In this blog I explain why I particularly like the moral argument as advanced by the Christian philosopher Linda Zagzebski.
“A moral world is… very probable on theism.”
[Agnostic philosopher Paul Draper in Greg Ganssle, “Necessary Moral Truths” Philosophia Christi, NS 2, 2/1 (2000): 111]
Like Draper, I think that arguments from morality can be some of the most powerful arguments for the existence of a God. Yet they are also some of the worst understood arguments when listening to atheists and theists interact (especially on the internet). The first thing to realize is what moral arguments are claiming and what they are not. Some ‘nots’ to begin with:
- They are not claiming theists are more moral than atheists.
- They are not claiming atheists cannot be moral people.
- They are not claiming atheists cannot know anything about morality.
- They are not claiming atheists cannot have some good reasons for their moral choices.
- They are not claiming morality cannot arise through natural processes.
- They are not claiming ‘objective’ morals are, or have to be, universally agreed.
Most supposed ‘refutations’ of the moral argument on the internet only attend to these six straw men. Unfortunately it’s not just internet atheists who get this argument wrong or who oversimplify it. In Anthony Grayling’s recent book The God Question he talks for a few pages about this argument (or it might be better to say they are a family of arguments just like cosmological arguments). Grayling gives a brief quote from the Christian philosopher Leibniz in support of a point he is making (even though Leibniz would have disagreed with what Grayling is contending overall) and Immanuel Kant in just one sentence! That is the entire extent to which he engages with Christian philosophers on the moral argument. Is it little wonder then that Grayling begins his treatment of the issue by declaring:
“What of the moral argument for the existence of a deity? Stated at its simplest, it is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity. Put a little more fully, the argument in effect says that there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity… Or, alternatively put again: because god is so nice, we should be nice to each other.”
Not a very clear beginning. Does he mean that Christian philosophers are claiming there could be absolutely no moral discourse without God? Or rather that there could be no moral opinions without God? Or perhaps that people cannot be good without a God as the foundation of their morals? Or is it that he thinks the argument is saying people cannot make up subjective codes without God? Frankly it’s not at all clear enough to know. What is clear is that he is not citing any Christian philosophers directly as a way of engaging with the argument.
Grayling then almost gets the argument correct when he states:
“…it consists in saying that morality is groundless unless ordained…”
But then he ignores that point, both in explanation and in critique, by returning to the parody when he states the moral argument is:
“The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists.” [Emphasis mine.]
Now I am only a lowly graduate in theology/philosophy of religion but I am not aware of one single Christian philosopher who has made a moral argument on the basis that morality needs ‘policing’. How can it be that such a well regarded professional philosopher (as Grayling clearly is) could get the moral argument so obtuse at best and so horribly wrong at worst? I don’t have an answer to that question but I can demonstrate he is parodying the argument and this is why.
The problem is Grayling does not make any specific references to whose arguments he is citing. That is often a good indication that the person is likely to be oversimplifying the matter. If there are theists making such moral arguments then I admit I have not heard of them. So who are these theists? Grayling does not tell us. Not one reference to a person, popular level book or philosophical paper. Nothing. Absolutely nothing (for any Kraussians out there)!
A very famous theist and a philosopher whom Grayling has actually debated, William Lane Craig, does articulate one version of the moral argument yet Grayling either ignores or somehow is not aware of it (although this is hard to believe given that he is a professional philosopher). Craig’s argument is expressed briefly in the syllogism:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Now clearly, this argument is not addressed by Grayling at all. But even worse is that Craig specifically rejects many of the parodies offered by Grayling. Craig replies to someone on his website asking questions on these matters and says:
“It was no part of my argument that God is necessary to explain our moral sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Over and over again in the debate I carefully distinguished between moral ontology (questions about the reality of moral values) and moral epistemology (questions about how we come to know moral values), and I said that my argument is solely about the objective reality of moral values, not how we come to know them. I’ll appeal to all the same mechanisms that you appeal to in order to explain how you know that (2) is true. In point of fact, Spencer, I don’t think that we need to appeal to God at all to know that objective moral values and duties exist, so you’re just barking up the wrong tree insofar as I’m concerned.”
So when Grayling parodies the argument by saying there can be no morality without a deity as if that were the argument he is not even getting a popular form of the argument correctly represented. It has to be said that this is hugely disappointing.
