*DISCLAIMER* This blog is about the moral argument for the existence of the standard, monotheistic, Western conception of God. That said, its focus will only be on the first premise of the argument. This is because: 1) I’ve already discussed the second premise of the moral argument in my first AR blog; moral intuitions (the thing most commonly appealed to in order to justify the premise) cannot be used to prove the truth of moral realism because we can account for these moral intuitions without recourse to the divine, i.e., via evolution. Hence, we need something more to substantiate this claim. And 2) as an atheist, one can embrace the second premise (as many atheists do) and simply reject the first premise of the moral argument. Indeed, provided certain caveats about moral realism, this is precisely what I tend to do here. This means that everything hinges at that point on the truth or falsity of the first premise.
Consider the following deductive argument:
(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) But objective moral values do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.
This, of course, is the moral argument for the existence of God (or at least a form of it). To be clear, the point of this argument is not to say that atheists can’t be moral, or that they’re not moral for that matter, but that if atheists are right about there being no god, then necessarily, morality is ultimately subjective (i.e., it is merely a human construct).
Though certainly a favorite among apologists, it’s worth noting that the moral argument doesn’t seem to be very popular among professional philosophers. This is because many philosophers either disagree with the second premise, and affirm moral nonrealism (making the moral argument irrelevant), or disagree with the first premise and reject the idea that there are no objective moral values if there is no God. Consider a Philpapers survey conducted in 2009 of 1,803 professional philosophers and 829 philosophy graduate students. While only 14.6% of those polled subscribed to theism (72.8% identified as atheists in comparison), 56.4% of all the people polled subscribed to moral realism. Now, don’t get me wrong; this isn’t to say that the moral argument is wrong because certain people, however qualified, deem it as such. I’m simply trying to illustrate here that the notion that atheism entails moral nihilism, however popular in some circles, is not by any means a given in professional philosophy. Not only are there plenty of atheist thinkers that subscribe to moral realism, but there are multiple secular metaethical systems that have been proposed over the years. In order to justify premise one of the moral argument, the apologist has to either disprove each and every one of these secular moral theories or demonstrate that it is somehow logically impossible for any of them to be true. Why, in case you’re wondering, does the purveyor of the moral argument have to do this? Because the burden is on them to substantiate the premises of their argument; this entails demonstrating that no possible scheme of secular, objective moral values exists. (A tall order, to say in the least, especially given that there are literally dozens of such theories.) To simply dismiss the works of philosophers like G.E. Moore, Derek Parfit, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, and Russ Schafer-Landau, or more recently, Shelly Kagan, Eric Wielenberg, and yes, I’ll say it, Sam Harris (to name but a few), without at least carefully analyzing their proposals, would seem to be the pinnacle of intellectual arrogance.
Now, that said, and as I’ve already alluded to, it’s perfectly true that there are atheists who would agree with premise one of the moral argument and full on embrace moral nonrealism in the absence of God. However, it delights me to remind you that there are theists who reject the first premise as well. That is to say, there are theists who think that even if there is no god, there are still moral truths. No less than the prestigious Richard Swinburne would be an example of such a person (and Wes Morriston as well, so far as I can tell). Swinburne’s view is admittedly complex, but suffice it to say, though he does think that the existence of God can affect contingent moral truths, he does not think that it affects necessary moral truths. After all, necessary truths, by definition, are not contingent upon anything. Hence, if moral truths are necessary truths, then they can’t be contingent upon the existence of God. So, unless the theist can prove that the existence of God is necessary, they either have to admit that moral truths are technically contingent truths (contingent upon the existence of God), or that there are at least some moral truths that exist regardless of whether or not God exists. Indeed, this very point—that there seems to be certain moral truths that exist regardless of whether or not God does—will reemerge several times throughout this piece.
