This blog post is part of the ‘God’ series.The ‘God’ series will be a collection of blog posts dedicated specifically to addressing the ‘God’ question. The most popular philosophical arguments put forward by believers to argue for the existence of ‘God’ will be critically examined, in addition to arguments for why its most likely that ‘God’ does not exist.
This post will examine the most popular form this argument takes, as is presented in debates between Christian apologists, and atheists.
If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. For example, Michael Ruse, a Canadian philosopher of science explains:
Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth …. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves, … Nevertheless, … such reference is truly without foundation, Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory ….
Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the last century who proclaimed the death of God, understood that the death of God meant the destruction of all meaning and value in life. I think that Friedrich Nietzsche was right.
But we’ve got to be very careful here. The question here is not: Must we believe in God in order to live a moral life? I’m not claiming that we must. Nor is the question: Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God? I certainly think that we can.
Rather the question is: If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?
Like Ruse, I just don’t see any reason to think that in the absence of God the morality evolved by Homo sapiens is objective. After all, if there is no God, then what’s so special about human beings? They’re just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On the atheistic view, some action, say rape, may not be socially advantageous and so in the course of human development has become taboo.
But that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really morally wrong. On the atheistic view, there’s nothing really wrong with your raping someone. And thus without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience.
But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down I think we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, cruelty, torture, and child-abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior. These are moral abominations. Some things are really wrong. Similarly, love, equality and generosity are really good. Thus we can summarize this third consideration as follows:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective values do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
PREMISE 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist
Objective moral values are moral values that do not depend on social custom or individual acceptance. It is simply a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible.
The claim by Christian apologists is that for moral values to be objective they have to be grounded outside of subjective human emotions. There has to be an external standard against which all actions are evaluated, and they say this standard lies within ‘God’. So without ‘God’ grounding these moral values, according to champions of the moral argument, they cannot be objective – and thus one would have no basis for declaring an action objectively right, or objectively wrong. Without ‘God’, they say, right and wrong amount to nothing more than personal opinions.
The problem with this view is that it is not established how ‘God’ grounds objective moral values, and any attempt to do so raises the immediate question:
“Does ‘God’ command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by ‘God’?”
This is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma.
If ‘God’ commands the good, because it is good, it implies that the objective standard for what is good does not rest in ‘God’, but in ‘good’ itself, or some other external standard or ‘good’.
If on the other hand, a good is good because ‘God’ merely declares it so, then ‘good’ is arbitrary, and subjective (to ‘God’) rather than objective. This understanding of good is called Divine Command Theory – where good is whatever God says is good. This is problematic for believers because if ‘God’ were to decree that murder and theft are good, would that make it so? Most Christians are reluctant to go down this slippery slope. It also becomes problematic to refer to ‘God’ as a good god, if good is whatever ‘God’ willed on a whim. The term ‘good’ thus loses any real meaning.
This dilemma thus poses a problem to any notion of objective moral values being grounded in ‘God’.
In order to escape from this problem, theologians and Christian philosophers have postulated instead that objective moral values are actually a reflection of the nature of ‘God’ – thus, with this understanding, ‘God’ is still the objective standard for moral values, and the resultant moral values are not subjective, because ‘goodness’ is an essential property of the nature of ‘God’.
This postulation, unfortunately, does not rescue them from the dilemma, because the same question can also be posed to the nature of ‘God’ which they think objective moral values are a reflection of:
“Is God’s essential nature good because it is good, or is God’s essential nature good simply because good is defined as whatever God’s essential nature is?”
If God’s essential nature is good, because it is good, it implies that the objective standard for what is good does not rest in God’s essential nature, but in good itself, or some other external standard of ‘good’.
If on the other hand, God’s essential nature is good because good is whatever God’s essential nature is, then ‘good’ is subjective rather than objective. This is because if God’s essential nature was such that he considered rape to be a ‘good’, and it is true that objective moral values are grounded in ‘God’, then rape would be objectively morally good.
It also does not follow that just because an entity has an essential nature, that concepts derived from it, or dependant upon it, are objective. As a human being, my genetic make-up imbues me with predispositions towards all kinds of feelings, impulses, likes and dislikes – this is my nature. But this does not mean that the moral impulses that arise from my genetically determined predispositions represent intrinsic truths about reality. No. They simply represent my subjective feelings on an issue. Therefore, even if it were true that ‘God’ exists, and has a nature, and that nature was synonymous with ‘goodness’ – any moral values derived from ‘God’ would still be subjective. So even if it could be established that objective moral values do exist, they could not possibly be dependant upon ‘God’.
In response, apologists usually invoke the ontological argument to try and show that ‘God’ being maximally great is necessarily morally perfect. They then conclude that God’s nature is good neither because of the way ‘He’ happens to be nor because of any reference to an external standard of goodness. Unfortunately for the apologist, this defense of the first premise creates a whole new problem altogether – because it presupposes that the ontological argument for the existence of ‘God’ is sound. Notice that if it does so, it means that the first premise presupposes that ‘God’ exists. In other words, using this defense, the first premise of the Moral Argument can only be true if it presupposes its conclusion – rendering the argument circular, thus invalid.
Non-theistic models for objective morality:
Apologists defending this first premise also have the task of demonstrating that it is impossible for a non-theistic model of moral realism to account for objective moral values. This is difficult, because even if it were the case that all currently existing non-theistic models of establishing objective moral values fail, it does not follow that it is impossible for one to do so. I could just mean none have been formulated as yet. To try to argue that it is impossible for a non-theistic model of ethics to account for objective moral values (as the first premise suggests), the apologist would have to either demonstrate that a logical contradiction would necessarily entail from any and all possible non-theistic account(s) of objective moral values (which they have not), or demonstrate that they (the apologists) have omniscience (which they don’t).
