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Arguments that Objective Morality Requries God

December 29, 2013

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”[2]).

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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Zappy permalink
    February 25, 2014 8:36 am

    “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.”

    Can you justify this statement? This is the heart of the matter. *By what standard* do you say that humans have intrinsic value? Without God, humans must be merely collections of molecules, same as a rat or a rock or a tumbleweed. Without God, on what non-subjective basis do you determine that something is “horrible” rather than “praiseworthy”?

    Nobody experiences moral outrage when dust collides with dust – should they?

    Without God, you can have preferences about what you would like humans to do, but as merely a collection of molecules, why do your preferences (or anybody’s) carry any objective weight? Without God, why should the “standards” you subscribe to apply to anyone else?

    Sure, humans think and feel, etc. but why should that matter? Whether billions are killed or billions are given medicine – Without God, in the end everybody just dies away to dust and is forgotten, regardless of how they behaved. On what basis would you ascribe objective value to any of that?

    • February 25, 2014 9:27 am

      What are the moral theories we have to choose from? WD Ross’s intuitionism, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology are the main options. How well justified are they? I think they are better justified than any theistic alternative.

      Do we have no reason to think human beings or their experiences have intrinsic value unless God exists? How would God help us be assured that we or our experiences have intrinsic value?

      Pretty much every ethicist agrees that human experiences can be good or bad. Every moral theory will agree that all things equal, we shouldn’t cause suffering. Why would they agree?

      There are different answers philosophers have come up with. My answer is that I have experienced what it’s like to exist as a human being with a mind. Happiness has been experienced as a good thing and suffering has been experienced as a bad thing. Losing my life would also mean losing all my future experiences. Other people have similar experiences and their experiences matter as much as mine do. I am not the only thing that exists that matters.

      Philosophers have written about ethics and metaethics endlessly and they don’t necessarily agree about all the details, but few to no philosophers seem to think that if morality is objective (moral realism is true), then God must exist. Willliam Lane Craig is one of the few who actually thinks objective morality requires God.

      Some philosophers think moral realism is true and others don’t. I don’t think I can prove moral realism to be true once and for all, but I do side with the realist group at this point in time. I could also argue for moral realism, but that is a difficult task.

    • February 25, 2014 9:33 am

      The arguments presented here are supposed to support the conclusion — moral realism requires God.

      If moral realism is false, that doesn’t mean moral realism requires God.

      However, we can consider what moral realism would be like whether God exists or not. I think the arguments that are supposed to give us the conclusion (that moral realism requires God) are bad arguments. I think if moral realism is true, then we will be unable to conclude that God exists based on that data.

      • Zappy permalink
        February 26, 2014 1:11 am

        “Pretty much every ethicist agrees that human experiences can be good or bad. Every moral theory will agree that all things equal, we shouldn’t cause suffering. Why would they agree?”

        A bunch of people agreeing that something is true doesn’t make it true, or the reason that thing is true if it is. “Why would they agree?” Because they know objective morality exists, just like you and I do. The problem is that atheism by nature denies any justification for it.

        You use words like “good” and “bad”, but your worldview cannot give a real meaning to those words in the first place, especially in an objective sense.

        “There are different answers philosophers have come up with. My answer is that I have experienced what it’s like to exist as a human being with a mind.
        Happiness has been experienced as a good thing and suffering has been experienced as a bad thing. How does an atheist know it isn’t his duty/purpose to suffer? “Experienced” “as a good thing” doesn’t actually make it a good thing, just a subjective preference. Rapists are happy when they rape, but that doesn’t make it moral. Firefighters might go through pain and suffering as a result of saving someone from a burning building, but that act is certainly not immoral.

        “Losing my life would also mean losing all my future experiences.” So? Within atheism, you’re dust – Your experiences are merely links between neurons in the brain, and they die when you do. What makes them objectively valuable?

        “Other people have similar experiences and their experiences matter as much as mine do” And how much is that? Within atheism, not at all – you’re a collection of chemicals moving around, just like everyone else.

        “I am not the only thing that exists that matters.” Within atheism, why does anything matter, objectively?

        “Do we need God to give people or their experiences intrinsic value? I don’t think so.”

        Romans 5:8 “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

        People’s experiences aren’t valuable unless people are valuable. BY WHAT STANDARD does an atheist determine whether one bit of matter (for example, a person) has more value than another bit of matter (for example, a cockroach)? I’m not asking whether you think one is more valuable than the other, I’m asking BY WHAT STANDARD do you make the decision in the first place? (caps for emphasis)

        In large part, your justification for objective morality without God seems to be “I think it’s the case” and “It seems that way to me”. I doubt you would accept such an answer from me if I said that were my justification.

        In any case, wow, I’m very appreciative you’ve taken the time to read this, thanks!

      • February 26, 2014 5:48 am

        A bunch of people agreeing that something is true doesn’t make it true, or the reason that thing is true if it is.

