The fall and rise of the moral argument

In light of the millennia of the history of philosophy that we have behind us, it was only recently – setting the last few decades aside – that the moral argument slipped out of the mainstream. In the first half of the twentieth century C. S. Lewis could refer to the moral argument with some confidence, and it may well have been the most common of the major arguments for God’s existence at the time.

While today most Christians philosophers might look favourably on the moral argument (with the occasional noteworthy exception like Richard Swinburne), it has certainly fallen out of favour among the philosophical community – in spite of what I take to be its strength – bearing in mind of course that in the English-speaking world the general population outside of academia was once much more Christian than today. Where did it go? Why, in the mid twentieth century, did the moral argument slip out of sight?

Part of the explanation may well lie in the ascendancy of other arguments for God’s existence. In particular, first-cause arguments were given a huge boost by scientific discoveries centred around big bang cosmology and fine tuning arguments were assisted by scientific progress in general, especially in physics and astrophysics. These facts significantly changed the apologetic landscape. But other than that, was there a new ground-breaking critique of the first premise of the basic moral argument: that moral facts point to the existence of God? In fact there was not. What then?

Moral claims were deemed to be not propositions at all, but expressions of will, emotion or something else. To talk about moral facts was regarded as mere nonsense.

What happened, at least in philosophical circles, was the rapid rise in a fairly trendy European anti-realism about ethics – although like many trends, it was not to last. A group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle as they met at the University of Vienna starting in 1922, came to exercise a great influence over what followed in mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy. It represented a radical critique of a great deal of what had gone on in philosophy up to that point. In particular it proclaimed “the elimination of metaphysics,” laying a new set of ground rules for what did and did not count as a meaningful proposition. The thought of the Vienna Circle was introduced to the English-speaking world largely by A. J. Ayer in Britain, principally in his book Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936. Advocating logical positivism, the movement declared that unless a proposition was either analytically true (true by definition) or could – in principle at least – be empirically verified, then it was literally nonsense, and not a real proposition at all. With this verificationist cudgel in hand, the movement sought to lay waste to both metaphysics and moral realism. Moral claims, they realised, were neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, even in principle. Hence, moral claims were deemed to be not propositions at all, but expressions of will, emotion or something else. To talk about moral facts was regarded as mere nonsense.

In making this move, the moral argument was robbed of its force. The moral argument appealed to God as the grounding of moral facts, but if there simply were no moral facts after all (or if it was gobbledegook to speak of them), the appeal to God would become irrelevant. Here was an escape from the moral argument, and hence an ally to any philosopher who might have worried that God might still somehow be needed to account for moral truths, and hence the rapid growth of the friendship between atheism and moral anti-realism is perfectly understandable – and observable. After noting the historical fact that theistic outlooks tend to adhere to moral realism, philosopher (and atheist) Graham Oppy observed:

As a further matter of historical fact, one of the main motives for the development of non-realist meta-ethics has been the desire to give an adequate atheistic account of the nature of the good. Thus many subjectivist, projectivist, and error-theoretic accounts of the good were developed in the context of atheistic enquiries.1

By its own principles, the rule of logical positivism had to be deemed , not false, but literally meaningless!

Thus, the widespread influence of the Vienna circle and logical positivism saw an eclipse of moral realism and hence of the moral argument. Philosophy of religion was consumed with entirely different issues for a number of decades. This is illustrated by the way in which the now classic work edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair McIntyre in 1955, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, talk of falsification and meaningfulness took centre stage. But things did not end there. The fact is that today virtually nobody would want to be known as a sympathiser of logical positivism. Before long people began to ask the obvious question, namely whether or not the tenets of logical positivism were themselves true by definition or empirically verifiable, and the equally obvious answer – no – dealt a blow that logical positivism would never recover from. By its own principles, the rule of logical positivism had to be deemed , not false, but literally meaningless! Now the dogma had to be reduced to some friendly advice; a suggestion of sorts that there was no particularly compelling reason to embrace. There was no barrier to thinking that propositions about God, about metaphysics, and about objective right and wrong, were meaningful after all – and who knows, many of them may well be true.

With the fall of logical positivism came a resurgence of interest in the grounding of ethics. But logical positivism had emboldened non-believing ethicists to pursue their vision of the good (or lack thereof) without reference to God, since God could be dispensed of without the need to account for moral facts (so many may have thought). Even with a return to moral realism, that same boldness remained. God was gone from the picture, and in a kind of historical forgetfulness, people had lost track of why God had been important. Never mind those awkward details – we’re atheists, we know there’s a right and wrong, so let’s get on with it and talk about right and wrong! While there has been a return to ethical realism, there has been no desire to return to the problem created by ethical realism in the first place.

A proponent of the moral argument for theism can take some heart from this turn of events. In fact, this return to realism has seen a new wave of literature about God and morality, discussing the dependency of moral facts on God Robert Adams, John Hare, John Rist and others have published top-notch works on meta-ethics and philosophy of religion, pressing the secular outlook on morality in precisely this way. Rist’s comment is on the mark when he observes that although we all seem to believe that morality is a reflection of the way things are, there is a steadfast refusal to discuss the underlying structure and basis of morality itself:

There is reason to believe that… the theoretical crisis about moral foundations underlies many of the more immediate personal and political decision-making, and that the confusion in much contemporary moral debate depends in part on a systematic unwillingness outside academia – and often within it – to look squarely at this crisis.2

There is an increasing awareness of the existence of the crisis, as seen in the willingness of some published ethicists to acknowledge the historical association of morality with God and to offer their own reasons for not accepting the association as legitimate (some of which are addressed in my forthcoming article on the epistemological objection to divine command ethics in Philosophia Christi). But the bottom line is that with the major shift in mid to late twentieth century philosophy has come fresh opportunity for theists in philosophy. As illustrated by the new wave of literature and the new direction taken by philosophers of religion (a movement that some have yet to catch up with), the moral argument is back on the table.

