An Introduction to the Moral Argument

In our current day, proclaiming that you’re a Christian is somewhat of a social taboo in the eyes of many social media outlets. Christians are seemingly becoming the minority in the eyes of the Western secular culture with our alleged outlandish and intolerant moral views on popular social issues such as homosexuality and abortion. The media often portrays Christians in a rather unflattering manner as a hateful, intolerant, bigoted, judgmental group.  Fortunately, none of these moral critiques against Christians carry any weight unless there is a foundation for the existence of objectivemoral values and duties. Hence, to evaluate this matter more thoroughly, the thesis of this article is to assess whether or not there is enough evidence to reasonably conclude that objective moral values and duties do exist.

Before discussing this topic any further, I would like to identify what I mean by “objective”.  “Objective” is being used with the meaning of, “independent of human opinion”.  For example, the Holocaust during WWII was objectively bad despite whether the Nazis felt what they were doing was objectively good. The reality is that it is objectively wrong to murder innocent people.  To illustrate another example; murder, rape, torture, theft, adultery, and lying are also objectively wrong.  Those that participate in those activities would be objectively wrong regardless of whether they think they are doing something morally right.
Now that “objective” has been identified in its proper context, it is now time to lay the foundation for the objectivity of morals in relationship to the existence of God. This argument is called; “the Moral Argument” and the premises are laid as follows:
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[1]
The further discussion will highlight the elements of the argument that make it effective and philosophically compelling. In addition to highlighting the elements of the argument, I’ll also evaluate the most common objections to the moral argument while laying out a comprehensive assessment of their shortcomings.
Affirmation of Objective Moral Values and Duties
This is a powerful argument among Christians today because a majority of people of all worldviews affirm the existence of objective moral values and duties. The reason for wanting to affirm objective moral values and duties is evident to anyone who has gone through a terrible tragedy or has ever been exposed to tragic events such as the terror attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust during WWII, the Columbine High School shooting, the recent shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO, and the like.
You may wonder why all people (atheists and theists) desperately want to affirm objective moral values and duties.  You may ask, “Why is that important?” I think this is best illustrated when we look at the moral argument with the assumption that God does not exist.  Given that we’re assuming that God does not exist, we then find ourselves in a world that does not have objective moral values and duties.  Any morals that we observe among society would be the incidental byproduct of biological evolution and societal conditioning that has developed within our species to assist humanity in its survival.  If we witnessed each other performing seemingly good deeds within our society, it wouldn’t be because it was objectively good.  It would be because our embedded natural instinct is to help each other in order to propagate our species.  By the same token, if we were to observe someone in the act of murder; they wouldn’t be acting objectively immoral. They would simply be acting unfashionably according to their social structure and we could identify that action as being counter-productive in the propagation of human species.
The reasons for this lack of moral objectively in a universe with no God is specifically identified by its lack of foundation in which to ground moral values and duties, thereby nothing can be considered objectively good or bad. A competent authority is needed to establish these objective moral foundations[2]. The atheistic worldview does not allow for objective moral values and duties because it lacks God, which is the competent authority needed to establish objective moral values and duties.
Misusing “Good”
However, there are critiques posed upon this argument which conclude that objective moral values and duties are also attainable under atheism. A prominent atheist by the name of Sam Harris authored the book, “The Moral Landscape”, and dedicated it to proving the notion that you don’t need God to have objective moral values and duties.  He is very creative in his argument; however it falls quite short from fully justifying how atheism begins to reconcile objective moral values and duties while being in a Godless universe.
It is creative because Harris uses the English language to manipulate the meaning of “good”.  He plays a rousing game of semantics with the term, “good”.  Meaning, he is not using the term “good” to mean moral good.  He often uses the term “good” to mean something related to the flourishing of sentient life[3]. In order to identify the differences between the word “good” in the moral context and the context that refers to “good” as the flourishing of sentient life, I’ll illustrate the point with some examples.
For example, moral good would refer to what is identified as an act such as generosity, putting others before oneself, loving one another, volunteering at a local homeless shelter, and other traditionally accepted actions associated with moral good. The way Harris is using “good” is in reference to the flourishing of sentient life forms.  For example, it would be beneficial for all sentient life to behave in a manner that assists in their flourishing and expansion3. However, we must ask, why is the flourishing of sentient life objectively good in the moral sense?
While it is good for flourishing to occur among sentient life, there is nothing that would lead us to conclude that it is objectively moral for sentient life to flourish.  Dr. William Lane Craig likened it to the flourishing of corn3. We can identify what helps corn to flourish but assisting it in its flourishing doesn’t illustrate how objectively moral we are or it is. We can all acknowledge the flourishing of sentient life is good because sentient beings like to flourish, however there is no moral objectivity that underlies the foundation of the flourishing.
