The Moral Argument
The Moral Argument posits that if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist; but because objective moral values do exist therefore God exists. Said another way if objective morals or laws exist there must be an objective law giver—God.
Here in part 4 of the apologetics series we will begin by defining some terms and ideas beginning with the types of morality.
- Subjective: whether something is right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion or point of view
- Absolute: something is right or wrong regardless of the circumstances
- Relative: something is right or wrong varying with the circumstances
- Objective: something is right or wrong independent of personal (including one’s own) opinion or values which are good or evil. It right or wrong no matter who or how many agree or disagree; that even if no one anywhere at anytime agrees that something is moral or immoral, that fact has no bearing on whether that something is moral or immoral
The concepts of values and duties becomes important in this discussion as well. Values have to do with whether a person, place, thing, or idea is good or bad—moral worth. It would be good to become a doctor but you aren’t obligated to become a doctor. Duties, on the other hand, have to do with whether an action is right or wrong—a moral obligation or what you ought to do or ought not do.
And finally before we dive in, we should explain what makes morality objective:
- Moral values or obligations must either be true or false.
- Moral duties and values must be universal. If something is good, it is good everywhere and always.
- Moral facts cannot be the product of our desires.
- Morality must be part of the “furniture of the universe.” They must be as real as say, gravity.
The question about where we get our morality is the linchpin of this argument; if science, naturalism or logical morality win the day then the question is moot; but if we can show the inconsistencies of their arguments as well as provide evidence that morality must come from someone and that someone is God; well then, that is good news indeed.
New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens seem to think science can determine human values and morality. These new atheists aren’t so much different than your run-of-the-mill atheist; what separates them isn’t so much their hyperly-dogmatic view of atheism, but rather their unusually high sense of moral concern and outrage directed at the harm religions have done in the name of their gods.
The framework for new atheism has a metaphysical, logical, and ethical component.
- Metaphysical Component: The belief that there is no supernatural or divine reality of any kind.
- Logical Component: The claim that religious belief is irrational.
- Moral Component: The moral component is new to atheism and sets them apart from other prominent historical atheists such as Nietzsche and Sartre. The assumption here is that there is a universal and objective but secular moral standard. It seems the new atheists include the moral component only because they must if they wish to attack a God that can command genocide while allowing people to suffer sickness or disease.
Evolutionary Naturalism, from Biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse, argues the human experience of moral obligations was the result of evolutionary pressures, which attached a sense of morality to human psychology because it was useful for moral development. In essence they claim that moral values do not exist independently of the human mind and that morality might be better understood as an evolutionary imperative in order to propagate genes and ultimately reproduce. No human society today advocates immorality, such as theft or murder, because it would undoubtedly lead to the end of that particular society and any chance for future survival of offspring.
This is an example of the is-ought fallacy: The assumption that because things are a certain way, they should be that way. Simply because moral predilections exist doesn’t mean that they ought to exist. A similar statement would be, because something is natural doesn’t mean it is good, i.e. disease or tornados.
There is a mistake we often make when discussing whether or not something is good and then assign it an equivalency to a human concept such as happiness. You can say “happiness is good” but you cannot say that “happiness equals good.” Why not? Because happiness may be derived from an evil act by a sadistic person. Can that be called good? But how does this relate to the topic at hand—the moral argument?
It is important because Objective Morality is not something that ought to be if we are simply here through the Godless process of evolution. Objective Morality is too high a standard to be an evolved sense of morality. Because Objective Morality calls us to do things which aren’t necessarily natural or comfortable or even to our own advantage; it remains a constant reminder of our responsibility regardless of our desire. This is quite different from Evolutionary Naturalism which doesn’t require us to make any of the unnatural or uncomfortable selfless act which Objective Morality would.
If our morality was something attached to us as a result of evolution, then what one has to prove is that this morality ought to have been. Why should it be here?
You can claim it ought to be because it helps with the survival of the species but can it be proven that without this morality the species would die out or be harmed beyond repair. Many animals survive and flourish without any kind of observable morality. Sometimes lions and monkeys eat their young yet they flourish and survive with no evidence of remorse or pity. No evidence would suggest that this action was wrong or evil or even that the other animals object to these acts. No morality is needed to propagate the species. How are these evolutionary morals then something that ought to be if we continue to flourish and survive?
The concept of evolution is summed up in Darwin’s misquoted phrase, “survival of the fittest.” What he actually wrote was “survival of the fit.” The idea is that one merely needed to be fit enough to reproduce to pass on its genetics in the form of a new generation. This idea says nothing about any kind of morality being needed in order to reproduce and survive.
As such, Evolutionary Naturalism has failed to show why morality ought to be. Naturalism then provides no reason to believe that morality is objectively true, so if Objective Morality is something that should not exist because it couldn’t be attached to us through evolutionary naturalism, then a reasonable explanation for why people hold to objective moral values and duties would be it must be something they are given, and if it is given, then it is given by someone—a creator.
