The Argument from Morality

There is a kind of argument for God that seems very common amongst the “New Apologists” that is called the “Argument from Morality.”  I am bothered by this argument for a couple of reasons, and I’ll spell them out here.  This argument runs something like this:

1. There is objective morality.
2. A law-giving God is the only thing that could ground an objective morality.
Hence, God must exist.

Built into this is an unstated premise, that being that no person’s opinion is adequate to ground an objective morality as all opinions are merely subjective.  Sometimes this is made explicit, but often it is not.  So, if someone were to ask why people merely getting together and agreeing that something was moral or immoral would not suffice for grounding an objective morality, this would be the core reason.  If it is true that all people’s opinions on morality are merely subjective, then an objective morality would never be possible.  Subjectivity never gives you objectivity, no matter how many people agree.  Even if everyone agreed, that would never cut it, and that’s just because it’s still just opinion and not moral law.

This unstated premise is important as it provides the reasoning behind the premise (2).  I want to grant this without issue.  I think it’s fine, and I am happy to let it stand.  However, that’s the only thing which I am willing to concede to this argument.  Beyond that, it looks like it fails on all fronts.  That is, both of the stated premises just seem ridiculously problematic.  Certainly, they are not the kind of thing that can be taken as self-evident.

Starting with premise (1), we see that this is just a bald assertion with little genuine support.  Is there any such thing?  Maybe.  But, if there is, it is not obvious.  Even worse, it’s not obvious what the laws of such a morality would be.  Indeed, moral laws appear to vary from community to community, and this is simply indisputable.  I do not think much time needs to be spent on this.  Suffice to say that if there is an objective morality, what it is, how it works, and what justifies it are subjects of great debate.  As such, this premise cannot be  taken to be the starting point of any proof for anything, much less something as controversial as God.

The above said, I think the problem is much worse than that.  Even if we granted (1), it is not clear why (2) is true, and this, I think, is the big issue.  The idea here is that all we mere mortals have is a subjective opinion, and, as stated above, this never gets us to objective law.  But why should we think, then, that pushing the problem back to God solves this issue?  This is what I do not get about those who push this argument.  If tastes and opinions are all subjective, why isn’t God’s opinion subjective?  Does He not have a perspective?  Presumably He has some point of view, and that necessarily means He sees things from that vantage, that he has some perspective that is peculiar to Him.  But that means that his views are just as subjective as everything else’s, and, as such, His tastes (Tastes?) do not amount to objectivity, either.  Rather, what He has is some particular set of values, and He wants those values (Values?) respected and accepted.  But this is no different than anyone else.  Certainly, I want my values accepted by everyone else as well, but that does not make my values in any way objective.  So why does it work that way for God?

One possible response is that God’s values are objective because God created everything.  But how does this follow?  What is it about creating something that means that the creator’s values are what counts over and beyond any other entity’s values, including those of the creation?  For example, if I created a robot, and that robot was so sophisticated as to be sentient, would my values count as objective in relation to that entity?  So, if I thought it was a good thing for that robot to be tortured and caused to suffer for my own pleasure, would that be “good” for the robot?  Would it be morally obligated to suffer?  I cannot see why such would be the case.  But that seems to call into question the idea that a creator’s tastes count as objective moral imperatives for the creations.  I just do not see how this could work for me, and, as such, it does not look like it works for any creator, even the Creator.

Another response might have to do with God’s power.  That is, God’s values are objective and apply to all because His power is infinite.  But that seems to directly contradict our intuitions about morality.  It does not seem that if some really strong guy, say Superman, came along and wanted to impose a different morality, then that morality would become objective, and we would all be obligated to obey that “law.”  So, if Superman wanted you to kill your kids, that does not seem like his wanting it would make it good.  And if we imagine a Super-Superman, it does not look like it would work for him, either.  So we just extend that all the way out to omnipotence, the Super-Super-Superman, God, and it does not look like we are warranted in saying that His will has any more obligating power just because He happens to be infinitely strong.  Certainly, He can harm anyone who fails to live by His tastes, but that does not seem to make His tastes objective.  Rather, it just means that he can harm someone who does not do as He wishes.  As such, it might be prudent for us to follow His orders, but it does not appear that we are morally obligated to do any such thing.

The big point here, then, is that this argument cannot demonstrate the necessary existence of God just because positing God is not a solution to the proposed problem.  That is, even if we allowed for the first premise of the argument to be true (which, as I’ve already shown, we have no reason to do), the second premise in no way explains the first premise given that the unstated premise, that subjective opinions will never grant objective law, holds for God as well.  As such, the conclusion cannot be reached:  God’s existence cannot be deduced from this argument.

In the end, this argument seems to suffer from the same flaw from which so many other arguments for God suffer.  That is, those pushing it attempt to make God necessary by suggesting that everything of which we are  aware is insufficient to do some particular job that supposedly needs to be done.  This is most obvious in the various cosmological arguments for God.  God becomes the Prime Mover, the First Cause, etc.  This is even a similar problem for the teleological argument that supposes that everything requires a designer.  The issue for all those arguments is why the thing they propose as a solution is exempt from the problem they are attempting to raise.  If everything needs a cause, what caused God?  If everything requires a designer, what designed God?  In each case of those arguments, God is supposed to have some special property that makes Him different from everything else, but in allowing for such a property, the proponents of those arguments undercut the supposed necessity of something like God.  If it turns out that not everything needs a cause (since God does not), then we no longer need a First Cause.  If everything does not require a designer, then we no longer need a Designer.  And, in the same way, if it turns out that something’s subjective tastes are sufficient for an objective morality, namely God’s, then the claim that subjectivity never gets us objectivity is completely undercut.

