Epistemological issues in the moral argument

I am a proponent of a moral argument, taken from William Lane Craig, given in the following form:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral values and duties don’t exist
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
  3. Therefore, God exists

I’ve had a number of previous posts here dealing with specific details of this argument’s defence. Here I wish to discuss a defence of the second premise that goes like this:

  1. In the absence of any defeaters, we are rationally compelled to trust the deliverances of our various faculties
  2. In our moral experience we perceive objective moral duties and values
  3. We have no defeater for these deliverances of our moral faculty
  4. Therefore, we are rationally compelled to believe in objective moral duties and values

Clearly, this argument falls in the realm of epistemology. Perhaps it will be helpful to clarify a few terms for those who aren’t familiar with them.


First, some examples of the various faculties we have are our five senses, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning[1], memory, and our moral sense. I suppose I should probably explain those three reasoning faculties a little more. Deductive reasoning uses principles of logic that seem to be objectively binding, like the principle of excluded middle (for any proposition A, A is either true or false), the principle of non-contradiction (for any proposition A, it is not possible for both A and not-A to be true at the same time), the validity of certain reasoning schemes (like, if A entails B, and A is true, then B is true), and so on. Our deductive reasoning faculty is that part of us that perceives that certain principles are true and others false, how to apply these general principles to specific examples, and so on. For example, I hope that everyone reading this will see that the examples I gave of logical principles are self-evidently true[2].

Inductive reasoning is sort of opposite to deductive reasoning: where deduction applies general principles to specific examples, induction infers general principles from specific examples. This is used sometimes in science, and often in practical life. Our inductive reasoning faculty is the part of us that perceives the relevant principles to actually do induction in the first place. For example, say we poke a rat with a sharp stick and it squeals in pain. We would reasonably infer from this (and possibly some more tests, just to be sure) that rats can feel pain. But why? Why not just those rats? Or not just the rats on that colour? Or rats from that generation? And so on, and so on. So two of the things that our inductive reasoning faculty is responsible for are discerning what aspects of certain events/phenomena/experiences are relevant to the more general case, and how exactly we should generalise it (there are no doubt others, I just want to give a feel for what I’m talking about[3]).

Abductive reasoning sort-of goes in the reverse direction of deductive and inductive reasoning. Where deduction and induction move from “premises” to “conclusion”, abduction starts with a phenomenon and moves backwards in trying to develop an explanation for that phenomenon. If you’ve heard of inference to the best explanation, that’s an example of abductive reasoning. This is used extensively in science, philosophy, and history, to name a few fields. As you might expect, your aductive reasoning faculty is responsible for everything that goes on in inferring an explanation for a phenomenon/experience/event.

For each of these faculties there is a “perception of principles” part and an “application of principles” part. I tend to group these all under a blanket term: our rational faculties. Beyond these, the sense, memory and moral faculties seem self-explanatory.

Perceptions, intuitions, and feelings

Second, we come to the distinction between perceptions (ie. the deliverances of our faculties), intuitions, and feelings. Perhaps these distinctions are superficial, but I find them helpful. Perceptions are “seemings” that are produced from our faculties. Perceptions are different from feelings: we perceive objective things, but we feel subjective things. Let me be clear, I don’t mean to say that the things we perceive are always objectively existent (more on this later, when we get to defeasibility), but merely that when we perceive something, we perceive it as an objective thing. So, when someone has an hallucination of a red mushroom in front of them, it seems to them that there is actually a red mushroom in front of them, even if they might realise that it’s a result of their sense faculty playing tricks on them (ie. malfunctioning). However, feelings (I’m using feelings as a blanket term which includes emotions, preferences, knee-jerk reactions, and desires) are felt subjectively. We can see how the two play out in an example: we feel fear when we perceive danger. While feelings themselves are not the results of our faculties, they are certainly clues to what we’re perceiving: you wouldn’t have felt (subjective) fear had you not perceived you were in real (objective) danger.