Glenn Peoples

  1. Graham Oppy, “Is God Good by Definition?” Religious Studies 28 (2002), 467. Oppy himself claims that moral realism is false, and that this provides a defeater for theism, since “Ethical realism is a necessary consequence of traditional theism” (467). []
  2. John M. Rist, Real Ethics: Rethinking the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3. []

51 thoughts on “The fall and rise of the moral argument

  1. I agree that many atheists don’t bother trying to reconcile (what they claim are) their ontological or epistemological commitments with how they approach ethics. As with the Positivists, this makes them ripe for coherency attacks.

    But then I think everyone should be troubled by the disarray in metaethics.

  2. Hey Glenn – loved this post, loved the podcast – and all the previous ones!

    Just wanted to say: I don’t know if he’s your political cup of tea but that doesn’t matter for the comparison: You’re like the Ron Paul of Christian apologetics / philosophy / theology. EVERYONE I have ever spoken to who knows of your stuff thinks it is totally fantastic, but just as he gets ignored by mainstream media so often, the mainstream Christian institutions (from what I can gather given your current employment and previous comments) seem to have their own agenda and don’t look your way. Frustrating!

  3. Glenn,

    I’ve been meaning to ask – does Richard Swinburne (a Smethwick man like myself, I recently discovered!) give any credence to the moral argument AT ALL, or is it just that he has a different understanding of what it establishes? (Dr Law simply says that Swinburne doesn’t hold it, but hasn’t said much more than that I think).

    I know a very little about Orthodox theology but it seems to me that an Orthodox Christian, by fact of being Orthodox, wouldn’t have a philosophical problem with the Moral Argument (unless Tradition spoke squarely against it), and so this may be a peculiar outlook of Richard’s. But I could be wrong, of course!

    Thanks in advance and happy New Year.


  4. SK: From what I understand, Richard Swinburne didn’t endorse the use of the moral argument prior to embracing Orthodoxy. But there’s certainly nothing about Orthodoxy that would pose a problem for the moral argument.

    However, what Law says in public could easily be taken to mean that Swinburne thinks the moral argument is unsound. That’s certainly not the case. He quotes Swinburne saying “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” But that’s half a sentence. The full sentence is “For this reason I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” And where he says “for this reason,” he is not referring to a reason like “some of the premises are false” or “the argument isn’t valid” or anything like that. Instead in this immediate context (p 217 of the second edition of The Existence of God), he is explaining that it would take a fair bit of work to get the other party to accept all the premises (“As it stands, the argument is not a good argument (for the reason that the premisses are not accepted by disputing parties),” and he says the work that would be required to defend all the premises to a non-believer is more than he thinks is worth the effort. By “force,” Swinburne here means persuasive force.

    That being said, in the pages that immediately follow Swinburne does clearly endorse the use of the “moral sense” argument that Law dismisses.

  5. “as seen in the acknowledgement of some published ethicists to acknowledge”

    Uh, sentence malfunction? I had to read this one five times, and I’m still not sure exactly what it means. Perhaps one acknowledgement too much? :S

  6. Good to see the moral argument resurgence in academia. I agree that the moral argument is sound and compelling. At least as compelling as the cosmological one, and nearly as much as the design argument.

    For what its worth (if I didn’t mention it recently), I don’t find the fine tuning argument a particularly compelling form of teleology.

  7. Ok, I can understand that. I just asked as he seems to be all the rage amongst secular ethicists at the moment. He would be worth spending more time on than what you did with Sam Harris.

  8. Great post. I’ve always wondered why the moral argument was under-appreciated by Christian philosophers. In conversations I’ve had about it with a few they treat it like the “not really ugly, but not as hot as the other sister” of the arguments from natural theology, or even worse, like the kind of argument okay for popular apologetics books but not serious philosophy.
    It’s not even mentioned in Meister’s “Intro to Phil…” and in Murray and Rea’s book, they present a paragraph or two on why the “law=law-giver” argument isn’t good. Well duh. This is unfortunate because this had lead to it being under-developed; even Plantinga has said this.

    Glad you’re writing on this topic.

  9. Count me among the theists that don’t find the moral argument to be incredibly persuasive. There seems to be two optjons:

    1. There are objective morals and God exists

    2. Morals are not objective but only seem objective because evolution hard wired them in us.

    Both of these can account for perceived objective morals. Morals values don’t really need to be objective, they only need to seem pbjective to a being that holds them.

    *disclaimer. I am on an iPhone and freely admit that reading on it is not the easiest so I may have missed something.

  10. Mike, right – the sceptic’s way out, if he is to steadfastedly refuse to think that God might exist, is to deny that there are objective morals, and that if we were ruthlessly consistent we would just have to say that things like torture and rape aren’t – as a matter of moral fact – wrong.

    Part of the strength (i.e. persuasive force) of the moral argument is that few people – even most of the atheists who write at a high level on this very issue – are willing to say that part of our coming of age and stripping away our mythological baggage must involve the realisation that our moral beliefs are actually just misleading products of evolution that serve a function that has nothing to do with their truth, and that the worst moral barbarism that we can imagine is really only a violation of a social taboo or fictional construct.

    Now of course, if someone is so tenacious that they would sooner believe that than reconsider their stance on God, then of course the moral argument cannot be used to bludgeon them across the line. The argument puts them in the position of having to acknowledge God or embrace nihilism. But on the whole, I have seen that the majority of unbelievers will not in fact embrace nihilism but try to salvage moral realism since they really do insist that there are moral facts after all.

    You might find my recent blog on the evolution of moral beliefs interesting.

  11. Glenn,

    Just because the atheist has to admit something that is unpleasant, doesn’t make the argument any stronger. This relies on the comfort of what is being forfeited rather than Truth or validity of argument.

    Also, people are hardly ever “ruthlessly consistent” about anything…and you really don’t have to be. From my understanding, it is exceptionally difficult to prove induction. Yet, no one lives their lives wondering if this time their juice will pour out of the container sideways rather toward their glass.

  12. Mike, I tried to steer away from talk of pleasantness and unpleasantness, because that’s not a feature of the argument – and I think that’s a way of caricaturing it to make it sound weaker. I suppose some people might think about it that way, but it’s not at all part of anything I’ve said. I haven’t maintained that moral nihilism is unpleasant. I maintain that it seems incredible, and that is why most atheists do not accept it. In fact, there may be some who realise that something is immoral and hence know that they shouldn’t do it and find themselves with a reason not do do it – but perhaps wish that things were otherwise! So this talk of describing others as going for what’s nice should be kept out of the argument I think.

