Nov 10

The Lazy Person’s Guide to Dismantling the Moral Argument

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.

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  1. Jeff

    What is the proof that Objective Morals exist? Where is the proof that Objective Morals are what governs the universe? Can’t you defeat the argument with that?

  2. Mike

    You definitely can. You can just flat out deny (2). I go back and forth on whether I think such a thing can really exist in the way theists use it.

    But the thing I like about this approach is that it can be used by more people because it supports either belief. It doesn’t require you to take a position on whether our experience of morality means anything special, which means you’ll have one less point to argue. I’ve tried to just let it hinge on the simplest point to argue and the one I think most theists would agree with. All they have to agree to is that it’s possible for something natural to explain that experience and the argument doesn’t work.

  3. Ryan

    I’m just going to re-post this here, since this is now the most relevant place for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN-yLH4bXAI

    I’m surprised that this argument seems to be the most popular. Of course, I don’t think there is a good argument for God’s existence anyway, but the cosmological argument (or some variation thereof) always struck me as the most convincing. As usual, we should note that none of these arguments take the next, most important step: attempting to prove that God, if it exists, is necessarily the God of the given religion.

  4. Mike

    I was a bit surprised too, but religious people tend to put more weight in something like intuition since they probably think it’s god-given. I’m not sure what I would choose. Fine tuning, maybe?

  5. Leo

    It seems that yout answer in its first form does in fact attack (1), not (2), just in different way, namely, it uses (2) to explay why (1) is not an answer, why (2) can not came from (1), when you consider S1 that is. Now it atacks (2) when you consider (S2), then it says objective moral values do not exist, they are just intuitions.

    I think this may work, it seems a simple response wich enables one to quickly give the two possible answers, namely (1) is false given (S1), or (2) is false given (S2).

    I think however you need to provide a more robust case why intuitions fail because most believers would say they come from God, and that’s a tricky one.

  6. Mike

    Leo, you’re correct that if you’re arguing in favor of (S1), as many do, then you’ll be taking a position on (1). What I was hoping to offer as a suggestion was to just defend (6) and not choose either interpretation because either interpretation of (6) will lead you to reject the moral argument. It either rejects (1) or (2), but you just have to defend a biological position rather than a metaethical one. I think you’re analysis shows we’re on the same page with how it would work.

    I was thinking of something like a debate format where a quick, concise rebuttal is required. If I did want to get into a story about intuitions, I would have to turn to the research literature to show how malleable they are. That being said, I don’t want to totally discount them. I just want to say its not plausible they are a pipeline to these abstract moral god properties or anything.

  7. zaybu

    It’s easier to read WCL’s argument by reverting (1) into its positive, if P then Q:

    1. If objective moral values do exist, then God does exist .

    And bingo, one can readily see that P does not imply Q, even if P would be true.

  8. Mike


    I do think your restatement of (1) accurately describes what Craig and many Christians think. I also agree that P does not necessarily imply Q. However, it’s important to note that the restatement is technically not logically equivalent to (1). Craig words it this way on purpose because it gives him an extra out.

  9. zaybu

    If P then Q has the same truth table as if ~Q then ~P.

    Craig words it that way on purpose in order to deceive. 😉

  10. Mike

    Yes, you’re right. Sorry. I was thinking of the possibility that if objective moral values do not exist, then God is still not ruled out. But looking back over it, if P then Q allows that possibility too.

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