This is a continuation from a previous article explaining a moral argument for God's existence. Citations for the argument may be found there. In this article we'll take a look at its most prominent objections. Hang with it! In next week's article We'll learn how to explain the case much more simply so that pastors, evangelists, and small group leaders can share it with others for the purposes of Evangelistic Apologetics!
Objections to Premise 1- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist
Can’t culture decide on moral principles that we then consider objective?
This points to an argument that morality can become objective on the basis of what the consensus of a given nation or people group thinks is best. What becomes problematic is that while there will be moral principles which overlap between any two people groups, there will also be moral differences. If the only authority on morality is represented by the consensus, and the consensus differs from one group to the next, then in what way would the morality be objective? J. Budziszewski points out that,
The whole meaning of morality is a rule that we ought to obey whether we like it or not. If so, then the idea of creating a morality we like better is incoherent. Moreover, it would seem that until we had created our new morality, we would have no standard by which to criticize God. Since we have not yet created one, the standard by which we judge Him must be the very standard that He gave us. If it is good enough to judge Him by, then why do we need a new one?
In fact, a better explanation of moral subjectivity would be hard to locate. Also, we find that for any given nation in the history of the world, accepted moral principles have undergone change.
Furthermore, most people do not realize what they are saying when they argue that nations could create objective moral values. What if extreme Muslim fundamentalists succeeded in overthrowing the western world’s major powers and instituted their view of morality as law? Suddenly it would become objectively morally right for women to hide their faces, for all to worship only Allah, and to put infidels to death. I find it hard to believe that any atheist would find this morally right. The reason for this is that such a view of morality as is decided by anyone is not objective but subjective. If it is subjective then it is not absolute. If it is not absolute, then nothing is really right or wrong, good or bad. C.S. Lewis clarifies,
If ‘good' or 'better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than each other. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring, For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.
Isn’t humanity’s shared desire for happiness an objective foundation for morality?
The idea here is that since all men desire happiness, we can locate objective moral values without God by recognizing morality as the principles which lead to human happiness. Still, this objection fails to recognize that humans find happiness in very diverse ways. While one man finds happiness in treating others kindly, some men achieve happiness by committing theft, devouring human flesh, sexually abusing children and ignoring the well-being of others. Even if it were the case that all mankind found happiness in the same activities, simply deciding that this is a foundation for moral values or duties is still subjective. That is to say, it is still just an opinion about what people should do. It would not mean that it is necessarily wrong to break free of the societal opinion and act alternatively.
Isn’t humanity’s shared desire to flourish an objective foundation for morality?
Differing slightly from the previous objection, this idea recognizes that men find happiness in diverse and conflicting ways. Instead, it refines the notion to an understanding of objective morality based on how humans might best live in harmony. The final response from the last objection still stands. This would still be subjective simply because it represents an opinion about how man should view his own desire for flourishing. Moreover, even if this did demonstrate objective moral values, it does not demonstrate objective moral duties. Just because something is good does not mean man is mandated to do it. From whence does the mandate come? Furthermore, morality based on human flourishing would conflict with man’s certain knowledge of what morality is.
If human flourishing is the foundation for moral values then it would lead to a situation in which it would be a moral good to eradicate certain individuals who demonstrate genetically detrimental illnesses and disabilities. Why restrict the flourishing of the world by expending so much effort and money on the treatment of AIDS patients? If the flourishing of our race is the goal, then it would be best to simply euthanize these patients or, at the very least, quarantine them. It is likely the case that many of them will procreate. If they procreate, our collective genes will continue to be corrupted and flourishing will be threatened. Yet, our innate moral values would conflict with such a wicked plan for eradication.
If God is necessary for objective morality, why do atheists often lead moral lives?
This represents a serious misunderstanding of the argument. Christian defenders are not saying that atheists cannot act morally. The fact that they do is evidence of the objectivity of moral values. They too have knowledge of the moral truths that have been hardwired into the human race. This becomes apparent when atheists begin talking about the evils that religion has brought on the human race. Frequently, atheists will argue that the crusades, Spanish inquisition, fundamentalist views on homosexuality and abortion, and misogyny of religious people are all evils that resulted from belief in God. However, their recognition that some of these things are evil is an evidence of their belief in the objectivity of moral values.
If God is necessary for objective morality, why do some believers live amoral lives?
Reversing the problem does not make the point any stronger. That many believers live lives that conflict with morality does not mean that God is not the source of morality. Both atheists and theists can act morally or immorally. This is no better than asking, “If vegetarians believe that eating meat is bad for them, then why do some vegetarians occasionally eat meat?” That vegetarians sometimes eat meat and non-vegetarians sometimes eat salad does not speak to whether or not it is true that eating meat is a bad thing. This is simply a red herring.
Objections to Premise 2- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
How do we know that morality is objective?
First, one must recognize what this question entails. If morality is not objective then it is necessarily the case that the rape and murder of children is not actually wrong. All we can say, philosophically speaking, is that we don’t generally like it. The same is true for any evil thing one can imagine. Conversely, nothing is really right or good. Kindness, mercy and philanthropy are just things that certain people like. It should be clear to any thinking person that this is simply not the way things are.
