Arguments that Objective Morality Requries God
Peter S. Williams wrote about the Moral Argument for God and he seems to think it is a decent argument. I don’t think so, and a better resource is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Arguments for the Existence of God.
A philosophy teacher I know mentioned Williams’s piece and I will respond to Williams’s essay here. In particular, I will respond to the arguments he presents that state that objective morality requires God.
Traditionally, atheists have acknowledged that God is a necessary condition of objective moral values (i.e. the sort of moral truths that are discovered rather than invented by humans and which are “valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”).
Williams asserted that atheists traditionally agreed that God is necessary for objective moral values. If true, that wouldn’t mean they are right. And I’m not convinced that it’s right anyway. He gives examples of atheists who agree with him, but that doesn’t mean all do. I think his list of atheists who agree is deceptive in the sense that it could give people the impression that all or most authoritative atheists agree with him when that is not really established.
What are”objective moral values?” He says, “objective moral values (i.e. the sort of moral truths that are discovered rather than invented by humans and which are ‘valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not’.” I don’t think that he is necessarily talking about objective moral values at all. The definition states nothing about values. Instead, I think he is referring to moral realism — the view that there are moral facts that don’t depend entirely on beliefs or desires. There are different views of moral realism studied by philosophers, and the most popular views don’t even require that God exists. Moral naturalism and meta-ethical intuitionism (non-naturalism) are perhaps the most popular types of moral realism. Some theistic views of meta-ethical intuitionism might require God, but not all of them do. Williams does not talk about the actual moral realist views that are compatible with atheism at all. We can’t just dismiss all secular types of moral realism and assume they are false.
Moreover, the first philosophical account of moral realism could be Platonism, which does not require God. Other original accounts of morality — that of Aristotle and Epicurus — also seem to be quite secular views of ethics, and I think we could interpret them to be types of moral realism.
The first moral realist view that does seem to clearly require God is the Stoic view of ethics. Williams then tells us:
These four arguments form a powerful cumulative case for the first premise of the moral argument.
I don’t think so. His argument requires us to assume that it’s impossible for any secular account of moral realism to be true, and the arguments he presented did not show that.
The arguments might be reasons to think that morality could be accounted for by god, but I don’t see how they show all other accounts of moral realism must be false. There are types of moral realism that require God, such as the view that God is the ideal person and we can know how virtuous people are by comparing them to God.
Concerning each of the arguments:
The argument from moral prescription
I don’t see commands as objective. What is making these commands objective? If it’s God’s beliefs or desires, then it’s not objective.
A physical law describes what is the case, and can be used to predict what will be the case, but it doesn’t prescribe what ought to be the case as does the ‘moral law’
Williams shows no attempt to know what ought to be the case from what is the case (unless God somehow is involved). Let’s say that you have an option of allowing a train to hit a thousand children killing them all or you can make sure the train changes tracks and just kills one child. I think one option is likely to destroy more intrinsic value than the other. That’s what we should care about in that case. We can make predictions about what our actions will do and compare the various outcomes.
As G.E.M. Anscombe affirmed concerning an objective moral law: “Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a lawgiver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians… you cannot be under a law unless it has been promulgated to you…
That’s just an assertion. What exactly is the argument? I don’t think divine command theory is objective.
The argument from moral obligation
I don’t know that moral obligations are objective. Objective morality can be objective because one choice is better than another, even if we aren’t obligated to do them.
On the other hand we could argue why obligating people (perhaps with threat of punishment) could actually lead to better results than the alternative. So, an obligation can be a choice, and some choices concerning obligations are better than others.
What makes it possible for God to make objective obligations? Is it God’s beliefs or desires? If so, it’s not objective.
On the other hand we value the personal more highly than the impersonal; so that it is contradictory to assert that impersonal claims are entitled to the allegiance of our wills. The only solution to this paradox is to suppose that the order of [objective moral] claims … is in fact rooted in the personality of God.
It is asserted that somehow God is a solution to the problem, but I don’t see how it is a solution.
The argument from moral ideals
We appear to apprehend and to measure ourselves against a moral ideal. But it’s hard to conceive of this ideal as an impersonal, abstract reality: “It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but it is bewildering when it is said that in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere [Platonic] abstractions…
Maybe it is hard to conceive, but how can that be an argument that God has to be the source of ideals? It is also hard for me to conceive of ideals as being part of a person.
This asserts it is clear what it means to say a person is just. Is it clear? Not to me. Is there an obvious definition of the “just person” that everyone has to agree with?
Plato thought that justice was easier to conceive concerning a city than a person, so he described what he thought the just city was like in the Republic before describing the just person.
Additionally, this argument also appears to only be against Platonism. Even if we knew Platonism is false, we would not know that God is required for morality. If Platonism is false, then morality might not be about ideals.
The argument from moral guilt
I don’t know that morality requires guilt or shame, but I would agree that it can be appropriate to feel these things.
Beckwith argues that a non-personal ground of an objective moral law that transcends human subjectivity “is inadequate in explaining the guilt and shame one feels when one violates the moral law. For it is persons, not rules or principles, that elicit in us feelings of guilt and shame.”
Let’s say you drive drunk and accidentally kill a family of four. You feel guilty about it. Why? Is it because of your obligations to God? I would hope you would feel guilty about it because you destroyed human beings who have intrinsic value (or whose experiences would have intrinsic value). That seems horrible enough. No God seems necessary.
Why should we feel guilt towards abstract moral principles?
You should feel guilt because of destroying things that have value for no good reason. It’s not just about abstract moral principles. It’s about things like human beings who we feel empathy for, and perhaps because we think people or their experiences have intrinsic value.
…since it is appropriate to feel guilt and shame before the objective moral law, that moral law cannot be an abstract moral principle. In other words, objective moral values must be ontologically grounded in a transcendent personality before whom it is appropriate to feel moral guilt (it’s worth noting that the possibility of objective forgiveness for moral guilt is equally dependent upon the moral law having a personal ground).
Notice that the author is now shifting from “abstract moral principles” to “objective moral values.” He then says they must be grounded in “transcendent personality.” I don’t know what that means, and it all seems unnecessary to me. Do we need God to give people or their experiences intrinsic value? I don’t think so.
Let’s say you are tortured every day and suffer for it. Would you need God to tell you that your suffering is intrinsically bad? I wouldn’t. It seems like pain can exist without God making it exist — or at least pain does not need God’s existence more than anything else.