Why the moral argument fails

Of all the arguments for the existence of God, there is one argument (or one style of argument) that I have never had any sympathy with and never understood why anyone has any sympathy with, and that is the moral argument. It seems to me and has pretty much always seemed to me (at least as long as I have reflected on the issue) that the claim that moral phenomena depend for their existence on God is pretty clearly false. I want to emphasize that this is not just an intuitive reaction, it is a considered judgement. The idea that God is somehow the foundation of moral reality strikes me as one of the strangest, not to mention most unfortunate, ideas that humans have ever come up with.

By “moral argument” I mean to include any argument that involves any claim that some aspect of moral phenomena depends on God, or any inductive argument to the effect that some aspect of moral phenomena makes it more likely that God exists. Of course, there are many types of moral argument, and, limited as I am, I cannot hope to have exhaustive knowledge of every version of every argument that falls under the umbrella of “the moral argument.” What I can say is that I have never come across anything that falls under that umbrella that has seemed remotely convincing. But lest this become merely an exercise in Jason expressing uninteresting biographical facts about himself, I will try to explain what is so unconvincing about the moral argument.

None of what I am saying here should be taken to imply that I don’t think that moral arguments can’t be interesting, sophisticated, or important. I have learned quite a bit about morality by considering moral arguments for the existence of God. And there is no doubt that very skilled and insightful philosophers have produced interesting versions of the moral argument. What I want to say has nothing to do with the intellectual sophistication or significance of moral arguments. Furthermore, I cannot hope to address what is wrong with every instance of a moral argument. But what I can do is point to a fundamental problem that, I believe, lies at the heart of any suggestion that moral phenomena are evidence that God exists.

Let me start by removing one potential misunderstanding. One might claim that every concrete individual thing that exists depends for its existence on God. Thus, if God does not exist, then the states of affairs, actions, experiences, etc. that are the bearers of moral properties would not exist and so there would be no moral properties. I doubt that such a claim can be substantiated, but, regardless, it misses the point. This kind of dependence is irrelevant to the moral argument. The moral argument identifies a type of property, moral properties, and claims that these would not exist if God did not exist and that therefore their existence indicates that God exists. If this argument depends on the claim that no concrete thing exists and no properties exist if God does not exist, then this is no longer a moral argument. The moral argument claims that there is something special about the moral realm that indicates the existence of God, not that everything indicates God’s existence. If the existence of every individual thing and every property is evidence or proof that God exists, then first, we don’t need a moral argument, and second, there is nothing special about moral phenomena, as opposed to other phenomena, that indicate that God must exist. Furthermore, the kind of dependence currently under discussion is not the right kind of dependence. It is one thing for the things that bear moral properties to depend for their existence on God, another thing for moral properties themselves to depend on God. It is the latter claim that underlies the moral argument.

One reason that the moral argument is a failure is the Euthyphro problem, which, in my considered judgement, decisively shows that God does not have the power to create moral properties. (If you are interested, you can read this paper, which explains, in part, why I think this.) But, in addition to this, there is something that I think of as a more basic and fairly obvious point, which I want to make here.

Here is the point: that particular actions, states of affairs, experiences, etc. have the moral properties that they do have does not depend on God because God’s existence is irrelevant to those features that plausibly give actions, experiences, and etc. their moral properties. It is easier to see this with an example of an act for which there is almost universal agreement about its moral status. So, consider the moral status of child torture. That the torture of small children is morally wrong depends on the fact that torturing a child causes severe undue suffering. It does not depend in any way on the existence of God and it is very unclear how God’s existence, or anything God could do, could make a difference to the moral status of child torture. Such facts as that children exist and that some people are capable of torturing children might depend on God. But that torturing children is wrong is not a fact that could depend on God. And by this I mean that so long as there are children, it is wrong to cause them unnecessary suffering. God could do nothing to change, and his existence could have no implications for, the moral status of child torture.

I realize that pointing out that something is obvious to me is hardly an argument. But two points: First, I doubt that I am the only one who has this reaction, the only one for whom it is obvious that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality. Second, because of this, it is incumbent on those who wield the moral argument to explain precisely how morality does depend upon God. It is not enough, for example, when employing the moral argument, to just claim, as William Lane Craig has done, that if God does not exist, there is not a sound foundation for morality. If you are going to defend the moral argument, you need to explain both how the lack of God would eliminate moral phenomena and how the presence of God guarantees their existence. Any defense of the moral argument should explain, for example, how it can be that something like child torture would, in the absence of God, be morally unproblematic.

I have read many professional papers that attempt to articulate and defend some version of the moral argument. But I have never encountered so much as an attempt to explain how God’s non-existence would imply that child torture is morally unproblematic. Nor have I encountered concerted efforts to explain why the moral status of any action, person, or state of affairs would be affected by God’s non-existence. All too frequently defenders of the argument say things like the following, from William Lane Craig:

on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth*

But for an attempt to prove that without God, moral properties do not exist, such claims are utterly useless. It is merely an assertion of the conclusion. Given that we are talking about human beings, the bearers of mental states such as pleasure and pain, beings that are capable of making decisions and who value making their own decisions, who conceive of themselves as beings that persist through time and make plans accordingly, the, as Derek Parfit puts it, “animals that can understand and respond to reasons”, there is every reason to think that, even if God does not exist, human beings are morally significant. If all the above features of human beings are not sufficient to make us morally significant, it is very unclear how God could change that. So why should we think that, in an atheistic universe, there is nothing special about humans? What would account for that? Craig does not tell us.

