Existence of God (part 21)February 28, 2011 Time: 00:28:40
SummaryThe Moral Argument.
Excursus: Natural Theology
§ IV. Moral Argument
We have been talking about the moral argument for God’s existence, and last time we looked at Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. Does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it? And I suggested that that is a false dilemma – we don’t need to pick either of those two horns, but rather the correct alternative is to say that God wills something because he is good. God’s own nature is what Plato called “The Good,” and his will expresses that toward us in the form of commandments which constitute our moral duties.
Atheistic Moral Platonism
The mention of Plato brings to mind another possible atheistic response to the first premise of the moral argument that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. Plato thought that the Good just exists as a sort of self-subsistent idea, as an entity in and of itself. Indeed, it is the most real thing in reality. The Good simply exists. If you find this difficult to grasp, join the company! Nevertheless, that is what Plato believed. Later Christian thinkers, like Augustine, equated Plato’s Good with the nature of God. God’s nature is the Good, and so it was anchored in a concrete object, namely, God. But for Plato, at least, the Good just sort of existed on its own as a kind of self-existent idea.
Some atheists might say that moral values, like Justice, Mercy, Love, and Forbearance, just exist all on their own as sort of abstract moral objects. They have no other foundation; they just exist. We can call this view Atheistic Moral Platonism. According to this view, moral values are not grounded in God. They just exist all on their own.
Unintelligibility of Atheistic Moral Platonism
What might we say by way of response to Atheistic Moral Platonism? Let me make three responses. First, it seems to me that this view is just unintelligible. I simply don’t understand what it means. What does it mean, for example, to say that the moral value Justice just exists? I understand what it means to say that a person is just or that some action is just, but what does it even mean to say that in the absence of any persons or any objects at all, that Justice just exists? It is hard to understand even what this means. Moral values seem to be properties of persons, and so it is hard to understand how Justice can just exist as a sort of abstraction.
Lack of Moral Obligation on Atheistic Moral Platonism
Secondly, a major weakness of this view is that it provides no basis for objective moral duties. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that moral values like Justice, Love, Forbearance, and Tolerance just exist on their own. Why would that lay any sort of moral obligation upon me? Why would the existence of this realm of ideas make it my duty to be, say, merciful or loving? Who or what lays such an obligation upon me? Why would I have the moral duty to be merciful or loving? Notice that on this view moral vices like Greed, Hatred, and Selfishness presumably also exist as abstractions. In the absence of any moral law giver, what obligates me to align my life with one set of these abstract ideas rather than with some other set of abstract ideas? There just doesn’t seem to be any basis at all for moral duty in this view. In the absence of a moral law giver, Atheistic Moral Platonism lacks any basis for moral obligation.
Improbability of Atheistic Moral Platonism
Finally, thirdly, it is fantastically improbable that the blind evolutionary process should spit forth exactly those kinds of creatures that align with the existence of this realm of abstract values.1 Remember that they have no relationship with each other at all. The natural realm and this abstract moral realm are completely separate. And yet, lo and behold, the natural realm has by chance alone evolved exactly those kind of creatures whose lives align with these moral duties and values. This seems to be an incredible coincidence when you think about it. It is almost as if the moral realm knew that we were coming! I think it is a far more plausible view to say that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the sovereignty of a divine being, who is both the creator of natural laws that govern the physical universe and whose commands constitute the moral laws that govern our ethical duties. This is a more coherent view of reality. Theism is a more coherent view because these two realms of reality don’t fall apart in this disjointed way. They are both under the sovereignty of a single natural and moral law giver.
For those three reasons, Atheistic Moral Platonism is a less plausible view than theistic based ethics such as I have been defending.
Question: My atheist friends don’t look at it as being abstract, but rather they evolved with the human race and not outside of it. While it is not subject to any individual, but what has evolved with the human race is a common understanding of morals. The moral evolution has risen to the top in order for the human species to progress.
