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Goodness and God

28 June 2013, 08:22

My position on morality is, in its essence, fairly straightforward. Morality – what one ought to do – is identified as the maximization of one’s own well-being. Since there are facts about what will maximize one’s own well-being, there are facts about morality. The identification process is complex, but far from arbitrary. And that there are facts regarding well-being is not a fanciful conjecture without ground, but constitutive of an empirical hypothesis. The whole project is consistent with naturalism, and is capable of empirical falsification or confirmation. The religious proposition that without God there isn’t an objective morality is therefore incorrect.

So, what is known as the ‘Moral Argument’ for the existence of God cannot be sound. I hope to show in this essay some of the problems with that argument. I hope that in the future our thinking about morality will be more sensible. The path toward this goal begins by breaking the intellectual shackles which constrain our thinking.

The argument is rather simple. Premise 1 – if God doesn’t exist then objective moral values don’t exist (or, objective moral values exist only if God exists). Premise 2 – there are objective moral values. Premise 3 – therefore, God exists. Clearly, if my arguments are sound, premise 1 is false. So the conclusion that God exists can’t be arrived at with that line of reasoning. I shall try, however, to assess this arguments worth on its own grounds.

It is unclear what the theist really tries to achieve with this argument – it might be that God really exists, or that objective morals exist. The problem is that while either two of these notions are in question, the moral argument cannot succeed.

Suppose, as is generally the case, that the existence of God is in question. The theist marshals his argument as it is formulated above which, if sound, will yield the conclusion that God exists. Suppose alternatively that the objectivity of moral value is in question. The theist might simply reorder the original moral argument so that premise 2 would read ‘God exists’ and premise 3, the conclusion, would read ‘therefore, there are objective moral values’.

The problem is that in one version the existence of God is derived from the existence of objective moral value. In the other version the existence of objective moral value is derived from Gods existence. Yet both of these premises are, in fact, in dispute, and so to reason this way is to reason in a circle – invalidly. So, if the moral argument is going to work it seems that at least one of the contentious premises needs independent argumentation.

The theist typically relies on a form of moral intuitionism which, if subjected to close scrutiny, is revealed as a weak and lazy form of justification. The trick is achieved by appealing to some of our common sensibilities. When pushed, most people will admit, for example, that they think the rape of an innocent child is really wrong. Its wrongness is not found solely in the interlocutor’s feelings – it’s not that if the interlocutor felt differently about it that child rape would become acceptable. It is, many people think, that child rape is wrong irrespective of how any individual or group feels about it. Those groups for whom child rape is acceptable are morally mistaken; it’s as simple as that. This is the sort of response which can be elicited in relation to a variety of tried and tested questions – the holocaust, child pornography, wanton abuse against women, and so on.  

In this way the theist gets his audience to agree that there are some objective moral truths. However, as is noted by the sceptic or the relativist, if we change the examples then we will get a startlingly different result. Suppose we ask a question regarding the morality of homosexuality, or abortion, or child brides. Without wishing to imply that these questions have no answer, the answer won’t be found in common sense intuitions on the matter. There are jarring disagreements on these issues between people and groups of different cultures, times and religions. Even religious folk differ quite heavily among themselves on these issues. Were the question centred on these issues (themselves not an exhaustive list of moral controversies which we face), we would not be tempted in the least to suppose that there was an objective moral standard which all people apprehended.

We are left in a situation perfectly consistent with relativism. There are some issues about which there is quite a lot of agreement, and other issues about which there is very little agreement. That there happens to be disagreement on moral matters, of course, does not itself imply that there are no moral truths, or that moral truths are ontologically dependent on contextual beliefs. What it does imply, however, is the theist isn’t correct in thinking that our justification for believing in an objective moral standard can be wrought from our intuitions. Here, again, the theist is mistaken.

The theist then has the task of demonstrating independently of our intuitions – read: feelings – that there is an objective moral standard. Toward this task he cannot defer to the bible, or whichever other holy text he prefers, for since the existence of God is in question so too is the truth of the message of the holy text. There is, luckily for the theist, a long tradition of attempts at justifying the objectivity of morality in ways which are consistent with forms of non-naturalism and thus consistent (arguably) with theism.

A whole range of non-natural foundations are on offer for the choosing, from Plato to Kant and beyond. There is no need, I think, to detail their particularities, I agree with none of them for a variety of reasons which can be left unmentioned here. What is noteworthy is that while this might secure some objective foundation for morality, this cannot be a justification which the theist can use in his ‘Moral Argument’. The conclusion that God exists is derived from the apparent existence of objective moral value and the claim that unless God existed there wouldn’t be any objective moral value. Yet, if the justification for supposing that there are objective moral values is related to some foundation which is not identical to God, then this renders the first premise false. That is, it wouldn’t be true that only if there was a God would there be objective moral values.