Consider again the first premise: “If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.” In one sense, this is to say that atheism entails moral nihilism, but in another it is to say that God provides, or can serve as, a basis for objective moral values. This raises the following question: what does it mean to say that God provides a basis for objective moral values? That he serves as a foundation for our otherwise subjective moral pronouncements? It’s to say basically one of two things: either a) God’s commands determine what’s right and wrong, good or bad, full stop (a view known as theological voluntarism or divine command theory) or b) God’s nature (which is perfectly good and so on), can be seen as a sort of moral measuring stick by which we can compare our actions in order to determine whether they are good or bad, and further, that his commands, which follow necessarily from his perfectly good nature, constitute our moral obligations or so called “oughts” to each other (this view, in turn, is known as modified divine command theory). In this way, the second view can be seen as an augmented (hence “modified” divine command theory) version of the first view; commands are still relevant, and even central, but only in conjunction with and in subordination to his nature.
Divine command theory
Theological voluntarism or more simply, divine command theory, for all its shortcomings, is extremely straightforward. Good is what God says is good, period. I mean, that’s it; that’s what morality boils down to at its most fundamental level. When the God of Abraham called upon him to sacrifice his son, murdering his son was thereby rendered that which Abraham ought to have done. Likewise, when the same god called upon his chosen people to engage in bouts of what can only be called “ethnic cleansing,” not only was it right, but it was morally obligatory on the part of those warriors given the command. For example, in 1st Samuel 15: verse 3: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” The idea here, unsettling as it may be, is that when those Israelite soldiers were taking the sword to women, children, infants and even the poor animals that happened to be owned by the Amalekites, this was the right thing to do. Their actions were good in the sense that being honest is good (assuming of course that God hasn’t commanded you to be dishonest).
The first thing to notice about this view is that it isn’t really objective when you think about it. God, a subject—however mighty a subject, mind you—determining morality, means that morality is ultimately subjective. Because, you know, God isn’t an object. Sure, it may be objective so far that we are concerned (which is to say, relative to us specifically as human beings), but this is a bit like saying that if we were created by aliens and they commanded us to do x or y, it would be objectively good for us to do x or y (because the moral values that make this so weren’t created by us), to which I could only respond with a sufficiently blank stare.
The second thing to notice about divine command theory (and as we’ll see this is something that applies to modified divine command theory as well) is that it appears to be self-refuting. Consider the following question: under divine command theory, which again is the view that God’s commands constitute our moral obligations, why should we follow the commands of God in the first place? Or even better, are we morally obligated to obey the commands of God? The problem should be immediately evident; arguing that one should follow God’s commands because God commands us to follow his commands is like riding a theological merry-go-round. But then, what other choice is there beyond circular reasoning for the divine command theorist here? You see, the moment they concede that there is some other reason or thing or whatever beyond God’s commands that determine why they should do something (in this case, follow his commands) is the moment that they concede that divine command theory, at least in this more traditional sense, fails to constitute all moral obligations (because again this is to admit that there are other things beyond God’s commands that determine what we should do).
The third and final objection that I’d like to raise to divine command theory, after which we’ll consider modified divine command theory in more detail, is known as the Euthyphro dilemma. The name comes from the fact that it was originally presented by Plato in one of his early dialogues, titled Euthyphro. Euthyphro is the name of a character in the dialogue that interacts with Socrates, and he basically contends that goodness is that which the Gods love. To which Socrates asks, is goodness loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? Translated to modern parlance: Does God say something’s good because it’s good, or is something good because God says that it’s good? Even better (for whom this dilemma still isn’t clear), take something self-evidently abhorrent like, say, rape. Now, assuming for the sake of discussion that there is a god and further that said god commands us not to rape one another (and I’m not sure the god of the Bible actually does this by the way), does God command us not to rape because rape is bad, or is rape bad because God commands us not to rape?
