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:
- If God does not exist, objective moral duties do not exist.
- Objective moral duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Moral Values and Duties
Objective and Subjective
Moral Ontology and Epistemology
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. So how shall we defend it? Well, we can start by asking along with Craig, “if theism is false, then what is the basis for objective moral duties?” This is a good question since on atheism humans aren’t any different, morally speaking, from other animals, and animals don’t have moral obligations to one another. Animals take, they don’t steal; they kill, they don’t murder. It’s not like a lion has done something objectively wrong when it kills its prey.
Once we reflect on the nature of duties we soon realise why atheism cannot give us any basis for objective moral duties. Duties arise from commands from a competent or qualified authority. Let me give some examples to show you what I mean. If you’re driving a car and a random person commands you to stop your car on the side of the road you aren’t obliged to do so. In this case we have a command but no competent authority. However, if you’re in the same situation but this time it’s a policeman commanding you to pull your car over, you are legally obliged to pull your car over. Why? Because the policeman is a legal authority over you and when he gives. So this understanding fits right in with our intuitive understanding of how duties arise.
But on atheism, who or what imposes these moral duties on us? There is no universal lawgiver who is a moral authority to command us to do anything, and so there can’t be any moral duties imposed upon us. Thus it seems quite clear that if God doesn’t exist, objective moral duties can’t either.
2. Objective moral duties do exist
What can be said in defence of premise 2? I think, broadly, there’re two ways to defend this premise: (1) by showing the unbearable implications of denying objective moral duties and (2) by giving a positive reason for thinking objective moral duties exist, even though we might not know them perfectly. Let’s consider each in turn.
2.1. The implications of denying objective moral duties
What follows if we say moral duties are subjective? Well I guess if this is the case then it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, genocide or any crime as evil. After all, if right and wrong differ from person to person then they’re indistinguishable from one’s taste. You can no more say someone is wrong in doing an action than say they’re incorrect in liking certain foods or music, since right and wrong change from person to person. Rape might be right to some, even if it’s not right for you. Hate crimes against homosexuals might be right to some, even if you don’t like them.
Some might try to escape this by saying that right and wrong aren’t relative to people, but societies. So we can condemn people for going against social conventions (our ‘morals’ in the context of society). But this doesn’t fix the problem, since we still can’t condemn people in other societies. If, in some society they thought rape of children or hate crimes or the killing of people over 60 was OK (or even morally obligatory), we couldn’t condemn those actions as wrong any more than we can condemn other countries from driving on the other side of the road. In fact, making moral duties relative to a society raises yet another issue: it leaves no room for social reform. Not just that, but it makes social reform wrong! Take for example to fight in South Africa against Apartheid. Since white supremacy was part of the societal norms, it follows that white supremacy (and racism against non-whites) was right. Not only that, but the people who fought against it were actually doing something morally wrong! Likewise with the fight against slavery in America, those who fought against slavery were morally wrong and should be punished! We could think of a society where all the women were oppressed purely because they were women. In this case, it would be wrong to fight for women’s rights. And people should feel compelled to stop anyone from doing so.
Clearly these situations are absurd, but they follow quite naturally from the denial of objective moral duties. It doesn’t take much to think of more and more examples that we’d just completely disagree with on moral grounds. Some might complain that this doesn’t prove that objective moral duties exist, and they’d be correct. However, I needn’t prove objective moral duties exist to someone who already believes they do. This “thinking through the implications” might show some that they don’t actually believe that moral duties are relative because of how absurd the conclusions of such a position are. In this case, we needn’t show that moral duties are objective.
2.2. We should trust our moral perceptions
Nevertheless, it would be nice to have some positive reason for thinking moral duties are objective. William Sorley made an apt observation which is summarised by Dr. Craig in his book, Reasonable Faith (3rd Edition),
[Sorley] admits that in a sense one cannot prove that objective values exist, but insists that in this same sense one cannot prove that the external world exists either! Thus, the moral order and the natural order are on equal footing.
Now many of those who would have us believe that moral duties are subjective would still accept that we perceive them as objective, even if that perception is mistaken. After all, everyone makes moral judgements as though they are binding on everyone (and therefore act as though these morals are objective). Even after I’ve pointed out to people that doing so is inconsistent with a denial of objective moral duties (and they agree) I later find them continuing to make these moral judgements. I can only think that such behaviour points to a deep conviction in the person that these duties are objective and binding even if, intellectually, they don’t want to accept it and so say their perceptions are mistaken.
