Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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The Moral Argument

There have been some bad objections against the moral argument, but before I get to that I’ll describe what sort of moral argument I’ll be talking about:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
    (2) Objective morality does exist.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

I’ll call the above argument the deductive moral argument, because the above argument is deductively valid, i.e. the premises entail the conclusion such that it’s impossible for the argument to have true premises and a false conclusion. The only way for the argument’s conclusion to be false is for a premise to be false.

Premise (1) has its variants, e.g. “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” By morality being “objective” I mean that it exists independently of human belief and perception of it, e.g. torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong independently of human opinion. I’ll also call this idea moral objectivism.

The Premises

The moral argument is deductively valid, but is it sound (deductively valid + true premises)? That’s where justifying the premises comes in. In Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? I justified the first premise, arguing that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. In Does Objective Morality Exist? I justified the second premise, appealing to examples of things that are objective morally wrong and considering alternatives to moral objectivism.

Once the theist has offered justification for both premises of the deductive moral argument, an objection against the argument should aim for showing that there’s a premise that is false or at least unjustified, since if both premises are justifiably true that will be troubling for those who wish to deny the argument’s soundness. Yet the bad objections I’ll talk about here not only fail to show that there’s a false or unjustified premise, they also commit outright fallacies.

Bad Objection #1: The moral argument’s definition of “objective” is wrong


The correct definition of “objective” is “independent of the mind.” However, the moral argument as explained here uses the term “objective” to mean something like “independent of human opinion,” and that’s an incorrect definition of “objective.” Therefore, not only is the moral argument unsound, but objective morality is independent of God by definition.


Like many words in the English language, the word “objective” means different things in different contexts. In the context of the moral argument, “objective” often does mean something like “independent of human opinion.” Writing in the context of the moral argument, philosopher of religion William Lane Craig wrote that to “say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so.”[1] Also writing in the context of the moral argument is Robert Adams, a philosopher who taught at Yale, who speaks of a fact being “objective in the sense that whether it obtains or not does not depend on whether any human being thinks it does.”[2] Last but not least is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the moral argument which speaks of moral properties being “objective in the sense that they hold or not regardless of human opinion.”

Let’s suppose though that these professionals don’t know what the word “objective” means within the context of their own profession. The principle of charity would then suggest we interpret their definitions of “objective” as stipulative definitions, in which case there’s still no problem.

Another reason this objection is a bad one is that all it does is complain about the words used to express the premises (using the word “objective” to express the concept of “existing independently of human belief and perception of it”). It really doesn’t do anything to attack the truth of the premises. If one uses the objection to try to show that the moral argument shouldn’t be accepted as sound, the objection commits the red herring fallacy (supposing a claim is refuted by arguing for an irrelevant conclusion), since even if the wrong word was used to express the meaning of the premises, that isn’t at all relevant to whether the premises are justifiably true.

Bad Objection #2: Evolution explains our moral behavior; God isn’t needed


We don’t need theism to explain why we don’t eat babies and rape our neighbors. Evolutionary pressures force humans to behave in certain ways to help our species survive. If morality is defined as certain patterns of behavior that include e.g. refraining from raping and stealing, we see that God isn’t needed for such morals and we have no reason to believe premise (1).


The problem with this objection is that it misconstrues what type of morality the argument is talking about. Consider for example objective moral duties, which have to do with right and wrong behavior. An action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it, and an action is morally obligatory for someone only if they ought to do it. So if moral duties exist there is an oughtness property associated with them, and on moral objectivism that oughtness exists objectively. But the existence of this sort of thing (properties of objectively existing oughtness) is well outside the scope of evolution.

At best, evolution explains why we believe in objective moral duties (such beliefs helping to bring about survival conducive behavior); it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral duties. The same sort of thing goes for objective moral values. Evolution might help explain why we believe in objective moral values (e.g. believing that helping others is objectively good helps encourage such actions), but it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral values.

In sum, the “evolution explains our nicenesss” objection uses the term “morality” as referring to certain patterns of behavior, which is just not how the moral argument is using the term, and so by misconstruing the first premise this objection commits the straw man fallacy (distorting an opponent’s position before attacking it). If atheism is true, we might indeed act in the same way we do in fact behave thanks to evolution etc., but premise (1) claims that this behavior does not have any objective moral dimension (wrongness, etc.) if atheism is true.

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[1] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith, Third Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 173.

[2] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 105.