This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
- If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
- Objective morality does exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
- Opening Statements
- Maverick Christian
If God does not exist, then is it the case that there are irreducible, objective, and evaluative moral truths having an intrinsically motivating quality called “moral oughtness?”
I take this to be the fundamental question that has emerged from the current discussion. If the answer is probably not, then MaverickXtian believes he has a sound argument from morality to the conclusion that God probably exists. However, if the answer is yes (as I have argued), then MaverickXtian’s moral argument is unsuccessful.
MaverickXtian believes that he can justify his argument by defending the following proposition:
If God does not exist, then it is probably the case that our beliefs in objective moral facts are not veridical.
Notice the above proposition does not entail that there are no moral facts if God does not exist. It only entails that we do not have reliable moral knowledge if God does not exist. We can summarize MaverickXtian’s view in a catchy slogan: atheism implies moral nihilism. But why think this is true? MaverickXtian (roughly) sketches it this way:
Absent an intentional agent with divine properties guiding the causal process of evolution which selected for our moral capacities, it is probably the case that our moral intuitions are not veridical, thus implying our belief in basic moral truths (and by extension moral oughtness) is likely a delusion.
MaverickXtian appeals to 6 pieces of evidence from a vantage point that he calls the Unbiased Atheist to support his case.
Where does MaverickXtian go wrong?
MaverickXtian goes wrong in his very first premise. He defines his unbiased atheist as someone who does not have any (or ignores their) rational intuitions of basic moral truths. He provides neither a convincing reason for why an atheist should think this way nor how it allegedly supports the claim that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. It is simply a non-sequitur when MaverickXtian claims that if his hypothetical, unbiased atheist was justified in believing “Pr(not-M|A&K) is high,” then “Pr(not-M|A&K) is high” is probably true. Premise 1 is false.
I could be content to stop here and summarize my case, but can we salvage anything from MaverickXtian’s argument? Do the evidences that he appealed to give an atheist any reason to believe that atheism implies moral nihilism? I want to briefly summarize why I believe that there are no good reasons to believe that atheism implies moral nihilism. The main evidential theme of MavChrist’s case seems to be:
If atheism is true, then blind evolutionary forces have thoroughly shaped our moral faculties in doxastically discriminating ways, so it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral capacities were to line up with moral facts.
I think that MaverickXtian has overestimated the evidence for thinking this, and I think that he underestimates the self-evident nature of basic moral truths. An atheist can always dismiss MaverickXtian’s entire approach for one simple reason:
Any evolutionary argument for the conclusion that cruelty is not objectively wrong will inevitably appeal to premises which are themselves less obvious than affirming the objective wrongness of cruelty.
I want to now turn my attention to why MaverickXtian’s evidences do not support the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism.
There is zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties.
This is the case regardless of whether or not God exists, and I have not argued for moral properties that can be known empirically. I have emphasized that basic moral truths are necessary truths that we grasp non-empirically via our rational intuitions. I have no idea how empirically undetectable moral properties are supposed to support the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism. I take this piece of evidence as completely irrelevant, without any force, and fundamentally misguided.
It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with moral facts.
The obvious objection is that the veridicality and initial justification for beliefs about basic moral truth does not derive from their fitting into an evolutionary explanation. To reject basic moral truths on the grounds that sociobiology fails to predict them is no more plausible than rejecting basic mathematical truths on the same grounds. Most philosophically inclined atheists believe that basic moral truths are grasped non-inferentially by rational intuitions in the same way that basic truths of logic and mathematics are grasped AND that evolutionary theory has very little to directly tell us about any of this. For example, humans are capable of learning to play chess at an incredibly sophisticated level even though evolution did not directly select for this capacity. No one seriously believes that our rational intuitions regarding chess are “remarkably coincidental” with game theory on the grounds that evolution did not directly select for them.
Moral oughtness is a “queer” property of moral facts akin to invisible unicorns.
A universal property like moral oughtness is not relevantly analogous to a concrete object like an invisible unicorn. We have knowledge of the former a priori, and we would have knowledge of the latter a posteriori. If this analogy is rejected based on this epistemic distinction, then it is not the case that we are prima facie justified in rejecting the existence of universal properties for similar reasons that we are prima facie justified in rejecting the existence of an invisible unicorn. MaverickXtian presses further:
“Moral oughtness is so metaphysical it seems we’d need something like supernatural clairvoyance to know it exists.”