A more tenuous (but equally as valid) distinction is between intuition and perception. It seems to me that perceptions form the raw data on which our intuitions are based. For example, if I told you that a man can run at 100 kilometers and hour, you’d find that unintuitive, based off your knowledge (gathered by your sense, induction and deduction faculties) of humans in general. It’s not as though you perceive the absence of a man able to run 100 kilometers an hour. In fact, even if you did perceive such a man (ie. you saw him run), you’d still think it unintuitive that he could run at such speeds naturally, even if you didn’t notice any equipment helping him at the time. So perception is different from intuition.

The way I see it, an experience is just a complex of perceptions, feelings, and sometimes intuition.

Defeaters and defeasibility

Third, we used the term “defeater” in the argument. This is a technical term, of which there are at least two different kinds: rebutting defeaters and undercutting defeaters. A rebutting defeater goes against the truth of a claim or experience. For example, a rebutting defeater of the claim that the earth is flat could be pictures from outer space of the earth being round. A rebutting defeater of the earth being at the center of the solar system, could be a better explanation of the paths the planets trace out in the night skies, that requires that the sun be at the center of the solar system. A rebutting defeater to the claim that no man can run 100 kilometers and hour, would be an example of a man that could. And so on, and so on. On the other hand, an undercutting defeater doesn’t go against the truth of a claim/experience, but the warrant we have for believing that claim or trusting that experience. For example, if a man saw a red mushroom in front of him, but was then given reason to mistrust this perception, this would serve as an undercutting defeater for that perception. The evidence doesn’t necessarily go against the fact of there being a mushroom there, but rather against any reason for him to trust his faculties that there is a mushroom there. Consider this quote from William Lane Craig, which illustrates this distinction in the context of an argument:

In order to remove the warrant provided by the argument for its conclusion, the argument’s detractor must either expose a fallacy in its logical inference form or defeat at least one of its premises. Refutatory defeaters brought against the premises may be either rebutting defeaters which aim to show that the relevant premiss is false orundercutting defeaters which aim to show that the relevant premiss has not been proved to be true.[4]

Now, when we say a faculty is defeasible, we mean that while it may not be infallible (ie. incapable of error), we should still give it the benefit of the doubt until we have some reason to mistrust a specific perception. Consider what Robert Koons says, in the context of a defeasible causal principle (I’m not trying to argue his point here, I just want you to glean from how we discusses the meaning of the word “defeasible”):

… at the very least, our experience warrants adopting the causal principle as a default or defeasible rule. This means that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we may infer, about any particular wholly contingent situation, that it has a cause.[5, emphasis original]

For something to be defeasible, then, it for it to have the benefit of the doubt, for it to be considered innocent until proven guilty. In other words: trustworthy until defeated.

Premise 1: Faculties as defeasible guides

Now, we usually treat our faculties as defeasible guides to reality. Perhaps our eyes are fooled every now and then, and perhaps we mishear sometimes, but neither of these call into question the general reliability of our sight or hearing. Perhaps we make a mistake in probabilistic reasoning, or deduction, or we incorrectly generalise, or something, but we continue to trust our rational faculties. Sometimes we misremember things, but this doesn’t mean our memories are completely untrustworthy! But this is all the first premise above claims, namely that our faculties are defeasible guides. Consider what Dr. Craig says,

…it seems to me that we have no choice but to take common sense and intuition as our starting points.  I very strongly suspect that even those who claim to place no stock in common sense and intuition in fact rely on them all the time with respect to unconscious metaphysical assumptions.  So when a philosophical viewpoint flies in the face of common sense and intuition (e.g., that the external world does not exist), then we may justly demand a very powerful argument in favor of that viewpoint.  In the absence of some defeater of what common sense and intuition tell us, we are rightly sceptical of that viewpoint and perfectly rational to reject it.  So while the deliverances of common sense and intuition are certainly defeasible and may on occasion need revision, still they are an indispensable starting point which should not be lightly abandoned.[6]

Here he’s talking about intuition, but I think it’s even more true for our perceptions, on which our intuitions are based. And when we think about it, this kind of behaviour makes complete sense: if you give me some piece of evidence, then I’d be a fool to ignore it in the absence of some reason to mistrust it’s validity[7]. But as I’ve noted above, perceptions and experiences form a sort-of raw data, and so we should treat it like we treat any other evidence.

