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The poverty of Christian meta-ethics: Against the moral argument

18 July 2013, 08:36
I’m going to spend some time criticising what is known as the ‘Moral Argument for the Existence of God’, I’ll rely on the version given by Dr William Lane Craig. The Moral Argument for the existence of God is quite simple. Premise 1 is the proposition that if God did not exist then objective moral values would not exist. Premise 2 is the claim that objective moral values do exist. From these two premises it is derived that therefore God must exist.  The argument is what they call ‘logically valid’: if its premises were true, then its conclusion would follow. Whatever problems exist, then, are with the truth or justification for each other premises.

Elsewhere I have found reason to reject the first premise. In fact, the firs premise is trivially false. The mistake rests squarely on an illegitimate identification of atheism (an absence of belief in the existence of God, or the conviction that there is no God) with naturalism (the claim that there is nothing supernatural, or nothing non-natural, which exists). The first premise is trivially false because God is one thing among many non-natural things which could (possibly) serve as the foundation for objectivity. So, it is neither true that only God could be the foundation for moral objectivity, nor that atheists (without God) have no possible foundation for moral objectivity. In its intentions as an argument against the moral implications of atheism (per se), the argument is foolishly misguided and obviously incorrect.

What the first premise really should state, if it is to serve theistic purposes, is that if naturalism is correct, then there won’t be any objective moral values, and only if God exists could there be objective moral values. Of course, theism is not the contrary of naturalism (that is, if naturalism is false, it isn’t necessarily the case that theism is correct), and so the theist would need auxiliary arguments (which are nowhere to be found) in support of their implicit claim that it is.

Despite these problems, which are quite severe and require to be addressed, there are plausible reasons to think that this revised version of the first premise might be correct. If all that exists is whatever can be given a scientific description, and nothing more, then there are plausible reasons to suggest that ‘value’, ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’, ‘goodness’, etc., which all anyway have their genesis from religious metaphysics (along with ‘spirits’, ‘afterlives’, etc.), aren’t quite so real as we might have thought. Anyway, while I have rejected even this more plausible version of the premise elsewhere, I will assume it is correct for the sake of argument.

Premise 2, however, is problematic. Obviously, in order to show that the conclusion (that God exists) is correct, we have to show that each of its supporting premises are correct. Now, I wish to argue that it isn’t possible to show that the second premise is correct without rupturing the logic of the argument itself.

If it is true that there are objective moral values, then we will need to find some justification. There are three separate ways one might try to justify this premise: By deferring to God, or by finding justification independently of God, or by deferring to our moral ‘intuitions’ (the morality which is ‘written on our hearts’). I’ll discuss these three methods and show that none of them are successful.

The most obvious path to follow would be to suggest that God exists and that he has given us certain commandments which are to be understood as objectively valid. This, however, is not a path which is open to the theist. The whole point of this argument is to demonstrate that God exists; it would therefore be begging the question (a logical fallacy) to assume that God exists in order to justify one of our premises in support of the conclusion that God exists. It would be fallaciously to assume what was supposed to be demonstrated. So, the theist cannot justify premise 2 in this way.

The existence of objective moral values, then, must be demonstrated without the assumption that God exists. We can assume that it is possible to do this, and so we can assume that there is a possible justification for the existence of objective moral values without the assumption that God exists. If, however, this is the case, then this directly contradicts the first premise.

That is, if we are capable of demonstrating the existence of objective moral values without the assumption of God (independently of his existence), then premise 1 cannot be true. This is because premise 1 states that if God doesn’t exist, then there won’t be objective moral values. The theist, by showing that there really are objective moral values, would have shown that God’s existence was not necessary for the existence of moral values (by giving a justification without assuming the existence of God). So, this method of justification is actually self-refuting for the theist, and he must try to find a different way to proceed if he is going to use the Moral Argument.

At this point the theist might protest that neither method is what he had in mind when he suggested that premise 2 was correct. The theist believes that there are objective moral values because he has a sincere apprehension of their reality ‘on his heart’. This is to adopt a perspective known as ‘moral intuitionism’: to suggest that our knowledge of morality can legitimately be derived from our ‘intuitions’. Obviously, if moral intuitionism is correct, then there would exist a non-question begging, and non-self-refuting, justification for premise two. I don’t think, though, that we would be sensible to agree with the position of moral intuitionism.

That perspective does not seem plausible to me, and I’ll explain why that is. For one, there is no logical contradiction between sincere moral beliefs and the total non-existence of real moral value. That is, even if there really was no such thing as moral value, that would be consistent with people having very sincere beliefs about morality. Similarly, even though the Earth is not flat, there is no contradiction in noting that many people sincerely believed that the Earth was flat. In fact, even our very sincere belief that there is an external reality is consistent with there being no such external reality (as is the premise of the popular Matrix movies). The jump from ‘sincerely held beliefs about X’ to ‘the objective reality of X’ seems to me, for the above reasons, to be quite implausible and totally arbitrary.

The theist might object and suggest that my scepticism is too strong to be of much pragmatic value. For, on my principles, am I not committed to the following view: that even though I sincerely believe that I am typing an essay on my laptop, my beliefs constitute no evidence whatever for the reality of my laptop? Is this not an incredibly implausible view itself?