The dilemma, then, is a forced choice between two equally theologically unsavory options: first, to concede the point that God commands us not to rape one another because rape is bad. Or, in other words, to concede that point in fact, moral values—whatever they are—are ultimately independent from God’s commands. On the other hand, the second option is to bite the bullet, as they say, and concede that rape is bad because, and only because, God commands us not to rape. Honesty is only good because God commands and expects us to be honest. However, if instead God commands us to lie, or kill our son, or commit genocide… well that becomes the moral thing to do. In short, either morality is independent from God (known as the independence objection) or it’s arbitrary (hence, the “arbitrariness objection”) in the sense that anything can/could be rendered moral and right by divine ordinance. Divine command theory, then, strictly speaking, is a view that affirms the second of the two options presented by the Euthyphro dilemma; this or that is good and right only insofar as God has deemed it as such.
Briefly, before moving on to the modified version, it’s worth emphasizing that this view is not simply a relic of the past, nor is the modified version in any way the official, contemporary Christian view on the matter. I say this because many of the Christians I encounter will scoff at this traditional form of divine command theory, finding it irrelevant and therefore the critique of it strawman-ish at best, in spite of the fact that other Christians have and do currently affirm it. (Indeed, so far that I can tell, it’s the most commonsensical view on the matter from the perspective of the average theist.) Moreover, dealing with traditional divine command theory helps introduce and contextualize the modified version of the theory, which I now turn to.
Modified divine command Theory
Modified divine command theory, in contrast to divine command theory, is slightly more complex. The idea again is that while God’s commands do determine our moral obligations, they do not (in themselves) determine that which is good, but rather the extent to which something is good hinges upon the degree to which that thing corresponds to or lines up with the nature of God, which is itself the very paradigm of goodness. Further, the actions of God, which would include any commands he might lay down, are constricted by his perfectly good nature, such that he simply cannot arbitrarily declare something as right or wrong.
In this way, as you might have surmised, modified divine command theory seems to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma altogether, thereby rendering it a false dichotomy. However, not so fast! First, the Euthyphro dilemma is of course still very much relevant in terms of addressing divine command theory; the fact that there are other ways of conceiving of moral value that avoid the original dilemma does not negate this. Second, interestingly, the original dilemma can actually be modified in such a way that makes it applicable to modified divine command theory. For those interested, the philosophers Wes Morriston and Jeremy Koons have made similar arguments to this effect and are worth looking up (see my works cited at the end); Koons, for example, asks: “are qualities like being merciful and loving traits of God because they are good, or are they good because they are traits of God?” In other words, is being honest good simply by virtue of the fact that God is honest, or is God honest because being honest, in some intrinsic sense, is good? Either there’s just something good about being honest in itself and this is the reason that God is honest, or literally the only thing that makes being honest good is the fact that it’s a character attribute of God.
This new dilemma, then, presents a dichotomy similar in structure to the original dilemma but different (somewhat) in content. We again have a sort of independence objection, pointing to the fact that if God is good because he possesses certain properties, such as honesty, compassion, benevolence, et cetera, then it appears to be these properties themselves (rather than God) that determine whether or not something or someone is good. This yet again seems to make God superfluous, for, even if God did not exist, it doesn’t follow that those moral properties—that would make him good if he did exist—themselves do not exist. Atheism could be true, and one could still be good in so far that their actions fall in line with these seemingly intrinsically good properties. Plus, one could conceivably combine this reasoning with Ockham’s razor and argue that it’s simpler to just remove the unknowably complex god (with all of the rabbit holes that that leads one down) and instead place their flag on these moral properties alone as the requisite ingredients for goodness.