Now, for these reasons, the first premise seems self-evident. Nevertheless, there is one objection to it that I’d like to tackle here. The detractor of the argument needs to show that somehow our moral faculty is distinguished from our other faculties in that it is not a defeasible guide, while the others are. Now I admit, on pains of arbitrariness, this seems like an excessively difficult task to pull off. But consider the following approach: start by assuming all our faculties are guilty until proven innocent (ie. we need to establish their defeasibility), and then show how we can prove our non-moral faculties innocent. Now the starting assumptions here seem too heavy to bear, for if we don’t start trusting any of our faculties (it would be prejudiced, and even question begging, to assume some are reliable and not others without argument) how might we establish any of them are reliable? The only hope I can see is some sort of pragmatism[8]: we trust those faculties we have to trust to get through the day (or some other very pragmatic reason). Unfortunately, this approach ends up being circular, self-defeating, and arbitrary.

First, it’s circular since the only way you could know that you need a given faculty is if you already trust that faculty. Consider a typical example: we have to trust our sight, lest we walk into walls or off cliffs. But how do you know there are walls to walk into and cliffs to fall off if you don’t already trust your sight? Second, it’s self-defeating, since for any highly pragmatic end, you don’t have to trust your reasoning faculties. What value is your ability to develop general epistemological principles to getting through the day? None! But, this means you can’t trust your faculties when they come to the conclusion of the principle the detractor is seeking to defend. Thus we have an undercutting defeater for the principle itself. Third, it’s arbitrary. Pragmatism only makes sense when seeking some sort of end. But why choose one end over another? What makes “getting through the day” better than “come to an understanding of the moral realm” or “come to an understanding of logical principles” or any other end one can think of? The choice, at the end of the day, is arbitrary, and I can’t see any way to come up with a non-arbitrary end without presupposing some faculties are reliable, which goes against this entire objection.

So we have positive reason for accepting premise 1 and there seems to be no way of establishing a distinction between our moral faculties and the other faculties that isn’t problematic.

Premise 2: Moral experience

That we perceive objective moral duties (ie. obligations and/or prohibitions) and values seems undeniable when we think about it[9]. Many people give lip-service to relativism without actually realising that it entails things exactly the opposite to the way things seem to them. Note that, for the second premise, all we need is that some things seem right or wrong (duties), or good or bad (values), or rational; after all, perceptions just are “seemings”. To distinguish our perception of these objective duties from merely subjective feelings or matter of preference, I find it helpful to use a paradigm subjective case: taste in food.

2.1 Visceral examples

When we consider examples of specific acts, it certainly seems as though there is something objectively wrong or right about them. Surely it seems that the group of people who choose to gang rape an innocent woman are doing something more wrong than the person who chooses to eat a chocolate bar. Do we not get a sort-of knee-jerk reaction of disgust when thinking about the rape which is wholly absent when thinking about the chocolate? While the knee-jerk reaction itself isn’t the perception (as we discussed earlier), it does witness to the fact the it something seems wrong to us in the rape case, whereas nothing seems wrong in the chocolate case. Like I said earlier, feelings aren’t perceptions, but they are clues to what we’re perceiving.

Another example: “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished.”[10] We could leave it there or take it slightly further: imagine that as this person was doing this, another person came in a stopped him, saving the little girl from a horrible future. Surely it seems to us that the difference between the man saving the girl and the man torturing the girl is infinitely greater than the difference between a man eating a milk chocolate bar and a man eating a white chocolate bar! If anything (although if we’re honest there’s much more) we’d want to beat the daylights out the of torturer and award the saviour somehow!

