The Moral Argument: Why you can be good without believing in God.

As you probably know, I dabble in apologetics. This is a past-time derived from my personal struggle through agnosticism. Digression: People like me are the reason that the Church cannot abandon its God-given apologetic duties. Apologetics that are ultimately Gospel-centered are an ordained means by which God draws men to Himself. Why would you abandon something in which so much power resides?

Back on track, I’d like to briefly explore some of the implications of the Moral Argument. I’ll start by covering the argument itself:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Atheists aren’t good people.

Some who misunderstand the Moral Argument take it to say that all atheists are evil, therefore God exists, or that all atheists must be bad people. This would be a silly thing to say, however: We know that there are atheists who do things that we consider good. The converse idea — namely, that theists couldn’t then be bad people — is also blatantly false. There are plenty who serve the false god named Self (all the while defaming the title of “Christian”) who are terribly insufferable at best. So right on the face of it, this objection seems valid. It’s a truthful statement: Atheists can be good people. But this objection misses the point: The Moral Argument doesn’t conclude that atheists can’t be good people. The Moral Argument implies that the only way it will make sense to talk of “Good” is if God exists. You have no basis, or grounding, for what you call “Good” if not in the transcendent nature of God.

So what?

Some atheists simply shrug off the implications of the Moral Argument by denying the objectivity of morality. Morality evolved, they say. We just keep getting better. Such language, however, again misses the point. This objection presupposes a standard by which to judge the morality of a society over time. In other words, to say morality has improved presupposes that it improved as compared to…something. In the atheistic worldview it is incoherent to say that morality got better or got worse; morality simply is. (By the way, this knocks quite a bit of the wind out of any “moral monster” argument you might want to make toward God.)

Objective moral values don’t need God.

This is the most tenuous objection to the Moral argument. It’s the denial of premise 1: That moral values can be objective without God. This can often drive some form of the Euthyphro dilemma. But the problem here is that any theory in which moral truth is a byproduct of the natural world necessarily defines morality in subjective terms, and thus denies the objectivity of morality. For instance, a popular argument is that because moral values are valuable to survival, then they are truly objective without God. However this simply redefines an ethical right and wrong as a societal adaptation, which means that moral value is dependent on, and thus subjective to, societies. And so this is again a denial of objective moral values in any meaningful sense of the phrase.

The real weight of the moral argument is that it tosses atheism on the horns of a dilemma: Either reject objective moral values, or accept God. Most go the way of rejecting objective moral truth in theory, but in practice this fails. Atheists still talk as if objective moral values exist, choosing to deny them by lip-service only. And that’s why you can be good without believing in God: Because objective moral values do exist, and can be apprehended by each of us. We can tell what is right and wrong, and what good and bad are. And because objective moral values exist, we know that God exists — whether you believe in Him or not.

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16 Comments

Filed under Apologetics

16 responses to “The Moral Argument: Why you can be good without believing in God.

  1. “This objection presupposes a standard by which to judge the morality of a society over time.”

    Sure it does.

    The overall longevity of human life along with the average quality of life is that standard.

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  2. “By whom?”

    By the entire world scientific community. Not just ideologues in one country.

    “Beside, if there’s no right or wrong, what ethical duty do scientists have to pursue unbiased truth?”

    People follow ethics for good and bad reasons. Most people who try to be scientists seem to devote themselves to the discovery of truth.

    “Why shouldn’t they swing things in their favor?”

    Because helping humanity IS swinging things in their favor.

    Some of us look at the world and see everyone as human, not as different groups.

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    • I applaud you for your optimism. However even if we could assemble some moral council of scientists who could tell us what is good and bad for society, that’s all they could tell us. Acting a certain way is good. Acting another way is bad. But this doesn’t tell us why we should act one way or the other. Why should I do good? What’s so good about helping out society? What if society’s interests are at odds with my own? Why shouldn’t I act in a self-serving manner? Science only describes things as they are — “good” or “bad” for society — not as they ought to be — “we all should act in way that is good for society because…” That’s why I say that your reduction of ethical values to survival values is significant.

