apologetics, arguments for God, philosophy, The Moral Argument

The Moral Argument: Mistakes to Avoid and Practical Advice

The moral argument has experienced a resurgence of discussion and popularity of late. Some of this may be due to the increased popularity of apologetics. Philosophical discussions about metaethics also seem to have contributed to the discussions about the moral argument. Regardless, the argument, in its many and varied forms, has regained some of the spotlight in the arena of argumentation between theism and atheism. [See Glenn Peoples' post on the topic for more historical background.]

That said, it is an unfortunate truth that many misunderstandings of the argument are perpetuated. Before turning to these, however, I’ll lay out a basic version of the argument:

P1: If there are objective moral values, then God exists.

P2: There are objective moral values.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

It is not my purpose here to offer a comprehensive defense of the argument. Instead, I seek to lay out some objections to it along with some responses. I also hope to caution my fellow theists against making certain errors as they put the argument forward.

Objections

Objection 1: Objective moral values can’t exist, because there are possible worlds in which there are no agents.

The objection has been raised by comments on my site (see the comment from “SERIOUSLY?” here), but I’ve also heard it in person. Basically, the objection goes: Imagine a world in which all that existed was a rock. There would clearly be no morality in such a universe, which means that P2 must be false. Why? Because in order for there to be objective moral values, those values must be true in all possible worlds. But the world we just imagined has no morality, therefore there are no objective moral values!

The objection as outlined in italics above is just a more nuanced form of this type of argument. What is wrong with it? At the most basic level, the theist could object to the thought experiment. According to classical theism, God is a necessary being, so in every possible world, God exists. Thus, for any possible world, God exists. Thus, to say “imagine a world in which just a rock exists” begs the question against theism from the start.

But there is a more fundamental problem with this objection. Namely, the one making this objection has confused the existence of objective morals with their obtaining in a universe. In other words, it may be true that moral truths are never “activated” or never used as a judgment in a world in which only a rock exists, but that doesn’t mean such truths do not exist in that universe.

To see how this is true, consider a parallel situation. The statement “2+2=4″ is a paradigm statement for a necessary truth. Whether in this world or in any other world, it will be the case that when we add two and two, we get four. Now consider again a world in which all that exists is a rock. In fact, take it back a step further and say that all that exists is the most basic particle possible–it is indivisible and as simple as physically possible. In this universe, just one thing exists. The truth, “2+2=4″ therefore never will obtain in such a world. But does that mean “2+2=4″ is false or doesn’t exist in this world? Absolutely not. The truth is a necessary truth, and so regardless of whether there are enough objects in existence to allow it to obtain does not effect its truth value.

Similarly, if objective moral values exist, then it does not matter whether or not they obtain. They are true in every possible world, regardless of whether or not there are agents.

Objection 2: Euthyphro Dilemma- If things are good because God commands them, ‘morality’ is arbitrary. If God commands things because they are good, the standard of good is outside of God. This undermines the moral argument because it calls into question P1.

Here my response to the objection would be more like a deflection. This objection only serves as an attack on divine command theory mixed with a view of God which is not like that of classical theism. Thus, there are two immediate responses the theist can offer.

First, the theist can ascribe to a metaethical theory other than divine command ethics. For example, one might adhere to a modified virtue theory or perhaps something like divine motivation theory. Further, one could integrate divine command ethics into a different metaethic in order to preserve the driving force of divine commands in theistic metaethics while removing the difficulties of basing one’s whole system upon commands. In this way, one could simply defeat the dilemma head-on, by showing there is a third option the theist can consistently embrace.

Second, one could point out that the dilemma doesn’t actually challenge P1 at all. All it challenges is the grounds for objective morals. Certainly, if the theist embraced the horn of the dilemma in which that which is “good” is grounded outside of God, there would be a problem, but very few theists do this (and for them it seems unlikely the moral argument would be convincing). If the theist embraces the other horn–that what God commands is good/arbitrary–then that would not defeat objective morals anyway, because one could hold that even were God’s decisions arbitrary, they were still binding in all possible worlds. While this would be a bit unorthodox, it would undermine the concern that the Euthyphro dilemma serves to defeat P1. Combined with the first point, it seems this dilemma offers little to concern the theist.

All morality is relative

I prefer Greg Koukl’s tongue-in-cheek response to this type of argument: steal their stereo! If someone really argues that there is no such thing as right and wrong, test them on it! Don’t literally steal their things, but do point out inconsistencies. Everyone thinks there are things that are wrong in the world and should be prevented. If someone continues to press that these are merely illusory ideas–that things like rape, domestic abuse, murder, slavery, genocide are in fact amoral (without any moral status)–then one may simply point out the next time they complain about a moral situation. Such is the thrust of Koukl’s remark–everyone will object if you steal their stereo. Why? Because it is wrong, and we know it.