Answer: This view (Atheistic Moral Platonism) is very different from the one you just described. You are right: on the popular level you are not going to find many people who hold to this kind of Atheistic Moral Platonism. This is more popular among academics. Professional philosophers would often hold to something like this. But the man-in-the-street is more apt to buy into the view that moral values are just the product of biological and social evolution. What I would argue is that, as I have said last week, that actually supports premise (1) because those really aren’t moral values. What those are are simply conditions under which the human species will flourish. But there is no reason to think that that species has any sort of intrinsic value, more than mice or rats or ants. And there are certain values which would cause ants to flourish. Or if you want to have mice flourish, there would be certain things that ought to be done to cause those species to flourish. And to think that human flourishing is somehow morally special, as I said, is to be guilty of species-ism, which is an unjustified bias in favor of your own species. What you need to do is ask those folks, “Why is what you are describing not just a reiteration of the view that I am maintaining, namely, that in the absence of God, all you have described is the conditions under which this particular species will flourish and survive? But that does not mean that they are intrinsically morally valuable or that we have any obligation to make this species survive or flourish.” The sociopath who rejects the herd morality is not really doing anything wrong, it seems to me, on this view. Another thing you might say in response to that view is that if you were to rewind the film of evolution, like a movie, and start over again, then a very different sort of creature might have emerged from the evolutionary process with a quite different set of moral values. And if that is the case, then whose are right? Theirs or ours? The answer would have to be, neither one! These are just the byproducts of evolutionary development, and you can’t say that these other beings’ morality is inferior to ours, or that ours is better than theirs. There isn’t any objective truth about these things. That popular view is one that we can exploit in the defense of premise (1). By contrast, Atheistic Moral Platonism really is a rejection of premise (1). It is saying that these moral values and duties just exist without any sort of basis in God.2
Question: In support of what you are saying, I see when I read in scientific journals that people that hold this popular view will apply an emotive or volitional quality to evolution which is contradictory to the process. Nothing can be evolved in anticipation of some future condition or good. So this is self-contradictory to say that they knew this was going to be good so that is how it evolved.
Answer: Evolution is purely accidental. What you describe would be untenable and that kind of anthropomorphism in regard to natural selection or speaking of natural selection as though it had purposes in mind or things to achieve is a misleading way of talking.
Question: Does the argument from evolution change if you use the word “absolute” (“absolute objective moral values”).
Answer: I don’t think so. I have avoided the word “absolute” in this defense because I am not defending the view that there are absolute moral values in the sense of moral values or duties that are universally applicable regardless of one’s situation. What I am saying is that there are objective moral values, objective moral truths, even if these differ from situation to situation. So, for example, in some situations, it would be wrong to put a bullet into somebody’s head. But in other situations, say, a terrorist attack, it would be right to put a bullet in a terrorist’s head to protect innocent people. In the one case, the action would be objectively bad and in the other case objectively good. So my concern here is with objective moral values as opposed to moral absolutes. There are probably some moral absolutes, for example, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, body, and mind.” I think that holds regardless of your situation. But that is neither here nor there in regards to this argument.
Objection: Stubborn Humanism
The next possible objection to premise (1) is what I call Stubborn Humanism. The atheist generally wants to affirm objective moral values and duties. He wants to affirm that human beings are morally valuable. Children, for example, are morally valuable, and it is good to love them. So most of them will simply embrace a kind of humanism and just stop there. Whatever contributes to human flourishing is good, and whatever detracts from human flourishing is bad, and that is the end of the story. You just stick with humanism.
But taking human flourishing as your ultimate stopping point is premature. I say that because of two factors: first, its arbitrariness and, second, its implausibility.
Let me say first a word about its arbitrariness. Given atheism, why think that what is conducive to the flourishing of human beings on this planet is valuable as opposed to what is conducive to the flourishing of, say, mosquitoes or rats? Why think that inflicting harm on another member of our species is morally wrong? I put this question once to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in a debate I had with him at Dartmouth College,3 and when I asked him why it is wrong to harm another member of our species, his answer was this, “It simply is. Objectively. Don’t you agree?” Well, of course I agree! Yes, it is wrong to hurt another human being. But that wasn’t the question! The question is, given atheism, why would it be wrong to hurt another human being? Given an atheistic worldview, picking out human flourishing as the Good is arbitrary, since there is nothing morally special about human beings on a naturalistic worldview.
