This blog entry is part 2 in a series on the moral argument. The entries in the series:
- The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
- The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
- The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
- The Euthyphro Dilemma
- Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis
|Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?|
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A popular claim among proponents of the moral argument is “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist” (with some variants, e.g. “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist”). Here I’ll argue that this claim is correct.
A Brief Recap
While it’s better that one reads part 1 of the moral argument first, I’ll try to make this article a standalone entry and I’ll link some terms to the glossary for those who might be unfamiliar with them. I’ll also give a brief recap of stuff to know for this article.
To get a rough idea of the sort of morality I’m dealing with, an action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it and an action is morally right for someone only if they ought to do it, where the type of “ought” being used here is the unconditional ought. By moral properties being objective I mean that they exist independently of human belief and perception of them. Moral ontology is the discipline that studies the foundations of morality (e.g. are moral properties like moral wrongness physical or nonphysical?). Thus an ontological explanation of morality is an explanation of how morality exists and what sort of reality it constitutes.
What it means for moral properties to be non-natural varies between writers, but we can borrow philosopher Robert Adam’s description that it means moral properties “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology.” Either morality exists solely as part of the natural world (moral naturalism) or it exists to at least some degree as part of the non-natural realm (moral non-naturalism). One of these has to be true, because if morality exists neither as part of the natural realm nor as part of the non-natural realm, then it follows that morality does not exist as part of reality at all. If morality exists, some type of ontological explanation or other must be correct.
To support moral non-naturalism I constructed a thought experiment with a moral nihilist who concedes that torturing puppies just for fun inflicts pain on the little mammals but he denies there is any moral dimension to such torture. The moral nihilist is also a brilliant scientist and has scientific equipment that he can use to detect every property within the fields of chemistry, physics, etc. If moral properties like moral wrongness were purely natural properties, then our hypothetical moral nihilist should (at least in principle) be able to empirically test for their existence, but I argued that the moral nihilist could not even in principle empirically test for the unconditional ought property of moral wrongness. One reason is this: barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing unconditional oughtness would not affect the physical world at all. And if one cannot empirically test for the existence of objective unconditional oughtness, then a fortiori one cannot empirically test for the existence of the unconditional ought property known as objective moral wrongness. At any rate, objective moral properties like moral wrongness are at least nonphysical. Even if the morally wrong action takes place in the physical world (as a man stealing a car), the oughtness property that is moral wrongness is itself nonphysical.
In part 1 of the moral argument I noted that morality appeared to exist as part of the nonphysical realm to at least some degree (e.g. moral wrongness is a nonphysical property), and I argued that if we posited just one nonphysical thing as the foundation for objective morality and tried to find the simplest explanation for that entity grounding moral values and obligations, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. This observation (and the claim that it rationally supports theism to at least some degree) is what I’ve called the argument from ontological simplicity. (For the purposes of understanding this article, the details of how this works are unimportant; I summarize it here only because I mention the argument later in this article.)
A Deductive Moral Argument
In my previous blog entry (part 1 of the moral argument) I gave an argument that went from morality’s existence to God’s existence, but that isn’t the only argument out there. Here’s another one:
- If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
- Objective morality does exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
- If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist (true premise)
- Objective morality does exist (true premise)
- God does not exist (false conclusion)
- Objective morality does not exist (from 1 and 3)
- Objective morality does exist and objective morality does not exist (from 2 and 4)
This blog entry will largely be about justifying premise 1 (in the next blog entry I’ll try to justify premise 2). For a while the first premise was unconvincing to me. Why can’t morality be like logic and just exist as a brute fact? I wasn’t convinced that God was needed for objective morality.
The Material Conditional
A material conditional takes the form of “If P, then Q” and is equivalent to “It is not the case that P is true and Q is false.” Thus, whether the material conditional is true is determined entirely by the truth of P and Q as follows, where the truth table below exhausts all possible true/false combinations of P and Q. Note the second line of the truth table where P being true and Q being false makes “If P, then Q” false:
|P||Q||If P, then Q|
To simplify, let’s reword “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist” as “If atheism is true, then objective morality does not exist,” so an “If P, then Q” material conditional here goes like this:
|P =||Atheism is true.|
|Q =||Objective morality does not exist.|
Recall the truth table:
|P||Q||If P, then Q|
For theists and those who deny moral objectivism then, the first premise is easy to justify; they just need to understand that the first premise is a material conditional and use a bit of logical thinking. Really, the only way to reasonably deny the first premise is to believe atheism is true and objective morality exists. So what about those people? For example, why couldn’t the atheist take my suggestion that objective morality’s existence is a brute fact?
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 Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 145.
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