The first premise of the moral argument remains unsubstantiated, and therefore, fails.
PREMISE 2: Objective moral values do exist
Can moral values be objective? Can there be moral values that do not depend on social custom or individual acceptance? Proponents of the moral argument, including Craig do not offer any arguments to demonstrate that objective moral values actually exist. To quote Craig again:
But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down I think we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, cruelty, torture, and child-abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior. These are moral abominations. Some things are really wrong. Similarly, love, equality and generosity are really good.
Examples of rape and child abuse are introduced in order to force the atheist to admit that under no circumstances would he consider those actions right – no matter what the context. After the atheist does so, an apologist will use this as evidence that even the atheist concedes that objective moral values exist, thereby confirming his second premise.
Objective moral values – Non-theistic:
Indeed, there are many atheists (and even theists) who argue for some form of non-theistic system for establishing objective moral values.
Many of these systems adopt a utilitarian approach, in which they basically argue moral values can be determined by evaluating to what degree an action maximises the well being of individuals while minimizing unnecessary harm (or satisfies the most number of desires whilst thwarting the least number of the same). Justifiably, critics will ask what would happen if it were the case that the entire society thought that rape was good – or that raping a woman maximised the desires of the majority. Using the atheist’s own utilitarian argument, in this particular example, it would imply that it is objectively morally good for women to be raped. Thus, basing objective morality on the degree to which that action maximised the wellbeing (or fulfilled the most desires) of the most individuals puts the atheist in an awkward position of having to endorse atrocities, should the majority find it agreeable.
And that’s just one problem with this approach to objective moral values.
The other problem is that morality under this system would still end up being subjective, because any measure of what action maximises the well-being of the majority would be nothing more than an aggregate total of individuals’ subjective reports on the degree of well-being that particular action has yielded.
Is the position of the theistic moral objectivist any better, with regards to objective moral values?
Objective moral values – Theistic:
An apologist who insists on claiming that objective moral values come from ‘God’ needs to explain why Christians hold widely divergent views on many moral issues – such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, hip-hop music, tithing, etc. If objective moral values do exist, there must be a single objectively moral position on all these issues, yet there are many divisions among Christians regarding what is objectively moral and what is not. On what basis are Christians supposed to decide what the objective moral truth is when there are several competing alleged objective moral values among Christians?
The proponent of each side will claim their viewpoint is consistent with the objectively moral nature of ‘God’ while providing no objective criteria by which we can determine that contrary view points do not qualify as consistent with the objectively moral nature of ‘God’. Basically, under theism, there exists no framework for determining what exactly objective moral values are, or if they exist at all.
Whenever this objection is raised, apologists like Craig will often argue that this objection addresses moral epistemology, rather than moral ontology, which the moral argument seeks to address. But this is ridiculous. If they want to claim that ‘God’ is the source of objective moral values, then it´should be the case that there´is a reliable way for determining what those values actually are. They do not offer any besides just asserting:
..objective values do exist, and deep down I think we all know it.
The problem with this line of reasoning should be transparent. Adolf Hitler knew ‘deep down’ he was doing something objectively morally right.
So because he knew it ‘deep down’, would apologists accept that Hitler’s actions during World War II were objectively morally right? It is doubtful they would – but that is the logical consequence of the line of evidence they are offering for determining what objective moral values are.
The Bible / Holy Scriptures:
The bible is not a very useful guide for determining objective morality either.
The Old Testament is full of horrific accounts of ‘God’ ordering the Israelites to massacre inhabitants of land they were promised by ‘God’ (such accounts are numerous). If was objectively morally right for the Israelites to exterminate whole tribes and nations as they wandered through the wilderness because they were acting on the orders of ‘God’, how can Christians accuse today’s Islamic suicide bombers of doing something objectively morally wrong if they killed ‘infidels’ also under instruction of their ‘God’?
As you can see, if one posits the existence of objective moral values, and claims that they are grounded in ‘God’ – a religious radical would be justified in committing any and all manner of horrors and be able to claim that it is objectively morally good, as long as he or she says his ‘God’ mandates it. After all, the apologist has not provided ANY framework for establishing what objective moral values are (besides reliance on subjective personal intuitions). Of course, once this impasse ensues, adherents of various faiths will refer to their scriptures and attempt to argue for a particular interpretation of scripture that they think is consistent with the views they hold regarding the alleged objectively moral nature of the action in question. Once this happens, however, whatever morality they advocate will be SUBJECTIVE – because it will be based upon a personal interpretation of that scripture which they will be unable to ascertain as objectively true.
Thus, BOTH the believer and atheist who posits the existence of objective moral values – if they are to be consistent – would find themselves unable provide an objective basis for denouncing horrific acts of violence with the criteria they have offered for determining what objective values are. We have seen that any basis they offer will end up being SUBJECTIVE in nature.
There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that objective moral values do exist. The second premise of the moral argument, therefore, fails.
Neither the first premise, nor the second premise, have been demonstrated to be true. The Moral Argument for the existence of ‘God’ is therefore unsound. If apologists try to invoke the ontological argument in defense of the first premise, then the first premise will inadvertently presuppose the conclusion, rendering the Moral Argument invalid.
The argument therefore fails as a proof for the existence of ‘God’.