Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Moral Argument

Disclaimer: There is very little that can be known with absolute certainty. Logical and mathematical proofs might be among them, but almost any proposition can be shot down with enough hyperskepticism. I could deny many propositions that virtually everyone else would agree are true; that other minds exist, that the outside world is real, that George Washington was the first US President. While there is no absolute proof that these things I might be trying to deny are true, there is good reason to believe them, because the evidence better supports them than it supports their negations.

Deductive logic operates on deriving a conclusion from premises. If each premise is more plausible than its negation, and the connection between the premises and the conclusion is valid, then the conclusion follows logically and inescapably.

Here are the Big Four arguments in natural theology and what they attempt to demonstrate:

Kalam Cosmological Argument: There cannot be an actually infinite number of past events, therefore, matter cannot be eternal. There was a first event. The first event had to be caused. The cause for the first event had to be uncaused, nonphysical and had to have the properties of volition and causal potency

Teleological Argument
: That from which reality came had to possess intelligence, volition, and causal potency

Ontological Argument
: That which is greater than anything that can be conceived actually exists in all possible worlds

Moral Argument: Objective morality exists, and that from which objective morality came had to possess the property of morality

So far, we have been looking at philosophical and scientific reasons for believing in God. This is an ethical argument, and a comparatively simple argument, a favorite of Ravi Zacharias. It grabs people where they live, because every day as you live, you make moral choices. Therefore, every day, by your behavior, you answer this argument.

The Moral Argument

Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Premise 2: But objective moral values do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist

"Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than our hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says 'love thy neighbor as thyself' they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and any deeper meaning is illusory."
-Michael Ruse

Objective Moral Values - Moral values that are valid and binding regardless of whether anyone believes in them or not.

For example, to say that the holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil even thought the Nazis who had carried it out thought that it was good. And it would still be evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and had succeeded in killing or brainwashing all who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought that the holocaust was good.

Many theists and atheists alike will agree that if God does not exist, then moral values cannot be objective.

Consider what naturalism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) says: What foundation is there for objective moral values? More specifically: What is the basis for the objective value of human beings? If God does not exist as a transcendent anchor point for moral values, then it is hard to see why human beings would be special or that the morality that has evolved among human beings would be objectively binding.

Why think that we would have any obligations to do anything? Who or what would impose these obligations upon us? On naturalism, we are just products of biological and social evolution and the values that we embrace today are simply byproducts of this system of evolution.

"Ethics arises from the pressures of the community on the individual. Man does not always instinctively feel the desires which are useful to his herd. The herd, being anxious that the individual should act in its interests, has invented various devices for causing the individual's interest to be in harmony with that of the herd. One of these is morality"
-Bertrand Russell

If you were to rewind the film of evolutionary history, very different creatures might have evolved from the blind process of evolution that might have had very different values than those that we have today.

Michael Ruse asked the question "Is rape wrong on Andromeda?" He imagines that there might be a race of individuals living on the galaxy of Andromeda for whom rape is not thought to be wrong. Rape goes on all the time in the animal kingdom, and can be biologically advantageous, as the male who is willing to use force to spread his progeny is more likely to reproduce than the male who is not. Rape in the animal kingdom has evolutionary and biological advantage.

The problem is: on naturalism, we are just animals, just relatively advanced primates, and to say anything to the contrary is to be guilty of species-ism. If animals are not moral agents, then why think that we are?

"The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation (foundation in reality). If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some kind of transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?"
-Paul Kurtz

Richard Taylor invites us to imagine people living in a state of nature without any laws or customs. Let's suppose one of them kills another and takes his goods. Taylor says that this would have no more moral significance than if one animal killed another and took something that another animal had. A lion can kill a zebra, but does not murder it. Murder is a human value. A seagull may snatch a fish from the talons of another seagull, but it doesn't steal the fish. Stealing is a moral term. For people living in a state of nature, Taylor says that the same thing applies. We may take another's goods, but there is no such thing as murder or stealing, because those are just sociological constructs that only exist in our collective imagination.

Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the death of Christianity and the death of belief in God meant the advent of nihilism, meaning the absence of any value or meaning in life. This is not to say that we need to believe in God to live good moral lives, but that in a Godless universe, the idea of any sort of objective value or meaning is as incoherent as the idea of a married bachelor.

Many philosophers are uneasy with this moral anarchy and pick something like human beings to be the locus of morality. Perhaps whatever contributes to the flourishing of human beings or to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people or to human prosperity is the good. This would be the value of humanists, who believe objective moral values come from humans and that man is the measure of all things. The problem with these attempts to salvage objective morality in the absence of God is that these thinkers are typically at a loss to justify their starting point. If we are just relatively advanced primates, why should we be the judges of moral values? Why should human flourishing be the standard of morality, rather than the flourishing of some other animal? This is species-ism, believing that your race stands out as something special.

As an illustration Walter Sinnott-Armstrong said about premise 1: "If God did not forbid rape, what make rape immoral objectively? This question is supposed to be hard for atheists to answer...What makes rape immoral is that rape harms the victim in terrible ways. The victim feels pain, loses freedom, feels subordinated, and so on. These harms are not justified by any benefits to anyone. What's immoral about causing serious harms to people without justification? Animals do this all the time. Forcible sexual copulation goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. What's wrong with causing harm? It simply is, objectively, don't you agree?"

When it comes to justifying his own moral standard, all Sinnott-Armstrong could say is: It is just wrong. There isn't any explanation why it is.

Of course I agree that it is objectively wrong, but as a theist I have a basis for that in my worldview with a God who transcends culture, society, and biological evolution. If that God does not exist, then on the atheistic view, why would rape be morally, objectively wrong?

Under the atheistic worldview, is there anything that can function as an objective standard for morals? Some have suggested some sort of non-divine transcendent anchor for moral values. I might call this "atheistic moral realism" where objective moral values are not grounded in God but just exist as abstract objects, such as the number 7. I am not sure what it even means for such values to exist as these Platonic forms. What is justice without a person to be just? I understand what it is like for a person to be just, or an action to be just, but how can justice exist independently of any person or action?

I also think that the idea of moral duty is incompatible with atheistic moral realism. Let's suppose that moral values such as mercy, justice, and love exist as abstract objects in some Platonic form. How does that result in any moral obligation for me? Who or what imposes that kind of duty on me? How does the existence of these abstract objects result in any sort of reason for me to follow them. I assume that on this view that other abstract values exist such as lust, envy, and greed. Why should I follow love and justice and not lust and greed? What obligates me to align my life with one set of abstractions and not another set?

It is easy for the theist to believe in being obligated to follow certain moral values, as it is constituted by God's command (divine command morality). You shall not murder. You shall not steal. In light of these moral commandments, we have a duty to live in a moral way. In the absence of a divine lawgiver, I do not see any grounds for moral obligation or moral duty even given the existence of these abstract options called moral values.

It is also extraordinarily improbable that just those sort of creatures would emerge from the blind, pitiless, indifferent process of evolution that would correspond to these abstractly existing moral values and principles. Why should this process produce just this type of creature that is in line with this objective system of morality. It's as if this realm knew that these creatures were coming, but it cannot know this on a naturalistic worldview. By contrast, on the view that God exists, both the natural realm, and the moral realm are under the sovereignty of God so that God could develop those sorts of creatures which would correspond to objectively existing moral values.

Hence, there is no reason for objective moral values to exist on the atheistic worldview. Everything would be socio-culturally relative. But...

Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist.

And we all know it.

Our belief in objective moral values is on par with our belief that the physical world is real. Any argument that you could give about being skeptical about the objectiveness of moral values, you could give a parallel argument about being skeptical about the reality of the physical world.

What about the arguments from Michael Ruse that morals are just the byproducts of socio-biological evolution, that they are ingrained that way? Such an argument commits the genetic fallacy, which tries to invalidate something by explaining how that thing came about. If someone said to you "the only reason you believe the world is round instead of flat is that you were born in modern times where this is the popular view, therefore your view is invalid" it wouldn't invalidate your argument that the world is indeed round.

If our gradual discovery of the realm of moral values undermines its objectivity, then the gradual discovery of the physical realm by science undermines the objectivity of the physical realm as well. So long as moral values are gradually discovered rather than gradually invented, then they are objective. You can show that there are cultural and biological influences that shape how you view morality, and I can show that there are cultural and biological influences that shape how you view the physical world.

Interestingly enough, if there are no objective moral values, then it is not objectively wrong with forcing a set of moral values on others. Under moral relativism, It would not be objectively wrong for a government to take a set of religiously derived moral values, turn them into legislation, and force everyone to obey them under penalty of death. A moral relativist might find this situation unpleasant and object to it, but would have no grounds to call such a system objectively wrong.

In 2006, the state of Colorado passed an amendment to its constitution recognizing only a marriage between one man and one woman as valid and binding. In response Barbara Streisand called for a boycott of all ski resorts and vacation spots in Colorado saying that the moral climate in Colorado has become unacceptable. Notice that this is a moral judgment that an atheist cannot rationally make, as it accuses Colorado of committing an act of immorality.

What about the crusades by the medieval Church? On what grounds were they objectively wrong? The Crusaders and the bulk of Europe's population sincerely believed that they were doing the right thing. What about the Spanish Inquisition? The Salem Witch Trials?

The Andromeda Argument

Suppose there exists a civilization on Andromeda whose people are physically similar to us, but evolved a different set of moral intuitions. Let's say that they find rape to be an acceptable behavior. Who are we to say that our moral intuitions are superior to theirs?

Suppose that this race is far more technologically advanced than us, invades Earth, and takes over. They institute a law saying that rape is acceptable and begin to rape humans. On what grounds is their behavior wrong? The law of reciprocity (do not do to anyone what you wouldn't want done to you)? While the Andromedans don't like being raped by humans, they don't mind as long as they can return the favor. Do we object by saying that right and wrong is what the herd says it is? Why is our herd superior to theirs? What if they vastly outnumber us? What if there are hundreds or thousands of species of intelligent aliens on Andromeda, all of whom find rape to be morally acceptable?

If objective moral values do not exist, then being morally wronged is like eating broccoli flavored ice cream. You may not like it, but cannot call it wrong. You cannot object without asserting that objective moral values exist.


How do you know what is moral and what is not?

This is a question of moral epistemology (how you know things). This argument is from moral ontology (that the moral values exist). Even if no one knew what was moral or not, it does not follow that objective moral values do not exist.

What if you were in a situation where you had to either lie or let someone get killed? Doesn't that show that moral values are shaped by the situation?

No. Moral objectivists like myself believe in a moral hierarchy. Certain moral values take precedence over others.

You said that objective moral values exist independently of whether we apprehend them or not, then argue that we know them by apprehending them. Isn't this a contradiction?

No. The situation is the same with the physical world. It exists objectively, but we know it through our 5 subjective senses. Even science must be known through the senses, since science is a method of discovering reality through repeat observation. Just as we are sometimes wrong about the physical world, we can also be wrong about the moral realm. It does not make the moral realm subjective any more than differences in how we observe the outside world makes it subjective.

The Euthyphro Objection

As Socrates said in his dialogue with Euthyphro: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" If the good is good because God commands it, then it is arbitrary. There is a possible world where God commands rape, murder, and child abuse, and it is good. On the other hand, if God commands it because it is good, then God is subservient to the good.

Such an objection is a false dilemma. The foundation of moral values lies in God's essential nature, a set of properties that is identical in all possible worlds. God's nature is the good and could not have been different. God's commands flow from His nature. God's nature defines the good, and God is by His nature loving, kind, just, and holy. God's nature is expressed toward us in the form of commandments. These then become our moral duties.

The good is neither arbitrary, nor is God subservient to it. But why God's nature? Because there is no other standard available! Without God, there are no objective moral values, so if they do exist, they must be grounded in God.

God is also an appropriate standard for morality as He is the only being that is worthy of worship. Any being unworthy of worship cannot be God. Worship is not just admiration, but adoration of God, the supreme good. As a being that merits worship, God must be perfectly good, the locus of what the good is.

Hence, objective morality exists, and that from which morality came had to possess the property of morality.

For further reading on this subject, the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology will be released in May of this year.
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