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An Argument On The Moral Argument

Luke Pollard and Rebecca Massey-Chase dialogue about the existence of a God.

Luke Pollard:

Spanning history, ‘the argument from morality’ has been supported by people such as Kant, C.S. Lewis, and more recently, William Lane Craig. It has enjoyed much change over the centuries, but now philosophers have managed to cut it down to one simple syllogism:

1) Objective moral values exist

2) Objective moral values necessitate the existence of a God

3) Therefore, a God exists

To consider the value of this argument, first, it is important to know what we mean by ‘objective moral values’.

There are two views in ethics: morality is either ‘objective’ or ‘relative’. Objectivism in morality is the theory that there are at least some moral statements that are right or wrong, whether we believe them to be or not. These truths are not dependant upon us or upon any changeable thing. For instance, “Torturing babies just for fun is wrong” is objectively true whether we believe it to be or not. Even if everyone was brainwashed into thinking that it is morally acceptable, torturing babies just for fun would still be wrong.

Moral relativism, on the other hand, is the complete rejection of moral objectivism. At its core is the assertion that all moral statements are grounded purely in the whim and subjective taste of each individual or culture. But this is no real grounds for morality at all. One culture may think that torturing babies just for fun is okay and another that it is wrong: under relativism, both views are equally valid. We cannot tell a baby-torturer that what they do is wrong, and they should stop – their torturing is just as morally acceptable as our non-torturing. There is no logical reason why they should change. And, by relativism, if a society did change their behaviour, they could not have progressed morally, because there is no unchangeable measure by which to test their values. They have simply altered their moral outlook, and nothing else. There is no value-added, because there is no value. Relativism is clearly ridiculous.

To me, it seems our intuition usually immediately chooses objectivism, if only because we see relativism as so abhorrent. Objectivism seems to be correct. Objective rights and wrongs appear to exist, because we feel their force acting upon us. If we see a baby being tortured, we feel obliged to stop it, and because this feeling is undeliberated, not consciously chosen, and seems objective, this force probably is objective. So it is for the relativist to show us that we all live under a moral delusion, and actually there are no such things as objective moral values.

So since our first statement, “Objective moral values exist” is for the relativist to disprove, let us move on to the second premise, “Objective moral values require a God”. It needs to be said, this is not necessarily the personal God of the Abrahamic tradition, but simply a personal being whose very unchangeable essence is (morally) good.

Objective moral values exist, and by their definition are unchangeable, or they would not be objective. But aren’t we also obligated to these moral values? We do, it seems, have a duty to ‘the good’. A duty can be defined as that for which we are accountable for our actions. But surely only a personal, sentient being can require duty from us? I cannot have a duty to, say, a rock, but I do have duties to humans. So, it would make sense to say that this objective good is not only unchangeable, but because we have a duty to the good, that he is also personal. This person I believe to be a suitable candidate for the label ‘God’. Thus, we can conclude that a God exists.

Rebecca Massey-Chase:

Luke’s argument rests on objective moral values being accepted as observable fact: “Objective rights and wrongs appear to exist, because we feel their force acting upon us.” However, feeling compelled to behave in a certain way because we feel that it is right does not suggest to me that these feelings are rooted in an objective source. Someone believing something to be wrong may be accounted for in a number of ways: they may have been socialised in such a way as to find an action unacceptable, for example. Such beliefs may be held to be objective because they are held unequivocally and with such conviction, but this does not mean that they are truly objective.

In stating torturing babies just for fun is wrong “whether we believe it to be or not”, Luke is simply stating a view that he knows those reading this will probably (hopefully) agree with. But there is no reason why that specific precept is any more ‘objectively true’ than any other example he could have extracted from the ethics of his own personal moral criteria. Furthermore, he clearly believes that he can access God’s dictates on morality; yet what evidence is there to support his claims that he, or indeed anyone, can know such objective truth? Does one find it in divine revelation or religious texts; and if so, which ones? Is the Bible the absolute authority? If so, then why do the majority of Christians only extract what they consider appropriate to take from the – sometimes contradictory – passages outlining moral law? Many of the Old Testament laws made sense then and do not now, and it is thus understandable that they have been abandoned (there is no longer a practical need to avoid shellfish for example), whilst others still seem logical (‘Thou shalt not steal’) since they are conducive to an ordered society. Yet surely this itself is an illustration that morality is founded on humanly-perceived consequences and rationalised (ie relative) conclusions? People establish their morality on reasoned conclusions based on what they can observe and how they have been socialised. There is always reasoning, rationalising and deliberation, however unconscious, behind every ethical judgment. Considering this process of moral decision making, I would suggest that many people should think beyond “that is wrong” to “I believe that is wrong because…”

Luke suggests that with relativism there is the danger of people not being able to enforce their views on others. But is this dangerous? The danger of religious fundamentalism seems to me a far greater one, if it means putting social laws in place to ensure no divergence without punishment from what is accepted by the religious majority as best for society.