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      • “tell us what is good and bad for society”

        I look to science and observation to tell us what is harmful and what is beneficial. Which is a good guideline for good and bad.

        “Why should I do good?”

        Because ‘good’ will benefit you in the long term.

        “What’s so good about helping out society? ”

        Because if you’re a part of society, it’s in your best interest to help it out.

        “What if society’s interests are at odds with my own?”

        Then try to change society from the inside, or go and form your own, or join another that matches your interests better.

        “Why shouldn’t I act in a self-serving manner?”

        Why do you assume acting towards the benefit of everyone ISN’T self-serving?

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  3. I just don’t see this as a possibility. There’s not a unified definition of what “well-being” is. You’ve given one, but say I disagree with it? Everyone understands well-being differently. Or I might object to your presupposition that morality exists to maximize longevity (well-being, etc.). How have you arrived at that conclusion? Isn’t that largely a metaphysical, rather than a scientific, proposition? So science hasn’t led you to this conclusion.

    Let’s perform a thought experiment: What if we could empirically establish some neuron-state in which people were perfectly happy, healthy, and secure. Some “maximal state of well-being.” Would it be moral to put them in a coma and then manipulate them into that neuronal state? We could sustain both their longevity and their perceived quality of life. This is why I think your definition of morality falters.

    It seems like you say that morality should be determined scientifically for humanity as a whole, but then you just say that I should “switch societies” if one doesn’t serve my interest. How can I switch societies if morality is overarching? Or is morality again subjective? If morality is subjective, stop acting as if you have a final moral answer.

    Who counts as part of society? Whose longevity and quality of life are we taking into account? How much should an individual be asked to sacrifice for the betterment of society? How can we quantify any of this scientifically?

    These are just a few of the objections I could raise to your idea of morality. I think the most problematic one for you is that your idea that science should determine morality is (a) metaphysical, not scientific, and (b) an ethical statement in itself (“this is what our standard ought to be” is an ethical ought).

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    • “You’ve given one, but say I disagree with it?”

      Then we compare the two. Either one leads to more harm than the other, one leads to more benefit, or they’re equal…in which case, we treat them as such.

      It’s really not as confusing as you’re trying to make it out to be.

      “Would it be moral to put them in a coma and then manipulate them into that neuronal state?”

      No, because you are implying the use of force.

      If they want to do it to themselves, good for them.

      “Or is morality again subjective? If morality is subjective, stop acting as if you have a final moral answer. ”

      I never said it wasn’t subjective.

      But being subjective doesn’t mean we can’t determine which is better for individuals and society.

      Picture it…a society that views it moral to shoot others with guns over minor disagreements. Eventually, that society ceases to exist.

      “Who counts as part of society?”

      For me…everyone.

      For most people…their countries.

      For you…I don’t know.

      “How much should an individual be asked to sacrifice for the betterment of society?”

      Depends on the society and their current condition. And they should only be asked. If they aren’t actually causing harm, there’s no reason to use force.

      “These are just a few of the objections I could raise to your idea of morality. ”

      I think almost anything we come up with today is better than a book of rules written in the Bronze age.

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      • Again, you’ve given a woefully incomplete definition of “harm” for society, and that’s the problem. Utilitarian morality is subjective in its end goal as well as its moral statements. It’s not a scientific endeavor, it’s a philosophical one. I’m sure we could both keep at this forever, but I don’t see much resolve coming from this. It’s been an interesting conversation, but I’ll be bowing out. Thanks for the insightful comments, though! I hope to hear more from you in the future.

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  4. Thank you Jonathan for a brilliant post.

    Even though I find popular formulation of moral argument very useful, since many sane atheists affirm both p1 and p2, I try to avoid objections by formulating this argument differently.

    Example: Robert Adams formulation

    1. Moral facts exist.
    2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
    3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
    4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

    Let me know what you think Jonathan.

    Prayson

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    • Prayson,

      I used the popular formation because that was the one I’m most familiar with. I very much like this one though! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll be doing some reading on this now. Also, glad to have found your blog. Very well written and complete.

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