This blog entry is part 1 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
- If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
- Objective morality does exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Before presenting the argument from ontological simplicity I’ll define some key terms. By an entity having authority I mean that the entity is the source of some obligation. Moral properties (like moral wrongness) are objective in that they exist independently of human belief and perception of them. Morality is metaphysically necessary in the sense that its existence “couldn’t be otherwise.” If we let a possible world be a complete description of the way the world is or could be like, something like “kindness is a virtue” is metaphysically necessary in the sense that it holds in all possible worlds. Similarly, there is no possible world where “torturing infants just for fun” isn’t morally wrong. 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.
A conditional ought takes the form of something sufficiently like “If you want to do X, you ought to do Y” and says what conditions help accomplish a particular goal without saying whether one should aim for the goal in the first place, e.g. “If you want to poison your teacher to death, you should use a sufficiently strong toxin.” An unconditional ought says what ought to be simpliciter and is the sort of ought found in “You should not poison teachers to death” and “the worst possible misery and suffering for everyone for all eternity is a state of affairs that ought not to be,” and is thus goal-independent in a way that a conditional ought is not. When applied to a person’s actions, an unconditional ought refers to a genuine obligation for that person (e.g. “you should not torture infants just for fun”) rather than merely stating what actions help bring about some descriptive state of affairs (like a dead teacher or having more money). An unconditional ought is not to be confused with an “ought” that doesn’t rely on any circumstances whatsoever; e.g. one could believe the unconditional ought with respect to not killing applies in some circumstances but that this obligation does not exist in certain other situations (some self-defense cases perhaps).
In this way the type of morality being referred to here involves the unconditional ought, e.g. moral wrongness. An action is morally wrong for subject S only if S ought not to do it. The property of moral wrongness is universalizable in that applies equally to all relevantly similar situations, and the property is supremely authoritative, overriding any other “ought” (e.g. legal rules). If we think of “moral rightness” as the property of following some moral obligation, we get the same thing as “moral wrongness” but in the opposite direction. An action is morally right for S only if S ought to do it etc.
Objective Moral Properties: Natural or Non-natural?
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.
I believe objectively existing unconditional moral “ought” properties are non-natural and nonphysical (in that they are outside the realm that physics, chemistry, biology etc. studies). To illustrate, imagine 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. What experiment could one have him do to empirically verify the existence of objective moral wrongness associated with the torture? If moral properties were purely natural properties, then our hypothetical moral nihilist should be able to empirically detect the objectively existing unconditional ought property of moral wrongness, but the existence of that unconditional ought property doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that the moral nihilist could empirically test for (no matter how brilliant he is). Why not? One reason is that objectively existing unconditional oughtness cannot have any physical effect, unlike say the property of redness (which can be seen) or a physical organism’s intelligence (which can affect behavior and be empirically detected via cognitive tests). 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. All things considered, it isn’t merely that we can’t think of an experiment for our hypothetical moral nihilist to empirically detect objective moral wrongness; upon reflection we see that the moral nihilist can’t empirically test for such objectively existing unconditional oughtness, because we see that such oughtness that exists independently of human belief and perception of it just isn’t the sort of thing that the moral nihilist could empirically test for. That sort of objective oughtness is too fundamentally different from the physical world to be empirically testable by the moral nihilist. Objective moral ought properties like moral wrongness appear to be nonphysical and non-natural.
If properties of objective moral obligation (rightness and wrongness) are nonphysical and non-natural, the same sort of thing would appear to be true of objective moral value properties (moral goodness and badness), e.g. the property of objective moral badness being attached to the action of Nazis persecuting Jews even when the Nazis viewed their action as morally good. Barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing moral value properties would not affect the physical world at all, and it would appear that our hypothetical moral nihilist could not empirically test for their objective existence. Yet it is almost undeniable that Nazi anti-Semitism was evil and would have remained so even if the Nazis had killed or brainwashed everyone who disagreed with them.
