Recently there has been some discussion here about the moral argument for theism, with a couple of correspondents announcing with great certainty (but unfortunately little else) that the argument is just terrible. I beg to differ. Today I appeared on an episode of the Unbelievable? radio show, hosted by Justin Brierley (actually we did two shows), and the other guest was atheist Arif Ahmed.
I’ll have some more things to say about the show another time (these discussions always leave one wishing that more had been said, or “I wish I had thought of this reply at the time!”, plus there are the inevitable structures of the radio show itself). For now, however, I just want to present the version of the moral argument that I used. What follows is the “prepared” version, as though I were giving a presentation on the argument – a very simple presentation, intended for a radio audience consisting of laypeople. Of course, in a discussion style radio show it wasn’t presented as one continuous explanation like this, and plenty of parts were left out. Time is short on such occasions, so not everything gets said. But you get to read it anyway 🙂 Here it is:
Moral facts have no place in a godless universe. This conviction is sometimes seen in a moral argument for the existence of God, as follows:
If God did not exist, then there could not be any moral facts
There are moral facts
Therefore God exists
Premise 1) has its fair share of controversy, and I’ll come to that soon. But what if someone tries to avoid the force of the argument by denying 2)? I think that’s an implausible move, but it is a move that some people take. What’s more, the argument in this form, I think, is likely to seem a little too quick and easy, and therefore unpersuasive. We can actually revise the argument so that it can be accepted regardless of whether or not one believes in moral facts, and so that, I think, its steps a little better explained, like this:
If there are moral facts, then their basis is either natural or supernatural (where these two are construed as mutually exclusive categories)
The basis of moral facts is not natural
Therefore if there are moral facts, then their basis is supernatural
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.
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.
Premise 1 is to be construed as analytically true. Premise 3 could be removed, as it is just the inference of 1-2. But they are there to make the argument easier to follow.
Now obviously a number of these premises need to be defended, but some are, I think, more or less self-evident. The first premises is pretty hard to deny: If there are moral facts, then they do have a basis. All facts have a basis, that is, they have a certain state of affairs that makes them facts rather than fictions. There are circumstances that make them both possible and actual. I’m sitting here in a chair, and this is made possible by the fact that physical objects exist and more specifically chairs exist, the existence of gravity and so on. And if there are moral facts then there are indeed states of affairs that make moral fact claims true. They have some sort of basis. And since the natural and the non natural are mutually exclusive, that is, they cover all possible options, then there’s just no avoiding it: If there are any moral facts then their basis has to be either natural or supernatural. The third and fifth claims: each beginning with the word “therefore” are simply the logical entailment of the claims that came before, so it’s hard to argue with those without rejecting one or both of two crucial claims, and it’s those two claims that really form the heart of this argument. Specifically, premises two and four need to be defended: The claim that the basis of moral facts is not natural, and the claim that the most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person. If these claims can be presented as plausible then you’ve really got to grant the argument as sound.
I think that these two premises can be defended quite plausibly. Let’s start with the claim that the basis of moral facts is not natural. Obviously this is a real bone of contention, because a large number of atheists consider themselves moral and also recognise a lot of things in the world around them as either moral or immoral: Charity is morally good. Rescuing prisoners of war is morally good. The pursuit of justice, love and so on, are morally good. Most atheists also believe that some things are morally wrong: Child molestation, torturing people for fun, greed etc. When people in general – atheist or otherwise – see these things, we don’t just think “well that’s not in keeping with our social norms.” We actually think that as a matter of fact those things ought not to be done. And given that atheists in general believe this, they are hesitant to believe that moral facts couldn’t be natural, because a thoroughgoing atheist worldview is, I think, best construed as entirely naturalistic. There is nothing other than what is natural, so if moral facts aren’t natural, then we’d have to doubt that they exist at all, which seems enormously counter-intuitive in light of what people tend to find themselves instinctively knowing about the world.
But could moral facts just be facts of nature, of the material world? I don’t think so. I know that some atheists have tried to argue that moral facts are just natural facts with no need of a divine lawgiver, but I don’t see that they’ve been very successful. The reason is that moral facts have to do, not with the way that things just are in the world, but rather to do with the way that things should be in the world. But if the world is not here for a reason – If unintended nature is all there is – then there simply is no way that things were meant to be. Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about the way things should be. We observe animals killing and eating each other and we don’t regard it as a moral atrocity because it is merely a fact of nature. It is that way. But if natural facts are the only kinds of facts, then the same is true of human beings, surely. People maim and torture each other, they rape, exploit and terrorise each other, and that is they way it is.
