Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The First Premise of the Moral Argument

One version of the moral argument for God's existence is as follows:

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

A useful tactic one can employ in persuading someone of the truth of the first premise is to simply point out that traditionally atheists have agreed with it.  Peter S. Williams provides the following examples in his excellent article Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?:

 Jean-Paul Sartre

"when we speak of 'abandonment' – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said … nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that 'the good' exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted'; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself."

Paul Kurtz

"The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral."

Julian Baggini 

"If there is no single moral authority [i.e. no God] we have to in some sense 'create' values for ourselves ... [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error."

Richard Dawkins

"The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose [i.e. no God], no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."  Dawkins concedes: "It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones." [1]

Another example that could be added to the list is one we recently featured by atheist Joel Marks:

"The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality.  I call the premise of this argument 'hard atheism.'  ... A 'soft atheist' would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality.  And indeed, the whole crop of 'New Atheists' are softies of this kind.  So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God.  Hence, I believe, there is no morality." [2]

Apart from God there exists nothing to ground or anchor (moral ontology) objective moral truths.  That should be the main point we strive to drive home in arguing for the truth of premise 1.  However, I believe it is also helpful to point out that atheists have traditionally agreed.

For readers who may be new to the moral argument, I teach a simpler version here.

Courage and Godspeed,


1. Peter S. Williams, Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?, 2011. 
2.  Joel Marks, "An Amoral Manifesto I," Philosophy Now 80 (August/September 2010): 30 as quoted by Abdu H. Murray in Grand Central Question.


Andrew Ryan said...

You quote Julian Baggini as saying: "If [morals] are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral"

I haven't read the context in which Baggini made the above statement, but I don't think he agrees with your above argument. He also said the following: “Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him.”

You say: "Apart from God there exists nothing to ground or anchor (moral ontology) objective moral truths"

In what way does God ground or anchor objective moral truths?

Chad said...

Hello Mr. Ryan,

I hope you and your family are well and thank you for taking the time to comment.

I'm curious- Could you provide a reference for the quote above?

You asked, "In what way does God ground or anchor objective moral truths?"

This is an excellent question; however, judging from past experience I highly doubt that I could provide you with an answer in this brief comment format that you would find satisfactory or exhaustive enough. So, I encourage you to check out this resource from Dr. Paul Copan. I believe he does a good job in this work explaining how God grounds or anchors objective moral truths.

I also encourage you to checkout the article by Peter S. Williams that I referred to in the post and his extensive "On Line Reading" section.

Take care

Andrew Ryan said...

Hi Chad. Search engines such as google are generally very useful for searching out references for quotes. Here's where the Baggini quote comes from. You may disagree with his position - I expect you to, in fact - but it shows what his actual position is.

Chad said...

Readers may also want to checkout Peter S. Williams's review of Baggini's book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction here.