Secondly, it also seems implausible. What atheists will sometimes say is that once the natural or physical properties of a situation are in place, then the moral properties just automatically, necessarily, attach themselves to that physical situation.4 The technical term that is used for this is “supervene.” Once you have fixed the natural, physical properties of a situation, then the moral properties come along and supervene on that situation or attach themselves necessarily to it. So, for example, take the situation of a man beating up his wife. Once the physical properties are there of his bludgeoning her and her being beaten and so forth, then the moral property of badness just necessarily attaches to that situation. Or, by contrast, take a mother nursing her little infant. Once the physical properties are in place for that to be the case, then the moral property of goodness just necessarily attaches, or supervenes, on that situation. Atheists will say that once all the natural properties are in place, the moral properties just automatically come along and supervene on the situation.
On atheism, this is extraordinarily implausible. Given atheism, why think that these strange, non-natural properties like goodness and badness even exist, much less that they somehow magically attach themselves necessarily to these physical situations? Why in the world would these things come along and supervene on these natural properties? I cannot see any reason, on atheism, to think that, given a full description of the physical situation, that any moral properties at all would come along and attach themselves to that situation. The physical properties would do nothing to fix or determine any of the moral properties of that situation. It is just really implausible that this happens.
What these humanistic philosophers have done is they have adopted what is called a “shopping list approach” to ethics. Just as you would go to the grocery store with your shopping list and just help yourself to the things on the shelf that you want, so these philosophers go down the philosophical aisle with their shopping carts, and they just help themselves to the moral properties that they need in order for their ethical system to work. But what is wanting here is any sort of explanation or justification for thinking that situations would have these moral properties attaching to them.
Again, I want to emphasize that it is inadequate for the humanist to say that we just do sense that these situations are good or that they are bad. That is not in dispute. In fact, that is the second premise of the argument – there are objective values and duties. Rather, the question is why, on atheism, should we think that human beings are morally significant or that they have any moral duties. It seems to me that humanism is nothing more than a stubborn, moral faith in a naturalistic universe.
Question: I am reminded of a debate you had where your opponent asked if you had any friends after you mentioned that point!
Answer: That was Louise Antony at the University of Massachusetts,5 where she remarked, “Don’t you dare tell me that on my atheistic view my children have no moral value because you will find I can be very strong or aggressive.” I forget her exact words. I then said, “But on atheism, I can’t see any reason to think your children have any moral value.” And she looked at me and said, “I wonder if you have any friends!” That was all the refutation that she could offer.
Followup: Yeah, a devastating rebuttal! On the concept of supervening properties, do you ever exploit the fact that they are affirming an immaterial entity?
Answer: I don’t, but my colleague J. P. Moreland likes to. Notice that in appealing to things like Atheistic Moral Platonism or talking about these non-natural properties, the atheist has moved away from a materialistic view of the world. He is admitting now that there are non-physical, immaterial realities like values or properties, and that is a move away from a kind of hard-nosed naturalism. I don’t exploit that view because so many naturalists are quite ready to say that there are non-physical realities. That may surprise you, but that is actually true. A great many naturalists today are not physicalists or materialists. They think there are non-material realities. But that softens the ground to think that there is a non-physical reality like God. So I don’t exploit that, but you are quite right that it is a move away from a hard line naturalistic/materialistic view of what exists.6
Question: In the supervening of properties, you say the moral properties attach themselves after the natural properties are fixed.
Answer: Not in a chronological sense, but they are explanatorily secondary.
Followup: A chronological morality seems worthless. I would need them to show up before the physical properties appeared, so I can fix the situation according to those moral laws.
Answer: When I say “after” here, I do not mean in a chronological sense. It is more like the foundation is the physical properties, and then what lies on top of them are the moral properties. But these would be simultaneous, although one would be more basic than the other. Even though they are simultaneous, one is after it in the sense that the other one is the foundation, and the moral properties are on top of that in a sense. But it is still, on naturalism, very odd to think that when these primate animals called human beings nurse their children, there are these moral properties that somehow attach to this situation. I just can’t see any reason to think that would happen, given atheism.
