The Moral Argument

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

  1. Real moral obligation is a fact. We are really, truly, objectively obligated to do good and avoid evil.
  2. Either the atheistic view of reality is correct or the “religious” one.
  3. But the atheistic one is incompatible with there being moral obligation.
  4. Therefore the “religious” view of reality is correct.

We need to be clear about what the first premise is claiming. It does not mean merely that we can find people around who claim to have certain duties. Nor does it mean that there have been many people who thought they were obliged to do certain things (like clothing the naked) and to avoid doing others (like committing adultery). The first premise is claiming something more: namely, that we human beings really are obligated; that our duties arise from the way things really are, and not simply from our desires or subjective dispositions. It is claiming, in other words, that moral values or obligations themselves—and not merely the belief in moral values—are objective facts.

Now given the fact of moral obligation, a question naturally arises. Does the picture of the world presented by atheism accord with this fact? The answer is no. Atheists never tire of telling us that we are the chance products of the motion of matter—a motion which is purposeless and blind to every human striving. We should take them at their word and ask: Given this picture, in what exactly is the moral good rooted? Moral obligation can hardly be rooted in a material motion blind to purpose.

Suppose we say it is rooted in nothing deeper than human willing and desire. In that case, we have no moral standard against which human desires can be judged. For every desire will spring from the same ultimate source—purposeless, pitiless matter. And what becomes of obligation? According to this view, if I say there is an obligation to feed the hungry, I would be stating a fact about my wants and desires and nothing else. I would be saying that I want the hungry to be fed, and that I choose to act on that desire. But this amounts to an admission that neither I nor anyone else is really obliged to feed the hungry—that, in fact, no one has any real obligations at all. Therefore the atheistic view of reality is not compatible with there being genuine moral obligation.

What view is compatible? One that sees real moral obligation as grounded in its Creator, that sees moral obligation as rooted in the fact that we have been created with a purpose and for an end. We may call this view, with deliberate generality, “the religious view.” But however general the view, reflection on the fact of moral obligation does seem to confirm it.

Question 1: The argument has not shown that ethical subjectivism is false. What if there are no objective values?

Reply: True enough. The argument assumes that there are objective values; it aims to show that believing in them is incompatible with one picture of the world, and quite compatible with another. Those two pictures are the atheistic-materialistic one, and the (broadly speaking) religious one. Granted, if ethical subjectivism is true, then the argument does not work. However, almost no one is a consistent subjectivist. (Many think they are, and say they are—until they suffer violence or injustice. In that case they invariably stand with the rest of us in recognizing that certain things ought never to be done.) And for the many who are not—and never will be—subjectivists, the argument can be most helpful. It can show them that to believe as they do in objective values is inconsistent with what they may also believe about the origin and destiny of the universe. If they move to correct the inconsistency, it will be a move toward the religious view and away from the atheistic one.

Question 2: This proof does not conclude to God but to some vague “religious” view. Isn’t this “religious” view compatible with very much more than traditional theism?

Reply: Yes indeed. It is compatible, for example, with Platonic idealism, and many other beliefs that orthodox Christians find terribly deficient. But this general religious view is incompatible with materialism, and with any view that banishes value from the ultimate objective nature of things. That is the important point. It seems most reasonable that moral conscience is the voice of God within the soul, because moral value exists only on the level of persons, minds and wills. And it is hard, if not impossible, to conceive of objective moral principles somehow floating around on their own, apart from any persons.

But we grant that there are many steps to travel from objective moral values to the Creator of the universe or the triune God of love. There is a vast intellectual distance between them. But these things are compatible in a way that materialism and belief in objective values are not. To reach a personal Creator you need other arguments (cf. arguments 1-6), and to reach the God of love you need revelation. By itself, the argument leaves many options open, and eliminates only some. But we are surely well rid of those it does eliminate.

For this argument to work, there must be a demonstrable objective morality, and it must be shown that this morality could only have come from a divine source and could not have a natural origin. Therefore, showing a natural origin that is sufficient to explain morality is enough alone to discredit the argument. Although a natural origin for morality is not enough to show that no god did create morality, it is enough to show that god is an unnecessary explanation. From there, Occam’s Razor suggests that we simply shave off the god hypothesis, so honest apologists must look elsewhere than morality to prove the existence of a deity.

Unfortunately for the theist, we absolutely CAN show that morals arose from natural causes. Namely, the basis of all morality and moral progress is empathy, which had to evolve for societies to exist. Social mammals have empathy – it is especially demonstrable in dogs and apes. Once societies existed in our species, we began to have a cultural evolution, and our culture affected our morality until it evolved to “do unto others”. An expert talks more about this subject here. For more about empathy in apes, check out the work of Frans de Waal.

I personally accept a form of objective morality. It is my position that all morality boils down to the objective principle that suffering is bad. This isn’t even really a principle; it is true by definition. However, this principle can only be applied subjectively; what is suffering for me might be pleasure for someone else, and vice versa. For example, I love peanuts and it is a pleasure to eat them, but some people experience severe suffering from being in the same room as peanuts due to an allergy. As much as I would take it a morally good action if you gave me peanuts, I would consider it morally bad to give peanuts to a person you know is allergic. We find situations like this throughout the world, so I’m not truly convinced a completely objective morality is possible, even among humans, let alone any alien species that might exist.

2 thoughts on “The Moral Argument

  1. Right, I found this argument to be one of the weaker ones. Essentially, I need some kind of reason to accept that objective moral values or duties, if they exist (and I’m not saying they do not, but this is for the sake of argument–I’m rather thinking that we might have objective reasons to have certain moral values instead of objective morality itself because of the way these moral values seem to be applied subjectively and contextually), are inextricably linked to whichever god or gods is being invoked to explain it. You can assert it, and you can define your way into thinking you’ve got an argument (god’s nature, etc), but where is the real meat of the explanation for why a rational skeptic should accept that?

    1. I found this argument to be pretty strong until I found the natural explanations for morality; essentially, why morality could have evolved.

      You’re absolutely right, however, that it is not well defended (a common theme for the list). It likely only ever convinced me because I was taught it was convincing.

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