Sunday, December 13, 2015

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 4)

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This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:

SeekSecularism’s Rebuttal


In my opening statement I defended a non-naturalist moral framework, specifically, ethical intuitionism [1]. In the semantic thesis, I maintained that moral terms like good, ought to, better than, etc. refer to objective and irreducible properties/relations of states of affairs, actions, or events. In the metaphysical thesis I maintained that some states of affairs, actions, or events exemplify these properties/relations. And in the epistemic thesis I maintained that we know the truth of some basic moral statements by means of rational intuition. In this rebuttal, I want to lay out a plausible compatibility between moral realism and atheism to undercut MaverickXtian’s second premise of The Argument from the Unbiased Atheist.

The Objects of Our Rational Intuitions

MaverickXtian seems to be operating under the supposition that the proposition ‘Moral oughtness exists’ is the object of our rational intuition. This, however, would be mistaken. It is the truth of basic moral statements which is self-evident and the object of our rational intuition not the proposition that moral oughtness exists. In what sense moral properties/relations can be said to exist will be a further question that will depend on metaphysical considerations like ontological commitments or theories of truth. For example, the proposition “two and two make four” is a self-evidently true proposition. If we clearly grasp the concepts at hand, then we can rationally intuit that two and two really do make four. Far from being an appeal to mere subjective experience, the truth of this proposition (and similarly basic moral statements) tells us something true about objective reality. However, this rational intuition alone doesn’t tell us much about what sense the numbers two or four can be said to exist. I would argue for a platonic ontology which grounded not only mathematical entities, but also moral properties/relations in abstract objects:

(1) The propositions “two and two make four” and “pain is intrinsically bad” are literally true.
(2) The propositions in (1) can only be literally true if the entities which its mathematical and moral terms refer are abstract objects.
(3) Therefore abstract objects exist.

A lot more could be said about these premises, but I cannot adequately say it here. One could deny the existence of abstract objects altogether, but this wouldn’t undermine the truth of the propositions in question. For example, one could hold to a coherence theory of truth rather than a correspondence theory of truth and avoid abstract objects altogether. MaverickXtian seems to think that the difference between a moral nihilist and a moral realist rests on their respective rational intuitions regarding the existential proposition: Moral oughtness exists. A moral realist and a moral nihilist could both agree on the self-evidence of basic moral statements, but disagree in their ontological commitments. By analogy, a platonist and a nominalist could both agree on the self-evidence of mathematical propositions, but disagree on the ontology which grounded them.

The Unbiased Observer

MaverickXtian has developed a vantage point he calls The Unbiased Atheist. An unbiased atheist is someone who has no biases that would initially favor moral oughtness existing or not existing and she is an atheist. MaverickXtian's argument implies that the truth of atheism is sufficient to imply moral nihilism. In short, if atheism is true, then moral nihilism is probably true. I will focus on undercutting this suggestion by arguing that it is plausible for both atheism and moral realism to be true- without tension- from the vantage point of what I will call The Unbiased Observer. An unbiased observer is someone who has no biases that would initially favor God or moral oughtness existing or not existing. Let it be clear at the onset that the unbiased observer has rational intuitions, and they are presumed veridical.

The Implausibility of Moral Nihilism

Moral nihilism holds that nothing is good, bad, right, wrong, or intrinsically motivating. What I want to argue is that the presumption against nihilism is very strong, so that the arguments for moral nihilism would have to be extremely powerful to move an unbiased observer to adopt it. If one accepts the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism presented in my opening, then the natural view to take is that the more obvious something seems, the stronger its prima facie justification. Clear and firm intuitions should take precedence over weak or wavering intuitions[1]. Let’s examine an argument for moral nihilism:

(1) If moral good and bad exist, then they are intrinsically motivating i.e. they are things that rational beings ought to (in the prescriptive sense) pursue in the case of good or ought to avoid in the case of bad.
(2) Nothing is intrinsically motivating in the sense suggested in (1).
(3) Therefore good and bad do not exist.

Given the nihilist conclusion in (3), one could validly infer:

(4) It is not the case that torturing another sentient being for pleasure would be bad.
(5) It is never the case that pleasure is better than excruciating pain.

An unbiased observer who accepted (1) and (2) might be moved by the above reasoning to accept (4) and (5), however, a moral realist can argue against (1) and (2) as follows:

(1*) Torturing another sentient being for pleasure is bad.
(2*) Pleasure is sometimes (if not always) better than excruciating pain.
(3*) Therefore moral good and bad do exist.
(4*) If moral good and bad exist, then they are intrinsically motivating
(5*) Therefore there is something that is intrinsically motivating.

The relationship between the two arguments is symmetric i.e. each argument takes as premises the denial of the other argument's conclusion. How then should the unbiased observer decide between them? The strength of an argument depends upon how well justified the premises are and how well they support the conclusion. Both of the above arguments support their conclusions equally well, because both are logically valid. The better argument is the one whose premises are more plausible. Now which seems more prima facie plausible: ‘Pleasure is better than excruciating pain' or ‘Nothing is intrinsically motivating?’ I take the former to be imminently more plausible, and I do not think my judgment on this point is idiosyncratic. Therefore it would certainly seem unreasonable for an unbiased observer to reject the former proposition on the basis of the latter- at least prima facie.

A Plausible Argument for Atheism

My goal setting out was not to explicitly defend atheism, but an argument for it would be beneficial in illustrating a plausible compatibility between moral realism and atheism.