But why think this apprehension of an objective moral realm is mistaken any more than our apprehension of an objective physical realm around us? As Craig says, “in the absence of some defeater, we rationally trust our perceptions, whether sensory or moral”.
It’s impossible to test whether our sensory perceptions (ie. our 5 senses) are correct but this doesn’t stop us from trusting them. Likewise, we should trust our moral perceptions unless we’re given some reason to undercut our trust in them (called an undercutting defeater). So, the person who claims that our moral perceptions are faulty needs to give some reason as to why they think so (possible reasons will be dealt with later under objections). In the absence of such a defeater we are compelled to trust their deliverances that there is an objective moral realm, meaning that there are objective moral duties.
We must be careful to keep in mind the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology at this point. I’m not claiming that people perceive that the same things are right and wrong (that would be ridiculous) since that is a question of moral epistemology. Rather, I’m claiming that people perceive that there are things that are right and wrong in the first place (that objective moral duties do exist). Notice the difference? It might not be the case that people perceive the world around us in the same way (some are colour blind, others have blurry vision) but it is the case that people perceive that there is a world around us at all. So just as six people might agree that there’s a table in the room while disagreeing over the colour of the table, six people can agree that objective moral duties exist while not agreeing over whether abortion is right or wrong.
It also doesn’t matter that some people genuinely don’t perceive this objective moral realm (although I would say if people were honest with themselves we’d have a lot less people claiming this). Just like the existence of blind people doesn’t undermine the existence of the objective physical realm, so these people don’t undermine the existence of the objective moral realm.
So there we have it. We have reason to think objective moral duties exist because we perceive an objective moral realm and should trust our perceptions.
I’ll close this part with a extensive quote from Craig (Reasonable Faith, in which he also quotes David Brink from “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism):
Speaking several years ago on a Canadian university campus, I noticed a poster put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read: “Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man.” Most of us recognize that sexual abuse of another person is wrong. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality aren’t just socially unacceptable behaviour – they’re moral abominations. By the same token, love generosity, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good. People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly. Ethicist David Brink thinks that the objectivity of moral values is thus the default position. “There might be no objective moral standards… But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as a result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.”
Now we turn to objections against the moral argument. I guess objections could be raise to each of my defences (1, 2.1 and 2.2) and I’ll take those in turn. Also, I’ve found that there are general objections which aren’t raised against either premise per se (already we should be suspicious of such objections) which I’ll consider at the end.
3.1 Objections to 1.
There are four common objections to the first premise, they are as follows.
Evolutionary considerations pop up often in objections to the moral argument. This objection says that we have evolved morals and therefore don’t need God to ground these objective moral duties. But clearly this won’t do.
Firstly, it makes no sense of moral duties, since merely evolving an awareness to morals doesn’t imply we ought do those things. So evolution does not give us sufficient basis to ground our moral obligations and prohibitions (ie. our moral duties) apart from God.
Secondly, it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral duties, since people in different areas of the globe could very well have evolved different morals (like they’ve evolved different skins and different languages). So evolution is a very inadequate alternative (if we can even call it an alternative).
3.1.2. Redefining right and wrong
Another common response to the first premise is to redefine what we mean by “right” and “wrong”. Usually this involves defining “right” as something like “advantageous to human survival”, or “flourishing of concious life” or something along those lines and then defining wrong similarly. Again we can respond in two ways.
Firstly, it’s not good enough to just redefine the terms “right” and “wrong”. In the argument we’re not concerned with moral semantics (the definition of moral terms) but moral ontology. We’ve been using the terms in the sense they’re usually understood, as obligations (what we ought do and ought not do). In fact, this whole time we’ve been speaking about these moral duties, so just redefining “right” or “wrong” is really just a red herring.
Secondly, even if we accept this re-definition as a viable objection, it still doesn’t work, since it contradicts what we’d usually understand as right and wrong. For example, it seems that killing all people over 60 or all people with chronic diseases might be advantageous to the flourishing of the human race as a whole. Furthermore, these re-definitions are insufficient just as the appeal to evolution was insufficient because they do not result in obligations. Just because some action is advantageous to concious life how does it follow that I ought do that action? Where does the obligation come from?