It is also concerning that many who discuss the moral argument do not appear to know what ‘objective ethics’ or ‘moral realism’ are so some important definitions are needed at this point:
“Moral realism is the theory that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity: such as judgements, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them.”
(Russ Shafer-Landau – ‘Moral Realism – A Defense’ p.2)
“Realism holds that moral judgements can be true or false, that sometimes they are true and that what makes them true is independent from people’s (or groups of people’s) beliefs, judgements or desires.”
(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.77)
“If moral realism is false and late-term abortions do not have either the property of being right or the property of being wrong, then it is hard to see why we cannot accept that we both could be right. In other words, we might think that moral realism is the best explanation for why we hold that to act cannot be both right and not-right, both good and not-good and so on.”
(Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.59)
“Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”
(Geoff Sayre-McCord – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Moral Realism, 2009)
This is how we are, and how we ought, to use the language of ‘objective morality’ or ‘moral realism’ and how they are being used here in this post.
It is also important to point out that most moral arguments are about ontology and not epistemology (which I hint at in my third bullet point above). One could give a completely evolutionary account of how morality arose in homo sapiens (be it via empathy or social conditioning etc.) and the moral arguments for God would still run. The reason is because they are not arguments about how we came to have morals as a species but rather how we justify them as being objective philosophically now we know them to be objective.
People who are not regular readers of philosophy of religion may be surprised to find out that moral arguments for the existence of God are taken extremely seriously by atheist philosophers (especially those within the field of philosophy of religion). Mackie, Martin, Le Poidevin, Brink and Everitt (just to name a few) all take the argument very seriously and this attitude should filter its way down into lay atheism more than it has as of yet.
There was a time (between 50-100 years ago) when divine command theory had fallen out of favour within professional philosophy but, as the philosopher Andrew Fisher notes, it has since made quite a comeback:
“Over the past twenty or so years divine command theory has become increasingly popular; whereas it was once thought that secular liberalism had crushed all life from the theory, periodicals and books are once again being populated with discussions about the possible link between God and morality.”
‘Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.76
This is nothing short of astonishing given how popular various forms of naturalism are currently in western philosophy. Fisher is not saying that divine command theory (DCT) is becoming more popular amongst general culture or non-philosophers but that the shift is taking place in academic philosophical circles. This should give those who are not philosophers and who immediately reply with disdain and contempt to DCTs a serious moment of pause.
So far we have set some context and attempted to clarify what the moral arguments are / are not. So what might such an argument look like?
Christian philosopher Linda Zagzebski formulates her moral argument like this:
i) Morality is a rational enterprise.
ii) Morality would not be rational if moral skepticism were true.
iii) There is much too much unresolved moral disagreement for us to suppose that moral skepticism can be avoided if human sources of moral knowledge are all that we have.
iv) Therefore we must assume that there is an extra-human, divine source of moral wisdom.
NB. Regarding premise ii) it should be noted exactly what Zagzebski means:
“The skepticism I am talking about is extensive and drastic, not the innocuous amount of skepticism that is healthy and no doubt required by intellectual honesty and modesty.”
The aim of her paper is, in her own words:
“I am attempting to give a moral argument for the rationality of theistic belief. If I am right, then God’s existence makes the moral life rational. God’s existence does this whether the people who deliberate about and attempt to live a moral life know it or not.”
She also points out that her argument can be run as a reductio ad absurdum:
“If all I have to go on morally is my own moral intuitions and reasoning and the intuitions and reasoning of others, then I am rationally led to skepticism about the possibility of moral knowledge. Furthermore, my experience and that of others leads me to be skeptical of a person’s ability to follow moral beliefs. In addition, it is rational to be skeptical of human moral power in the sense that we can, by acting individually and collectively, bring about good and prevent evil in the world. The assumption of this argument therefore leads me to a very extensive moral skepticism, amounting actually to moral despair. But such despair cannot be rational. Therefore, the assumption of the argument must be false and I must be able to rely on more than my own human powers and those of others in attempting to live a moral life.”
[‘Does Ethics need God?’ (‘Faith and Philosophy’)
“In this paper I have given a moral argument for the rationality of belief in the Christian God. I have assumed that it is rational to try to be moral, but given certain problems in the moral life, it is not rational unless certain conditions obtain those conditions which free a person from the three forms of skepticism I have discussed. The argument is Kantian in its general structure since, like Kant, the claim is that moral endeavor presupposes the existence of something like God as a condition for the rational possibility of its achievement. Theistic belief is, therefore, justified in the practical domain of reason. I have not argued, though, that belief in the Christian God is the only conceivable way to provide the conditions necessary for making moral effort rational, but it has no competitors that I know of. It follows that the theist is acting more rationally than the non-theist when they both act on their moral beliefs and claim that those beliefs are: justified. Since most non-theists do not hesitate to do this, it follows that it would be more rational for them to believe in God than not to.”