The Argument from Suffering

(1) If a perfectly loving God exists, then gratuitous suffering does not exist i.e. any perfectly loving being would not allow its creations to suffer needlessly.
(2) Gratuitous suffering does exist e.g. bone cancer in children.
(3) Therefore God does not exist.

(1) & (2) are, at least, prima facie plausible premises to which the unbiased observer can reasonably arrive at the conclusion “God does not exist.” Notice the premises here and in the previous two arguments are independent from one another. Committed moral realists and moral nihilists alike can reflect on this argument and plausibly arrive at the conclusion that God does not exist. With plausible arguments for both moral realism and atheism in place, the conjunction of the two leaves the unbiased observer in a reasonable position to affirm both the existence of objective moral facts and the non-existence of God without tension. It’s not obvious how the premises of The Argument from Suffering could even, in principle, undermine the premises for moral realism. The premises of The Argument from Suffering would have little to no influence on an unbiased observer when assessing the arguments for moral nihilism or moral realism respectively.

How strong is MaverickXtian’s case?

Given the vantage point of the unbiased observer, I take it as obvious that moral realism is the more plausible view even in conjunction with a commitment to atheism. MaverickXtian’s 6 evidences need to make the conjunction of ‘nothing is intrinsically motivating’ and ‘God does not exist’ a fortiori more plausible than such judgments as ‘Torturing sentient beings for pleasure is bad’ and they must be constituted, at least in part, by premises of The Argument from Suffering. I take this to be a tall order, so how well do his evidences accomplish this?

(1) There is zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties.
(2) It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these invisible, causally inert moral properties are really like.
(3) OMO properties are suspiciously queer, akin to invisible and non-physical gods.
(4) Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs (e.g. gods).
(5) Moral oughtness beliefs have evolutionary value whether true or not.
(6) Our best theory for why we believe in moral oughtness doesn’t require its existence.

For starters, (1) is irrelevant, because moral truth and abstract objects aren’t empirically detectable things. (2), (4), (5), and (6) all presuppose that our unbiased observer is committed to sociobiological evolution to sufficiently explain the veridicality of rational intuition. I argued in my opening statement (see Point6) that atheism did not entail such a commitment. Recall that rational intuition is a function of reason, and notice that moral theory does not need to be positively validated by the theory of evolution any more than any other branch of a priori knowledge does. In order to know that two and two make four we do not have to first consult the sociobiologists and see whether evolution predicts that humans would have veridical mathematical intuitions. Any serious foundationalist regarding knowledge will maintain that at least some of our beliefs about the world will ultimately reduce to rational intuitions of them. Undermining the veridicality of rational intuitions which also constituted any explanations of them would be analogous to sawing the very branch from which one sits. In short, if we undermine rational intuitions, then we undermine our capacity for reason and fall into radical skepticism where knowledge becomes impossible. I’ve presented an argument for moral realism and atheism that, if sound, demonstrate that there must be some solution to any evolutionary concerns MaverickXtian may have about moral realism in conjunction with atheism.

The only evidence that I think has any merit is (3), because it’s a variation of J.L. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness[2]. Mackie argues that an intrinsically motivating property like moral oughtness would be a strange quality, property, or relation unlike anything else in the universe. He then argues that such strange entities probably do not exist. I do not find this line of reasoning cogent and insufficient to move an unbiased observer to adopt moral nihilism. Propositions, modal properties, numbers, shapes, and consciousness are all strange qualities, relations, and properties in their own right which can plausibly be argued to exist. Thus I don’t see adequate reason to think that moral oughtness should be considered any different.


My goal in this rebuttal was to undercut the second premise of the Argument from The Unbiased Atheist. In my opening statement I hesitated to move to the vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist, because it seemed to arbitrarily remove rational intuitions. In an effort to concede this vantage point, I removed this hypothetical observer’s commitment to atheism while demonstrating that this new observer can plausibility reason to both moral realism and atheism without tension. This provides an a fortiori defeater for any suggestion that atheism implies moral nihilism. Therefore it is not the case that The Unbiased Atheist/observer is justified in believing that moral oughtness probably doesn’t exist given atheism and background data. MaverickXtian needs evidence that is (a) constituted at least in part by the premises of The Argument from Suffering and (b) is a fortiori more plausible than the premises that our unbiased observer used to navigate to moral realism. In conclusion, I think the evidences MaverickXtian presents fail to meet both challenges and thus are not sufficient defeaters for an unbiased observer’s rational intuitions of objective moral facts in conjunction with a plausible commitment to atheism.

[1] “Ethical Intuitionism” by Michael Huemer

[2] “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” by J.L. Mackie


  1. Hello guys!
    A question for both sides:
    Can you provide a definition of objective morality that isn't contradictory?
    It seems to me, if morals are based on intuition as suggested above, there is no possible way they can be objective or independent of mind.

    1. The rough definition being used in the debate for moral obligations is this: Moral obligations have to do with what is morally right and morally wrong. An action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it in the prescriptive ought sense (see my opening statement where I define “prescriptive ought”). 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). Objective moral oughtness is moral oughtness that holds independently of whether we believe it to be so. Even if objective moral duties do not exist, this definition does not appear to be contradictory.

      It seems to me, if morals are based on intuition as suggested above, there is no possible way they can be objective or independent of mind.

      There seems to be some confusion here. Intuition (in the philosophical sense) is how we know of morality, just as intuition is how we know elementary truths of logic and arithmetic. But intuition is not the ontological grounding for moral truths.