3.1.3. Appealing to Atheistic moral realism
One final objection to this premise might be to appeal to something Craig calls Atheistic Moral Platonism. On this view, our moral values and duties just exist as independent entities. So, for example, the proposition “Humans ought not murder other humans” exists as an actual, non-physical object in reality. This commits the objector to a certain ontology of abstract objects called Platonism (hence the name). We can mention a few problems with this objection.
Firstly, Platonism is inaccessible to materialists (those atheists who claim that only physical things exist) and in my experience, most atheists are materialists.
Secondly, if the Atheistic Moral Platonist only categorises moral values as self-existent then there is no reason to think this “alternative” results in our having any obligations. After all, why ought I align myself with one set of values (like mercy, love and compassion) over another (like hate, greed and selfishness)? However, if this Platonist were to include obligations with these self-existent entities then we’re verging on incoherence. What does it even mean for a command to just exist without someone issuing it or without some will lying behind it? For sure, normal Platonists can hold that obligations can exist as independent entities, but they’d say that they come into existence once a command is issued by someone, not just as self-existent entities.
Thirdly, as Craig points out (in Reasonable Faith),
… it is fantastically improbable that just that sort of creature would emerge form the blind evolutionary process that corresponds to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This seems to be an utterly incredible coincidence when one thinks about it. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. As William Sorley saw, it is far more plausible to regard both the natural realm and the moral realm as under the hegemony of a divine Creator and Lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh.
I think that is sufficient response to the appeal to Atheistic Moral Platonism.
3.1.4. Euthryphro Dilemma
The Euthryphro Dilemma can be seen as an argument for Atheistic Moral Platonism. “The objection, first recorded in Plato’s Euthryphro, goes as follows: either something is good because God wills it or else God wills something because it is good.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith) If we go with the first horn, then we have to admit that what is right becomes arbitrary. God could’ve willed that we hate one another, and we’d be obliged to do so. On the other hand, if we go with the second horn then we undermine premise 1 in accepting some form of Moral Platonism, which we’ve already seen isn’t a viable alternative.
However, it seems that we can accept the first horn without having the problem of God’s commands being arbitrary: our moral duties arise from commands from an essentially loving and just God. On this view, God is by nature loving, compassionate, merciful, fair, kind, and so on and his nature is the paradigm for moral values and forms the basis for God’s moral commands to us (so there isn’t a possible world in which God commands us to hate one another). So far from being arbitrary, they are grounded in a perfect, necessary goodness. And God is a morally competent and qualified authority since he is the paradigm of moral values. Thus moral values are secured (since God couldn’t be someone other than he is) and moral duties are grounded adequately.
Craig answers the question, “Why pick God’s nature as the definitive of the Good?” in the following way:
God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness. Unless we are nihilists, we have to recognise some ultimate standard of value, and God is the least arbitrary stopping point.
3.2. Objections to 2.1.
Admittedly I haven’t really heard any objections to the reasoning besides the complaint I mentioned (and responded to) in my above defence of the premise. So with that we’ll turn to the next defence.
3.3. Objections to 2.2.
3.3.1. Because we’ve evolved them, our moral beliefs are false
Once again evolutionary considerations pop up, this time twice in response to the same premise! Here the claim is that “since our moral beliefs have been instilled in us through socio-biological pressures, those beliefs are false and so objective moral values and duties do not exist.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith) But this route is a simple case of the genetic fallacy, which is an attempt to falsify a belief based on how one came to form that belief.
Even if us evolving our moral beliefs means they’re fallible, it doesn’t follow that objective moral duties don’t exist. At most it just means this we can’t infer their existence from our perceptions.
3.3.2. Because we’ve evolved them, our moral perceptions are untrustworthy
This objection speaks directly to that last insight. It also responds directly to the second defence of the second premise: it attempts to give a defeater for us trusting our moral perceptions. If we’ve evolved them, then there’s no reason to trust them. So even if there is an objective moral realm, there’s no reason to think that our moral perceptions give us any reason to think it exists, since they’ve evolved solely for survival and not for determining truth.
The problem with this objection is that all our perceptions and faculties have evolved solely for survival, not just our moral ones. Our evolving our moral perceptions no more undermines their apprehension of a moral realm any more than our evolving our sensory perceptions undermines their apprehension of a physical realm.