This type of evaluation is an ontological versus semantic analysis.  The ontological nature of evaluating morals would be to identify the foundation of those morals. Meaning, what the foundation for objective morals? Is it God or is it nature? The semantic nature of “good” would be to evaluate the meaning of the term and would not play any role in trying to identify the ontological foundation for morality3.  This distinction is important to identify when responding to the claim that the objective moral foundation can be identified by nature. Simply put, creaturely flourishing and objective morality are two separate subjects3
Atheists That Affirm No Objective Morals
I’ve used the example with Harris and his “moral landscape” because he is of a minority of atheist scholars that continue to propagate the notion of objective morals from an atheistic worldview. You may be curious about what other atheist scholars have said about morality from an atheistic worldview.  I’ll list a few quotes below that describe what has been said about morality in a universe that is without a God:
“There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference…we are machines for propagating DNA…it is every living object’s sole reason for being” – Richard Dawkins[4]
“The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. 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 referencing 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[5]
“Morality…is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends… In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate” – Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson[6]
As you can see, these atheists are being very honest and candid about their approach to morality from an atheistic worldview. They are indeed remaining true to their worldview. It is often hard to approach this topic in a straightforward and honest fashion simply because it is difficult for some people to come to the conclusion that we are no more important than any other living creature on this planet in terms of our morality without God. Without God, every action done by each of us wouldn’t be morally good or bad.  It would simply be morally neutral without a basis for measuring good or bad. Any appearance of morals would be the byproduct of social conditioning over thousands of years, and nothing more. The following is an eloquent quote by Francis Beckwith on the reality of objective morals:
to deny the existence of universally objective moral distinctions, one must admit that Mother Teresa was no more or less moral than Adolf Hitler, that torturing three-year-olds for fun is neither good nor evil, that giving 10 percent of one’s financial surplus is neither praiseworthy nor condemnable, that raping a woman is neither right nor wrong, and that providing food and shelter for one’s spouse and children is neither a good thing nor a bad thing”[7]
Being Untrue to your Worldview
However, many atheists still desire to affirm that these moral values are objective despite their lack of belief in a God. It is certainly a curious position to take from an atheistic worldview. Nearly all of the atheists that I know are people I’d consider to be upright and moral people. However, they don’t acknowledge their morals to be founded in a transcendent source. I once had a discussion on the issue of morality with one of my atheist friends. Needless to say, she was repulsed that I would ever suggest that morals were founded in God rather than in nature. She took offense that I would offer such a proposition because she thought I was attacking her moral integrity. She thought that since she didn’t believe God, I was somehow suggesting she wasn’t a moral person. Needless to say, that wasn’t the point I was attempting to get across.  
Please understand that atheists are fully capable of being moral. This is a common misunderstanding among atheists when speaking on this topic. Many atheists feel that theists are making the assertion that people who don’t believe in God are not capable of being morally good people. That is completely false. It is certainly possible to be a morally good person without the belief in God. The distinctions between being morally good and knowing how objective morals are grounded are two completely different subjects. Simply put, the faith that there is a God isn’t a requirement for our objective morality, God is[8].
The Euthyphro Dilemma
There is a popular objection that many atheists use called the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma was developed as a character in one of Plato’s dialogues. The objection to the moral argument is as follows:
“Either something is good because God wills it or else God wills something because it is good”1
The first half of the dilemma states that, “something is good because God wills it”. That means that God could have willed anything to be good. God could have potentially willed rape, murder, lying, kidnapping, torturing, etc… to be good. If those horrible actions were to be willed by God as good, then we would have the moral duty to perform those things to one another. What is good becomes arbitrary under this option. Therefore, the first half of this dilemma clearly seems to be an implausible assertion because the possibility of murder, lying, kidnapping, torturing, etc… being good simply because God wills it undermines the fact that some moral values are necessary in this world 1.
The second half states that, “God wills something because it is good”. That means that whatever is good is completely independent of God and would completely undercut the first premise of the moral argument (If God does not exist, objectivemoral values and duties do not exist). If we contend that the first premise of the moral argument is true, we see that objective moral values are dependent upon God for their moral grounding. Therefore, God does not will something because it is good 1.
An attentive observer of this dilemma will notice that this dilemma is not exhaustive of all the options for the foundation of morals. Essentially, Plato didn’t include every option for why morals are good or bad from a theistic point of view. This third option not included in the Euthyphro dilemma is as follows:
“God wills something because He is good”6
This alternative means that God’s own nature is the standard by which goodness is measured and the commands placed upon us are reflective of His nature. Our duties are dependent upon the commands issued to us by God, which are reflective of His nature6
By no means is the Euthyphro dilemma the authoritative and empirical method for identifying how morals can be identified as good in a theistic worldview. In fact, we are presented with an insufficient amount of choices under the Euthyphro dilemma. The reality is the moral status of an action is determined by the nature of God and any moral action is determined by God’s will6.
Atheistic Moral Platonism
This is a rather confusing objection to the moral argument however it is often posed. Plato also proposed that moral good exists on its own independently of God. When Christian thinkers evaluated this idea, they identified that the moral good Plato was referring to was actually God himself. Given this proposal, many atheistic thinkers may say that morally good actions exist without the need for any foundation because moral good is believed to be objectively independent of God6.
Given the principles that have been laid out thus far regarding the moral argument, we find that it is implausible to infer that objective moral values exist without being founded in a transcendent Being. This view also doesn’t address how objective moral duties can result from it. This view does imply that good moral qualities exist independently of God however under this view, what objective obligation do I have to perform any of these good moral duties? 6
Under this very same worldview of moral Platonism, morally bad actions like hate, rape, murder, lying, etc… identically exist just as the morally good actions do. Without the ontological foundation supporting moral Platonism that addresses moral duties, the moral good and bad are meaningless because there is no moral obligation to be good or bad6.
Lastly, to be a committed moral Platonist, you would be committed to believing that biological evolution developed in a manner that would separate the moral realm from the realm of creatures. As a result, these creatures would then need to be capable of comprehending the objectivity of morals. Given that morals are objective under this view, creatures would have to identify with this moral realm that is completely distinct from them and identify with the objectivity of its morals. On the whole, it appears drastically more plausible that the wholly independent natural and moral realms are under the authority of God rather than interpreting the presence of objective morals as a coincidental biological compatibility6.
Conclusion
As I touched on in the introduction, while the secular media freely scrutinizes Christians for remaining true to their worldview, they freely violate theirs by saying that what Christians represent is morally wrong. They can’t make that type of conclusion if there is no objective right and wrong. Gaining insight into the moral argument can give you an understanding of the fallacies that are being made when you hear secular individuals speak of objective morality while disaffirming God’s existence.
Many reasons have been laid out for the understanding of objective moral values and duties, the reasons for their objectivity, and the analysis of the most common objections to the moral argument. The moral argument is one of the most valuable arguments for any Christian apologist. The reason why is because people can relate to the reality of objective moral values and duties in their hearts.
People want to know that objective moral values exist because it brings them peace of mind knowing that there will ultimately be justice done to those who have committed wrongdoing and for those who have acted righteously. Why else would people be so distraught when they see unspeakable acts like 9/11, the Holocaust, and the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting? The reason why is because we have an innate belief that these actions are objectively wrong. If we felt that all actions are morally neutral, we couldn’t objectively differentiate between an act of love and an act of hate.
This moral argument is an important argument to understand. We are made in the image of God[9] and the nature of God is the reflection of the moral good. If we are made in the image of God, it makes perfect sense why we have an innate grasp on objective morality and strive to affirm it despite whether we believe in God or not. Humanity does affirm these values naturally without being incentivized. While we desire to affirm these objective morals that we experience, we must address and investigate which worldview makes the most sense of these objective moral values and duties. To me, it is clear that without God, we cannot claim the existence of objective moral values and duties as true while claiming to have been led by the evidence to the most plausible conclusion.


[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books) Chapter 4
[2]William Lane Craig, Does Theistic Ethics Derive an “ought” from an “Is” from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-theistic-ethics-derive-an-ought-from-an-is
[3] William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris debate on “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” at Notre Dame University on April 2011
[4] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden; A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 133 and Richard Dawkins, “The Ultraviolet Garden” Lecture 4 of 7, Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1993)
[5] Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262, 268-89.
[6] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 316
[7] Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl, Relativism(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books)
[8] William Lane Craig, One Guard (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook) Chapter 6
[9] Genesis 1:27
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One response to “An Introduction to the Moral Argument

  1. Pingback: Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts | Worldview of Jesus·

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