Advice to other Christians

The moral argument brings up some extremely complex metaethical discourse. While it is, in my opinion, one of the best tools in the apologist’s kit for talking to the average nonbeliever/believer to share reasons to believe, one should familiarize oneself with the complexities facing a fuller defense of the argument so they do not come up empty on a question or objection someone might raise. As always, do not be afraid to acknowledge a great question. For example, one might reply to something one hasn’t researched enough to feel comfortable answering by saying: “Great question! That’s one I haven’t thought about. Could I get back to you in a few days?”

As with any philosophical topic, the more one researches, the more questions will arise, the more interesting branches in the path one will approach, and the more one realizes that philosophy is an astoundingly complex topic. For those theists who wish to use the moral argument, I suggest doing so with a courteous, humble manner. The argument is an attempt to answer some of the hardest questions facing anyone: does God exist? is God good? what does it mean for something to be good? do objective morals exist?

Thus, theists using this argument should be prepared for some serious study. Be ready to answer some hard questions. Be open to great discussion. Above all, always have a reason.

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

23 thoughts on “The Moral Argument: Mistakes to Avoid and Practical Advice

  1. So if all that you claim exists, good as well as evil, is God “good”? I mean on the absolute scale? What about silencing women? Throwing kids against rocks? Killing people?

    Posted by Rushkovski | January 9, 2012, 3:13 PM
    • First, I’m not sure I comprehend what you mean by “the absolute scale.” If God is the source of objective morals, there is no “absolute scale” against which to measure God. Thus, I think the questions you’re asking are a bit misguided.

      Second, regarding the specific instances of evils you are saying happened, I would have to advise you to perhaps look up a book like Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?” to explore the issue further. The instances you point out are often cited by atheists, but they reveal a lack of hermeneutical or exegetical groundwork that is required to interpret the Bible.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 9, 2012, 5:56 PM
  2. Great post. BTW, Koukl’s “Steal their stereo” came from a real-life experience J.P. Moreland had where he literally did just that to get a reaction from a relativistic student in their dorm!

    Posted by Mikel Del Rosario | January 9, 2012, 3:18 PM
  3. I agree that objecitve morals exist but i reject your premise that God must exist for objective morals to exist. Where does this come from? For example the bible says, “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.” Exodus 21:20-21. God himself has said this is OK. Christians for centuries justified owning slaves using the bible. I think most would agree that with objective morality owning a slave much less causing the slave to die a few days later would never ever be ok/right. But God says that it is ok. So is owning slaves moral? I would say not.

    Posted by Mike | January 9, 2012, 5:22 PM
    • As with Rushkovski, I think this type of question is perhaps interesting, but it reveals a lack of exegetical awareness. I suggest the same book to you as I do to him. Further, just because slave masters justified owning slaves from the Bible does not mean that slavery is commanded in the Bible. (In fact, it seems to be the opposite–see Keener’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.”)

      But apart from that, one should not confuse the fact that the Bible allows for many ANE practices with an endorsement of those practices. It is widely acknowledged that the OT laws promoted much better living conditions for all involved than their ANE counterparts. God works with people where they are. In a culture in which other laws like Hammurabi’s code would allow the rich to pay a fine to get off of a crime, while the poor had arms, legs, fingers cut off, God provided a system of laws which administered equal justice to all social classes. Interpreting these laws against a modern backdrop is simply disingenuous. I recommend to you to perhaps research the ANE culture more before drawing these fast and hard anachronistic conclusions.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 9, 2012, 6:00 PM
      • I have heard the argument many times and i understand that times during the OT were different and not everything should be taken literally. However it would then seem that objecitve morality does not exist and therefore God does not exist and I need only the OT to refute the claim that objective morality exists. If morality is based off culture/laws then it is not objective but subjective.

        Slavery may not have been commanded, that is to say God may not have said go out and own slaves, but God did not seem to have a problem with people owning slaves and set rules for owning slaves. Again how can you say morals are objective if you are defending Exodus 21:20-21 based off the culture of the time.

        Posted by Mike | January 9, 2012, 6:59 PM
      • I believe you are conflating the subjective nature of specific instances of morals with the objective morals themselves. As Copan argues in “Is God a Moral Monster?”, God is working with cultures at the level they are at. However, God is aiming towards the ideal. This is an argument made throughout theistic literature, from Copan to Keener. The objective morals are that towards which God aims cultures, but He works with each culture on the level it is at.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 9, 2012, 7:07 PM
      • “God is working with cultures at the level they are at. ”
        So what is morally correct in one culture could be morally incorrect in another culture? If that is so please explain to me the difference between subjective and objective moral values.