Moreover, the statement that “objective values require a God” is simply false: there are many who subscribe to atheistic realism concerning morality. Some Natural Law supporters, for example, would argue for moral laws inherent in the universe that are fixed and unchanging but not rooted in any personal being. This is not a viewpoint to which I subscribe, but I think it’s important to recognise that it exists. Luke argues that ‘obligation to the good’ must be ‘obligation to God’, as any obligation must be towards a personal being. However it is just as possible to argue that this obligation is to society and to ourselves: the duty we owe is to our community, not to the concept ‘God’. We uphold moral standards for the benefit of the society in which we live, and consequentially for own benefit.

That relativism is “abhorrent” and based on whim is an overtly prejudiced, critical and narrow-minded assertion. People may believe their morality to be founded in God, yet there is never any evidence that this is the case, and the several variations in moral positions even between monotheisms would suggest otherwise. Surely therefore it is not just wrong but dangerous to suppose that one’s own morals are ‘objectively right’. Those who cling fiercely onto what they believe to be divinely inspired values advocate an inflexible and potentially dangerous approach to ethics.

Luke Pollard:

Let me focus on two of Becca’s points. First, she argues that a stance of moral objectivism allows people to force their views onto others. This may be true to an extent, but let us consider the alternative. Under relativism, as there is no right or wrong, anybody is logically allowed to do anything. No-one is able to say that what someone else is doing shouldn’t be done, because this implies there is a better way [and also that this is knowable]; but under relativism there is no ‘better’. This can easily be shown to be unworkable: if everyone were allowed to do what they wanted, society would fall apart. Absolute survival of the fittest would reign, our laws would shatter, family values would be smashed to pieces, and each to their own – anything goes! That is a relativist world, in which I don’t live. It is clear that objective moral values are not our oppressor, but our saviour.

Another objection was only given a brief hearing by Becca, but it is an argument to which most relativists cling when all else around them has fallen. Becca asserts that each culture holds its own individual moral outlook; and if different groups hold distinct views on ethics, then ethics as a whole must be relative. But when examined for its logical validity, this argument doesn’t hold together. Whether all moral outlooks differ or not (I believe not), doesn’t mean we can conclude on that evidence that morality is relative. Two cultures may differ in their opinion, but one or other of these views about ethics may actually be wrong. Consider: the fact that two fans disagree about whether a footballer was off-side does not change the objective fact that he was, according to the rules. In the same way, the fact that two cultures have different views on what is ethical does not change the fact that true morality is an objective given.

Further, and along a slightly different line, we may ask the question Why do people argue about morality? Surely we only argue about objectively true or false things, such as whether or not the world is round. We don’t argue about relative things, such as our favourite flavour of ice-cream, as there is nothing to argue about. I like chocolate, you like vanilla, our taste buds are different, end of conversation. But we argue about ethics, and we only argue about objective things; and so again, it is logically necessary to conclude that morality is objective.

And so, since I previously established that objective morality points to a personal God (the objections to this point Becca doesn’t even agree with, she only states them out of duty), we are still compelled by logic and by our consciences to conclude that a God exists.

Rebecca Massey-Chase:

Firstly, I do not accept Luke’s suggestion that people only argue about objective things. I’ve been witness to many discussions about music, with friends fervently arguing that a certain band is better than another. There must be some measure by which they are making their judgements, but their preference remains subjective. In many cases, such as in discussions on music, aesthetics and indeed ethics, people hold very strong views – which they may believe to be objectively true – yet they are still beliefs, not demonstrated person-independent truths.

I agree that the existence of different moral viewpoints across cultures does not confirm relativism. However, I do believe this leads one to question whether it is probable that objective morality exists, and that only certain inspired or enlightened people can access it.

Luke maintains that objective moral values do exist, and thus necessarily God exists. He maintains that he is providing us with a proof of this hypothesis. However, I suggest that he is demonstrating only firmly held belief. His arguments rest on his perceptions of the world. I approach this argument from a different position; my perceptions are different and I see no reason to accept his main premises. I reject his claim to knowledge on a matter that rests only on belief and interpretation.

© Luke Pollard and Rebecca Massey-Chase, 2006

Rebecca Massey-Chase is currently an assistant teacher in Peru, and will be studying English and Philosophy at Bristol. Luke Pollard is co-authoring a book on Christian Ethics, due to be released for Christmas. He will be studying Philosophy and Theology at Oxford.

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