So too do we have another a type of arbitrariness objection, albeit in this case said “arbitrariness” refers to the sort of arbitrary assertion that proponents of this view have to make to even get it off the ground. What I’m referring to is the idea that God is perfectly good. Why, I might ask, is God said to be perfectly good? Surely not out of tradition, for even if there were no alternate conceptions of God (and there are), the mere fact that people have always conceived of him in a certain way does not make this so. Nor, I might add, can it be justified on the basis of simply looking at the world around us, for this is just as likely to lead one to the conclusion that there is an evil god at the helm of the universe. Or, for that matter, by looking at scripture, as we already saw there seems to be some particularly ghastly behavior attributed to God in the text. Is it then justified by appealing to ontological arguments pertaining to God’s greatness and perfection? Again, so far that I can tell, no, this does not help the modified divine command theorist. This is because in spite of the intuitions of many, greatness does not necessarily entail goodness, any more than it does badness (even if it does entail existence). To argue that greatness or perfection necessarily does entail goodness (as opposed to badness), and therefore, if God is perfect he is necessarily good, is to affirm a moral truth that obtains independently from God’s existence/nature.
So, what’s left, apart from simply digging one’s heels in and, as Sam Harris likes to say, picking oneself up by your own metaphysical bootstraps? So far that I can tell, that is the only option; that is, to basically just defer to a single or set of so called brute facts, or moral axioms, from which the desired objective moral values can then be derived (perhaps). A brute fact or moral axiom is something that is just true, like logical absolutes, for example, and seem to have no further explanation beyond that or as to why, but just are, such that asking further questions about these brute facts is to misconstrue the very idea of brute facts.
In other words, it just doesn’t make any sense to ask the question, ‘why is God perfectly good?’, because being perfectly good is just part of what it means to be God. But then, nonbelievers at least potentially have every right to make similar appeals to certain brute facts in order to justify their moral theories (and, shocker, that’s what many of them tend to do). Either this sort of move with respect to metaethics and moral realism is a problem, or it isn’t. If it is a problem, then proposed theistic systems of moral realism and proposed atheistic systems alike of moral realism are suspect. If it isn’t a problem, well then it isn’t a problem and should no longer be pointed to by either parties.
Now, let’s slow down and review for a minute. What we’ve seen so far is that the first premise of the moral argument for the existence of God is basically making two contentions. The first is that atheism entails moral nonrealism, which is explicit in the first premise. The second is that God is in some way the foundation of moral values and obligations. Then, in unloading this idea about divine metaethical foundations, we examined the two ways this is typically carried out: divine command theory and modified divine command theory. The first of these two views is problematic in numerous ways, only some of which I discussed, and the second of which seems to be running into similar problems regarding the seemingly independent or arbitrary nature (with respect to their dependence upon God’s existence) of some moral principles or truths.
It should come as no surprise to you however that there are other problems with modified divine command theory too. Some would argue, for example, that modified divine command theory places unnecessary limits on God’s power. Think about it; God can only do things that are good? So, he’s cut off from roughly half of all of the things that he could do if he had no such limits? The prototypical apologetic response here is to say that God can no more do something bad than he can make something exist and not exist at the same time. That is, God doing something bad is akin to God doing something logically impossible. But in actuality there is no logical contradiction or impossibility in God doing something that is bad; I might program a robot to only do good, but that doesn’t mean there is any logical contradiction in that robot doing bad. It just means that the robot can’t do something bad. So if there’s no logical impossibility with God doing something that is bad, then this fact (that he can’t do something bad) does seem to demonstrate that he is not omnipotent after all.
As an aside, and shelving literally everything else for a second, if a theist really wants to make this contention—again, that God can’t do things that are bad—they’re going to find themselves immediately confronted by a new theological dilemma. Namely; is such a god really free? Can a being that can only do things that are good really be considered free in any meaningful sense of the word? And if it can be, then surely the free will defense to the logical problem of evil seems to be undermined, as one of its central ideas is that that in order to be free, human beings need to have the freedom to choose between good and bad. But if God is free and nevertheless, never does anything bad, then it’s logically possible to be free and never do anything bad. Then from where, we might again ask, cometh evil?