Using an example, suppose that it were argued that objective moral values are grounded in Plato’s form of the Good.  Something like this is needed due to the failure, as demonstrated above, of intuitionist strategies. Now, if in virtue of the fact that Plato’s form of the Good exists there is an objective foundation for moral value, then it follows that the first premise of the Moral Argument is false. It isn’t true that only if God exists do objective moral values exist – Plato’s forms exist, it is supposed, and that serves just as well.

This is really the result of further laziness of language implicit in the theistic philosophical tradition. William Lane Craig, who has popularized the Moral Argument for many people, mistakenly conflates – to great sophistic effects – metaphysical naturalism with atheism, absolutism with objectivism, relativism with subjectivism, and fails utterly to note the important distinctions within the notion of subjectivism. To add to his large compendium of philosophical failings he (and his sympathisers) has conflated the apparent necessity of a non-naturalist foundation for moral value with the necessity of a supernatural-person-as-a-foundation for moral value.

I am aware of nowhere in the literature where it is successfully argued that the grounding of objective morality must necessarily be a supernatural person. All that is argued for is that the grounding must be immutable and – in the sense that duty and obligation are derivable from it – ‘authoritative’. Immutability isn’t even necessary for objectivity, once it is understood that objectivism is not identical with absolutism.

No doubt it might be argued that God is a pretty-good candidate for the foundation of objective morality, this is what the theist might wish for – but this isn’t correct either. The Euthyphro Dilemma goes some distance in showing the problem. The dilemma, initially persuasive, has an interesting response which leads to a noteworthy reply. In short, the response pushes the problem one step back, but does not succeed in totally dissolving the problem. It further brings to the fore an interesting logical problem. Both of which I will describe below.

Standardly the dilemma is that either God commands what is Good, or what God commands is Good. If the former is affirmed, then morality exists independently of God rendering premise 1 false. If the latter is affirmed then morality is arbitrary and relative to the whims of God: capricious as they may be, which also renders, though in a different way, premise 1 false. Neither of these two options can be favoured by the theist who hopes to establish that God is the foundation for objective moral values.

The standard response is that we must affirm the latter – what God commands is Good – and we must understand that God’s nature is necessarily good. So, his commandments, which are determined by his will, shall turn out all to be unchangingly good, since his will is determined by his nature which is necessarily and essentially good.

The theist supposes that God’s nature secures the objectivity of morals, because his nature is immutable. Here the theistic intuitionist hand can be played back against them. We must ask which notions are doing the logical work in the argumentative machinery: we can ask whether it is the necessity of Gods nature, or whether it is the contents of Gods necessary nature which does the work.

This thought experiment invites us to ask whether we would say that God was good if his nature was necessarily unkind, unjust, unmerciful and hateful. Typically we would say that a person with such qualities was not good. Suppose, on the other hand, that Gods nature was necessarily kind, just, merciful and loving. Typically, of this person, we would say that he was good. What this shows, then, is that it is the contents of Gods necessary nature, rather than its mere necessity, which works to ‘dissolve’ the Euthyphro Dilemma. That is, the Euthyphro Dilemma is dissolved just in case we recognize that what God commands is Good and that his nature is necessarily loving, just, and so on.

What this means, in the end, though, is that the theist (and anyone who sympathises with their intuitions on this point) sees ‘love’, ‘justice’, ‘kindness’, ‘mercy’, and so on, good in themselves. God partakes in these qualities to a maximal degree, and it is for this reason which we suppose that God is maximally good. Were he to partake in the qualities of hate, injustice, and so on, we would say he was not maximally good.  This implies that any person who partook in those qualities in some degree would be in some degree good. That is, even if there was no God, any person could be objectively good just in case they partook in those qualities.

Thus, in trying to dissolve the Euthyphro Dilemma with reference to Gods necessary nature, the theist is lead to the conclusion that things like ‘love’, ‘kindness’, etc. are good in themselves – their goodness is a necessary feature of those entities. Goodness, then, need not be tethered to the existence of God. Actually, goodness is a relational property which one has insofar as they partake in certain qualities: it is in virtue of some person partaking in those qualities that they can be labelled ‘good’. All of this implies that the first premise of the Moral Argument is false: goodness is independent of God – or so our reasoning will suggest if we follow this path. This constitutes the first problem: the argument only pushes the dilemma one step back, but cannot vindicate the proposition that goodness cannot exist independently of God – rather, it falsifies it.

The logical problem is quite interesting. The theist becomes ensnared in the Euthyphro Dilemma – he cannot suppose that morality is not objective, nor can he deny Gods necessarily good nature and the consequences of that proposal. While it must be admitted that God is necessarily good it must be understood further that God is a good person and the progenitor of moral value. Such are the properties of the religious conception of God. Without vindicating the existence of a being with both of these qualities the theist will run at some loss.