    I understand that people are hardly ever ruthlessly consistent. My point was never that they are. It was only when you point out to an atheist that consistency would lead to moral nihilism – they (often) actually want to deny that. That some might not want to bear that burden is no reason to shy away from pointing out that it is a burden that they are committed to bearing.

  13. thanks for this glenn, good stuff. was it as a response to logical positivism that properly basic beliefs and foundationalism came on the scene, and was it platinga that pointed out that we all hold beliefs that can’t be empirically verified? for example the beliefs that other minds exist and that the sensory data our own minds receive is actually produced by an existing external world.

    and i agree naturalism leads inevitably to moral nihilism, which is why harris fails when he tries to produce an account of objective morality. i just not sure if it’s that big a deal.

  14. to go back to mikes first point in post 16, i have a few thoughts, tell me what you think:

    colour’s don’t exist independent of sight, because there is just streams of protons with different wave lengths or whatever light is (i think newton pointed this out?), and pressure waves through the air only seem like sound to a being with ears. so objectively the external world is colourless and silent, with the experience of colour and sound being internally generated. on a more simple level, sandpaper is just that, paper with sand glued to it, and the sensation of roughness is just my way of interpretting sensory data, and has nothing to do with any intrinsic property of the sandpaper. sodium chloride has no intrinsic properties of taste, but my tongue tells me it tastes salty, not because it does taste salty, but because that is my tongues way of telling me what chemical it is.

    so when a naturalist says that there are no objective external moral standards, which they are forced to do, this doesn’t mean they can’t interact with the world as though they see moral standards all around them. when we balk at saying Horrible Act X isn’t objectively wrong because morality doesn’t really exist, it is just because we haven’t thought about it and don’t really understand the question, just like we would balk at saying a red jersey isn’t intrinsically red because colours don’t really exist. even though we know the sensation of perceiving colours is just our eyes way of telling us what frequency waves are coming in.

    so i know you didn’t disagree with mike when he said that evolution had hardwired us to believe in right and wrong, only that atheists balk when it is pointed out to them that naturalism doesn’t provide any room for objective morallity, but if they are hardwired to believe in objective morality then of course you would expect them to balk.

    anyway, just some thoughts, tell me what you think, i’m sure i’ve probably missed something obvious.

  15. i consider Act X to be wrong, but this isn’t sufficient to say that wrongness is an intrinsic property of Act X, just like redness isn’t an intrinsic property of electromangetic radiation with a wavelength of 700 – 635 nm (source: wikipedia) although i still see it as red. knowing that something isn’t intrinsically red or wrong won’t enable me to stop seeing it as such, because i’m operating within the constraints of being me. so i can still say that Act X is wrong despite denying the existence of an objective external standard of right and wrong. nihilism (as i understand it, at least) doesn’t really seem like that big a deal.

  16. Sam, if you extend that analogy you will discover that that line of reasoning actually leads the nihilist who is operationally a moralist into a highly uncomfortable situation when times come to evaluate his working moral stances, which he (philosophically) believes to be mere human biases of some sort.

    To illustrate how it won’t turn out quite the way a clash of colour perceptions does:
    Nihilist: “It’s red.”
    Friend: “It looks purple to me.”
    Nihilist: “Really? Hmm.”

    Nihilist: “Killing people is wrong.”
    Friend: “Why?”
    Nihilist: “…”

    Of course, you could envision a ‘ruthlessly consistent nihilist’ whose philosophy and morality have been forced to converge:
    Nihilist: “Killing people is wrong because life, however meaningless, is aesthetically valuable to its owners (etc.)”

    Yet that’s profoundly uncomfortable – not to mention such a stance in particular would invite other questions (such as “why universalize this principle?” or “what is the basis for this altruism?”), driving the nihilist being discussed into an increasingly biologistic stance.

  17. hi nigel,

    yes you’re completely right and i accept all your criticisms. however i don’t think that an appeal to consequences, no matter how unpleasant i might feel they are, addresses the potential truth of the nihilists position. you find condoms and marijuana in you 15yr old daughters handbag, do you believe that they are her friends simply because that’s not as uncomfortable for you as the alternative? i’ve said before that i think it would be fantastic if there was a benevolent and omnipotent god who wanted to be my personal friend and who gave clear guidelines for my behaviour, but ‘it would be fantastic’ doesn’t mean ‘it’s true’. and it doesn’t mean it isn’t either.

    so what exactly are you trying to say here? that nihilism must be false, or that nihilism must be unpleasant? i think i explained over on matts blog a while ago why it might not be as unpleasant as we tend to think anyway.

    but moving on, a divine command position doesn’t really avoid the “red or purple?” problem either.

    Christian: “Killing these people now would be wrong.”
    Friend: “Why?”
    Christian: “Because God says killing people is wrong”
    Friend: “But there are plenty of examples when God commanded some people to kill others, or at least permitted it, so the act of killing people isn’t in itself intrinsically wrong.”
    Christian: “Yes, but God wouldn’t want you to kill these people now.”
    Friend: “But he told me he did want me to.”
    Christian: “You’re deluded.”
    Friend: “Perhaps you should double check with God yourself. I’ll give you a minute or two, he’s omnipresent so he’s here right now, so ask him.”

    and it starts to get a bit ridiculous after that. another example great example would be christians arguing about homosexuality. my point is that your position seems to face the same problem as nihilism anyway in that when there is a disagreement over what is right and wrong, there is no way to discover an answer. you need god to intervene.

  18. glenn something has been bugging me concerning properly basic beliefs: why can’t it work for both sides?

    why can’t atheists hold as a properly basic belief that there is objective morality? if it is a properly basic belief then they would not be under any obligation to give an explanation of how or why they know it to be true, like the theists properly basic belief in the existence of god. i could then just reject the premises moral argument outright.

  19. “why can’t atheists hold as a properly basic belief that there is objective morality?”

    Sam, it’s crucial to understand that a properly basic belief is not just a belief that we choose to start with, or that we really think is true but we don’t know why.

