Moral Arguments for the Existence of God [addendum]

Kai-man Kwan

“Moral Arguments for the Existence of God [addendum].” In Donald Borchert, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.6, 2nd edition (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006), pp. 358-60.

The moral argument purports to show that the evidence from our moral experience supports the existence of God. From the 1970s onward, various forms of moral argument continue to be developed by many philosophers. While the defenders argue with increased sophistication, they also tend to make more modest claims about the force of the moral argument.

Moral Arguments as Abductive and Cumulative Arguments
If the moral argument is construed as a deductive argument which moves from, say, the objectivity of moral values to the existence of God, then to rebut the argument, the critic only needs to show that the objectivity of moral values and the non-existence of God are logically compatible. This is a relatively easy task. However, developments in epistemology and philosophy of science since the 1960s lead many to think that it is more realistic to look for an abductive argument in most areas of inquiry. We can also formulate the moral argument as an abductive argument, or an inference to the best explanation, i.e., to argue that among diverse worldviews, the theistic worldview is the best explanation of, say, the objectivity of morals, especially in contrast with naturalism.

Since abductive arguments are by nature cumulative arguments, the force of an abductive moral argument will not depend on any single feature of morality, but rather on how well it can explain the whole gamut of moral experience, both its form and its content. For example, Louis Pojman (1992b) argues that “given the assumption of standard contemporary secular moral philosophy: I. The notion of moral obligation becomes seriously problematic; II. The notion of the supremacy of morality either becomes problematically analytic or it vanishes; III. The problem of morality and self-interest becomes insoluble; IV. The idea that human beings have intrinsic value ceases to make sense.” Hence, “most contemporary secular ethical systems offer no hope of guiding human conduct, and should be abandoned” (p. 4).

In contrast, ethical systems which proceed from transcendent assumptions can offer resources unavailable to secular, ethical systems. For example, the Christian tradition can appeal to a perfectly good, omnipotent God who created humanity in his image. Each person is endowed with a specific telos which he or she must seek to realize. Within this framework, all humans have equal intrinsic worth, free will and eternal destiny (see also Pojman 1991, 1992a). Morality consists of obeying God’s commands, which are related to human flourishing, and are backed by sanctions of reward and punishment. All these provide solid foundation for the existence of moral obligation and responsibility.

Are Moral Truths Analytic?
Not all theistic philosophers accept the moral argument. For example, Richard Swinburne believes that the fundamental moral truths are necessary truths, and they do not need to be explained. Defenders have several ways to respond. First, they may flatly deny Swinburne’s claim by pointing out that moral nihilism and relativism at least appear to be logically coherent positions. Second, even if many moral principles were necessary truths, it would not follow that they could not be explained by more basic necessary truths about the essential moral nature and logically necessary existence of God. Some even suggest a Cosmological–Ethical Argument which utilizes “the resources of a theistic metaphysic in providing a singular, comprehensive explanatory account of moral truths as well as other essential truths” in addition to its ability to explain the existence of the cosmos. In this way, theism may prove to exhibit “a marked simplicity and force missing from its competitors” (Taliaferro, p. 290). 

Third, the realm of necessary moral truths appears to be mysterious and queer from a naturalistic perspective. Anyway, it is puzzling why we should be aware of these truths and why moral consciousness features so prominently in human existence.  Necessary moral truths by themselves do not have creative power, and a naturalistic universe cannot have any causal interaction with these abstract truths.  Why then should we suppose that a morally blind world would endow us with correct moral intuitions?  The case is different with sense experience whose reliability is to some extent tied with our survival.  It is not without reason that most naturalists would rather adopt moral scepticism. As John Mackie admits, “there can be a secular morality, not indeed as a system of objective values or prescriptions, but rather as something to be made [invented]” (p. 227) (cf. Harman).

The Queerness of Moral Obligation
For Mackie, another reason why morality is so queer is that moral claims have objective prescriptivity, a kind of authoritativeness: “any wrong (possible) course of action would have not-to-be-doneness somehow built into it” (p. 40). George Mavrodes points out that naturalistic evolution may well produce creatures with moral sentiments which are survival-conducive.  However, the existence of actual moral obligations appears to be strange, especially because moral obligations often come into conflict with self-interest.

Some atheists try to reconcile moral obligations with self-interest, and claim that in the long-term it is in the best interests of everyone for every individual to act morally (cf. David Gauthier; Gregory S. Kavka). The viability of this kind of contractualist project depends on whether it can satisfactorily answer questions like: Should one still be moral when in fact not everyone else will act morally? What about the moral free-rider? Do the extremely powerful people really need to act morally? Why should we sacrifice our own interests for the benefits of people who cannot reciprocate, e.g., future generations, extremely marginalized people in our society, and people in distant countries? Is it rational to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of morality?

The Moral Gap
A broadly Kantian moral argument continues to find defenders. Ronald Green starts from the question: “Why should I be moral?” John Hare focuses on the gap between the moral demand and our capacities to meet this demand, according to most moral theories. Since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, the description of the life in this moral gap is incoherent. To resolve this incoherence, secular moralists either exaggerate our moral capacity, reduce the moral demand or to find some God-substitute to help bridge the gap. Hare criticizes many of these options, and argue that the Christian doctrines of atonement and incorporation in Christ can solve the problem. Debates surround whether Hare’s criticisms of the secular options are cogent, and whether the Christian faith can really offer something that other options cannot (see Linda Zagzebski).

The Euthyphro Dilemma
Atheistic philosophers like Kai Nielsen and Michael Martin have produced sustained replies to the moral argument. They think the Euthyphro Dilemma shows that morality has to be independent of God. If morality depends on God’s command, then morality will become arbitrary because God might command cruelty for its own sake. If one denies this possibility, one already commits to an independent standard of goodness apart from God.

Some theists reply by saying that God’s essential nature, from which the divine will flows, provides the ultimate standard of goodness, and this is neither independent of God nor arbitrary. Robert M. Adams has proposed a Modified Divine Command Ethics, which postulates contrariety to commands of a loving God as the nature of wrongness. This is not an analysis of the meaning of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ because Adams grants that our moral practice gives us some basic understanding of morality apart from religion. However, he thinks that it doesn’t follow that we can understand the nature of wrongness. (Even if we all understand the meaning of ‘water,’ it does not follow we cannot further discover that the nature of water is H2O.) On Adams’s view, the answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is that a loving God will not command cruelty for its own sake.

Critical Dialogue between Ethical Systems
The success of the moral argument in the long run depends on the relative merits of the theistic and atheistic accounts of morality. (In the future we should also include, say, Confucianist ethics and Buddhist ethics among the contenders.) Adams (1999) has developed his theistic ethics into a comprehensive theory of the good and the right. Michael Moore and Michael Martin have made use of naturalistic moral realism (e.g., David Brink) to show the superiority of naturalistic ethics and the superfluity of theistic ethics (cf. the debate between Paul Copan and Martin [Copan 2003, 2004]). The moral argument does not appear to be a conclusive argument. Its significance mainly lies in its possible contribution to a cumulative case for the existence of God, and its capacity to stimulate a lively debate on the implications of different worldviews on morality.      (1,415 words)

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Kai-man Kwan, Hong Kong Baptist University