One more example, this time regarding responsibility: imagine a man rapes your daughter, or your female friend, or the girl you babysit. Now it certainly seems that the rapist is more morally responsible for that rape than the girl (ie. he is more guilty than her, justice demands that we punish him, not her)[11]. But in that case we do in fact perceive objective moral duties, for if there weren’t anything objectively wrong about rape (or going against the girls preference to not be raped), then the rapist has not wronged the girl, and he is not guilty of any horrendous act any more than the girl is. They are both blameless.

There are countless more examples, like the atrocities done in the name of religion, the destruction of entire innocent cities, murder, adultery, disproportionate punishment, and so on, and so on. But I think these suffice to make my point.

2.2 Moral outrage and praise

I’ve written a blog post on this before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Essentially, when it comes to moral outrage and moral praise, in some cases it seems perfectly rational. But if we perceived no objective moral duties, then it wouldn’t seem rational: it’s irrational to be morally outraged at someone who chose to eat a chocolate bar, or to morally praise someone for eating Mc. Donalds. Consider the following examples:

  1. The daughter of two parents is raped and killed, and so they are outraged at the rapist when they come face to face with him.
  2. A gay pride stand is maliciously burnt to the ground as an act of homophobia, and onlookers are outraged at the people who did it.
  3. A group of people risk their lives to stop the oppression of women in a country, and they are praised because of it.
  4. A man stops another man from being shot by jumping in the way of the bullet and is praised for saving him at the cost of his own life.

Go back to the second example above. Does it not seem that the anger we felt at the torturer and the pride felt for the saviour were at least seemed well-placed?

2.3 Moral disagreement

Often when discussing the moral argument, and the existence of objective moral duties in particular, someone will ask[12] whether the fact that people disagree over what’s right and wrong isn’t a problem for my position. I’ve explained previously that it isn’t[13], but here I wanted to point out the irony in such an objection: moral disagreement seems rational, but this could only be the case if we thought there were a correct answer (ie. that we apprehend objective moral duties and values). After all, compare your reaction to the debate over whether abortion is right or wrong and your reaction to a debate whether chocolate tastes nice. Hopefully you’d laugh at the latter, since after all it’s purely a subjective thing and so disagreement is irrational. There just isn’t a correct answer when it comes to taste, and it seems irrational to think otherwise. But it seems perfectly rational for us to disagree over moral issues. This isn’t just me, ethics has been a branch of philosophy for as long as we’ve had philosophy!

Similarly, it seems rational for people to convince one another of certain ethical positions, be it things like abortion, or feminism, or sexual ethics, or convincing others that your actions were justified. But again, you can’t rationally attempt to convince someone of something if there’s no correct answer (you can’t be in the right if there isn’t any right). Imagine I tried to convince someone of my tastes in food. What a laugh.

2.4 Moral improvement

For many people today (myself included) it seems that there’s been a genuine moral improvement, in terms of the principles our culture holds, over the past 2000 years. Does it not at least seem like we live in better society than those of the past, where slavery was endorsed, where homosexuals weren’t allowed to marry and sometimes even punished and ostracised because of their homosexuality, where a women were seen so lowly that their testimony wasn’t credible in court, where they had less rights than men, where they were oppressed by society’s structure, where people were discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or where they were born, and so on, and so on?

But again, improvement isn’t possible unless there’s an actual standard which we’re getting closer to. That it seems that we’ve improved, then, witnesses to our perception of a standard which we’re getting closer to[14].