        Posted by Mike | January 9, 2012, 7:13 PM
      • I outlined the difference already. There is an ideal moral towards which God is moving people/cultures. However, each culture is embedded in a history, through which God works in order to bring about the ideal.

        Again, you’re conflating subjective specific instances of morals with the “ideal” objective morals. Just because God works with a culture to bring it towards the ideal does not mean that all morals are subjective.

        The objection you’re raising is: “that which is morally correct in one culture could be morally incorrect in another culture.”

        Now, this is exactly where I find the fault in the reasoning here. I’m not saying that from one culture to another things that are right and wrong are different. Rather, I’ve been pressing that there is an objective ideal towards which God was leading the Israelites. To then take from this that cultural morality is relative is a non sequitur. However, to judge an ANE cultural law by western values is a gross anthropomorphism. To do so is exactly to approach morals relativistically–to place one’s own culture as the moral ideal and judge all others by the standard. I’ve been urging that there is an objective standard by which all cultures are measured, but that each culture is a certain level away from that objective standard. Those that are farther away take more steps to move towards the objective standard.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 9, 2012, 8:04 PM
      • I understand the argument that God was trying to bring ANE cultures’ closer to an objective moral standard. But if our morals are going to change based on how close or how far we are to an objective moral standard then our morals are not objective. To say your culture is barbaric so owning slaves is ok, then to look at another culture and say, your culture is not barbic owning slaves is not ok is not objective and does not measure up to an objecitve standard. Rather its quite the contrary. Id argue that religion does not bring a society closer to an objective moral standard. Its the civilization, the progress that it makes that brings it closer. Take a look at the israelites, and the palestinians, and the sunnis, and the muslims. Israelis trying to stop woman from voting. In Saudi Arabia, women cant drive, are considered inferior, etc. But in America, it was the emancipation proclimation, and the Civil Rights Act, and the voting rights act, and so on and so forth that brings a society closer to a objecitve moral standard whilist religion gets in the way and trys to hold that society back. To say the OT brought a ANE closer to an objective moral standard i think would be debateable. Why in Exodus 21:20-21 say that its ok to beat a slave? Why not outlaw it completely. Why not outlaw slavery entirely? That would have brought them closer to an objective standard than the latter.

        Posted by Mike | January 9, 2012, 9:24 PM
      • I’m going to cut off my discussion after this comment.

        You wrote, ” if our morals are going to change based on how close or how far we are to an objective moral standard then our morals are not objective.”

        Again, let me point out, “if our morals…”

        This is where the confusion has snuck in. Objective morality just is objective. The morals do not change. How close and far cultures are to the objective morality does change. God worked with the Israelites to bring them closer to His objective truth.

        You wrote, “Why in Exodus 21:20-21 say that its ok to beat a slave? Why not outlaw it completely. Why not outlaw slavery entirely? That would have brought them closer to an objective standard than the latter.”

        This reveals a gross misunderstanding of ANE culture, which is why I’m drawing my discussion to a close. In the ANE slavery was a given fact. To outlaw it would have completely destroyed the entire sociological system. Thus, God worked in the culture to bring it towards the ideal by giving better treatment of slaves.

        And this is not to mention the totally ignored fact that God ordered the release of slaves every year of jubilee–it was not permanent (except in certain instances such as the slave volunteering for permanent servitude). Thus, in a way God did in fact outlaw permanent slavery, by commanding that they be released. So the objection doesn’t even work on this level.

        You’ve continued to press the same issue, which I highlighted: you are conflating the fact that cultural morals change with objective morals. The fact that we can say the ANE is wrong to have slavery, and indeed that any culture would be wrong to have slavery, is a reflection of the existence of objective morality. So you have continued to press your objection against my clarification several times now. You have argued that because I hold that God worked with cultures where they are, morals are subjective. I have countered by saying there is an ideal towards which God was working the Israelites. Yet you continue to apparently think that I say slavery was okay in their culture. Obviously I don’t say that, because I charge that ancient Israel was being moved towards the ideal. I never said they got there. So again, your objection is completely off the mark. I do not hold that “To say your culture is barbaric so owning slaves is ok, then to look at another culture and say, your culture is not barbic owning slaves is not ok is not objective and does not measure up to an objecitve standard. Rather its quite the contrary.” In fact, I hold it in no wise. What I have said is the opposite: that objective morals, part of God’s nature, are the ideals towards which He is working.

