In our culture today, holding to a high moral standard seems to be at a low point, while immorality is at a high point. Many think that theism, rather than being a solution to the problem, is an archaic model which no one need give credence to because it simply is out of touch with today’s issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and a whole host of other moral issues. But is this actually the case? Let me introduce you to what is known as the moral argument[ref]By the word “argument” I don’t mean a “heated exchange,” rather I mean in it in a philosophical sense which is a set of premises/statements leading to a conclusion by the rules of logic.[/ref] for God’s existence.
Throughout this article I will make, and have already made, reference to “the moral argument” for God’s existence. There are actually different versions of the moral argument, not just one. What I mean by the moral argument as we go along in this article is a deductive argument which seeks to show that if we are committed to objective moral values and duties (more on “values” and “duties” below) then we are logically committed to theism to ground them. There is also another approach I’m learning about called the “abductive approach” that is also very effective in which one surveys the different ethical and moral systems to see which one provides the best explanation of morality and then infers that theism provides the best explanation of morality[ref]Dr. David Baggett does an outstanding job on his Moral Apologetics Podcast explaining why he prefers an abductive approach to the moral argument rather than a deductive approach which I use in this article (http://moralapologetics.com/podcast-dr-baggett-on-the-abductive-approach-to-the-moral-argument/)[/ref]. In the future I plan on writing an article on the moral argument using the abductive approach.
The foundation to any moral discussion needs to answer the question, “Are there objective moral values and duties?” This is critical and I think it is why so many people who discuss any moral issue, whether a Christian or a non-Christian, seem to talk past one another. The moral argument I will be examining is a deductive version used by Dr. William Lane Craig in his many published works and public debates and is as follows:
1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.[ref]Reasonable Faith, 3rd Edition, pg. 172[/ref]
We first need to first clarify our terms. I have used the words “objective,” “subjective,” “values,” “duties,” and they are critical to our understanding the argument.
Subjective and Objective
If a claim is subjective, then it is dependent on the “subject,” and is merely a matter of human opinion/personal preference. Claims like “Orange is the best color,” or “Well-done steak is better than medium-rare steak,” are examples of subjective claims. The big take away here is that there is no such thing as right or wrong. Someone isn’t “right” for liking their steak well-done, nor can someone be “wrong” because their favorite color is red! So subjective claims are personal preferences and are person/people dependent.
Objective claims are independent of human opinion, and are true or false, right or wrong. For example, “The Denver Broncos did not win the Super Bowl in 2015” is true, no matter who believes the opposite. The truth of that claim is independent of human opinion. Even if everyone on the planet decided to believe they did win it, then everyone on the planet would be wrong.
Are moral claims subjective or objective? If objective, then they are independent of human opinion and there are moral rights and wrongs. If not, then they are subjective and no right or wrong exists in an objective sense.
Values and Duties
We need to recognize that although these terms may sound like similar things, there is a difference and it is important. Moral values have to do with whether something is good or bad, whereas moral duties deal with right and wrong (i.e. moral obligation, what we “ought” or “ought not” to do). Drawing this important distinction between good/bad and right/wrong will be critical as we move forward, especially as one examines the Euthyphro Dilemma and Divine Command Theory. Some things can be good but it wouldn’t entail a moral obligation on our part to do it. A good example of this is given by William Lane Craig,
“Now you might think at first that this is a distinction without a difference: “Good” and “right” mean the same thing, and the same goes for “bad” and “wrong.” But if you think about it, you can see that this isn’t the case. Duty has to do with moral obligation, what you ought or ought not to do. But obviously you’re not morally obligated to do something just because it would be good for you to do it. For example, it would be good for you to become a doctor, but you’re not morally obligated to become a doctor. After all, it would also be good for you to become a homemaker or a farmer or a diplomat, but you can’t do them all. Furthermore, sometimes all you have is bad choices (think of Sophie’s Choice[ref]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_Choice_%28film%29[/ref]), but it’s not wrong for you to choose one, since you must choose. So there’s a difference between good/bad and right/wrong. Good/bad has to do with something’s worth, while right/wrong has to do with something’s being obligatory.[ref]William Lane Craig, On Guard, pg. 130[/ref]”
Examining the Moral Argument
Now, the argument is logically valid[ref]Here Dr. Craig discusses the logic behind the argument in response to a Question of the Week at his website Reasonable Faith (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/formulating-the-moral-argument)[/ref], so we need to show that premises 1 and 2 are more plausible than their negation/opposite. If we can successfully do so, then premise 1 and 2 are true and we are guaranteed the truth of the conclusion by logic. So, let us examine each of the premises in turn and see if they can be defended successfully.
Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
This premise seems to be obviously true. If there is no law giver outside of/independent of humanity to prescribe a moral law then we as humans define morality, which is the very definition of subjective. Remember our terms, “objective” and “subjective.” If there is a moral law giver that transcends humanity then moral values and duties would be defined objectively/independently of human opinion. On the other hand, if we ourselves (whether as individuals, as a nation, or even as a global community for that matter) define morality, we have now relegated moral claims to being subjective (or put another way, “not objective”). Premise one is merely attesting to the fact that if God does not exist then humanity is the top dog so to speak and would prescribe what is moral, good, etc. The question then becomes, “Who decides which morality is the best when people or even nations disagree on it?”
