Defending the Moral Argument

The Argument

For those who don’t know, the Moral Argument is a class of theistic argument that attempts to argue for God’s existence from the existence of a universal moral law. Here I’m concerned with defending a single moral argument. It’s formulation is similar William Lane Craig’s (however, unlike Dr. Craig, I’m leaving out any mention of values for the sake of space) and is quite simple to follow:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This argument is clearly valid so if someone wants to deny the conclusion, then they need to deny one of the two premises. In this post I’ll lay out a defence of the two premises and then consider common objections. But before I do, it would be wise to clarify and define the terms used in the argument.

Moral Values and Duties

Moral values refer to moral worth and we use the words good and bad to describe them; for example, being loving, impartial and compassionate are morally good attributes.
Moral duties, on the other hand, refer to moral obligations and prohibitions and we use the words right and wrong to describe them. Moral duties are what we ought do and ought not do. For example, we ought not murder, we ought love our neighbour, and so on.

Objective and Subjective

By objective I mean independent of what anyone thinks. So when we say murder is objectively wrong, even if everyone in the universe thought that murder was OK, it would still be the case that we ought not murder. Subjective is just the opposite of this. Our taste in food is subjective. No-one can say that burgers taste good independent of what anyone thinks; that makes no sense. Likewise, we could have subjectivity on a country-wide scale: when driving on a road, neither the left nor the right is the correct side of the road to drive on. South Africans can’t say that the Americans are wrong in driving on the right side of the road. It’s just a social convention.

Moral Ontology and Epistemology

One more distinction should be made. We need to distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Moral ontology deals with the reality of moral values and duties, while moral epistemology deals with our knowledge of those moral truths. We’ll see how this distinction is important later, but for now it’s worth saying that this argument is solely about moral ontology, not epistemology.
With these definitions out in the open, let’s move to defences of the above argument.

1. If God doesn’t exist, objective moral duties don’t exist

When I first started reading about the moral argument, I thought that this premise would be the one I’d need to defend most often. I was startled to realise that the very opposite is the case. Much more often than not people I’ve spoken to just accept this premise without further question. “That’s just obvious” one of my friends said. When I articulated the above argument to another friend his first question was, “How do you know objective moral’s exist?”. Apparently he thought the first premise was self-evident.

Nevertheless it will serve us well to defend it. Read More »

A Read to Remember: An Exhortation to Christians

I can’t help but get the overwhelming impression that many Christians aren’t taking the time to think/read/learn about Christian doctrine or apologetics. Now I’m not expecting everyone to go out and get PhDs in theology or something, but rather to take an interest in learning both what we as Christians believe and how to communicate those beliefs (doctrine) and how to defend those beliefs (apologetics).

Before we continue, consider this quote from CS. Lewis:

God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.  If you are thinking of being a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something that is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.

CS. Lewis understood that being a Christian means more than just living like a Christian: it’s also about thinking like a Christian. It requires us to understand our beliefs.

Now I can imagine that some might reply by trying to label this as too intellectual and in doing so deem it irrelevant. Others might say that they don’t have enough time. Still, others might be quick to remind us that we can’t just focus on head knowledge, but also on the spiritual things, like our relationship with God and application of what the Bible teaches. I’ll attempt to respond to these objections in reverse order.

Firstly, no-one says that we must focus solely on head knowledge, rather this is an exhortation to include head knowledge at all. We are too strongly tempted to say that we can’t just focus on this learning and then solve this problem by doing the exact opposite, and equally damaging, thing: just focusing on spiritual things. Rather I call for both to be included and neither ignored.

Secondly for those who say they have no time, either we literally have no time for anything, learning doctrine/apologetics included, or we mean we do have time, just not time for learning doctrine/apologetics. The second option, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as the next objection so I won’t deal with it here. The first option is relatively easy to solve. Most people read books or watch TV, so why not (say, once a week) replace that with reading a bit of a Christian book? That doesn’t seem to be too difficult. If you don’t even have time for that, then I think you either need to rethink your schedule or just make the time.

Thirdly, we have the irrelevance objection, where we’re going to spend most of our time. To this objection, I respond with a few reasons why we should be learning doctrine and apologetics. Hopefully they’ll show that learning about doctrine and culture isn’t just some abstract exercise for intellectuals only, but is practical and for every Christian (All but the first reason either come directly from or are based on reasons William Lane Craig gave for studying doctrine and apologetics in his “Foundations of Christian Doctrine” talks, here and here, in his Defenders 2 Podcasts).

  1. Consistency: Many of us study or work in the secular world. If we really think God is the most important thing in existence, why do we spend so much time thinking about his creation and not him? Learning doctrine can help us to understand God and what he’s revealed to us in his word.
  2. Maturity: In Ephesians [4:11ff] Paul says that God placed some people to be teachers to help us to mature, so that “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men n their deceitful scheming” So part of how we mature as Christians is by furthering our understanding of our faith and about God so that we don’t get lead astray. Paul shows that having correct understanding is very important when he says [Galatians 1:9] that anyone who preaches a gospel other than the true one should be condemned forever. Now learning doctrine and how to read the bible can help us to further our understanding of the teaching of the Bible and in doing so, mature.
  3. Right living presupposes right thinking: This is because you can’t live out certain teachings if you first know the teachings first. We see this come through in many of the letters Paul writes. Often he will spend the first bit of a letter explaining doctrine and teaching the readers. Then in the second half, he goes on to apply this teaching to our lives. Now Christian books can help correct us and teach us about God and aid us in studying his word.
  4. Learning about God is an expression of loving God with all our minds: In Matthew [22:37-38] Jesus says, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’, this is the first and greatest commandment” Now part of loving God with our minds is trying to understand him and his interactions with his world. Again, Christian doctrine helps.
  5. Evangelism: Christians need to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends. This means explaining and defending what Christians believe. But how are we going to explain and defend these things if we don’t know how? If a friend asks you about how Christians explain the evil and suffering in the world, how should you answer them? If a Muslim friend asks you about the Trinity, how should you respond? If a friend asks about the reliability of the New Testament what are you going to say? If a friend asks how a loving God can send people to hell, what should you say? These questions have a number of answers and learning doctrine and apologetics helps us to think through these issues more deeply. (Also, we mustn’t think that defending Christianity is just for evangelism with specific people. Nancy Pearcey talks about “Redeeming Cultures” as well as people. If we show that Christianity is rational we help our culture to take the gospel seriously and consider it a viable option.)
  6. Encouragement: Christians need to help one another to mature and grow in Christ. This means strengthening one another and correcting false thinking. But how are we going to correct one another if we don’t have a firm grasp of what the Bible teaches? Also, knowing some apologetics helps us strengthen one another’s faith. Again, reading apologetics and doctrine can help us to encourage and correct.

So learning doctrine and apologetics helps us to live consistently, grow in our maturity, correct our thinking so that we can live correctly, love God with our minds, share and defend the gospel with our non-Christian friends and encourage and correct our Christian friends. I hardly think it’s irrelevant.