Now, understanding ‘goodness’ as the relational property of partaking in certain qualities is a non-circular way of describing God as good, but it implies, unfortunately for the religious theist, that God cannot also be the foundation of goodness itself.

The circular way is to describe God as being identical to Goodness (God ‘is’ goodness, or God ‘is’ love, and so on) – and if he ‘is’ Good, then it is impossible to formulate the logical conjunction that ‘God is the foundation of goodness and he is Good’. All it can mean, on this view, to say that God is the foundation of goodness and he is good, is that God is the foundation of himself and that he is himself – which though logically tautological would not be much help.

Now, we began by supposing that goodness could have some non-natural foundation which was not identical with God (Plato’s Forms were my example). This can’t be accepted by the theist who wishes to show that God is the only foundation for objective moral values. Giving the theist what he wants and supposing that God – the supernatural person – is the foundation immediately faces the Euthyphro Dilemma. The dilemma can be dealt with, but in dealing with it the theist makes no progress towards his goals, and it turns out that what is good is, after all, independent of God. Given such a conception of goodness it is possible to say that God is a good person, but impossible to say that he is the foundation of goodness. In attempting to abandon that conception of goodness, we may say that God just is goodness – identical with goodness (and that moral value ‘flows’ from him into the world – whatever this could possibly mean). And in so doing the concept of goodness loses its meaning. This results in the logical impossibility both of saying meaningfully that God is the foundation of goodness and that God is good.

Neither of the options represents favourable prospects for the theistic project. Given the immediate problem of the Euthyphro Dilemma, it appears that if the theist wishes to maintain that morality is objective, he is forced to admit that its objectivity does not depend on God. This is consistent with our previous findings regarding the example of Plato’s forms. The logical problem poses a theistic and a religious problem in that it presents the theist with the logical impossibility of a God who is both good and the foundation of goodness.

If this logical conjunction cannot be formulated then the ‘God’ derived from the Moral Argument would be demonstrably different from the God of the holy texts. Assuming that the argument was sound, this difference would disprove the existence of the God presented in the holy texts. The theist must then totally abandon the project of grounding morality in God for fear of losing God altogether if, by some miracle, he could formulate a sound argument at all. In doing so, of course, the theist runs into further religious problems, which I won’t pursue further here.

I should take stock of where I am. I was exploring the second premise in the moral argument – that there are objective moral values. This premise cannot be justified by deference to any holy text, since the veracity of the text is in question, because Gods existence is in question. It cannot be justified by deferring to moral intuition. It can be justified by deferring to some supposedly true non-naturalistic foundation for moral value, such as Plato’s Forms – thus, there is some justification for premise two which is consistent with theism.

This sort of justification, however, undermines the internal logic of the Moral Argument, because it contradicts the first premise, which is that only if God exists can there be any objective moral values. Despite the problems with premise two there is no independent reason to suppose that premise one is true. There is no independent reason why ‘God’ (the supernatural person) must be the grounding for objective moral value, as opposed to any other non-natural foundation. The theist then doesn’t really have an argument for that premise at all.

The attachment to a supernatural person – God – as the foundation for morality faces further problems which are displayed by the Euthyphro Dilemma. The dilemma has a standard response which has interesting implications. The implication is that what is Good exists independently from God, and it must do so in order to make any (non-tautological) sense of the proposition that God is a Good person. Either that or the theist won’t have the logical capacity to say of God either that he is good or that he is the foundation of goodness in any meaningful sense. If not that, then the theist must commit himself to the non-objectivity of moral values. So, the Euthyphro Dilemma, immediately or eventually, finds that if the theist is to maintain that there are objective moral values, he must suppose that they have as their foundation something other than God.

In light of the results premise one, for the theist, can be revised as such: only if morality has a non-natural foundation will there be any objective moral values. However, from this premise the theist cannot deduce that God exists. In fact, the investigation of these premises show that objective moral value is consistent with the total unreality of any God. In looking closely at the matter, one way or another it must be found that if morality is objective it has as its foundation something other than God. Of course, I have argued elsewhere that even the revised formulation of premise one is false – but it isn’t necessary to recount those arguments here.

It is clear then that the moral ‘argument’ doesn’t work at all. It isn’t good philosophy. Morality can’t be reasoned about with a three line syllogism and some strongly-held-feelings. Morality and normativity in general are significant problems which humanity faces. The problem can’t be solved by the simplistic methods of religious philosophers. I would go so far as to say in general the problems of the world cannot be solved by the simplistic methods found in religion. I hope to have shown why the Moral Argument is not one with which to threaten serious thinkers. It is a bad argument, the destination of which is the flames of misbegotten intellectual history.

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