This misunderstands moral realism by weighing it down with metaphysical baggage i.e. a truth-maker other than value itself. A moral realist only needs to maintain that some facts count for or against performing certain actions similar to how evidence can count for against believing a proposition. For example, the fact that I will run over a dog if I do not step on my brakes counts as a reason in favor of me stepping on my brakes. The more general truth which licenses this inference (i.e. that the unnecessary suffering of another sentient creature is bad) is not made true by a fact of any other “queer” kind. It is nothing but itself. I can come to see that it is true by generalizing from the evident disvalue of my own suffering, and once I recognize it, then my motives and intentions can be altered by impartially extending it to other sentient beings. Generalization is what leads us to recognize the value of possible future experiences, in the means to them, and in the lives of creatures other than ourselves. If a sociobiologist claims that current evolutionary theory did not predict that we would have knowledge of this kind, then an atheist could reason that something is missing from the current evolutionary story rather than that her moral beliefs are delusional.
Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs.
This is just another way of suggesting that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. That evolution has supposedly selected for some false beliefs does not undermine moral realism any more than it undermines scientific, logical, or mathematical realism. At best, it suggests an incomplete understanding of how creatures capable of moral knowledge came to be.
A belief in moral oughtness has evolutionary value whether true or not.
This is also another way of implying that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. MaverickXtian is still pressing the point that our moral intuitions, if only shaped by natural selection, would merely track beliefs conducive to survival and reproductive fitness rather than tracking objective truth. But, again, an atheist does not need to consult sociobiologists to see whether knowledge of moral facts is likely given evolution any more than she needs to consult them to see whether veridical knowledge of scientific, logical, or mathematical facts are expected. We take ourselves to be creatures capable of reasoning. I have argued (and cannot emphasize enough) that moral thought is a function of reason in general, so whatever explanation accounts for our capacities for reason in general will also explain our capacity for moral reasoning.
Our best theory for why we believe in moral facts doesn’t require their existence.
This is yet another way of suggesting that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. Even if an atheist conceded that moral realism was incompatible with current evolutionary theory, it does not follow that moral realism is false. An atheist could follow the reasoning in the opposite direction and conclude that current evolutionary theory has left something essential out of its story.
Where does this leave us?
In the course of this discussion, I have laid out a plausible moral realist position whereby we have knowledge of basic moral truths via our rational intuitions which are justified by the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism. In my rebuttal, I argued for (1) a presumption against the kind of moral nihilism that MaverickXtian’s argument implies, (2) the plausibility of a non-theologically based account of moral oughtness, and (3) that account's compatibility with atheism. These key points can be seen in the following two propositions:
(a) Glorious pleasure is intrinsically better than excruciating pain.
(b) Nothing is intrinsically motivating.
These two propositions are incompatible, and I take it as obvious that (a) is prima facie more plausible than (b). In order for MaverickXtian’s argument to be successful, the evidences that he presents must make (b) more plausible than (a). MaverickXtian attempts to do this, but instead underestimates the relevance of our rational intuitions, and he overestimates his evidence for the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism. If he has failed to make (b) more plausible than (a), then it seems reasonable for an atheist to affirm the truth of (a) and thereby deduce the existence of moral oughtness (as done in my rebuttal). Do I think that MaverickXtian has successfully made his case? Absolutely not, and I do not believe that my judgment on this is idiosyncratic. A 2013 poll found that the majority of professional philosophers were non-theists (~85%) and moral realists (~55%). Now this does not necessarily imply that either view is true, but it is indicative that my case is more or less congruent with the consensus of relevant thinkers while MaverickXtian’s is not. Take, for example, the following quote from the atheist Thomas Nagel that I believe decisively undermines MaverickXtian's case:
There is no reason to allow our confidence in the objective truth of our moral beliefs, or for that matter our confidence in the objective truth of our mathematical or scientific reasoning, to depend on whether this is consistent with the assumption that those capacities are the product of natural selection. Given how speculative evolutionary explanations of human mental faculties are, they seem too weak a ground for putting into question the most basic forms of thought. Our confidence in the truth of propositions that seem evident on reflection should not be shaken so easily.
Taking all of this into account, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that an atheist is justified in her affirmation of objective moral oughtness, and that the current moral argument on offer is unsound, because it is not the case that atheism implies moral nihilism. For a more thorough defense of secular moral realism I recommend Michael Huemer’s book “Ethical Intuitionism” and Erik Wielenberg’s “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.” Both give responses to common theistic and evolutionary objections to secular moral realism while also raising decisive objections to theologically-based ethics. I want to thank MaverickXtian for graciously hosting me on his blog. Our many online discussions have helped me better understand and articulate my own views, and it has also been an enjoyable experience. Cheers!
 “Ethical Intuitionism,” by Michael Huemer
 “Mind and Cosmos,” by Thomas Nagel
 “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe,” by Erik Wielenberg