2.5 Moral intuitions

We enter into moral disagreements because of a deeper truth: we have moral intuitions. This is again evidenced by the very presence of ethics. This is broader than the apparent rationality of moral disagreement. We often make claims about moral principles which we expect others to agree with, at least intuitively. For example, at the heart of the Euthryphro dilemma is an intuition about moral duties: were they to exist, they would exist necessarily and so the apparent arbitrariness of Divine Command Theory is unacceptable[15]. That we can even find a moral theory unacceptable shows that we have moral intuitions, nevermind that we know how to critique it in a compelling way! Another example is the principle “ought implies can”. It seems unfair to hold someone accountable for not doing an action that they could not possibly have done. This is clearly a moral intuition, since it involves morals (fairness) and is about determining moral responsibility. Another example is our intuitions about justice. If a country gave the death penalty for lying, or didn’t punish people who commit the same crime equally, or punished innocent people as if they were guilty, surely we would agree that these seem unfair, or disproportional.

Now intuitions witness to perceptions. Can you imagine having an intuition about what colour something should be if you’ve been blind your whole life?

2.6 Duties not desire

C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft have given good examples of how our perceptions of duties differ from our desires, so I’ll just quote them. Lewis notes that,

A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first. I am not angry—except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses—with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not. Sometimes the behaviour which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite. In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him as human vermin. So you cannot say that what we call decent behaviour in others is simply the behaviour that happens to be useful to us. And as for decent behaviour in ourselves, I suppose it is pretty obvious that it does not mean the behaviour that pays. It means things like being content with thirty shillings when you might have got three pounds, doing school work honestly when it would be easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you could go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, and telling the truth even when it makes you look a fool.[16]

Similarly, Peter Kreeft says,

…let’s say last night you promised your friend you would help them at 8:00 this morning. Let’s say he has to move his furniture before noon. But you were up ’til 3:00 am. And when the alarm rings at 7:00, you are very tired. You experience two things—the desire to sleep, and the obligation to get up. The two are generically different. You experience no obligation to sleep, and no desire to get up. You are moved, in one way, by your own desire for sleep, and you are moved in a very different way by what you think you ought to do.[17]

2.7 Social and legal reform

Finally, many of us are advocates for specific social or legal reforms, or we at least take these reforms seriously. We can think of gay rights movements, feminism, and reproductive rights movements, anti-racism movements, and anti-slavery movements. Even in a country where homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals (legal reform), we still seek to change culture’s oppression of homosexuals. This goes for many of these movements: we seek to eradicate misogyny, racism, suppression, and oppression. Now, even if we don’t hold to any of these specific reforms ourselves, it still seems as though those who do are fighting for something worthwhile. However, a critique and reform of a legal system and culture can only be based on moral principles, and this is painfully obvious when we consider specific cases[18]. So if we take these things seriously, or think them worthwhile, we have another witness to the fact the we perceive objection moral duties and values. No-one would take seriously a movement that sought to make everyone treat rocks with respect (rocks can be thought of a paradigm case where there’s no objective moral value).

I’m sure there are other aspects of our lives that witness to our perceptions of objective moral duties and values, but for now this will suffice. At this point it is tempting to be dishonest with ourselves. I’d urge you to think about how you act and think when not discussing the moral argument (that is, when you’re not trying to avoid to existence of God for whatever reason)[19]. Remember that all that’s needed for premise 2 here is that any of these aspects seems to be the case. The detractor can’t respond by saying that he knows that objective moral duties and values don’t exist and therefore his perceptions are mistaken; we aren’t there yet. Right now we’re just trying to see that we do in fact perceive such things, we’ll get to the trustworthiness in the next premise.

Premise 3: Defeating our moral faculty

By this point in our discussion, this premise is well understood. It affirms that we have no defeater (rebutting or undercutting) for our moral faculty. Recall that defeaters come in two flavours: rebutting and undercutting. A rebutting defeater would be an argument for moral relativism (the claim that there are no objective moral duties or values). I have yet to come across any good argument. It certainly does seem like a daunting prospect, since a good argument for such a conclusion would need premises more obvious than the fact that rape of innocent little girls deserves punishment, or outrage at rapists is a rational response, or any of the other aspects we discussed in the previous section. Consider the words of ethicist David Brink when he says,

There might be no objective moral standards… But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.[20]

All too often detractors will just assume moral relativism without argument. But to bring a rebutting defeater, we need argument, and I have yet to hear one. Sometime people will point to things without realising what they’re saying: moral disagreement, for example. We’ve already seen that this is in fact evidence for objective moral duties and values.