Take Nazi Germany for example. If morality is defined by humanity, meaning God does not exist, then how can we determine who is right in their morality? The Nazi’s, who believed exterminating Jews was morally good, or the nations that opposed them claiming that exterminating Jews was morally wrong? I think we can see that unless there is some objective standard then we must confess that there would be no wrong or right, good or evil. If moral claims are subjective then we lose any notion of right or wrong, good or bad, just like in the example of someone liking their steak well-done as opposed to medium-rare.
If naturalism[ref]Naturalism is the view that the physical material universe is all that exists. There are no souls, disembodied minds, angels, demons, etc.[/ref] is true, then there are no objective moral values and duties. That statement is just another way of rewording the first premise, because if God does not exist, then naturalism is true. If the natural world is all there is, there is nothing beyond it and everything that exists is just the physical, material universe and God would not exist. The result would be that human beings are just advanced primates, since there would be no supernatural account for the origin of humanity, we would have to opt for a naturalistic one such as Darwinian evolution.
However, if we are merely advanced primates, then what does that entail? In the animal kingdom there are no objective moral values and duties, as there is no moral dimension to their actions. Given the truth of naturalism, then it would be the same for humanity as well. Again, William Lane Craig’s insight is helpful,
“On the atheistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her—for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.[ref]William Lane Craig, On Guard, pg. 132[/ref]”
So what makes human beings valuable and morally responsible if naturalism is true? It seems as though the answer is that nothing does, and there are no objective moral values and duties given the truth of naturalism. So it seems that premise one is true. What about premise two?
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
This also seems evidently true based on our moral experience. Why is it that we have this strong sense of moral right/wrong, good/bad? Why do we seem to think that some moral claims are just plain wrong independent of human opinion? A common example is the claim about torturing children for fun. That seems of course to be objectively morally wrong. No matter who thinks it’s okay, it is always wrong. It seems that deep down we all know that torturing children for fun is objectively wrong. What about those who are to deny premise two and say there are no objective moral values and duties?
The view that there are no objective moral values and duties is called moral nihilism. The nihilist holds that there are no such things as good/bad, right/wrong. So what the Nazi’s did in WWII in trying to exterminate an entire group of people based on their race wasn’t actually wrong per se, given the truth of moral nihilism. Think about that! Nor can the nihilist claim that torturing babies for fun is morally wrong!
I would like to mention two things that I find problematic with this view. First, it seems as though while in theory the nihilist denies the objectivity of moral values and duties they still have to live as though there are. If we can’t live out practically what we hold to in theory, then that is a sign of a failed worldview. We want a worldview that gives us the best description of reality, not one that is inconsistent. Second, why should we deny our moral experience? Dr. Craig also mentions that any argument one could give to deny our moral experience that he could run a parallel argument that would show we should deny our experience of the external world as being real:
“I think that our belief in the objectivity of moral values is very much on a par, or on the same level, as our belief in the external world of physical objects. Any argument that you could give about being skeptical about our perception of moral values you could give a parallel argument about why we should be skeptical that there is a world of physical objects around us. We have, I think, a clear apprehension of a realm of moral value. In the absence of some reason to doubt that perception we ought to therefore believe that there are objective moral values just as we have a clear perception of a world of physical objects and in the absence of any reason to doubt our perception of the external world we are rational in believing that there is a world of physical objects out there. Skepticism about moral values and skepticism about the external physical world are really on a par. If we accept the existence of physical objects in the real world around us (if that is rational) then it is equally rational to accept a realm of objective moral values.[ref]http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-1-podcast/transcript/s08-03[/ref]”
So it seems as though premise two is true as well.
I would like to take the time to mention two misunderstandings of the argument that people often make, even scholars, and try to help clear them up.
The first is to realize that belief in God is not required to recognize and adhere to objective moral value and duties. In fact, many non-Christians live exemplary moral lives. The moral argument just shows that while atheists may affirm objective moral values and duties they can’t justify their existence on their worldview. Without God to ground these objective moral values and duties that they want to affirm, they have no foundation to do so. So God’s existence is required for there to be objective moral values and duties, but belief in God is not.
The second is a similar sounding claim that people sometimes make after hearing this argument, namely that they don’t need God or a Holy book to know what is right or wrong or good or bad. This is where we need to make a distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Moral ontology answers the question of “Do objective moral values and duties exist?” Moral epistemology on the other hand asks, “How do I know what is objectively right/wrong, good/bad?” Notice the difference? One must first answer the question of whether there are such objective moral values and duties, then one can move to answer the next question which is “How do I know what they are?”
In closing I would like to say that the most foundational moral question one can ask is whether or not there are objective moral values and duties. The moral argument seems to provide good evidence for God’s existence based on our moral experience. We have seen that both premises of the argument can be defended and seem more reasonable than their negations, we therefore should affirm that God exists. We also mentioned two common misconceptions that come up often during discussions of the moral argument when adopting the deductive approach. This argument sets the foundation for any moral discussion, whether it be same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. This will also help with discussions on the Euthyphro Dilemma and Divine Command Theory as well, since morality is grounded in God’s very nature and He expresses it to us in the form of divine commands. I pray this helps you make more sense of any moral issue you may be interested in and are thinking about. The moral argument is my favorite argument from natural theology to show God exists, and I continue to learn and grow in the material and I pray you do as well.