        Thus, you’ve conflated subjective cultural morals with objective morals in order to undermine them. You’ve misunderstood ANE culture and applied some serious anachronistic misunderstandings to them. Finally, you’ve assigned me beliefs which I do not hold. I hold that objective morals are grounded in God’s nature, and that with the Israelites specifically–and all cultures generally–God is working to bring them towards those ideals. Every culture is different, so each must be worked with in different ways. Just as we work with children at the level of understanding they have obtained, so too does God work with peoples at whatever level they are. The statements: “There are objective moral values” and “God works with each culture at whatever level they are in order to bring them towards the ideal” are consistent. The ideals are the objective moral values. The level of moral development of each culture is relative to those objective morals.

        To sum up:
        1) Your argument based upon ANE culture is grossly anachronistic and reveals an unjustified perspective on the development of cultural morality.
        2) I’ve explicitly outlined my two claims: that there are objective morals and that God is working with cultures to get them towards those ideals. These are consistent claims. A simple symbolic proof would demonstrate it.
        3) I do not hold the beliefs you are assigning to me. Rather than telling me what I am saying, I hold that one must note that I have consistently held the propositions outlined in 2.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 10, 2012, 12:17 AM
  4. Don’t beg the question of His omnibenevolence as part of His nature as Aquinas does!

    Posted by Lord Griggs | January 13, 2012, 7:12 AM
  5. This not really a comment on the content of the post but rather I just wanted to say that I found your blog just a few days ago and it is really good. Keep up the good work.

    /Andreas Engström

    Sweden

    Posted by Andreas | January 24, 2012, 4:53 PM
  6. I realize this post is old, but I thought I’d comment anyway.

    Re: moral relativism.

    Just because I don’t want you to steal my stereo doesn’t prove objective morality, but rather that I don’t want you to steal my stereo. Even if everyone in the world had the same desire it wouldn’t prove objective morality.

    Desires about stereos are relative and subjective.

    Now just because a moral relativist would say that stealing their stereo is “wrong” doesn’t prove objective morality either, because their use of “wrong” is in the subjective sense. After all, they are a relativist. Why think that anyone’s admission of something as “wrong”means that morality is objective? Such admissions show that people have subjective opinions about moral issues.

    Posted by Geoffrey Charles | March 24, 2012, 9:24 AM
    • The moral relativist cannot rationally condemn others for their actions, particularly if they are a subjectivist relativist.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 27, 2012, 4:27 PM
      • The morality of an action isn’t subjective to the person performing the action, it is subjective to the person/s affected by the action. (this can include the actor)
        Therefore the morality of toaster stealing is dependent upon the harm and/or good the owner of the toaster feels and is subjected to (they may or may not feel bad about the loss of it, they may not be able to make toast for themselves, they may wish to be rid of the toaster but don’t want to dispose of it, they may need to purchase another – depriving them of that value etc) and the harm and/or good the actor is subjected to (they have a new toaster, they may feel guilt, they may be then conditioned to think this behavior is acceptable, they may not know how to use a toaster and electrocute themselves etc). This is not even taking into account the others that could be affected by this toaster stealing.
        All these are subjective to the persons involved but are objectively good and/or bad, in that they can be measured outside of the persons themselves.

        What you seem to be arguing is not for objective standards but absolute standards.

        Posted by felixmeister | May 8, 2012, 12:00 AM
      • I think you’re confusing the usages of “objective.” What “objective” means when we are discussing objective morality is that morality is true across the board no matter what. In every possible world, it is wrong to torture babies.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 9, 2012, 9:59 AM
  7. I apologise, I was using objective in its classical sense. In that it exists outside of needing to be referenced from the perspective of the individual.
    What you are saying does seem to be more akin to absolute. In that it holds true at all points and in all times.
    It is true that in all possible worlds it is wrong to torture babies. This is not because of an external or absolute ( you would say objective ) morality, but because it is subjectively bad for those babies, for the torturers, and for anyone unfortunate to witness or hear about it. It is also subjectively bad for everyone that would have had their lives enriched by their encounters with the baby had it grown up.
    In this way it can be seen that while the good or bad is subjective to the effects upon those affected, it is objective to those deciding on the morality of those actions.
    It isn’t transcendent or absolute but it is classically objective.

    Posted by felixmeister | May 9, 2012, 9:09 PM
  8. What do you think of Thom Stark’s book, “Is God a moral compromiser?”, which is a rebuttal of Copan’s book, “Is God a moral monster?”

    Posted by CA | July 17, 2012, 9:42 PM
  9. I just finished reading “God and Morality 4 Views and in I’ve read a good point by one of the atheist contributors. In regards to Eutyphros Dilemma usually the theist answers “God’s nature decides what is good and evil, not His arbitrary will” but I the atheist argued that answer just pushes the issue one step back: “Is the goodness of God good because it is part of God’s nature or is it part of God’s nature because it is good? How would you relpy to that claim? Thank you

    Posted by patricksenn | April 9, 2013, 8:36 AM

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