Another type of morality has become quite prominent thanks in part to Dr. Shelly Kagan, professor of Moral Philosophy at Yale University; he has proposed that logic itself, rather than God, is the true objective standard for morality. Kagan’s argument goes like this:
“Social creatures who are perfectly logical, and who reason with an ignorance of ego, will naturally and inevitably form a social contract of perfect moral structure.”
What does this mean? Simply put, if free and perfectly rational agents were able to build a moral system for society without knowing what his or her position or role in society would be, these perfectly logical agents would create a perfectly moral society. This social contract, Kagan argues, would consist of basically two rules which sound a lot like the Golden Rule:
- Do help others that you know are in need.
- Do not hurt others purposefully.
Kagan claims that both of these rules are perfectly logical extensions of the human experience of an understanding of need, pain, death, and joy. In other words, humans understand that they want help when they are in trouble and also wish to avoid hurt, pain, and death. He believes that no God is necessary for this understanding. Logic, therefore, serves as the basis of morality, and God is not required.
One might ask of Kagan, “Can the logically moral thing to do still be the morally wrong thing to do?” The problem, or one of the problems, with the logical morality argument is that we can never as a society reach a logical moral code which Kagan hopes everyone can agree on, so the conversation becomes meaningless and an ever shifting morality based on intent and whatever concepts like do good or words like help or need are defined as. Do good? In whose opinion is this good being done? And help? Do you define what help is and if I need it or do I? Objective Morality makes no claim that morality is about helping or not harming, intentionality or purposefulness, but is rather an unchangeable and consistent moral set which we obey or don’t; agree with or don’t; cling to or don’t.
Let’s sum up a rebuttal to Logical Morality: the idea that we can obtain morality if we (1) know the set of data points and (2) we can then, therefore, reach a moral agreement as a society by simply doing good, helping others, and doing no harm intentionally from this data set using logic:
One of the weaknesses of this argument is his use of the word purposefully, this requires there to be moral compass which would define what purposefully means. Is our moral obligation then cast aside because we did harm but not purposefully or intentionally? Or is it absolved if we did something purposefully or intentionally we thought as good yet it harmed in an unforeseen way? Does he believe that intentionality is separate from morality. Intentions can be morally depraved and result in good and intentions can be morally correct yet result in harm; however, only a being who is all-knowing can know all the results from an action. The outcome of intention or purposefulness is unpredictable to everyone who lacks omniscience or maximal knowledge.
The formal argument put forth by Chris Waner go like this: “Reasoning is a function of consciousness. Logic is the science of sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is merely self-consistency among known data points. Therefore, the ontology or existence of logic emerges from knowledge, which is a function of consciousness. Maximal logic can only emerge from maximal knowledge or omniscience. Therefore, perfect morality is dependent upon perfect logic which is dependent on perfect knowledge which is a function of a maximally great mind, otherwise known as God.”
Simplified it looks like this and shows what is required to logically analyze a situation:
- We need a consciousness before we can gain knowledge or data.
- We then need to gain or learn the knowledge or data set.
- Only then can we use logic.
Logic must follow data or knowledge. To gather the data, we need a consciousness. Logic cannot exist before this consciousness, only the data would exist. To fully and completely assess the perfect morality of a purposeful action then would require all of the data points possible. Kagan, in his social contract, wants to ascribe to this society all of the characteristics of God for this logical morality to be established and then he seeks to remove God, the only being who has all the necessary attributes.
Kagan also seems to think that Christians only obey out of a fear of retribution, and I am not sure why this objection is meaningful to him. Surely people would obey a logically moral contract he talks about for fear of retribution. This doesn’t imply that the morals themselves are less than satisfactory or that anyone would necessarily be wrong in following them out of questionable motivations. What he doesn’t account for is that many Christians choose to continue to do the morally right thing out of a sense of love for others, not duty.
It is unlikely that either Evolutionary Naturalism or Logical Morality would ever require a person to be brave or heroic; so why do people run into burning buildings or jump in front of a car to save someone if there are no objective morals or duties? For instance, if a person saves a baby from drowning in a pool, society has no cause to celebrate this without objective morals or duties; and in the reverse, the person who doesn’t throw themselves in front of a bus to save the child cannot really be looked down upon or called a coward; they too are just acting as evolution or logic dictate.
In short, we are courageous or brave or heroic not out of any logical or evolutionary morality, but from an objective morality which calls us to act unselfishly even when we don’t want to. Here is what retired professor and atheist philosopher Kai Nielson said about reason or logic and morals in his book, Why Be Moral?,
“We have not been able to show that reason requires a moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. Pure practical reason, even a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.“
Can an atheist be moral, can an atheist teach morality and can they extend that morality to others?
Absolutely, the atheist can be moral and there is nothing to keep an atheist from teaching morality or morals.