By far the most common defeater offered involves something to do with evolution. At this point, it’s worth quoting William Lane Craig at length. Note that the premises referred to in this quote refer to the premises of the moral argument, not this particular defence. We’ll also see a distinction between rebutting and undercutting defeaters and some words regarding defeasible trust of our faculties in his discussion:

But what about the claim that moral values and duties are illusions fostered in us by socio-biological evolution? Doesn’t that constitute a defeater for premise (2)? Here we must distinguish carefully the two ways in which the claim that our moral beliefs are byproducts of socio-biological evolution might constitute a defeater of (2). On the one hand, such a claim might be taken as a defeater of the truth of (2). That is to say, the claim might be 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. So construed, the objection is a textbook example of the genetic fallacy, which is the attempt to falsify a belief by explaining how that belief originated. Such reasoning is fallacious, since a belief could be true regardless of how it came to be held. In particular, if God exists, then objective moral values and duties exist regardless of how conditioned we may be by the evolutionary process. So the objection at best proves only that our subjective perception of moral values and duties has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then our gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual, fallible apprehension of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm.

But there’s a second, more powerful way in which the socio-biological claim might be construed: not as a defeater of the truth of (2) but of the warrant for (2). That is to say, given that our moral beliefs have been determined by socio-biological pressures, we have no warrant for believing (2) to be true. Because our moral beliefs have been selected by evolution, not for their truth, but for their survival value, we can have no confidence in the deliverances of our moral experience. So even if (2) were true, we would still have no warrant for believing it to be true. The problem with this construal of the objection is that it turns out to be question-begging and even self-defeating. First, it’s question-begging because it presupposes that naturalism is true. If there is no God, then our moral experience is, plausibly, illusory. I said as much in my defense of premise (1). But why think that naturalism is true? To undermine the warrant which our moral experience gives to our moral beliefs, much more must be done than hold out the possibility that naturalism may be true. For if theism is true, then our moral experience, even if conditioned by biology and society, is probably not wholly illusory but is reliable to some degree. In the absence of a proof of naturalism, the warrant which our moral experience lends to (2) remains undefeated. Second, the objection is self-defeating because, on naturalism, all our beliefs, not just our moral beliefs, have been selected for survival value, not truth, and are therefore unwarranted. In particular, the belief in naturalism and the socio-biological account of moral belief is unwarranted. So the objection undermines its own warrant and is therefore incapable of being rationally affirmed. But then it cannot defeat the warrant for premise (2).[21]

It doesn’t really matter how this objection is raised in general, either. I’ve been told evolutionary stories about how we could’ve evolved our moral faculty in such a way that it’s evolution didn’t take into account the duties (ie. the faculty didn’t evolve for the purposes of perceiving our duties and values). But this is just another way of putting the putative undercutting defeater in that last passage from Dr. Craig, and so his responses still apply. For instance, my rational faculties didn’t evolve for the purposes of being rational either, and my sensory faculties didn’t evolve for the purposes of perceiving the world. So the objection is self-defeating.