God could change some things. An all-powerful being could make it so that children do not suffer when they are subjected to torture. Indeed, an all-powerful being could completely eliminate suffering. But this would not change the fact that it would be wrong to cause a child to suffer needlessly. The fact that torturing a person causes intense suffering is already, all by itself, enough to make it prima facie wrong to torture a person. It is not at all clear what role there is for God to play with respect to the deontological status of inflicting torture on small children.

If we think otherwise, that is, if we think that only God could make child torture wrong, then we must make the case that God’s existence makes a difference. We must therefore answer the following questions: What could the existence of God have to do with the wrongness of torture? What does the existence of God add to the situation that would account for its wrongness? If the fact that torture causes severe physical and emotional suffering is not sufficient to make it wrong to torture innocent children, then what could God do to make it wrong?

Let’s take a look at one (admittedly not very sophisticated) example of an apologist employing a a moral argument (Why talk about it if it is not very sophisticated? Mainly because I find it very annoying that people can so confidently assert things for which there is no ground whatsoever. In addition, I think that in its failure to even attempt to address the points that must be addressed by any moral argument, it is indicative of a larger trend.)

In this article, Frank Turek says the following,

In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time.

Why does Mr. Turek believe this?

First, let’s consider what an odd claim this is. To say that some act is objectively wrong is to say that there are overriding reasons to not engage in that act and that these reasons are objective. To say that they are objective is to say that the existence of these reasons does not depend on the reactions, beliefs, or judgements of any subject (individual or collective). So, if we believe that some things are objectively wrong, we believe that there are reasons for action and that some of these reasons are overriding in the sense that they are stronger than other reasons with which they may compete. So, if we believe that nothing is objectively wrong, we believe that there are no objective reasons for action that are overriding in the sense describe above.

At first glance, there does not appear to be any reason to think that in a world without God there could not be such reasons. Consider, for example, the act of rape. If God does not exist, rape is still wrong. Consider the facts that rape is a violation of a person’s autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering. Even if God does not exist, these facts about rape would still be true. On the assumption that these provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, even if God does not exist, rape is still wrong. And if we thought that these do not provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, what difference would God’s existence make?

If you think that in an atheistic universe nothing is objectively wrong, then you think that these facts about rape (that it violates autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering) do not provide us with overriding reasons to not engage in rape. That is a very odd thing to believe. In addition, you must believe that God can do something that somehow makes it the case that rape is wrong (or maybe that his mere existence can make it the case that rape is wrong). This is also a very odd thing to think. On this view, an act of rape, considered in isolation from God (i.e., considered merely as an action in a context in which God and his capacities are not present) is not wrong. So, on this view, God has the capacity to take an action that is not wrong (considered in and of itself and in isolation from God) and make it wrong. How does God do it? What kind of power is that? Turek does not answer these questions and has nothing to say about how God is able to accomplish this amazing feat. Turek’s is a very strange view.

So, there are two reasons that the view that Turek expresses, namely that in a universe without God there is nothing objectively wrong, is so odd: (1) It implies that facts such as that an act causes severe undue and uncompensated suffering are not sufficient to make an act morally wrong, and (2) It implies that God has the special and unexplained ability to take an action that would otherwise have no moral properties, and make it have moral properties.

Given the strangeness of the view, someone who want to defend it should provide something by way of argument in its favor. So, what does Turek offer? Not much. Here, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of the considerations that Turek offers in favor of the thesis that without God there would be no morality:

If material nature is all that exists, which is what most atheist’s claim, then there is no such thing as an immaterial moral law.  Therefore, atheists must smuggle a moral standard into their materialistic system to get it to work, whether it’s “human flourishing,” the Golden Rule, doing what’s “best” for the most, etc. Such standards don’t exist in a materialistic universe where creatures just “dance” to the music of their DNA.

One thing that I will briefly mention and then set aside is that it is a mistake to claim that atheism is committed to the claim that material nature is all that exists. Turek seems to recognize this, hence his use of the word ‘most.’ I don’t know if most atheists think this (I don’t), but even if it is true that most atheists think it, this is irrelevant to the issue of whether moral phenomena depend on God.

Another quick point: It is not clear what an immaterial moral law is. For that matter, it is not clear what a moral law is or what it would have to do with the existence of moral properties. It is telling that Turek does not believe that it is necessary to clarify in any way what ‘immaterial moral law’ is supposed to mean.

The main problem with Turek’s attempt here is that he does not in any way address the two points I made above. He does not explain why the intrinsic natural features of an action such as rape (e.g., that it causes severe suffering) are not sufficient to make the action morally wrong. More generally, he does not explain why the features that an action has independently of God are insufficient to ground the action’s moral properties. And he does not explain how the existence of God can make an action, e.g., morally wrong when, in the absence of God, the action would have no moral properties whatsoever. I don’t think that any moral argument can do either of these things. Again, I have not seen every version of the moral argument that does so. If you know of an argument that is more successful, please let me know.

It is unfortunate that apologists such as Turek believe that they need hardly defend their bold claims about the dependence of morality on God. I hope that those who, like me, are very skeptical of the moral argument can do more to push back against the unjustified presumption that God is intimately connected to morality.

*This quote comes from a debate that Craig had with Paul Kurtz, published in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? I offered more extensive criticism of Craig’s use of the moral argument here.