain that moral values and duties are grounded in human reason; they are co-contingent on humans. That is to say that moral values and duties can be contingent on beings whose cognizance is equal to or greater than human cognizance. I use equal to loosely. A rational being could be slightly less cognizant and still arrive at morality. That’s why this kind of substantive realism is indefensible. Only a procedural realism can succeed where it failed because even if it makes morality contingent on some being, it makes morality contingent on a being that exists—and demonstrably so; in every case, the procedural realist has grounded morality in humans.
††The second premise is disputed by platonists who assert that moral values might exist in non-spatiotemporal and abstract form in a “third realm distinct both from the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness.” This realm supposedly has nothing to do with God.
John Mackie is skeptical about these values and duties; he expresses this skepticism in his argument from queerness. Rather than asserting that they exist in a non-spatiotemporarl third realm, he asserts that they can’t possibly exist because of their queerness. Of course, that’s not good grounds to reject the existence of moral values and duties. That’s precisely Korsgaard’s objection to Mackie’s argument.