However, this morality can only extend to his or her thoughts inwardly and his or her actions outwardly and not to others’ actions toward them or to the world. An atheist who teaches morality can pass along this morality, but can place no expectation for the person being taught to accept or obey it. One atheist could teach that stealing is ok, while the other teaches it is not. The question remains, the atheist can teach his or her morality, but why should he or she expect anyone else to adhere to it? This isn’t to say that the atheist may not have great moral standards, but in the end they are still, and can only be, his or her morality in the absence of an Objective Morality.
If there is no objective morality, why don’t atheists behave nihilistically?
If morality is given by a creator (God), it is given to all. It is in the design. All humans “know” murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, abusing a child is wrong, rape is wrong. Ignoring this knowledge changes nothing and does not negate the fact that most cultures throughout the world and throughout time have adhered to this moral knowledge. We don’t have discussions about the wrongness of murder, rape or abuse. What we do have are discussions about when they are permissible and under what circumstances. These are areas of personal morality which permeate the social discourse. But at the root, at our core: murder is wrong, rape is wrong, and abuse is wrong; how can evolution explain this? Even if we were convinced that Naturalism provided good answers for why something might be considered moral or immoral, it doesn’t explain the universal agreement about moral values and duties. We know instantly when we see something wrong or evil. So why not eat our young during a famine, kill our neighbor for better access to water or better lodging, or forcibly take what we want sexually? Even though you may not do these things out of your own sense of morality, this doesn’t mean you can say that your neighbor can’t. And if he does, you as an atheist, can’t say your neighbor is doing anything morally wrong, unless you claim your moral compass is better than his. But then the atheist must explain why this is the case.
Can atheists pass judgment against God, someone who in their mind doesn’t exist?
This is much like me saying, “I don’t believe in the Easter bunny” and then getting mad at the Easter bunny for not giving Easter eggs to everyone in the world and not allowing everyone to go to Easter bunny heaven. How can a being you do not believe exists be held responsible for all of the things which I don’t consider fair?
Atheists can pass judgement on God if they hold Him only to the standard of a lesser-making being, but then He is, therefore, not God but a created contingent being; and as a created being would have a lesser-making being’s sense of morality which they cannot question as they would like to question a greater-making being’s sense of morality.
If an atheist truly believes there is no God, then their judgment against Him is misplaced or misguided, rather it must be directed toward the Christian who believes in God. And this I can understand. The question of how a person could believe and tell others they must believe in a God that instructs them to commit genocide is rather a good thing. But it turns out this also cannot be done because an atheist’s morality can only extend to his or her own thoughts and actions and not put upon others, or in this case God.
If a person is truly angry with God and His action or non-action, then they aren’t truly an atheist but more of an angry theist who can’t understand and believe in a Christian God who allows pain and suffering in the world, or allows people go to hell. This misunderstanding about God results in their anger toward God because there is war and innocent people die or because there is starvation in the world. This person is in effect saying, “The God I don’t believe in wouldn’t let these things happen.” So is it that they don’t believe God exists or are angry at God, and, therefore, don’t wish to admit they believe in a God they don’t understand?
It turns out there are very few dictionary-defined atheists in the world. Most people confuse “I don’t believe God exists” with “I don’t believe in God because.” These are two completely different claims but a distinction of great importance. One is a belief that God or gods don’t exist; the other is the belief that because pain and suffering are in the world that one can’t, shouldn’t, or doesn’t believe in a God who would allow this. These are very important questions we must have an answer to and we will discuss them in depth in a later article.
Can a non-believer (those not holding an atheist belief) or the agnostic be moral without God? Do they stand on more solid ground when directing their anger toward God?
The answer is the same as it was for the atheist, as atheist aren’t the only ones to claim there is no objective morality. The difference is that non-believers or agnostics can express anger and confusion toward God without any hesitation or reservation because they aren’t constrained by the belief that God or gods don’t exist, but they are limited again to morality only being their morality—if, of course, they don’t accept any objective morality.
Simply put, non-believers, in whatever form, stand on more solid ground as far as being angry with a perceived unloving God, but they have no more footing when it comes to the matter of morality if they can’t or don’t explain where their morals come from. The more honest non-believer can agree there is an objective morality but simply choose not to follow the Creator of this morality because they don’t like the God they see in the Bible or in the Christians who follow Him.
For the atheist, the agnostic, or the unbeliever the existence, application, and universality of morality is problematic; for without an objective morality given by an objective moral lawgiver no one can make a truth claim with certainty or clarity about what is moral; instead, morals become a cacophony of ideas clamoring for recognition and supremacy. And that is the problem summed up by Ravi Zach, “When you say there is evil, aren’t you admitting there is good? When you accept the existence of goodness, you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit to a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver.”1
If you’d like more information on the Moral Argument see the links below:
Debates on the Moral Argument for the Existence of God:
William Lane Craig and Sam Harris (here)
William Lane Craig and Lawerence Krauss (here)
William Lane Craig and Dr. Shelly Kagan (here)
William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens (here)
William Lane Craig fully explains The Moral Argument for God’s Existence: