Follow up to: Why The Moral Argument Fails
In “Why The Moral Argument Fails”, I outlined the Moral Argument for God’s existence, as follows…
P1: If God does not exist, objective moral duties do not exist.
P2: Objective moral duties do exist.
C3: Therefore, God exists.
…and demonstrated it fails because P2 was false. Objective moral duties do not exist in the sense of having a single, absolute set of moral commands. Now, I want to look at P1. As I said earlier, showing that P1 is false is merely lapping the theist who already lost the moral argument at the failure of P2, but should be pretty instructive in considering theistic morality and how normativity works out in general.
P1 in Detail
P1 is an example of a “Without which not” argument, saying that not only (a) do objective moral duties exist with God but (b) objective moral duties cannot exist without a God. Furthermore, (a) is in a hypothetical sense — If God existed, then God would be able to ground objective moral duties. One could easily imagine a certain kind of atheist agreeing with P1 and wishing that a God existed in order to ground objective moral duties, but lament that since P2 is false, this argument has not demonstrated God’s existence.
So here, we’re assuming the existence of God for the sake of argument, and seeing whether such an entity could actually provide objective moral duties. Then we’re seeing if there really is no other way to provide objective moral duties.
This is first going to hinge particularly on what various theists mean by “objective moral duties”. While I’ve been taking them to refer to the single, absolute moral commands traditionally found in theism and in arguing for moral realism, other theists have different ideas.
The first place on our tour is a tiny bit laughable, but it merits inclusion. In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig clarifies the moral argument by saying
To say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong independently of whether any human being believes them to be so.” On this analysis, even if every human on Earth were to unanimously agree that rape was totally fine, it would still be wrong because it’s wrongness comes from this non-human source.
Of course, Craig has the Christian God in mind as his idea of a non-human source. But a non-human source could be anything. Appealing to utilitarianism, as I do, in asking what would be good for sentient creatures, weighing their interests equally, is an empirical question that no human could change by believing differently, except in so far as a change in belief would change what is good for her or him. But there’s no need to stop there — there are plenty of nonhuman sources of morality.
In fact, we could go even more bizarre and ground our morality in the opinions of space aliens, or a computer program, or even in the opinions of fictional characters. Narrowing down morality to non-human sources doesn’t really do much narrowing at all!
Belief-Independent Morality and The Euthyphro Dilemma
Now let’s jump to another definition, which aims to cut out beliefs altogether, and suggest that an objective moral duty is one that is right or wrong regardless of any beliefs whatsoever. This would have the benefit of preventing us from appealing to the opinions of fictional characters and space aliens. But, shockingly, it would also prevent us from appealing to the opinions of God!
The natural escape out of this logical trap is to appeal to the Christian God not as someone who issues moral opinions, but rather someone who is the very grounding and basis of metaphysical goodness itself. For an example of how this works, consider the classic Euthyphro Dilemma, which asks “Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?”
The Dilemma appears to be a trap, at first. If the theist takes the first route and says God commands something because it is good, then the theist is admitting that there is a standard of morality independent of God that even God is subject to. Not only would this put unorthodox restrictions on God’s power, but would derail the Moral Argument because this moral standard could exist independently of God.
Then, if the theist were to instead take the second route and say that something is good only because God has commanded it, we’re left with arbitrary ethics. It’s definitely unintuitive, to say the least, to acknowledge that rape could be wrong only because God says so, and that if tomorrow God were to instead say that rape was correct, then rape would become correct, and not raping would be wrong.
Caught between the first prong admitting an external standard of morality and the second prong making morality arbitrary, theists take God’s very character as an embodiment of goodness which is neither arbitrary nor external.
But, as Adam Lee points out in his discussion of the Euthyphro Dilemma in “The Ineffable Carrot and The Infinite Stick”, we can’t appeal to God’s character either, because the Dilemma has not been answered — it has only been pushed back one step. For next we could counter by asking “If God’s character is intrinsically good, how do we know? Are we measuring it based on an external standard or are we measuring it against itself?”
If we measure it against an external standard, we have a grounding of morality independent of God. If we measure it against itself, God’s character could have been anything, and we’re plunged back into the hopelessness of arbitrary ethics. If God’s character were violent and capricious (as it appears to be in parts of the Bible), would violence and capriciousness be the standard of good? If not, why not?
Rebutting Four Possible Solutions
We’re now really deep in the argument chess game, being basically a response to a response to a response to the original Euthyphro Dilemma, which is being used as a response to the Moral Argument. However, I’ve still seen four possible solutions that I will now counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-respond to.
God as The Greatest Possible Thing
William Lane Craig’s response to this modified Euthyphro is as follows:
If it be asked why God is the paradigm and standard of moral goodness, then I think premise (1) of your argument gives the answer: God is the greatest conceivable being, and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than to conform to it.
The idea of God being the greatest conceivable being is a classic Anselmian concept of God typically played out in the Ontological Argument, which I have criticized. And the trick going on here is not all that different from the trick to the Ontological Argument. This assumes that it’s greater to be just and kind than to be unjust or unkind, and therefore God must be just and kind because he is greater.
But what kind of standard makes it greater to be just or kind? Here, we have yet another external standard smuggled back in — the standard by which we measure whether something is greater than something else. Either that, or God is the standard by which we determine what things are great, and a hypothetically unjust and unkind God would also be the greatest possible being, because injustice and cruelty would be part of what makes something great.
Euthyphro as a Problem For Everyone
In “Exploring My Own Moral Parameters”, my frequent arguing partner and blogger, Cl of The Warfare is Mental, says:
The way I see it, Euthyphro’s dilemma arises regardless of the source of our morality. For this reason, invoking the dilemma as an argument against any source of morality is meaningless, because the dilemma applies regardless of the source of our morality. This is because any source of morality that can be established can also be questioned.
Cl gives an example of a hypothetical Farmer Bill, who likes to shoot squirrels, and hypothetical squirrels that note Bill’s command for the squirrels to not inhabit the oak tree — “is Farmer Bill’s aversion right because it is right, or because Farmer Bill says it’s right?”
But I think this misses the mark as a rebuttal to my view on morality. Imagine one were to ask “Peter, is something right because your utilitarianism says so, or does your utilitarianism say something because it’s right?” Here, I I would take the first horn and agree that utilitarianism, for me, is what makes something right. But could they respond that “then, couldn’t anything be right, because utilitarianism could have said something else?”
I’d agree with them, a bit. My allegiance isn’t to the word “utilitarianism”, but rather to what it stands for — I’m motivated by personal desires to make people’s lives go better, and I aim to weigh their claims equally. But they’d be right that if counterfactually I desired different things, I would have a different moral system that I would be attempting to impose on myself and others.
But this plays right into my hands, not the hands of the theist. I’m the one who has been denying objective standards of morality, and I’m the one who has been saying that “rightness” is indeterminate and relative to specific standards. It’s the theists who think “rightness” must have one, single, fixed, absolute definition, and they can’t have it if things counterfactually could have been different.
God as a Moral Expert
Elsewhere in “A Quest for Second Best”, Cl responds:
I’m taking the first horn of the challenge, and answering that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God commands the good because it is good. An omniscient, omnipotent God knows what is good because such a God has perfect access to the set of moral facts.
Cl is correct that if we were to take some sort of standard like utilitarianism, then God would be the best at implementing the practical ethics, since omniscience would mean complete and perfect information about what actually maximizes well-being. God would be a moral expert.
But just because God would have perfect epistemic access to morality wouldn’t make him the grounding of morality, nor would it make morality “objective”. There wouldn’t be any facts about whether utilitarianism is a better standard than something else, like deontology or virtue ethics. And no matter what moral system God preferred, he counterfactually could have preferred a different one.
Thus, unless someone would like to establish that there is only one “best” standard of ethics, or explain how God could come to know which standard is “best”, or why we should expect that there would be a “best” standard of ethics for God to relay, we haven’t actually established P1, let alone P2. God wouldn’t be special for establishing ethics the way P1 requires; he’d be a mere relay station.
God as a Convenient Judge
This one is a bit of my own devising, though I’m sure it’s been endorsed by someone, somewhere. Essentially, not only could God be a Moral Expert, but he also could be a “facilitator” in that he will be judging people by his chosen standard. One would therefore have to follow God’s standard in order to secure the eternal benefits of Heaven and avoid the eternal pains of Hell, even though such a punishment system is just a “might makes right” approach arguably inconsistent with actual conceptions of benevolence. However, by lining up moral commands (like “do not rape”) with threats of Hell, this interpretation of God lines up that which is externally good with that which we have strong reason to not do.
If we agree that all humans would share a desire to not be roasted in Hell (though Richard Carrier dissents), then all humans would be rationally bound (by a matter of what is pragmatically and self-interestedly good for them) to follow these ethics. This is the closest I’ve ever seen to actually producing an absolute set of commands from any system of morality.
But as Richard Carrier points out elsewhere in “Darla, the She Goat”:
[T]his is no better than starting with “You should be moral because otherwise there’s this talking shegoat named Darla who’s gonna sneak in and eat your foot any night now.” But that kinda works, too. Right? Then all you need do is figure out what’ll piss off Darla the Shegoat and not do that. Maybe it’ll be hard finding the shegoat to ask her, but lucky you, there’s this guy on TV who says he ghostwrote a book for her on just that subject, and he swears she approved every word of it. Score!
Therefore, this role of God being able to line up our personal desires with an external set of morality is really not that much different than anyone else who would have this control over you. The Mafia could even carry this out, forcing you to their preferred ethics lest they “break your kneecaps”, which you don’t want.
The holy grail for the Moral Argument has been that of moral realism, finding some sort of single, absolute ethical commands that apply to everyone. The moral arguer says that not only does such a system of commands exist, but only God could make it so, and given that it is so, God must exist. I’ve first argued that such isn’t so — moral realism isn’t true. But furthermore, God couldn’t make it so — as I’ve argued here, God couldn’t make moral realism true, even hypothetically.
Therefore, the Moral Argument fails to establish the existence of God. Also, the real nature of morality doesn’t comport well with what we would expect on Christianity or many other religions, further straining the case for theism.
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