I want to argue that this is not the case because there are noteworthy differences between our moral beliefs and our beliefs as they relate to external objects, and so on. At this point the reality of descriptive moral relativism becomes important. Descriptive moral relativism is the observation that moral values have (as a fact) differed from society to society, and from time to time. They even differ within the context of a single society over different times.

The claim, then, that we all apprehend the existence of objective moral values becomes spurious, for it is quite clear that we do no such thing. At most, what the theist can maintain is that for anyone who has a moral belief, they think their moral belief is correct. So, for example, the humanist who believes that giving to charity is objectively moral really thinks he is correct, and the Nazi who believes that Jews should be killed, also, really thinks he is correct.

But this is a much more trivial claim about the nature of ‘beliefs’ in general. ‘Beliefs’ are propositions which agents mentally affirm – they are propositions, the holder of which takes them to be correct. But this says nothing at all about whether or not their beliefs are, in fact, correct. And so, that people have sincere moral beliefs (which they take to be correct) can say nothing about whether or not their moral beliefs are, in fact, correct.

This is, of course, quite different from our sincerely held beliefs about, say, the existence of external objects. Consider the following: put any number of people into a room with a table in the middle, and ask them to report what they observe to exist in the room. Every person, unless they are cognitively impaired, will report, one way or another, that there is some object in the room such that its description will be of a ‘table’. Now, put any person into an abortion clinic, and ask them what they think of the situation in moral terms, and you are bound to have several different, and mutually exclusive, perspectives on the matter; such that they couldn’t all be correct, but might all be incorrect.

What this suggests, in a simplistic way, is that regarding the existence of external objects, our sincere beliefs do constitute some kind of evidence that there really are objects out there. The similarities of the observational reports are noteworthy and plausibly imply that there is an object there. There is no such similarity regarding our ‘moral observations’. Moral observations, then, can’t, independently of other reasons or evidence, constitute evidence of any objectively existing moral reality. The case against moral intuitionism has been severally made, then.

This isn’t the whole story about the problems with this argument. I have argued elsewhere (in ‘Goodness and God’) that Euthyphro’s Dilemma poses an intractable problem to the first premise, and I have taken time to demonstrate (in ‘The Science of Morality’) the utter falsehood of the first premise as well. I’ve argued, further (in ‘Justice, Morality and God’), that there is a logical incompatibility between the God of Christianity and the God of the Moral Argument (or, as I think it should be called, the God of Philosophy). I won’t repeat those arguments here, but I should nevertheless note that those arguments represent severe problems for the theistic account of morality to which there have been no serious responses.

What does all of this show? It shows, I think, that the Moral Argument for the existence of God is a severely poor and misguided argument. I have shown, independently, that its first premise cannot be correct, but further, here, that its first premise can’t be correct if the second premise is to be believed. The argument is, in some abstract way, logically valid, but as soon as we attempt to take its premises seriously, and try to find justification for them, we see that they stand in a self-refuting relationship with one another. The justification for the second premise cannot come from a belief in God, nor can it come from any other non-naturalistic foundation. The second premise cannot plausibly rely on moral intuitionism either. Within the framework of the argument, there is no justification for the second premise, and therefore the conclusion can’t be made to follow.

So theists have no special claims regarding the objectivity of morals, and atheists are in no worse a position than are theists. Moral theory is a philosophical problem, a general problem, applicable to everyone. It is quite apart from which position one takes on the existence of God.

Recent articles on the matter ( have suggested that Christianity is the only perspective which can give a justification for the objectivity of morals: but these articles are plainly mistaken, and for more reasons than just the ones I have laid out.

What the author of those articles has done is to confuse logical or evidential justification with rhetorical persuasion. His suggestion (which seems to me to be quite conceited), really, is that, for the poor, uneducated and uninitiated, Christianity is a persuasive ideology which will result in ‘good behaviour’ if it is believed. This is not really true at all. The persuasive power of any proposition says little about its correctness, for one. Secondly, Christianity stands theoretically on a par with other ethical systems, such as Secular Humanism, or the system of Human Rights (though, I’d suggest it is less desirable). What’s more is that, practically, Christianity has proved to be much worse than its rival ethical systems.

None of these systems are, themselves, meta-ethical theories about the justification of ethics – so none of them, really, say anything about the ontology of right and wrong. Nevertheless, the meta-ethical arguments for the Christian perspective are, as I have shown here and elsewhere, altogether incorrect.

I’ll end off by saying that the Moral Argument is not a good argument. Theists would be wise to abandon this particular argument; it does not serve their purposes. They would be wise to review their indefensible and stubborn position that ‘God is the foundation of morality’, such a position not only has no justification, but has been shown to be incorrect. Moral theory, as I suggested above, is a problem for everyone, and importantly what we discover here can have practical implications. We should be interested, then, in getting things right, however complex or difficult this task may be.

Moral theorizing must be untethered from the restrictive theological framework of its origins. It cannot forever remain the domain of philosophical speculation either. We must, I propose, take steps to reconcile normativity with science, and the scientific outlook. Only when our ethical systems are sensitive to the real facts about the world, and about us, will we begin to find answers to our more pressing and challenging ethical issues.  

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