Second, it is hard to imagine a successful argument for the subjectivity of moral values. In order for an argument to be a good one, the premises of the argument need to be plausible. There is simply no argument in favor of the subjectivity of moral values which contains premises which are more likely to be true than our own immediate and certain knowledge that morality is objective. This may sound like a cop-out, but it is not.
Imagine a similar case. An individual’s knowledge of his own existence is a strikingly powerful certainty for him. He (person A) may not be able to present external evidence of this truth, but he simply knows that he exists. Now imagine another individual (person B) presenting him with an argument that seeks to demonstrate that person A does not exist. Perhaps person B is able to present powerful data and evidence which counts against person A’s existence. Person B shows person A that there is no record of his birth and that there are a number of others who also do not believe that Person A exists. Person B also provides an elaborate explanation of how person A came to believe that he actually exists when, in fact, he does not. Will person A accept the claim that he, himself, does not exist? It is very doubtful that he will. The reason for this is simple. No matter how compelling the evidence is that person A does not exist, the immediate and certain knowledge person A has of his own existence is more plausible than any premise of any imaginable argument person B might bring.
Now consider morality. The immediate and certain knowledge that it is wrong to rape and torture children is more powerful and plausible than any premise brought by one who claims that morality is not objective. This may amount to a conversation stopper, but it is what every thinking human, deep down, knows to be true.
Doesn’t societal evolution explain why people believe morality is objective?
On this view, morality is just the current result of what is best for the herd. As the idea goes, throughout the evolutionary process our ancestors began to function in a way that would foster survival. It turned out that divisive elements in a group, like what we now call theft and murder, led to a societal implosion with negative effects for every individual in the group. These negative effects naturally extended to the perpetrator of the divisive act as well. Thus, a norm developed within the group which shunned such activities. As this sort of thing continued and became more refined, the negative feelings attached to the self-destructive tendencies became more entrenched in the cognitive processes of the mind. Likewise, that which was good for the group, such as an interest in mutual progress, also became a part of the human psyche. Ultimately, the values and duties that humans express today are, therefore, a result of the evolutionary process in a certain sense. What was good for the herd is what we call morality.
This is an attempt to ground human morality in the realm of science. In 2010, Sam Harris released a bestselling work entitled, The Moral Landscape, in which he argued that morality is not necessarily subjective on the level of one’s favorite flavor of ice cream, but that it really isn’t entirely different either. Both can be explained and gauged scientifically. In the afterward of the book he responded to critics who claimed that evaluating morality scientifically merely resulted in a sophisticated yet still subjective framework. Harris provided the argument of his critics and his response by analogy:
It seems to me that there are three, distinct challenges to my thesis put forward thus far:
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant well-being primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)
I believe all of these challenges are the product of philosophical confusion. The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look.
1. There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)
2. Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)
3. Even if we did agree to grant health primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)
While the analogy may not be perfect, I maintain that it is good enough to nullify these three criticisms.
Clearly, Harris thinks that he has escaped the problem by demonstrating that no one questions the importance of the science of medicine or its focus on human physical health. However, there are two points that need to be made in response. First, health is the self-stated goal of medical practitioners. It is not clear that well-being is the greatest goal in discussions of morality. Harris must assume that it is a priori in order for his argument to get off the ground. Second, despite Harris’ intent, even his own parallel of the criticisms does not escape the problems shown by them. It is the case that “There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s.” and that, “. . . if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science.” Thus, instead of rebutting the criticisms of his adversaries, Harris has only served to make their point again for them.
A major problem with the idea that our morality is based on evolution is also that this would not explain the incredibly selfless acts that some people display. While it might explain why a mother would jump in front of a car to save her genetic material (her son), it would not explain why an individual would do this for others. Attempts have been made to circumvent such a rebuttal, but in the end, the willingness to give one’s own life counts against morality as an evolutionary adaptation.
One final response is important for understanding the moral argument in a robust way. The objectivity of morality is a different subject from the discovery of objective morality. Just as humanity progressively discovers objective mathematical truths, humanity has continued to refine its understanding of objective moral truth. This does not mean that the objective moral truths change. The mathematical principles were always present and true as man refined his understanding of them. While I reject the idea that morality is the result of societal evolution, even if it were the case, it would only speak to how man discovered moral truths. It would not mean that man invented them.
What about the Euthyphro dilemma?
In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks the character for whom the dialogue is named, whether something is good because it is loved by the gods, or if it is loved by the gods because it is good. Modern atheistic philosophers have pointed to this problem in an attempt to show one of two things. If the good is good because God loves it, then we have a form of voluntarism. This means that God decided on his own moral framework. Yet, this is problematic because most theists (at least Christian theists) view God as being good, not just arbitrarily deciding on goodness. Conversely, if God loves the good because it is good then there must exist some higher authority to whom God himself must conform. For obvious reasons this debate has continued since the time of Plato.
There is, however, a third option. If the good flows from God’s very nature, then he neither arbitrarily commanded it or recognized it as an external phenomenon. It springs forth from the very being of God. This resolves the dilemma and makes for a view of morality that is truly objective. Hence, both premises of the argument still stand.