Welcome to a new series! I’m going to outline an argument for God’s existence based on the existence of objective moral values and duties. This is hoped to be a relatively thorough exposition, albeit a layman’s one.
This is an argument that I wasn’t convinced of the first time I read it; sort of. I thought it was probably sound. That is to say, I thought it’s premises were more likely true than false, and the conclusion logically and necessarily followed from the truth of the premises. However, I didn’t think it was a good argument, meaning I didn’t think it was useful or should have the ability to convince anyone. I didn’t think that it could be shown to be true. Now, I think it’s one of my favourite arguments for the existence of God.
In this first post, I hope to clarify some terminology and to remind the reader to keep a few things in mind. If you’re new to apologetics or philosophy, this first post may seem a bit intimidating. There will be some new terms that may be a bit foreign. Nonetheless, take heart! This argument is really quite simple. We just have to give a few definitions and provide some clarifications so we’re on the same page.
First, I would like to note that the title of this series is “A Moral Argument”. Notice it is not “The Moral Argument”. Theistic moral arguments are a category of arguments for the existence of God and there are multiple formulations of which I will be presenting one of. Although there are fewer formulations, it’s similar to Cosmological Arguments or Teleological arguments. They are categories; not themselves arguments. There is no such thing as the cosmological argument or the teleological argument. If you ever see someone say that, it should be an immediate red flag.
Second, I think many people mistakenly think that this argument falls into the category of normative ethics. I know this because that’s what I thought when I decided to write this series. But then I read more in preparation and found I was mistaken.
So what’s normative ethics? If we are studying applied ethics, we would be asking, “Is that right or wrong?” Normative ethics, though, asks, “Why is that right or wrong?” and attempts to describe right and wrong systematically. Applied ethics would study questions like, “Is capital punishment wrong?” whereas normative ethics would ask why the applied ethical answer is actually true relative to a coherent ethical system. Normative ethics (and metaethics, as you will see below) asks questions of the ethics.
Properly speaking, however, this argument is not about normative ethics. Normative ethics is a descriptive process, concerned with formulating a coherent system of ethics that accurately describes our moral experience. What we will eventually be looking at is not formulating a system of ethics, but finding the ontological foundation, or explanatory ultimate, for moral values and duties. This discussion, therefore, is more in the category of metaphysics; specifically metaethics. Metaethics is a branch of analytic philosophy that explores the status, foundations, and scope of moral values, properties, and words. (What is often confusing for me as a lay person is that normative ethical theories are commonly presented as metaethical theories. Positions like Utilitarianism aren’t metaethics.) Yes, there is a ton of overlap. But it’s still not primarily about normative ethics.
For another clarification: morals consist of both moral values and moral duties. What’s the difference? Moral values are things that are good or bad. Love is good. Self-sacrifice is good. It’s good to be a teacher. It’s bad to be a Nazi. Hate and selfishness are bad. Here, we have placed a value. Duties, by contrast, refer to moral obligations. Why ought I help my neighbour? Why ought I be loving? Why is it that I ought not murder? Just because something has value doesn’t mean I’m obligated to it. There is moral value in being a teacher, but that doesn’t mean that everyone ought to be a teacher. Or, say, you are forced to pick between two bad options. You ought to pick the best one, even if they both have negative value.
However, although I’m undecided if it is necessarily required, strictly speaking, for there to be objective morality, I think there is a third category, besides values and duties, that could help constitute morality: moral accountability. Again, I’m unsure at this stage whether moral accountability is technically required. It seems to me we can have moral duties even if there is no way of reinforcing them and no way of rewarding or chastising those who fail to fulfill those duties. But is there really a duty if there are no consequences, either good or bad? Are consequences equal to accountability in this context? There are many questions to still think through. So I’m unsure. However, moral accountability, based off of our moral experience, seems to be an important aspect of morality. It seems to be pragmatically superior. Therefore, I will deem an explanatory ultimate to be more likely true, all else being equal, if there is moral accountability than if there isn’t. I would be willing to use moral accountability as a tie breaker. However, I am as yet unconvinced that accountability is necessary and thus I don’t wish to make it a requirement.
Another distinction we need to make is that of moral ontology vs moral epistemology. In general, ontology is the study of being whereas epistemology is the study of how we know. Moral ontology deals with whether there actually is a moral reality. Is there really a difference between right and wrong? Moral epistemology is asking how we can know or come to know about morals. Moral epistemology assumes moral ontology (there has to actually be a moral reality in order to know about it), but to argue that there is such a thing as right and wrong, you need not argue that we actually can know, or know accurately, what right and wrong actually are in a specific situation. This argument centres around ontology. It is claiming there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties.
Next, in the sense that I’m using it, “objective” means independent of human thought. i.e. if something is objectively true, it is true regardless of what someone thinks. The earth being roughly spherical is an objective truth. Even though the entirety of civilization at one point in time thought the earth was flat, it was still round. An objective truth is true whether I like it or not, or think it or not. This would be contrasted with subjective truth; truth that is dependant on human thought. “Bubble gum ice cream is the best ice cream” is true for me. The truth value is in the subject (me), not the object (bubble gum ice cream).
All these things must be kept in mind as we move forward with this argument. Next time, I will begin to argue that objective moral values and duties do exist.