Modified divine command theory also seems to be self-refuting (like the simpler theory). Consider the question we asked in relation to regular DCT; assuming modified divine command theory is true, “why should we follow the commands of God?” At first, the answer would seem simple enough; we ought to follow the commands of God because, due to his perfectly good nature and ontological status, he would seem to be a competent authority. In other words, you ought to obey the commands of God because he is a competent authority. But then notice how this is a moral obligation that does not come from the commands of God. Rather, it again just appears to be a sort of moral brute fact that one should just obey the commands of a competent authority. So then at least one moral obligation, indeed perhaps the most important obligation to modified divine command theorists, exists that does not come from God’s command; namely, the obligation to obey his commands in the first place!
Another concern that philosopher Eric Wielenberg has recently brought to my attention is the failure of modified divine command theory in providing moral obligations to both believers and nonbelievers alike. To help illustrate what I mean, consider for a moment two slightly different scenarios. In scenario 1, Roger, a normal, law-abiding citizen, is driving along in his car when, suddenly, he notices a police officer behind him who has just turned on his lights and is now commanding him through his PA system to pull over to the side of the road. Roger, his heart suddenly racing, quickly pulls over in deference to the police officer. Okay now scenario 2; again, the same Roger is driving along the same road and then suddenly notices behind him a man in an unmarked, beat-up old truck (with a Make America Great Again flag fastened to the hood) commanding him through a PA system of his own to pull over to the side of the road. Roger, his heart again suddenly racing, this time does not pull over in deference to the person behind him. Why? Why does Roger feel obligated to pull over in the first scenario, but not in the second one? Well clearly because only in the first scenario does Roger regard the person behind him as a competent authority (it’s true of course that many people would disobey the commands of a police officer but note that this is because they don’t recognize police officers as competent authorities). If, for whatever reason, Roger from the second scenario did recognize that the guy in the truck behind him was a competent authority, Trump flag aside, then it stands to reason that he would pull over in deference to him too. How, you might be wondering, does this pertain to our discussion? Well, consider the plight of the atheist for a moment. Let’s say that God does exist, and furthermore, that there are objective moral obligations that are determined by said God’s commands, but nevertheless there are atheists that genuinely do not believe that God exists. The question then is would those atheists accept, for that matter, would they have any reason to accept, the alleged commands of a god that they don’t believe in? Should the atheist recognize as a competent authority what is to them but a fabrication of the mind of others? Like Roger in scenario 2, the hypothetical atheist does not regard any god that they don’t believe in as a competent authority (as I hope is obvious) and hence, doesn’t have any reason to obey any divine commands that are attributed to any of these gods. This doesn’t mean that divine command theories are false, of course (at least not on that basis), or even that the atheists are right about their atheism; rather, it means that divine command theories do not provide a framework for the moral obligations of atheists. This, by the way, is unlike many of the nontheistic or godless systems of moral realism which are actually quite open to theists.
In conclusion, let’s summarize what we’ve uncovered in this analysis. The moral argument is a bitter pill to swallow primarily because of its first premise. The premise alleges both that atheism entails moral nihilism and that God is somehow at the heart of moral foundations. Both of these contentions are suspect. First, it’s not clear why one should accept the notion that atheism entails moral nihilism. This is typically either asserted by the purveyor of the moral argument or justified on the basis of questioning or critiquing a single conception of godless morality (like say, ethics based off of survival of the fittest or something like that). Needless to say, more needs to be done to substantiate this claim than destroying atheistic straw men. It’s even less clear why we should accept the notion that inserting Yahweh into the equation somehow fixes things; to the contrary, the concept of a God only seems to make things worse by adding unnecessary and perplexing variables to an already complicated state of affairs.
Look, all that said, I want to concede to you that may I be mistaken in much (but hopefully not all) of my reasoning here. Though confident in my arguments so far that I understand them, I’m forever humbled by the fact that there are people out there far more intelligent than myself that disagree with not just me, but with one another, about the issues I’ve discussed today.