Premise i) is not controversial in the slightest. If someone wishes to assert (because they would not be allowed to reason it without contradicting themselves) that moral discourse is not open to reason then one would need to have a different discussion with such a person.
Premise ii) is talking about hyperbolic scepticism. Again this is likely to be agreed by all.
Premise iii) is the more likely premise to be attacked by the person not agreeing with this moral argument to God. I don’t think there are very good reasons to deny it however. It is important one remember that Zagzebski is not claiming that there have not been certain morals which have not been agreed upon across cultures but rather the fact that there have been so many differing attempts to suggest WHY such actions are wrong or right. People, not only throughout history and differing cultures but also in the same cultures and in modern times, have come to so many differing moral foundations that this raises a serious quandary: Why think one opinion is any better than another? Some will immediately appeal to notions of ‘happiness’ (as Sam Harris has recently done following, it should be said, certain already existing schools of utilitarian thought) but is ‘happiness’ any more agreed as a concept than ‘good’? Has Harris not just replaced one ambiguity with another (despite the fact that he may move in social circles where there appears to be wide agreement on what constitutes happiness)? But this is merely one of hundreds of possible naturalist explanations. So the importance here is to point out that a non-theistic account of morality ought to, if consistently thought out, lead us to hyperbolic moral scepticism. This is clearly what has happened to many atheist philosophers especially in the last two hundred years. Nietszche is widely recognized as being the atheist who saw this most clearly in his insistence that to reject Christianity would also mean a complete overhaul in all matters of value and ethics. Many others have followed Nietzsche in this conclusion and even those who have not often admit to the wide divergence of views regarding morality. Philosopher John Rist has written that there is “widely admitted to be a crisis in contemporary Western debate about ethical foundations.” [‘Real Ethics’ p.1] The reason for this conclusion is because despite the huge efforts of naturalists to account for objective morality there a plethora of theories regarding how this is to be achieved and naturalists disagree themselves on how to achieve such grounding. So in order to refute premise iii) one would not only need to point to a naturalist account for the proper grounding of objective morals but that theory would need to command significant agreement amongst moral philosophers.
Premise iv) follows if premise iii) cannot be refuted. If one wishes to hold onto some form of objectivity in ethics then the foundation has to be something other than merely human minds that hugely disagree on such matters.
This is, I would suggest, why many modern atheist philosophers have attempted to wander away from moral realism. They see the obvious consequences of holding to the view that there are things which really are wrong. Objective morals and duties are not explained well by any naturalist hypothesis and the sheer volume of attempts to do so is evidence of their resounding failure.
The atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie once noted:
“…we might well argue that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervening upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them. If, then, there are such intrinsically prescriptive objective values, they make the existence of god more probable than it would have been without them.”
[‘The Miracle of Theism’ pp.115,116]
Contrast that quote made in 1982 with this one by the philosopher John Cottingham in 2009:
“…it is very striking how the popularity of the subjectivist creeds has faded in more recent times. Relativistic views of truth turned out to be self-defeating; while in ethics, subjectivism ran into a host of logical difficulties and is now one the wane, eclipsed by a growing number of neo-objectivist theories. To everyone’s surprise, the growing consensus among philosophers is that some kind of objectivism of truth and of value is correct.”
[‘Why Believe?’ p.27]
A number of philosophers, as well as the survey over at ‘PhilPapers’, note that moral realism is by far the most agreed metaethical position accepted among philosophical academics today. The anti-realism of Mackie and others has widely been rejected. Perhaps this is one reason why the argument for God based on morality is enjoying such prominence again?
PS. An important note on the scope of the argument: One should note that Zagzebski’s argument is not intended as a ‘proof’ of God’s existence, as is the norm amongst theistic philosophers in general, but rather a demonstration of the rationality of believing in God since this hypothesis better explains the phenomenon of rational moral discourse. It is therefore more likely that God exists given this phenomenon than he does not and therefore it is more likely that God exists than he does not.
PPS. I intend to post on reasons why we should think moral realism is true soon.
Zagzebski’s full paper: