Moral Argument

Moral Argument

Below is my understanding (in a question format) of a moral argument for the existence of God.  It’s an argument of the form of the best explanation for the grounds (ontology) of morality.  It’s core is essentially taken from Glenn Peoples as seen on his RightReason blog here.  It’s also brief, I’d love to talk about the social nature of morality, or the non-moral nature of God etc, but it would make this blow out too much.

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Argument

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->  Do moral facts**1 exist?

   * No

   >>  Untrue.  You speak of morality all the time, you make moral judgements

       as though they were true, and you don’t believe you are merely

       expressing your opinion or preference.  EG “goodness is moral” is a true

       moral fact and not merely your personal taste.

   * Yes

   >>  True.  In fact this is almost a self-evident intuition we all have.

   ->  Is the basis of moral facts more plausibly natural or supernatural**2

       * Natural

       >>  Untrue.  Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about the

           way things should be.  There is no intentionality with natural

           facts.  Moral facts have to do with the way that things should be.

           If unintended nature is all there is, then there simply is no

           state of affairs that was meant to be.  So it is impossible that

           moral facts are natural.

       * Supernatural

       >>  True.  If it’s not Natural, then it must be Supernatural.

       ->  Is the most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral

           facts in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts

           about?

           * No

           >>  Unlikely.  Platonism is widely disregarded.  The free-floating

               non-natural and non personal thing called “goodness” surely

               isn’t the sort of thing that could have intentions

           * Yes

           >>  Likely.  Moral facts are about personal beings, and personal in

               nature.  Moral obligations arise when there is an authority

               who can issue binding commands.

Therefore, if there are moral facts, the most plausible way to think of their basis is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

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Important notes

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NB This conclusion is incompatible with philosophical naturalism.  Thus if moral facts exist, then philosophical naturalism is false, and there exists, for want of a better term, something like a God.

NB This conclusion means that if no supernatural person exists, then frighteningly, there are no moral facts.

NB This argument is not tied to any one idiosyncratic version of theism.  It doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, so it’s pointless to reply by saying “look at what your nasty God did in the Old Testament”.  Atheism would still be false even if the Old Testament God was nasty.  Also, if you start making moral judgements, you’re in a bit of a pickle since if atheism is true there just aren’t any moral facts to appeal to when complaining about the Old Testament.

NB This argument is about the basis of moral facts.  It’s about what makes moral facts actual facts.  It’s not about what makes moral facts knowable (epistemology).  This argument tells us that a supernatural person makes moral facts what they are, but that doesn’t mean that those who don’t believe in a supernatural person cannot know about moral facts.  Of course they can.  So an atheist can be moral and do moral things, but cannot offer a truthful explanation of what makes those actions morally praiseworthy without abandoning atheism altogether.  Moreover, it says nothing of epistemological ways of knowing moral facts.  For example, this argument would still be true if the human instinct and understanding of morality was a by-product of evolution (both biological and sociological).

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Conclusion

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So, either we should accept that God exists (and begin the all important task of searching for him earnestly), or we should give up belief in moral facts and say that we live in a world where there is no moral difference at all between the things the world calls acts of virtue, and the things that we call atrocities.

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Objections

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I’ve heard many objections to this argument, below are some brief mentions.  I’m yet to hear a defeater.

* Intrinsic Value

Some have argued in terms of the “intrinsic value” of people.  But the same argument outline  given above could be used of “intrinsic value” too, such that it also could only exist if there is a supernatural person.  As another example, some say that humans have intrinsic value because life is rare, much like diamonds are valuable because they are rare.  But this is flawed reasoning since the value of diamonds is not intrinsic, it’s external.

* Spectrum of moral landscape

Some (eg Sam Harris) have argued that if we can imagine a world where every person suffers as much as possible, and if we feel a duty to do something about that (to help them flourish more), then morality is all about the flourishing of sentient beings, and science can inform us on that.  However, this reasoning is hopelessly flawed for a number of reasons.  For starters, circular, or it’s begging the question**3.  IE it assumes sentient flourishing is  the  good but doesn’t even try to answer the actual question of why sentient flourishing is the  good (or  what grounds or basis that moral fact might have).  It’s also confusing  moral epistemology (eg we know that “flourishing is good” is true) with moral  ontology  (eg what basis is there that the statement “flourishing is good” is  actually  true).  You can’t just redefine the word “good” to make it mean  whatever you  want, it’s begging the question.  Otherwise you are using the words good and evil in non-moral ways (eg to be a good assasin you ought to learn how  to shoot a gun).  This is also why ethical theories like utilitarianism don’t answer the ontological question.

* God is evil, and so can’t exist

Some have argued that God allows (or is) evil and so can’t exist.  But this does nothing to show a supernatural person does not exist.  More can be said on this.

* Euthyphro

Basically calling into question the arbitrariness of God’s moral will.  Still does nothing to show that moral facts are impersonal nor natural.  More can be said on this.

Footnotes:

**1 Moral facts are statements about the right or wrong that have a true factual status in reality.  In other words, morality.

**2 Supernatural and natural are mutually exclusive.

**3 Begging the question is a type of logical fallacy.

Another Version of the Moral Argument

1. If moral facts exist, then they are based on either naturally or supernaturally.

This is analytically true.

2. the basis of moral facts is not natural.

There simply are no states of affairs that are meant to be on naturalism.  Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about what ought or ought not be.  Moral facts are facts about what ought and ought not be.  So it’s impossible that moral facts are natural.

3. the basis of moral facts is therefore supernatural

Because natural and supernatural are mutually exclusive categories

4. the most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

Because it can’t plausibly be some sort of weird platonic form (platonism is a widely disregarded view anyway).  Morality is about what ought and ought not be, it’s about what is intended to be.  What intentions could such a thing as a free-floating non-natural and non-personal thing called “goodness” have?  It’s this normative or intentional aspect that is personal.  Moral facts are about personal beings and personal in nature.  Only persons can have intentions.  Moral obligations arise when there is an authority who can issue binding commands.

5. if there are moral facts, they are most plausibly understood in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

NB This conclusion is incompatible with philosophical naturalism.  Thus if moral facts exist, then philosophical naturalism is false, and there exists, for want of a better term, something like a God.

NB This conclusion means that if no supernatural person exists, then frighteningly, there are no moral facts.

NB This argument does is not tied to any one idiosyncratic version of theism.  It doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, so it’s pointless to reply by saying “look at what your nasty God did in the Old Testament” because atheism would still be false even if the old testament God was nasty.  Also, if you start making moral judgements, you’re in a bit of a pickle since if atheism is true there just aren’t any moral facts to appeal to when complaining about the Old Testament.

NB This argument is about the basis of moral facts.  It’s about what makes moral facts actual facts.  It’s not about what makes moral facts knowable.  This argument tells us that a supernatural person makes moral facts what they are, but that doesn’t mean that those who don’t believe in a supernatural person cannot know about moral facts.  Of course they can.  So an atheist can be moral and do moral things, but cannot offer a truthful explanation of what makes those actions actually morally praiseworthy without abandoning atheism altogether.

So, either we should accept that God exists (and begin the all important task of searching for him earnestly), or we should give up belief in moral facts and say that we live in a world where there is no moral difference at all between the things the world calls acts of virtue, and the things that we call atrocities.

The failure of naturalism to account for moral facts

If moral realism is true, then either moral facts are grounded in the natural world or they are grounded non-naturally.  Also, if moral realism is true, then moral relativism and moral nihilism are both false.

Naturalistic explanations of moral realism leave much to be desired.  Take for example Sam Harris and his recent dismal attempts.  He effectively argues:

1. We already agree that it’s right to reduce human suffering and promote human happiness and flourishing

2. Science can tell us ways to reduce human suffering and promote human happiness flourishing

3. Therefore science can tell us in broad terms what’s right and what’s wrong

Well of course science can tell us how to achieve and end if we already agree what that end is.  But this has nothing to do with offering an account of what makes it true that we do have an obligation to pursue those ends.  No matter how much science tells us how to pursue those ends, it cannot tell us anything about the “oughtness” of those ends.  IE it doesn’t give a grounding of moral facts at all.  Harris’s argument begs the question (a logical fallacy) because it assumes as true in a premise what it is trying to prove as true in the argument.

A fundamental feature of morality, as Kant noted, is that it commands our will.  Unlike observations of the natural world, moral facts present themselves to us like commands, telling us what should be and what we ought do.  This reinforces the notion that moral facts are not just a feature of the material universe.  But this also gives us reason to believe that moral facts have a personal origin because commands are expressions of intentions and only persons have intentions.  We would also reject the strange platonic forms idea, since platonic forms do not have intentions either.

Moral beliefs have the unique feature of having an inherently motivational quality.  This sets them apart from other natural facts.

Robert Adams points out that moral obligations have the features of social obligations (ie they exist because of our relationships with other people).  Thus if moral obligations are a species of social obligations, and since social obligations include the fact that it matters how we evaluate the demands made of us, and since we’re talking about objective obligations, it makes sense that a framework that includes a transcendent reference point above our human relationships must exist.

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