    True enough, a person might not know why they believe something, and it may in fact be properly basic. But if a person is going to defend the claim that a belief is properly basic if true (as Plantinga, for example, does), then they had better be ready to give an account of what brought the belief about.

    And here is where the “atheism is true and moral beliefs are properly basic” approach collapses. Whether or not a belief is properly basic is an epistemological question, as it is about how beliefs form. But the question of whether or not there can be moral facts if atheism is true is not an epistemological question. It is a metaphysical or ontological question. If it’s the case that there are no moral facts if God doesn’t exist, then this alone shows that anyone who claims that moral beliefs are true and properly basic is actually mistaken. It rules out the possibility of moral facts, and hence of properly basic moral beliefs.

    But doesn’t this apply to theism as a properly basic belief as well? Absolutely. If there are true defeaters for theistic belief, then theism is false and hence is not a properly basic belief after all. Remember: The whole issue of theism as a properly basic belief was never used to show that theism is true. It is ony used to point out that certain kinds of theism, if true, can be properly basic.

  20. G’day

    Morality is the rules of social life.

    I am not baulking when Asecularists mistakenly point out that there is no natural objective basis for morality. I am not only telling you that you are mistaken, I am showing you why and how you are mistaken. There is no nihilism involved in this. You’ve been reading Nietzsche too seriously. He was wrong because he did not understand political equity because he had no practical experience of it. In the modern West, you do not have that excuse.

    Sam Harris fails to produce an objective account of morality because he is trying to make scientific mountains out of what is a political molehill and has not looked at the political implications of morality and the moral implications of politics. He has failed to examine social and political equity and how society wide morality has developed in tandem with the development of political equity. But then he’s not alone in that.

    Without an accommodating equitable political structure, moral values cannot be spread to best advantage through a society. The changes in moral values follow changes in political values. This is why moral values supposedly handed down by supernatural beings are quite useless if the political values they are being handed down into will not accommodate those moral values. The political values of the time of the Bible were authoritarian and despotic. Society wide moral values based on equity were never going to get a look in. The idea of political equity didn’t even start to become wide spread any where until the late 18th century.

    Divine command theory fails because it doesn’t account for the political ability of society to practice moral behaviour. Moral behaviour is political because morality is the rules of social life. The more open and equitable society becomes, the more society wide spread is moral behaviour. Being aware of moral behaviour is easy. Practicing can be hard even on a small personal scale and down right impossible on a society scale if the political structure of society is opposed to equity. Your creative account of DCT is but epicycles on epicycles. Like epicycles failed to take into account physical reality, DCT fails to realise that the personal is political. You god has got Buckleys of getting his moral commands obeyed because he and his clerical followers couldn’t think outside their authoritarian Theistic boxes and conceive an equitable political system. CDT also relies on an “if” and a “given”, ie “if” god exists and “given” that god has these characteristics. This is whistling in the wind wishful thinking and is hotly disputed, even among Theists, and is not a reasonable basis for morality.

    The great achievement of the Enlightenment was to progress the socio-political development of equity. Theism is unable to do this because the ordering principle of Theism is inherently authoritarian and naturally intolerant and always results in totalitarian governance whenever Theism has practical political power.

    Trying to find a conscious being to be the objective basis for morality is coming at it from the wrong direction. Your mistake, and that of many others, including Secularists, is looking for that basis in some form of conscious being, either natural or supernatural, ie looking for a conscious authority to give commands. The problem with that is that conscious authoritive beings have a hard time being objective. The objective basis for morality is not an authority nor a conscious being commanding via authority.

    As long as you want to use a conscious being, particularly an authoritarian one with a totalitarian Plan, as that basis then it will be impossible to get an ought from an is. But shift your objective basis from a conscious being to an idea that is a political act that conscious beings can use as a base to measure the morality of actions, the idea of mutual peace, and you’re on a different playing field and it’s a level playing field.

    Theists do not show that there is not a natural objective basis for morality, they just assert that their alleged alternative basis exists. The fact that we are still arguing as to whether this alternative exists, is an indication that it has not been established that it does.

    The objective foundation for morality is the mutual peace of un coerced peaceful co-existence.

    Morality comes from the idea of mutual peace, not the idea of god.

    Mutual peace is not only the objective, it is objective. It is a political act between humans. It is not a divine gift. Mutual peace exists regardless of the existence or not of any gods. It cannot be given as a gift, it has to be achieved by human co-operation. There is no “if” or “given” with mutual peace. We know it exists and we know its character.

    When humans behave in ways that create the conditions for mutual peace, they are being moral, doing right. The conditions necessary for peace, (and I mean un-coerced peaceful co-existence, not Pax Romana or Pax Britanica which are not mutual peace and are merely an Orwellian idea of peace) are created using the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour, using the tools of reason, empathy, compassion and emotion, measured against mutual peace.

    It’s not rocket science. Why would you prefer not to live in a world of peace on earth and mutual aid and goodwill to all.

    Mutual peace is the objective foundation of morality. Measuring behaviour from mutual peace gives us the three basic modes of behaviour that result in morality, the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour. Complex systems are built on simple rules.

    Morality is the rules of social life.

    Morality is not a result of a religious discourse. Religion is the result of a moral discourse. You cannot have religion without first having morality as you can’t have religion without having a stable social group and to have a stable social group, you need to have morality.

    Some moral acts are absolute, like murder and rape. I can’t think of any situation where such acts are acceptable.

    Some moral acts are conditional, like killing. I can think of situations were killing is acceptable. Conditional morality is not the same as what is called relative morality. Relative morality is not acceptable. Honour killing is alleged to be relative morality – but it is murder and immoral.

    Some morality changes because we constantly measure morality against the idea of mutual peace and when humans decide that a particular moral standard doesn’t measure up against the idea of mutual peace anymore, we change our attitude and what was once moral now becomes immoral, like slavery, racism and sexism.

    What was accepted as moral by Christians in the past is not accepted by them now, like slavery. The Quakers and liberal Christians who were at the forefront of abolition were not popular with mainstream Christians but they persevered and succeeded because their measurement of slavery against the idea of mutual peace was correct.