Question: Do you find this evolutionary, socio-biological explanation to be the most common among naturalists when trying to argue their side or during debates?
Answer: Not in my debates, as I will say when I come to the second premise. Very, very few of the atheist philosophers I have debated take this kind of hard-nosed, evolutionary line that we described earlier. Most of them will be more like Atheistic Moral Platonists. They will want to affirm that there are these objective moral values and duties, and these are not just the spin-offs of social and biological evolution. What you are talking about is how moral values and duties might be explained as illusions that arise in us because of our kinship to other genetically similar organisms and the selfish gene in order to survive. They get individuals to perform sacrificial acts that will hurt the individual, but it will be good for the propagation of the species. As I say, you can see that even among ants in an ant heap. There are soldier ants which will give up their lives for the sake of the ant heap because instinct has programmed it into these ants to perish fighting for the queen or for the ant heap. But it is not because they do this out of moral duty or anything of that sort – they don’t do anything praiseworthy. It is just blind evolutionary instinct that has been built into the ants because that will make the ant species survive if some of the soldier ants are willing to give up their lives for the ant heap. That is all moral values are among human beings as well. They are just illusions inculcated into us by natural selection and parental conditioning and societal conditioning to get us to perform in various ways that would be conducive to the survival of the human species. It seems to me that is all they are on the atheistic view. That is why premise (1) is true.
Question: Remember the ’50s and ’60s alien movies where aliens come to Earth and tell humans that, because they have detonated a nuclear bomb, they must be stopped before they spread their violence to other parts of the universe? That is a perfectly reasonable view, though humanists would argue otherwise. Humans aren’t any great bargain, what with our wars and violence over the centuries. How can you as a humanist say, “This is good because it advances mankind?” First you have got to prove that advancing mankind is good, and, without God, I don’t see any evidence of that.7
Answer: This is an excellent illustration. It parallels the illustration I gave when I said rewind the film of evolution, start over again, and a very different creature might evolve with different values and duties. The other illustration is this extraterrestrial intelligent life who comes to Earth with a significantly different set of moral values. Who would be right? Us or them? There isn’t any objective way to decide. Michael Ruse, who is an agnostic philosopher of science and an evolutionist, has written a wonderful article titled, “Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?” He argues in this essay that there is no guarantee that a race of intelligent beings from the galaxy Andromeda might think that rape is not a good thing. In that race, rape would be regarded as perfectly moral and all right. In my debate that I had with Michael Ruse, I quoted his own article and asked what he would say if these beings came to the Earth and they decided to go throughout the Earth raping and killing? Maybe they are more advanced than us, comparable to the way we are advanced to, say, cattle and sheep, and they begin to farm the Earth and use us for food. What would we say as to why this would be wrong? This is wrong for us? Well, the aliens would say, “That’s just a product of your evolutionary conditioning. There is no reason we should think that it is wrong to eat you or to rape throughout the Earth.” So I think this extraterrestrial illustration is a very powerful illustration that, in the absence of God, human morality isn’t objective. It has no more claim to be objective than some extraterrestrial alien morality.
That completes the defense of premise (1), which brings us to the second premise that objective moral values and duties do exist. I initially thought that this would be the really controversial premise in the argument. But what I have found with my debates with atheist philosophers is almost nobody disputes this second premise. In fact, surveys actually show that university faculty are less relativistic than students. They are more apt to believe in objective moral values and duties than the students do, and of the faculty, the branch that believes most in objective moral values and duties are the philosophers. So the philosophers, whose job it is to reflect about ethics, are the ones most apt to believe in objective moral values and duties, more so than the rest of the faculty, and the faculty believe in them more so than the students. So it is really quite a wrong impression to think that it is in the university faculties that all of this relativism is being propagated. It is more common among the students.
Next time, what we will do is look at what justification exists for premise (2) – why is it that even most non-Christian, non-theistic philosophers believe that objective moral values and duties exist?8
3 This debate occurred in 1999 with a follow up debate in 2000. A book resulted from those debates: God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford University Press, 2003).
5 This debate was titled “Is God Necessary for Morality?” and occurred in 2008. For a video of this debate (split into two parts), see:
8 Total Running Time: 28:40