Furthermore, our reasoning faculties would fall prey to the same criticism as our moral faculties, meaning we couldn’t even trust ourselves to come to rational conclusions about anything, let alone the existence of God or the truth of evolution (this is Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism). Because of this, this objection is just self-defeating since if it were true we’d have no reason to affirm it.
It’s also question-begging, since it assumes atheism is true. Since if theism were true, there seems to be a good chance that our evolved moral faculties would be at least somewhat reliable.
3.3.3. Because our moral beliefs are imposed on us by society, they are false
Again, just like objection 3.3.1. this commits the genetic fallacy. We can’t dismiss our moral beliefs because of how we came to hold them.
3.3.4. Because our moral perceptions are imposed on us by society, they are untrustworthy
Similar to 3.3.2. except this time, instead of questioning our having evolved our moral perceptions and beliefs (in which case it brought down our other perceptions too) this objects on the grounds that our moral perceptions and beliefs have been imposed by the society or culture we find ourselves in (maybe even by our parents). It should be noted that society imposing our beliefs about what we think is right and wrong does nothing to undermine our moral perception of objective moral duties, since the former deals with moral epistemology and the latter with moral ontology. So this objection must be raised against our moral perceptions if it’s to be relevant.
But, firstly, what on earth does it mean for society to impose a perception on us? Certainly our society can tell us that right and wrong exist, but that doesn’t cause us to perceive such things as reality. It can at most cause us to believe that these rights and wrongs exist objectively. But this isn’t the defence. In fact the whole point of this defence was to encourage such belief based on our perceptions.
Secondly, it seems evident from experience that humans have an innate perception of right and wrong prior to and independent of outside teaching. Just like we never have to tell a child that the external world around them exists, neither do we need to tell them that objective moral duties exist; rather we just need to explain to them what their duties are (moral epistemology). I don’t think there’re many parents who’ve needed to explain what they mean by “wrong” in the statement “taking things that don’t belong to you is wrong” when reprimanding a child, because the child already has an innate idea and perception of the moral realm (like their idea and perception of the physical realm).
Thirdly, simply affirming that our moral perceptions are there solely because society imposes them upon us is insufficient. What reason can be given to think that this perception didn’t develop or evolve (at least in part) just like our other perceptions? It seems only natural to assume it did since we would expect our perceptions to develop in similar ways. The objector needs to give some reason for thinking that this perception is a special case.
3.4. General Objections
The following objections aren’t so much against either of the premises, but against the moral argument as a whole.
3.4.1. The God of the Bible killing innocents
Many New Atheists are quick to point out that “the God of the Hebrew Bible is a moral monster!” and somehow think that they’ve evaded this argument. It should be noted, however, that (1) the argument isn’t for a specific God and so such an objection is a red herring, (2) sufficient answers can be given to such claims against Christianity (hopefully in a later post I will give some) and (3) such an objection only lends further support to the second premise of the argument.
3.4.2. Atheists do live moral lives
Most recently I’ve seen this complaint/comment here. Now hopefully you realise that the claim that people can be good without the belief in God is obviously true. More than that, without the belief in God, a person could still come up with a moral system that any theist would largely agree with. But that’s not the argument’s contention. Its contention is that without God, such belief in objective moral duties cannot be grounded in anything and so these objective moral duties that the atheist claims to grasp aren’t actually there. So without God, people can’t live moral lives, because morality doesn’t exist. It’s not because all atheists are by definition horrible people or don’t know how to live moral lives. That just confuses moral epistemology with moral ontology.
This treatment of the moral argument is but a mere introduction into the discussions around a single formulation of it. Chris Shrock identifies three different categories moral arguments can fall into (I think this one would be an explanatory one) in his paper Three Flavours of Moral Argument for God’s Existence. One could also look to Robert Adams’ Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief for an overview of different arguments. For another defence (a defence on which this one is almost entirely based) you could look to William Lane Craig’s website, reasonablefaith.org which is named after his book, Reasonable Faith. The website is full of great resources dealing with a number of arguments for God’s existence, but with respect to this argument the article The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality is very good. Also he’s answered a number of questions on the topic in his Q&A Archive which are valuable to further understanding and clarification.