    The practice of mutual peace is the end result of morality and the idea of mutual peace is the starting point. Peace is the alpha and the omega of morality. Not only is mutual peace the objective basis of morality it is the objective goal of morality. Only sadists and masochists and the immoral don’t want to live in a state of mutual peace. Only a state of mutual peace allows people to live a flourishing meaningful life and give a future to their children and therefore the species.

    “Good” is not a basis for morality because it is subjective. There is disagreement about the concept of good because “good” is subjective. There is no disagreement, that I am aware of, around the concept of mutual peace. Everyone knows what that is, because it is objective.

    Mutual peace does not care how we use the morality we obtain from mutual peace, nor care whether we are moral or immoral. Mutual peace doesn’t demand that we behave in a certain way. Mutual peace is not an entity. Mutual peace doesn’t have an agenda or a Plan for us that it demands we follow. Mutual peace doesn’t demand our submission to its will.

    Mutual peace is an idea that leads to a political act. From that idea, we can measure moral behaviour because when people behave in ways that generate un-coerced peaceful co-existence, they are being what we call moral, and those ways to behave start with following the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour.

    Mutual peace is objective and is the same for everyone regardless of their prejudices and ideologies. Some people may not want mutual peace or like it but it is still objectively the same for them as it is for those who do want peaceful co-existence. That’s why people who are Humanist, be they religious or secular, strive for Peace on earth and goodwill to all, which is just another way of describing mutual peace.

    We naturally derive morality from examining the way to live in un-coerced peaceful co-existence which gives us a natural ordering principle. We don’t need a god to reveal this morality to us. The morality from god thesis only shifts the goalpost as it leaves unanswered the question of how god reaches a decision on morality. If god uses reason to arrive at a morality decision then god is not doing anything we can’t do for ourselves.

    What’s the point of morality? What are we trying to achieve with it. What type of life are we after? What is the end result of behaving morally? A peaceful un coerced life, that’s what we are trying to achieve, so that our children have a future.

    Our cave dwelling ancestors worked this out a couple of hundred thousand years ago and we’ve been doing it ever since. And it’s name is mutual peace.

    So the argument is this

    Objective moral values can be measured by mutual peace
    Objective moral values and mutual peace exist
    Gods are redundant in determining objective moral values

    Morality is the rules of social life.

    Why do you think the peace makers are so blessed? Why do you think it’s important for the Humanist aspect of your religion to say “Go in peace” and “Peace be with” when greeting and farewelling people? Why do you think the most important thing to say at Christmas is “Peace on earth and goodwill to all” which is different way of saying “Practice mutual peace.”

    Give Peace a Chance.

    It’s the foundation of morality.

  21. Hi Sam:

    I believe my position is essentially the same as Glenn’s (he was more articulate).

    We must remember that ‘created beliefs’ must be justifiable by their referents, under pain of arbitrariness and thus meaninglessness.

    As for the scenario involving the Christian and his friend, I don’t think the question of the existence of objective morals should be extended to the content of those morals. After all, an assumption of the moral argument is that there are moral facts. I, for one, don’t believe in the integrity of the proposed scenario; it is (from my non-objective perspective) akin to manipulating empirical data on the basis of an arbitrary hypothesis, a la a “theory of everything”. Realistically, what would immediately spring to mind is that my friend is either lying or psychotic.

    Therefore you are in some respects correct about the limitations of the moral argument – but then again, for the critic, who must challenge the assumptions of the argument, his reality must then conform to his constructed beliefs.

  22. Hi Buzz:

    The first proposition of the given argument seems to be a non sequitur. It does not follow that the general preferability of peace makes peace an acceptable basis for objective morals.

    ‘Peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice’.

  23. hi, good reply thanks glenn, i think i get it. put another way foundational beliefs can’t contradict each other (can’t they? if not why not?) so given that the beliefs that naturalism is true and that objective morality exists are contradictory because objective morality, if true, must be super-natural, then one of them has to go? so that’s a defeater, but for the theists position there isn’t a defeater. am i then justified in holding any belief as properly basic provided that a) it doesn’t contradict another properly basic belief and b) can’t be shown to be wrong?

    why do you emphasize that belief can only be properly basic if true? even if the truth is that we are just plugged into the matrix surely it can still be properly basic for us to believe that we are interacting with a real world which exists as we perceive it to.

    i see i need to read platingas lecture again more carefully when i get the time.

  24. I think Glenn meant that properly basic beliefs are fundamental beliefs that are epistemologically plausible. If so, then as long as theism is not ‘defeated’ on the grounds of truth, it is plausible and hence a properly basic belief.

  25. Glenn:

    Thanks, I found that talk quite interesting.
    Essentially, reformed epistemology broadens the realm of the epistemologically acceptable to include phenomena, the existence of which cannot be argued against on grounds of external but only internal consistency(?)
    Please correct me otherwise 🙂


    Could you condense the point to 150 words or less, then?

  26. Nigel – Basically, if Plantinga’s theism is true, then (because of what it claims) it could well be formed in such a way to make it a properly basic belief. If theism is claimed to be a properly basic belief in the way that Plantinga says it can be, then in order to show that it is not rationally held, one has to show that it’s not true and hence couldn’t have been a belief formed in the way the theist claims. One has to actually provide defeaters for Christian theism, showing that it couldn’t have formed in such a way as to make it properly basic. I don’t know whether you’d call that external or internal grounds. But for the believer who holds theism as a properly basic belief, they don’t need to appeal to external evidence or arguments in order to be rational in believing (unless of course it’s not a properly basic belief after all).

    Of course, the theist in this case has given no reason for others to embrace theism, which is quite another issue.

  27. G’day Glenn

    Seriously, the earth orbits the sun, revolving on its axis and the axial tilt of the planet is the reason for the season in late December. There are educated people who don’t understand this but it happens none the less. Just because you don’t or can’t accept mutual peace doesn’t mean that you aren’t using it.

    These ideas have been discussed at length on other forums with intelligent open minded Theists and one has even agreed that it works but that it’s an alternative to his other option.

    Your response was less intelligent than the usual Theist responses. As for school stuff, your response was straight out of a primary school yard. Now behave yourself or the Headmaster will keep you back doing lines.

    Fortunately for me, I live in an Enlightened society with a public ordering principle of Secular Humanist Liberal Social Democracy and the scientific method which is also my private ordering principle and your private ordering principle has been stripped of most of its practical political power and cannot command me to obey morality that is not up to scratch.