Wow, that was a long post. We covered a lot of epistemological material relevant to the moral argument’s second premise, and I think we have good reason for accepting this argument. I know that I have underestimated the relevance of epistemological issues in the moral argument (not to be confused with moral epistemology) in the past. I close with a comment from Michael Ruse:

The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.[22]


  1. The three “reasoning” faculties could be collected together I suppose, but it seems to me that some people separate them out, and perhaps that’s more fair, for they deal with significantly different material.
  2. If you’re slightly informed about foundations of maths you’ll know that while the principle of excluded middle is widely accepted, there are those who would deny it. But this is because of special reasons to do with one’s interpretation of the truth of mathematical claims. See, for example, my brief discussion here to get a feeling for what I’m talking about (for example, I take mathematical propositions to be essentially meaningless strings, which we imbue with meaning). It seems to all of us that the principle of excluded middle should apply to every day things, and propositions about reality.
  3. Interestingly, you’re going to use your inductive reasoning faculty to infer more things your inductive reasoning faculty is responsible for.
  4. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/in-defense-of-the-kalam-cosmological-argument
  5. Robert Koons, “Defeasible Reasoning, Special Pleading, and the Cosmological Argument,” Faith and Philosophy 18 (April 2001):192-203.
  6. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-limits-of-reason
  7. Note that I’m not saying I must be compelled by the evidence, only that I must trust it and add it to my “evidence base”. It might be that I have counter-evidence too. What I’m talking about is ignoring the evidence. I wouldn’t need counter-evidence if I had some reason for mistrusting the evidence you bring forth.
  8. And two people I’ve spoken to have mentioned this, so this isn’t even just some strawman of my own making. Besides, it really does seem like the only option, given the hectic starting assumption.
  9. To be clear, I do not mean that we explicitly believe that objective moral duties and values exist, perhaps this is the first time we’re actually thinking about it. In general just because we perceive something doesn’t mean we explicitly believe it. Suppose, for example, you ask a non-philosopher if they believe in an objective world. They’d probably say something like, “um.. I hadn’t really thought about it but yeah, obviously”. Again, if you’ve ever taught someone the laws of logic, like the idea of contraposition (ie. If A implies B, then not-B implies not-A), you’ll know that when you explain it to them in logic they’re like “huh?” But once you give them some examples, then they usually have an “ahhh!” moment. This is because, while they perceive these things, they haven’t ever made them explicit in their thinking, and so don’t necessarily believe them explicitly.
  10. Sam Harris quoting Donald Symons in The Moral Landscape, p 46. While I try not to make a habit of quoting New Atheists, I can’t fault him in this particular case.
  11. In fact, if you said it merely seemed to be that case to my face, I’d probably smack you. But I suppose that only witnesses to my perception of these duties.
  12. Well, they’ll ask if they’re nice. They’ll accuse if they’re not 😛
  13. Besides my comments in this section, the problem is somewhat overstated, although there’s no denying that there is some disagreement. Consider the words of anthropologist Clyde Kluckholm who noticed significant common ground in morality amoung cultures: “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war, and other “justifiable homicides.” The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parties and children – these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal.” (in “Ethical Relativity: ‘Sic et Non’” in Journal of Philosophy (1955))
  14. At the heart of improvement is disagreement. While the previous point talked about rationality of disagreement, for us to think we’ve improved we need to hold to the truth of our position, which is more than just mere rationality.
  15. Notice how we needn’t even assume moral duties exist for the Euthryphro dilemma to be compelling, for we can argue counterfactually: “were …, would …”
  16. C.S. Lewis, “The Reality of the Law” in Mere Christianity
  17. Peter Kreeft, from a talk titled “A Refutation of Moral Relativism”, here
  18. Feminism, for example, has two tenets: women are of equal worth to men (objective moral value) and so deserve equal treatment to men (objective moral duty). How might anti-racism or anti-slavery be any different? Many of these movements have to do with people deserving rights and respect, because they’re equal.
  19. I’ve met a number of people who will deny that they think objective moral duties exist, and then the next day (when we aren’t talking about the argument and they aren’t trying to avoid unwelcome conclusions) it will be patently obvious that they weren’t being honest with themselves when we were discussing the argument.
  20. David O. Brink, “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, p 149
  21. William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith 3rd ed., pp 179-180
  22. Michael Ruse in Darwinism Defended, p 275

One thought on “Epistemological issues in the moral argument

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