        Yes, but there are lots of different arguments they consider. I wouldn’t assume my opinion to be better than everyone else’s.

        “Why would they agree?” Because they know objective morality exists, just like you and I do. The problem is that atheism by nature denies any justification for it.

        How does atheism do that?

        You use words like “good” and “bad”, but your worldview cannot give a real meaning to those words in the first place, especially in an objective sense.

        Why not? I can experience that there’s something bad about pain and suffering. Why think doing such a thing to be impossible?

        Happiness has been experienced as a good thing and suffering has been experienced as a bad thing. How does an atheist know it isn’t his duty/purpose to suffer?

        Read what normative ethics is about. How would we ever know what our duty is? Consequentialists might say that “all things equal, we ought not cause suffering.” Well, why would we ever have a reason to cause suffering? Perhaps to prevent even more suffering.

        “Experienced” “as a good thing” doesn’t actually make it a good thing, just a subjective preference.

        I think I have a reason to prefer not to suffer. Is that just your subjective preference?

        Rapists are happy when they rape, but that doesn’t make it moral. Firefighters might go through pain and suffering as a result of saving someone from a burning building, but that act is certainly not immoral.

        I agree. I never said causing suffering is always immoral nor that causing happiness is always moral. Have you studied ethics at all?

        “Losing my life would also mean losing all my future experiences.” So? Within atheism, you’re dust – Your experiences are merely links between neurons in the brain, and they die when you do. What makes them objectively valuable?

        You have some extremist idea of reductionism in mind. The only that that is real is dust. No, that isn’t how all atheists understand the universe. Study metaphysics. Do all atheist philosophers say that only dust is real? Nope.

        “Other people have similar experiences and their experiences matter as much as mine do” And how much is that? Within atheism, not at all – you’re a collection of chemicals moving around, just like everyone else.

        We are made of chemicals. Does your religion require you to reject science?

        Are we nothing but chemicals? Obviously not. We have thoughts and experiences.

        “I am not the only thing that exists that matters.” Within atheism, why does anything matter, objectively?

        One answer is that suffering exists — and it’s intrinsically bad. And happiness exists — and it’s intrinsically good. What would it mean for pain and pleasure to exist without anything intrinsically good or bad existing? It might not even be possible.

        Romans 5:8 “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

        That doesn’t answer the question. Do you know how to actually argue for your view of things or do you just rely on Bible quotes?

        People’s experiences aren’t valuable unless people are valuable. BY WHAT STANDARD does an atheist determine whether one bit of matter (for example, a person) has more value than another bit of matter (for example, a cockroach)? I’m not asking whether you think one is more valuable than the other, I’m asking BY WHAT STANDARD do you make the decision in the first place? (caps for emphasis)

        By what standard would a theist use to know what has value? Do you need a priest to tell you what has value or can you figure it out on your own?

        In large part, your justification for objective morality without God seems to be “I think it’s the case” and “It seems that way to me”. I doubt you would accept such an answer from me if I said that were my justification.

        I also talked about my experiences. It SEEMS TO YOU that grass is green. Why? Because that’s what it looks like based on your experience. Yes, I am fine with that.

      • February 26, 2014 5:51 am

        I do not claim you have to agree with my views about these things. To argue for my views would require several essays. And philosophy is hard. And even after I wrote the essays, you might still not agree. That’s how philosophy works.

        Am I not allowed to have a philosophical opinion on these matters and argue for them? I think I am. I don’t think I am irrational for having my own view of things.

        I am aware that many atheists are moral anti-realists. That’s fine. They understand things differently than I do. I don’t think they are wrong about everything they say about morality either. But I think there is something missing based on their view of things.

  2. Zappy permalink
    June 29, 2014 9:23 am

    You are still dodging the question.

    “Yes, but there are lots of different arguments they consider. I wouldn’t assume my opinion to be better than everyone else’s.”

    Let’s stick to the actual merits of the arguments then.

    “Me – The problem is that atheism by nature denies any justification for it.

    You – How does atheism do that?”

    By positing a random chance universe that denies any design behind it or any universally intended purpose for anything in it, necessarily denying any objective standard for which to derive any actual worth or value of anything. I’m still waiting for you as a professed atheist to provide a moral standard.that isn’t subjective or arbitrary.

    “Me – You use words like “good” and “bad”, but your worldview cannot give a real meaning to those words in the first place, especially in an objective sense.

    You – Why not? I can experience that there’s something bad about pain and suffering. Why think doing such a thing to be impossible?”

    Again, we’re talking in an OBJECTIVE sense. You “experience” that there’s something bad about pain and suffering? That’s a confusing, pointless phrase. Do you really need the qualifier, “experience”? What we perceive as an “experience” doesn’t always reflect reality. Things are “bad” (using “bad” to mean immoral, since objective morality is what we’re talking about) whether we “experience” them as “bad” or not. Someone can subjectively say they prefer the “experience” of raping children as long as they don’t get caught and punished – but that doesn’t make it moral.