    So it’s only on your blog that four of your anonymous supporters can dob me into the religious police and have me disappeared and faded without substantiating their dislike of mutual peace, like they did on a previous thread. As there are blog systems that are open and not intellectually shallow like the one you are using, perhaps it’s time you moved into the modern world and started using one that allows your dissenters to be seen in the full glare of scrutiny. Voting to disappear dissenters has all the credibility of phone voting to give Warner man of the match in the second Test in Hobart.

    Fortunately for you, you live in a similar Enlightened society that protects you from your ordering principle commanding you to obey morality you disagree with. After all there is no guarantee that your sect is the right one that will run a theocracy if we had the misfortune to end up in one.

    I don’t apologise for using popular culture and listening to your podcasts, neither do you. I presume you also think your audience is much wider than dusty academia. Anyway, what’s so funny about peace love and understanding.

    Regarding mutual peace as an objective measure for morality – as Dr Karl says, “Do the experiment.”

    But it will take you some time and I expect you will still go with the epicycles.


  28. Buzz, just so you know, readers cannot remove other readers’ comments. If for some reason a comment attracts a lot of “thumbs down,” it’s still there, and people can still read it.

    I’m the only one who can moderate comments, and I never do it just because I don’t like or disagree with them. That would only happen if someone violates the blog policy that they agreed to when the commented here.

    If you do have concerns about the way the “thumbs up/ thumbs down” feature works then you can contact me directly (I prefer comment threads not get bogged down discussing the administrative side of the website, but stay on topic).

  29. Buzz:

    I will extract your argument as I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong).

    “Mutual peace is objective and is the same for everyone regardless of their prejudices and ideologies.” = Mutual peace is objective and desirable.
    “We naturally derive morality from examining the way to live in un-coerced peaceful co-existence which gives us a natural ordering principle.” = Objective morals can be derived from mutual peace.
    “Only sadists and masochists and the immoral don’t want to live in a state of mutual peace.” = Only the immoral don’t want to live in a state of mutual peace.


    1) Mutual peace is objective and desirable.
    2) If something is objective and desirable, objective morals can be derived from it. (This is a necessary premise)
    3) Objective morals can be derived from mutual peace.
    4) Only the immoral don’t want to live in a state of mutual peace.
    Contraposition of 4 -> 5
    5) All the moral do want to live in a state of mutual peace.

    As I understand it, there are two arguments here.
    The second is a tautology: 3 is essentially equivalent to 5.
    The first is a syllogism: 1 and 2 are the premises for 3.

    Re 1: Buzz, you have admitted that some people do not desire mutual peace, but you have relegated them to the class of “sadists, masochists and the immoral”. That, as I have pointed out, is a tautology. Thus the ‘desirable’ quality of mutual peace remains to be properly justified.

    Re 2: You did not state premise 2, but it was necessary to form conclusion 3. You now have to justify it. What qualifies the entire class of “objective and desirable” terms as objective morals?

    P.S. Your insistence that I “do the experiment” is quite unnecessary, in my opinion. If ‘the morality from god thesis only shifts the goalpost’, the naturalistic morality thesis, as it were, hauls the goalpost away and declares victory gratuitously.

  30. hi glenn, now that you mention it i have already listened to that podcast, but will obviously need to listen to it again although i don’t think i’ll have time to do that for a while now. thanks for your help anyway.

    buzz no one is arguing that we don’t all want to live happily ever after, that would be great, the problem is that we all have completely different views on how to do that depending on our perspective, mutual peace for one might mean religious pluralism but for another might mean one global religion, or global atheism. and that’s before we even take into account a belief in the afterlife: perhaps world peace in this life would just be icing on the cake but not a worthy objective in itself. your putting forward mutual peace as an absolute goal from which we will be able to determine morality, because anything which advances us towards mutual peace would be considered moral. but you haven’t really done anything different to sam harris, who put forward a kind of neo-benthamist approach of minimising suffering and maximising well-being as a goal we can all agree on, and from which would then follow moral direction. you still face the problem of first needing everyone to agree that minimising suffering and maximising wellbeing, or mutual peace, is the absolute highest goal we can aim for before we can define morality as that which brings us closer to the pre-agreed goal. and even then it is only unanimously accepted, which doesn’t make it objective at all. and you absolutely need everyone to agree because one of your conditions was ‘uncoerced’, but some people want to commit honour killings, and if they perceive honour as more important that mutual peace, how could you stop them short of coercion?

    anyway glenn and all, pretty busy, probably not going to be able to bother again you guys for a we while.

  31. G’day Matt

    Yes, I’m striving for peace on earth and good will to all, all year round.

    Do you have a problem with that?

    And what are you striving for?

  32. Nigel and sam g

    Thanks for the intelligent comments. It may take a couple of days to find time to respond so check back.

  33. G’day Sam

    As I said, having a natural objective basis for morality doesn’t mean that everyone will be interested in using it. I didn’t say it wasn’t going to be messy. There are practical problems in running societies as they get larger. I don’t have a problem with using coercion on someone initiating aggression towards me. In the same way killing can be morally acceptable in certain conditions like self defence. I’m just describing the natural way of telling whether you are doing right or wrong. More importantly, it doesn’t require the ifs and givens of the Theist way.

    The Theist ordering principle doesn’t solve social problems as this ordering principle is a political problem in itself and a barrier to mutual peace, particularly when it has political power. The natural intolerance to dissent in religions prohibits mutual peace as they constantly struggle for supremacy, each claiming to be the one. I can’t image one global religion without coercion so it wouldn’t be mutual peace, would it. Global Atheism????? There’s no political structure in Atheism. It’s an opinion, not an ideology and doesn’t exist in a political vacuum. It has to be attached to a secular ideology. That can be an authoritarian one like Marxism or a non authoritarian one like Secular Humanist Liberal Social Democracy. I don’t recommend authoritarian ideologies, be they secular or religious. They are repugnant ideas.

    Assuming you know what Anzac is, I’d like to see you go down to the cenotaph at dawn on April 25th and announce that world peace is not a worthy object in itself. Take your running shoes with you.