What then of the fourth premise: That the best way to to think of a supernatural basis of morality is in terms of a supernatural person? Well, if we’ve got to think of morality having as its basis something that’s not part of nature, how should we think of it? If we adopt a very platonised view of reality, where there exist non natural things like the forms, or the ideas of things like trees, steam engines, and more abstractly still, “the good,” I don’t think we get very far. You’ve heard the supposedly mysterious question, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Well the idea of platonic forms are more mysterious still – they are like conscious thoughts that exist even with nobody to think them. What’s more, the free-floating non-natural and non personal thing called goodness surely isn’t the sort of thing that could have intentions, and it is this normative or intentional aspect of morality that makes it what it is, namely a set of prescriptive duties. The only kinds of things that have intentions are personal things, namely persons.
So this leaves us with a sound argument and therefore a true conclusion: 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.
So there’s the basic argument, but let me just make four brief observations about the argument.
Notice firstly that this more nuanced version of the moral argument doesn’t prove that God exists. What it establishes is that if there are moral facts, then they are best explained by a supernatural person who is the source of moral truth. But I think that the existence of a being like that is obviously not compatible with philosophical naturalism, the belief that the natural universe is all there is: Matter, energy and nothing else. So what we have is a contingent claim. If moral facts exist, then philosophical naturalism is false and there exists, for want of a better term, something like a God.
Notice secondly that this argument has a further logical consequence: If no supernatural person exists, then there are no moral facts. That is the real kicker here, and I think that’s why a number of atheists are, on an emotive rather than intellectual level, so strongly opposed to the moral argument for theism. The moral argument effectively says to them that they are denying that moral claims are true, and who wants to be in that position? The thought that your position results in the enormously counter-intuitive and rather shocking claim that, for example, raping and torturing young girls just for your own pleasure isn’t in fact morally wrong is a pretty bitter pill to swallow. You might think that I’m intentionally using emotive examples here. Well of course I am, and that’s the point. The example is emotive precisely because it evokes in us the involuntary reaction of moral shock. It seems screamingly obvious to atheists, as it does tot he rest of us, that such acts are utterly wicked, and the thought that an atheist is taking away our basis for saying so is therefore unbearable, hence the emotive rather than rational resistance to the moral argument.
Third, the moral argument for theism is not at all tied to any one idiosyncratic version of theism. It’s pointless to say, for example “Ah, but that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.” No, it doesn’t and that’s why the truth of Christianity is not mentioned in the argument. It would also be pointless to reply to the argument by saying to a Jew or a Christian “Well look at what your nasty God did in the Old Testament. He required harsh and unreasonable criminal punishment and acts of war against entire civilisations. Those things are clearly morally deficient.” That’s irrelevant. If we were, for argument’s sake, all to agree that the God of the Old Testament did some pretty shady things, we’d still have to conclude that atheism is false, and that’s the point of the argument. It’s not an argument for the reliability or moral virtue of the Bible at all (although in a different context I would have some things to say about that). The further problem here of course is that if the moral argument is sound, then the atheist is in a bit of a bind if he retaliates by making moral judgements, since if atheism is true there just aren’t any moral facts to appeal to when complaining about the Old Testament.
Lastly and I think crucially, the moral argument is about the basis of moral facts. It’s about what makes moral facts facts. It is not about what makes moral facts knowable. An analogy is helpful here: Newton’s theorisation about gravity tells us about what makes gravity do the things that it does. But that doesn’t mean that unless we believe Newton, we can’t know that things fall down. Of course we can, and people knew that long before Newton came along. Similarly, the moral argument tells us that God makes moral facts what they are, but that doesn’t mean that people who don’t believe in God cannot know right from wrong, or that they can’t be moral people. Of course they can. In fact the biblical writers make it clear that they believed the moral law to be written on the human heart and revealed, albeit imperfectly, through conscience, for example. So nobody here is saying that atheists are thoroughly wicked people. They can and do perform acts of great moral value. What they cannot do however is offer a truthful explanation of what makes those actions morally praiseworthy without abandoning atheism altogether.
So bearing those four important caveats in mind, the moral argument leaves us with two options: Either we should accept that God exists, and begin the all important task of searching for him earnestly, in light of the importance that God’s existence has, 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.
In short, whatever else might exist in a godless world – and that’s a subject for a whole other discussion – moral facts certainly could not exist.