One version of the moral argument is that moral properties like moral wrongness are objective and non-natural, yet these nonphysical moral properties are attached to actions in the physical world (e.g. a man stealing a television having the nonphysical property of moral wrongness). An ontological explanation is needed for that, and one could argue that theism is the best ontological explanation. For example, moral wrongness being one and the same property as that which God forbids explains why moral wrongness is objective (God’s authority is supreme) and non-natural.
Another version of the moral argument is what I’ll call “the argument from ontological simplicity.” If one has trouble wrapping their head around “non-natural,” one can substitute the claim of objective moral properties being non-natural with objective moral properties being nonphysical, and that will be close enough for our purposes (as the scenario of the scientist above illustrates, it does seem clear that objective moral properties are at least nonphysical).
The Argument from Ontological Simplicity
It is a principle of rationality that all else held constant, the simplest explanation is the best and most probable one—call this the principle of simplicity. The principle of simplicity includes, among other things, Ockham’s razor (do not multiply explanatory entities beyond necessity), and so all else held constant it is rational to prefer explanations that posit fewer entities. So when searching for an ontological explanation for objective morality, and given that moral properties are nonphysical and thus that morality exists as part of the nonphysical realm to at least some degree, it is interesting to note what would happen if we posited just one nonphysical entity to ground morality and tried to find the simplest explanation for it grounding objective moral values and duties.
What must this nonphysical entity be like if we were to obtain the simplest explanation for it grounding objective moral values and duties? As a nonphysical entity, it must transcend the physical world. This is not surprising, but the entity in question is also the foundation of objective moral duties, and as the source of moral obligation is must also have authority in the sense that it imposes moral duties and grounds the oughtness of those duties. Moreover, for morality to be objective and universally binding, the entity must impose moral duties with supreme and universally binding authority, because moral duties supersede any other duties that any (other?) person or culture might create for themselves. Next, the entity must exist in every possible world (and therefore have necessary existence) to ground morality in every possible world, because morality is metaphysically necessary. While multiple entities spread about in different possible worlds grounding morality is logically possible, if we’re looking for the simplest explanation it is preferable to posit just one grounding entity to explain morality’s metaphysical necessity. And finally, the entity must also be eternal, since at no time and in no circumstances can metaphysically necessary entities fail to exist. Thus if we posit just one nonphysical entity and search for the simplest explanation for that entity grounding objective morality, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. That this sounds so suspiciously like theism seems awfully coincidental.
Does this prove God’s existence with absolute certainty? No, but that we can so simply and straightforwardly go from morality’s existence to a God-like entity is notable evidence for theism, especially given (1) Ockham’s razor suggests we not multiply explanatory entities beyond necessity (the argument posits only one explanatory entity); and (2) all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best and most probable one (the argument posits the simplest explanation for that explanatory entity grounding morality). Although the above argument doesn’t say that the morality-grounding entity has to be a personal being, the entity being personal does, I think, most intelligibly account for the entity imposing duties upon us and having authority over people. If the entity is a personal being, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary being who imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. We thus end up with some type of personal supreme being.
Objective moral properties are non-natural (or at any rate, nonphysical). Where a possible world is a complete description of the way reality is or could have been like, morality is metaphysically necessary in that it exists in all possible worlds; it cannot fail to exist. If we posit just one non-natural/nonphysical thing as the foundation for 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.
The argument from ontological simplicity is interesting because we start from some basic aspects of objective morality and reason from there to a God-like entity in a very straightforward manner via the principle of simplicity and Ockham’s razor. While this argument does not prove theism in any rigorous sense, it makes God look like an excellent candidate for grounding objective morality, and I think the argument enhances theism’s plausibility to at least some degree. And once the argument is made, I do not think it becomes tenable for the atheist moral objectivist to say, “I don’t need to provide an alternate foundation for objective morality.” With a God-like entity being such a simple and straightforward ontological explanation, the atheist moral objectivist owes us an ontological alternative. If no better alternative exists, I think theism wins the game of inference to the best explanation in regards to grounding objective morality.
What about atheism? Can it come up with a better ontological explanation? In part 2 of the moral argument, my next blog entry, I’ll discuss what I believe to be the best atheist ontological explanation for objective morality. I’ll also explain why I think it’s inadequate.
 Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 145.