    I’m not suggesting mutual peace is determining morality from a future goal. It’s determining it from present behaviour whether that present is ours or that of our cave dwelling ancestors or our descendents and it has useful effects on the future when it is coupled with political equity. Striving for society wide mutual peace is worthwhile. That’s why so many vote with their feet to join us.

    We don’t have a problem with getting everyone to agree that morality is the rules of social life. People voted with their feet a long time ago in favour of society and everyday humans continue to vote with their feet to continue society. Margaret Thatcher was wrong.

    Our society still has a lot of social evolving to do. But we have come a considerable distance since the clerics were ousted from practical political power in our society. We move forward and then back here and there and then forward and so on. It’s an evolving process. Some societies move at different speeds than others, backwards and forwards. Theocracies have a dreadful record of forward movement. Humans and their society will still be evolving long after Christianity is another quaint myth in the history books.

    Just because we have a guide doesn’t mean that everyone uses it. Clearly they don’t. Will they in 1,000 years, 10,000 years, 100,000 years time? I don’t know. Will there come a time when no one ever does anything wrong. I doubt it. But they will still be able to use mutual peace to tell whether their behaviour is right or wrong. Whether they choose to carry on with right or wrong behaviour is their responsibility to make and depending on their decision, others will have to deal with the results.

    Perhaps you are confusing morality with ethics. Morality is the rules of social life. It is not interchangeable with ethics though morality is a subset of ethics. Ethics is broader than morality. If you’re alone on a desert island, it’s not morality you need, its ethics. Perhaps that’s why god doesn’t understand morality, god’s alone on a meta cosmic island and has no one to be mutually peaceful with. But god still needs ethics.

    Let’s use Eichmann has an example of the moral ethical divide. He had a little friend. Luger.

    Eichmann was a psychopathic bastard who mass murdered Jews and anyone whose opinion he didn’t like. This was immoral and wrong because it breached mutual peace between Eichmann and the Jews he murdered. He failed in his moral obligations to those people. However, his behaviour was ethical in the framework of Nazi ethics. These are not ethics that I would use or recommend but a lot of Germans and others did. And some deluded people still think they are ok. While failing in his moral obligations to the Jews, Eichmann did succeed in carrying out his ethical obligations to Nazism. You can be ethical while being immoral. I daresay that Eichmann knew that though he was being an ethical nazi, he also knew he was being an immoral human and doing wrong. But humans have a great capacity to use epicycles to explain dodgy behaviour. Eichmann was at the end of centuries of Christian bigotry and hatred towards Jews for killing god, running the finance system and making money from good Christians by doing so etc etc as it goes with bigotry.

    And so we got rid of Nazi Germany by killing a lot of Germans, many of them innocent children. My Dad was one of those doing the bombing at Arthur Harris’s command, night after night. The parents of the children he killed called him a terrorist. Apart from being incredibly dangerous work, it was not morally easy to do, knowing he was killing innocent people as well as nazi combatants, even though our society had given him the moral ok to do it but he kept at it with the intention that when it was over, his children would never have to do the horrific things he did. On that basis he succeeded.

    Back to our society. Our justice system is evolving too and we have a better one (but still not a perfect one) than our ancestors had. Relying on wishful thinking to deal with anti social problems will lead to society being trashed, because it doesn’t work. That’s why we have courts, even with their flaws.

    Like Nazis finding explanations for their immoral behaviour so today we have Catholic bishops blaming hippies in the 1960s for the actions of priests raping children, instead of getting to it and cleaning out their churches and getting responsible for their actions.

    There is nothing to suggest that the after life is anything but wishful thinking. Some of us learn to live with the uncertainties of existence.

  34. G’day Nigel

    Thanks for pointing out the immoral are immoral line. Oops. That one slipped through and does need to be worded better.

    The point is not that mutual peace is desirable. The point is that it works as an objective measure of behaviour. Whether it is desired or not is not relevant to using it as a measure. You can have everyone using it as a measure of moral behaviour but that doesn’t mean everyone will practise moral behaviour. Following god as an ordering principle and source of morality does not stop priests raping children. The failure of the Theist ordering principle is that it discourages people taking responsibility for their actions as there are too many ifs and givens and too much guess work trying to figure out what Jesus would do.

    The guide of mutual peace exists without ifs and givens and all that guess work. You do not have to desire it or follow it. Most people appear to want to choose the options if presents to us as they keep voting with their feet to live in peaceful societies but not everyone is interested in living in mutual peace. The rest of us have to deal with the problems caused by those who are not interested in living in mutual peace. Those doing wrong usually know they are doing wrong. But they can move goal posts and mentally gymnast their way out of many acts.

    You are creating premises that are not required. Your #1 is wrong. I am not suggesting that everyone does or needs to think that mutual peace is desirable. So #2 is wrong too. My arguments don’t contain desireable as desires are subjective. My desire for mutual peace is subjective. Someone else’s desire not to have it is subjective too, but mutual peace is objective. So I don’t need your #3

    I am not moving the goal posts forward or removing them. I don’t need to move them anywhere. Mutual peace and Secular Humanism is all about taking responsibility for your actions, not buck passing. The goal posts only have to be moved if you are using the ifs and givens of buck passing which I’m not doing.

    I’m not saying humans aren’t messy with morality and we will be messy for plenty of time into the future.

    So instead of asking what would Jesus do, ask whether you are breaching mutual peace.

    That way, when you come across someone having a fit outside some pig farms, you will get them medical help instead of ruining the livelihood of the community relying on pig farming.

  35. Hi Buzz:

    This is our tar baby. The situation, it seems to me, boils down to that of a table at which many, many parties are firing at each other ‘moral demands’.

    Let’s narrow it down to a ‘Theist vs. Secular Humanist’ conflict.