By proposing a solution to the problem of morality, the “New Apologists” only succeed in showing that they do not believe the most important premise of their own argument, thus negating the power of the entire thing.

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6 Responses to “The Argument from Morality”

  1. James Gray Says:

    All arguments for god basically say God is the best explanation for a phenomena, and the problem tends to be that there are so many explanations for a phenomena that it isn’t clear that God is the best one.

    The whole point of God tends to be that he is exempt from the normal rules of reality. That is why God is viewed as supernatural. This does seem like a big problem, and it might be a good idea to talk more about that. (If God doesn’t go by normal rules, then how could we know anything about him?)

    There is something important about these arguments. I think religious people are alluding to an important question about moral realism. There are problems with moral anti-realism, and realism is one possible solution. Most materialists are anti-realists, but not all of them are. For example, if ethics has no realist grounding, then it isn’t clear why we should be altruistic. We might even be able to train ourselves to lose our sense of compassion and empathy in order to be more self-serving. Those emotions aren’t very pleasant to have for the most part.

    • Jim Says:

      I’m not at all certain that ethics is the real concern for these apologists. Rather, I think they’re attempting to find some method that renders God necessary, and this is merely one tactic among many.
      I also don’t think it’s the case that most materialists are moral anti-realists. The statistics collected about practicing scientists strongly suggests that they are overwhelmingly materialists, and this is in line with my own personal experience. However, I don’t know a single one that is a moral anti-realist. Now, this might simply be from lack of consideration. That said, the point still stands.

      • Liza Says:

        Perhaps I bring this up too often, but your argument that God’s preferences are subjective really reminded me of the debate in the Euthyphro. In that dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro address the question of whether a thing is Good because it is loved by the the Gods or whether something is loved by the Gods because it is Good. They have to reject the first thesis because they observe that different Gods have different preferences. I remember discussing this dialogue with a professor I had as an undergraduate who is a theologian. Her interpretation was that Socrates was making a point about monotheism: There has to be one God who is the foundation of the Good because if there is more than one God then Their Wills can contradict. But, I think she was missing a much deeper point about the relationship between moral objectivity and the Will of God, the point which you make explicit. Whether we’re talking about one God or a Pantheon, the Will of God(s) is subjective.

        I think most moral realists (even Christians) have the strong intuition that the Good must be independent of the will of various Gods. It is easy to make a mistake and assume that objective moral Good is objective because it is the will of one, omni-benevolent God because monotheism doesn’t leave room for the conflicting wills of Gods. But your examples demonstrate exactly why this is so problematic. If something is good just because some being favors it, then the power of that being makes no difference in the subjectivity of goodness.

        So, the fact that God’s will is subjective just like any of ours is a problem. The existence of God isn’t a precondition for the existence of an objective Good. That being said, if there is an omniscient God and there is objective Good, then it is reasonable to conclude that something is beloved by God because it is Good. If God is omniscient then he must Know the Good. It seems to me that a person of faith could reasonably conclude that God is the authority on the Good because of His Knowledge, even if the Good is itself independent of the existence of God. Of course, I don’t posit the existence of God or the Good because they don’t do any explanatory work, but if I believed that God existed and that some text gave me access to His Will, then I would conclude that the text was also authoritative about the Good.

        • Jim Says:

          “That being said, if there is an omniscient God and there is objective Good, then it is reasonable to conclude that something is beloved by God because it is Good.”

          Assuming, of course, that that god isn’t a big jerk.

          • Liza Says:

            Right. It’s certainly possible that God is omniscient but evil, or at least indifferent to the Good. That’s not problematic so long as we’re positing hypothetical Gods for the sake of argument. But, that might be problematic as far as the hypothetical objective “Good” goes. I am inclined to think that any objective Good would have to be intrinsically valuable. It seems weird to think that God could recognize the intrinsic value of the Good (which He must do if He is all-knowing) and yet be indifferent to it. Of course, God might love the Good and still be indifferent to us. The picture is entirely coherent if God’s Knowing the Good but doesn’t preclude Him from being a liar or a jerk to us. The only problem then is that we have no reason to trust God, and our intuitions about what is good are not a reliable indicator of what really is Good. So, I guess, in addition to belief in God and belief in the Good, we would have to take it on faith that God wants us to know the Good if this whole picture is going to work. But really, what’s one more unfounded assertion among friends?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    As a non-theist, I also think the moral argument fails, but not because of the reasons listed in this article. God is defined as the greatest conceivable being, and from this, it follows that God is morally perfect since moral perfection is a great-making property. I don’t see what’s so difficult about grounding objective morality on the nature of God; His divine commands would simply express His nature. Anything He would command would, by definition, be ‘good’. While morality on this view is still arbitrary (God may command torture, rape, etc and these actions would be classed as good), I don’t see how this is any more arbitrary than any standard of ‘goodness’.

    But as Liza points out, while we can know that God is morally perfect, we have a severe epistemological problem when it comes to knowing the CONTENT of such moral perfection.

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