I once was part of a comment thread where theists were asked what their favorite arguments in favor of God’s existence were[i]. The argument that seemed to stand above the rest by my informal count was the so-called Moral Argument. If you’re not familiar with this argument, it goes as follows:
1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Many are inclined to object to (1) on the basis of some secular theory providing an objective grounding for morality. I have done this in the past by appealing to contractualism. However, this turns complex very quickly and it’s notoriously difficult to gain agreement. I think there is a better way to dismiss the argument. By disputing (2), we can show that the argument does not actually give us reason to conclude anything. In fact, we can do this very simply as follows:
4. The justification for (2) is that everyone has an experience of morality.
5. Either this experience can be explained in natural terms or it cannot.
6. This experience can be explained in natural terms.
7. Therefore, natural explanations are sufficient to account for (2).
Basically, we are left with these possible scenarios, if a successful natural explanation can be given:
S1: The natural explanation is true and is sufficient to ground objective moral values
S2: The natural explanation is true, but is describing something that does not ground objective moral values
Under the first scenario, we affirm (2) and reject (1). Under the second scenario, we reject (2). Either way, the premises of the initial moral argument fail to support its conclusion. Since either scenario accomplishes this, we can forget about (1) altogether! All you have to do is support (6) by saying that our experience of morality can be explained naturally. This sidesteps the very thorny issues of metaethics[ii].
So, is (6) well supported by scientific literature? I think so. Two popular-level examples that come to mind are Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong (P.S.) and Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. These tell an evolutionary story about morality, which I think is probably on the right track. You might even prefer a simpler argument that our experience is just a ‘gut’ reaction to things we find pleasurable, distasteful, etc. I can see a compelling argument being made with that approach too.
Thus, we have a very simple dismissal of many theists’ favorite argument.
[Cross-posted at An American Atheist]
[i] They were also asked which arguments they most feared against the existence of God. Problems of evil seemed to be the main stumbling block.
[ii] Any objections to (6) on the grounds that the explanation wouldn’t make something really wrong are strictly irrelevant. This would be an attempt to steer you back to the metaethics, but this argument does not require any position on that front. If you can provide good evidence for your explanation, then they have to disprove it before anything can be concluded using the moral argument.
- Atheism and Evil: Part 2
- Some Brief Thoughts on Morality
- Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Morality – Part 1