    The theist claims that the secular humanist has not offered an objectively motivated solution, but only a pragmatic, subjectively motivated one that just happens to concur with the theist’s. The target belief of this criticism is perfectly encapsulated here: “My desire for mutual peace is subjective. Someone else’s desire not to have it is subjective too, but mutual peace is objective. So I don’t need (an objective motivation toward an objective goal, ie. mutual peace).”
    I agree with the first two lines; I disagree with the third. You are obliged to convince me, objectively, that your objective goal is ultimately desirable to me, or what makes you more than a would-be totalitarian? The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    The secular humanist claims that the theist “ordering principle … discourages people taking responsibility for their actions as there are too many ifs and givens and too much guess work trying to figure out what Jesus would do”. As I understand it, this refers to theological interpretation and the difficulty of agreement; the difficulty (to put it mildly) of knowing directly and with certainty the will of God.
    It seems to me, as a theist, that that is precisely what motivates the secular humanist who advocates mutual peace as the origin of morality, to do the opposite in pursuing morality, so to speak. Rather than delve into the mystery – or, as he perhaps sees it, arbitrariness – of objective morality, he does not deign to do so, but instead stops at something which he considers intuitively, ‘innately’ moral.
    Yet in this light, what could seem more arbitrary? What justifies the secular humanist for mutual peace over, say, the hedonist or moral nihilist or ethical egoist against mutual peace?

  36. G’day Nigel

    The Secular Humanists at our table can name and define their objective foundation for morality and give you an experiment to verify why most humans have been voting with their feet for this for 200,000 years. The objective foundation for obligation that you’ve unwittingly already found is the idea of society. This is not totalitarian. If it was then people wouldn’t be voting with their feet for it all the time.

    Morality is the rules of social life. The operative word here is social. If you’re alone on a desert island, you don’t need morality, but you do need ethics.

    Another Secular Humanist on my regular blog puts it like this, “Morality makes social life possible. Moral systems can be thought of as evolved psychological mechanisms that work together with interlocking sets of values, practices and institutions to suppress selfishness and enhance cooperation.”

    Morality is a political act so its objective foundation is a political idea and not a person or conscious being. Obligation is a political act too,so its objective foundation is a political idea as well, and not a person or conscious being.

    Again you are trying to hang obligation, like morality, on a conscious being, when you should be hanging it on a political idea.

    Seriously, our cave dwelling ancestors worked all this out a very long time before Yahweh was a twinkle in a politically smart but despotic Hebrew’s eye. It has however taken a long time to evolve the political idea to harmonise society on a very broad scale.

    Measuring your actions against whether it breaches mutual peace is a measure of whether your behaviour is right or wrong. Your emotional response to this measurement does not affect its objectivity as a measure. Your emotional response will determine your relationship with others in your society.

    Despite millions of pages of theology, the Theist has not advanced one Planck length beyond Aristotle’s unexplained prime mover.

    Yes, there are still aspects of existence for which the answers are uncertain. Some of us can live with that uncertainty and don’t need to invent extra mysteries and then appeal to them as an argument, an argument which I find not at all satisfactory from an intellectual or emotional point of view.

    The Secular Humanists at our table do not need to invoke the mystery move. And Secular Humanists are certainly delving into the mysteries of consciousness, the cosmos and existence.

    The Theist ordering principle cannot harmonise the humanitarian and political aspects of that ordering principle, it cannot harmonise its moral and political values. The Secular Humanist ordering principle has advanced a long way along the path of doing this, the path of political equity, though we still have a way to go yet.

    The Theist problem is not just interpreting the will of god, the problem is also the nature of the will of your god which BTW has not been shown to exist, but the political implementation of the ordering principle certainly exists and it’s repugnant, isn’t it.

    It’s been tried many times, is still being tried and is always a social disaster. There’s that word social again. Your religion is politically inherently immoral and fails in its obligation to society.

    Perhaps you can tell me when and how your ordering principle has created a better more flourishing society than my ordering principle.

    Despite its call to humanitarianism, the sermon on the mount was never going to broadly work because of the political framework your ordering principle uses. It had to wait for the development of political equity via the Enlightenment.

    The true test of an ideology, be it religious or secular is not found by looking at the humanitarian aspect of that ideology. Even totalitarian ideologies practise some humanitarianism. The true test of an ideology is how it behaves when it has practical political power in its relations with others in its society and outsiders, particularly those who have different ideas.

    As for the objectivity of your god, until you can show that your god actually exists, you’ve got Buckleys of showing that your god is objective. Assertion based on speculating about speculations and wishful thinking of what characteristics you would like your god to have does not cut it.

    If you really need a supernatural being to tell you to live in society and how to do that, then you are underachieving. If you can’t confirm from observation what our very distant ancestors worked out, ie why it’s wrong to murder, rape and steal from your neighbours, then you’re going to have a lot of unnecessary problems and a very difficult life.

    But I accept that many people find it difficult to live with the uncertainties of existence and need the Theist crutch that you use. My ordering principle protects your right to use this crutch. Your ordering principle does not protect my right not to use it. I expect there will always be people who can’t live with uncertainty. So be it. But when your religion affects my life, it ceases to be your religion and becomes our politics.

    While it is important for me to be objective with you, the most important thing is for you to be objective with yourself. This means that you have to objectively examine the political process of your religion/ideology and the moral person then has to junk that ideology when they find that its politics is opposed to their moral values. No doubt you have many years, maybe even decades of emotional investment in your religion/ideology but if the political process is repugnant then you have to reject that ideology and move on to another. This can be painful but needs to be done if you are to be honest with yourself. Theism does not and cannot harmonise political and moral values. If you truly want to live as a peaceful humanitarian, harmonising your political and moral values, then you will find that you have to become a Secular Humanist, as this ideology allows you do this harmonising. I’ve done this examination and reject religious and secular authoritarian ideologies in favour of Secular Humanism and Liberal Social Democracy with a Green tendency as without our environment, we cease to exist. The only thing that can stop our evolution is the extinction of our species.

    As Gandhi said, you have to be the change you want to see in the world. I’m fortunate to live in Australia where I can be that change. I don’t know where you live but if you’re a Kiwi then you have this similar fortune to.

    Bertrand Russell said something along the lines of – On the one hand we have theology, on the other we have science. In the middle we have philosophy and the point of philosophy is to teach us to live with uncertainty.

    But it’s your responsibility. The personal is political. People who are long dead can’t save you or be responsible for you.

    I am on holiday, which is one reason why I write so much, and now I’m going away on a computer free trip tomorrow so will not be able to respond further for a couple of weeks. I’m happy to continue the discussion then.

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