    You experiencing pain can be for a moral end, or an immoral end. You could DESCRIBE certain chemical reactions and neural impulses and call them “pain”, but atheism cannot PRESCRIBE whether that condition should be occurring in that instance or not.

    “Read what normative ethics is about. How would we ever know what our duty is? Consequentialists might say that “all things equal, we ought not cause suffering.” Well, why would we ever have a reason to cause suffering? Perhaps to prevent even more suffering.”

    You’re just begging the question. Why objectively prevent any suffering? “all things being equal”? By what moral standard does a professed atheist use to determine if all things are “equal” or not? Regardless of Consequentialists (where can they get non-subjective “oughts” from anyway?) let’s ask the question then – How DO you ever know what your duty objectively is? Heck, you could just blow up the planet and end everyone’s suffering immediately – would that be immoral? Please, I would love to know, WITH WHAT objective standard can YOU tell if it is or not?

    “I think I have a reason to prefer not to suffer. Is that just your subjective preference?”

    I’m still waiting for you to make your position’s case for OBJECTIVE morals. What you do or don’t prefer doesn’t necessarily reflect what is objectively right, it’s not relevant.

    “I agree. I never said causing suffering is always immoral nor that causing happiness is always moral. Have you studied ethics at all?”

    You invoked suffering in your post. How does suffering enter into your case then? Has your studying of ethics still left you without an answer to the main question? By which objective standard do you know that causing suffering is EVER objectively immoral? Please answer.

    “You have some extremist idea of reductionism in mind. The only that that is real is dust. No, that isn’t how all atheists understand the universe. Study metaphysics. Do all atheist philosophers say that only dust is real? Nope.”

    You don’t have to be pedantic and literal about it, I’m obviously meaning that within atheism, there is no creator to design and instil objective purpose or authoritative worth to anything, such that one bit of matter can have no more or less value than any other matter. You would be the same as dust in respect to value. If you would like to provide an atheistic metaphysical objective standard for knowing what is moral, and what is immoral, I’m still waiting.

    “We are made of chemicals. Does your religion require you to reject science?”

    This is a different topic, so I don’t want to rabbit trail there – suffice it to say that we can only actually do science because God is real. I would cite the unchanging, universal laws of logic, the definite, absolute, certainty we have about some things, the solid reliability of our senses or our brains to even know our observations and experiments are not being miss-reported to any of us or all to us – These things are all necessary for science, but are first contingent upon God. Things that atheists have, but atheism can’t actually provide.

    I won’t go into that any more here, but for the purposes of the discussion at hand, I will just go back to the whole point of this – that within an atheistic view, we don’t have an actual moral obligation to be logical or scientific anyway.

    “Are we nothing but chemicals? Obviously not. We have thoughts and experiences.”

    So what? These thoughts and experiences, do you say they are not stored physically in the brain? Are they just “out there” somewhere? As a professed atheist, do you say there is a part of your being that is not physical or material in nature? Or just figuratively so?

    Even If we are more than material, what do you say gives us any more objective value than a jackal that we shoot, or a rock that we crush, or a shard of ice that we melt?

    “One answer is that suffering exists — and it’s intrinsically bad. And happiness exists — and it’s intrinsically good. What would it mean for pain and pleasure to exist without anything intrinsically good or bad existing? It might not even be possible.”

    You’re making my point for me. Otherwise, saying “it’s intrinsically bad/good” is just begging the question.

    “That doesn’t answer the question. Do you know how to actually argue for your view of things or do you just rely on Bible quotes?”

    You’re already pre-biased to say that the Bible can’t be part of an argument. In any case, within my worldview, I have an avenue for knowing that I have objective, special, eternal value and what right and wrong is in light of that. You know that I have objective worth & special value, and you know that you do too. The problem is that atheism by nature denies any of that.

    If you disagree, feel free to show me your objective foundation for knowing you have special value.

    “By what standard would a theist use to know what has value?”

    God is the standard for the theist. As *Author*, He is necessarily *author*itative. He created us with purpose and value.

    “Do you need a priest to tell you what has value or can you figure it out on your own?”

    I don’t need a priest to tell me, no. You know you have value. You were created with a knowledge that you have value, you know the same way I do. Again, atheism by nature denies you or I having value. If we deny God as real, in what way indeed could you figure it out on your own?

    “I also talked about my experiences. It SEEMS TO YOU that grass is green. Why? Because that’s what it looks like based on your experience. Yes, I am fine with that.”

    That’s your prerogative, okay, but your post above is not about making a case for what you’re “fine with”. You posted about having OBJECTIVE morality, that’s something else entirely.

    Again, sorry if I’ve come off like a jerk, I don’t want to. My CAPS are used for emphasis, I don’t mean to scream. Thanks so much for reading all of this, wow!

    • June 30, 2014 9:55 am

      I am pretty busy right now, but I will try to remember to respond to these thoughtful comments when I get the chance.

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