Mailbag: Does the Moral Argument Have a Fatal Flaw?

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In December, we shared a post on Facebook about The Morals of the Story, a book written by two of our editors, David and Marybeth Baggett. Along with the post, we included this snippet from a review of the book:

"If humanity’s deep and unshakable moral intuitions are correct, then The Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response."

In response to this idea, Heath writes,

 The point being that "objective morality points to the existence of god.” Which god, might I ask? Well, of course the Christian god. Who else? Why not Allah, or Shiva, or Quetzacoatyl? These are all gods too. And if objective morality points to god, objectively it points to ALL gods equally. Objective morality. Can there even be such a thing? I think all morality is subjective, not objective. It would be nice if moralities were indeed objective, but since we've decided to tie morality to religion we must necessarily reject objectivity. Example: A large group of profoundly fervent jungle tribesmen find it moral to hack the hearts out of living men, women and children to appease their gods. That is moral to them. Another group believes that 2000 years ago a god sacrificed himself to himself so that the believers can be forgiven for all time. That is moral, to them. A different group of people use reason to construct morals. Morals based on enlightened self-interest. Obviously they would reject the morals of both previously mentioned groups. These are atheists, and only without religious bias can morals begin to be objective.

Reply,

Hi Heath,

Thank you for your comment and you raise a couple of important objections to a moral argument for the truth of Christianity. Of course, your post is brief and one would not expect arguments to be fully developed in the context of social media, so I will try to spell out how I think you intend the argument to go. I take it that you have two concerns about the claim that if human moral intuitions are correct, then this suggests that Christian theism is correct.

First, even if humans generally and accurately apprehend moral truths, and even if this is best explained by theism, it is not at all clear how this would be best explained by Christian theism. If morality requires some form of supernaturalism, then many supernatural explanations of morality are available and it is not immediately obvious why the Christian explanation should fare any better than, say, the Hindu explanation. If there are moral truths that need supernatural explanation, then that is evidence that applies equally well to all supernatural accounts.

Second, you suggest that morality is not objective and, therefore, there are no moral truths with which Christians can build their moral case for Christian theism. The hypothetical story about the origin of moral beliefs is meant to motivate this conclusion that moral realism is not correct. Later, in another comment, you add this: “Different cultures have different morals. Hence the subjective nature of it all. I don't get why you presume a standard morality to be everywhere. That is a pipe dream. Not a reality.” In that case, the whole project of The Morals of the Story rests on the mistake of thinking moral realism (the view that there are objective moral realities) obtains. Since the project assumes something true that is false, it must be fatally flawed.

Let me take the second objection first. There are two kinds of reply I want to make here. First, I want to say something about why we should think moral realism is a justified belief. Second, I want to consider whether we have any good reason to think it is not.

Geoff Sayre-McCord, a philosopher teaching at the University of North Carolina, claims that “moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side.”[1] The reason that Sayre-McCord might say that moral realism has this advantage is that we simply find ourselves believing in moral realism and we find ourselves having a high degree of confidence in these beliefs.[2] It seems obvious to most people that there are at least some moral facts.

For example, for most it seems obviously true that the Holocaust was factually, objectively, morally wrong. It seems equally as obvious that torturing children for fun would be wrong in all the same ways. This, of course, is not anything like a decisive argument that moral realism is correct, but it should provide some reason to think we are justified in believing that moral realism is correct.

After all, we take all kinds of seemings as good justification for belief. It seems to me that there are other minds and that I am not a brain in a vat. It seems to me there is a table over there and that I am drinking coffee. These seemings are adequate grounds for having a justified belief that these things are so. If my three-year-old son looks out the window and sees a tree, it seems to him that there is a tree out there, and he forms the belief “There is a tree out there.” Few would say that this belief is not justified until he has more evidence; the seeming itself is sufficient.

 Of course, for all we know, we could be brains in vats or everyone around us could be mindless zombies that act exactly as if they had minds, but epistemologists generally agree that the mere possibility that these states of affairs could be actual should not worry us very much. Justification doesn’t require certainty.

However, justified beliefs can have their justification defeated. One might have good reasons to think that we are brains in vats, for example. Perhaps, like Neo from The Matrix, one could somehow become aware that reality as they experience it is a mere simulation. In that case, the belief that I am not a brain in a vat would no longer be justified.

My suggestion is that our moral intuitions are kinds of seemings analogous to the other kinds I have mentioned and that there are prima facie grounds for counting our moral intuitions as justified beliefs. Just as our experience of empirical realities can justify our belief in the external world or other minds, likewise our moral experience can offer us initial justification for at least certain of our less negotiable moral convictions. If one does not experience these moral intuitions, then, clearly, he could not be justified in believing in moral realism on this basis. Or, if he has sufficiently strong defeaters, he could no longer consider his belief justified, unless he defeats the defeaters. My view is that moral intuitions provide a prima facie reason for thinking that moral realism obtains.

If that is claim, then the next thing we will want to consider is whether there are any defeaters for moral intuitions. You offer one such possible defeater: the reality of moral disagreement. But it is not true that disagreement entails or even implies that a belief is false or that there is no truth to the matter. The history of science provides ample evidence of this. People disagreed with the heliocentric model of the solar system, but this did not imply that the proposition “The earth revolves around the sun” is neither objectively true nor false. Today, the flat earth movement is growing alarmingly and unfortunately fast. As a result, there is disagreement about whether the earth there is a flat disc or a globe. But this does not imply that, therefore, the truth of the proposition “The earth is not a disc” is merely a matter of subjective preference or opinion. If some proposition is objectively true then, by definition, whether people agree that it is true or not is not relevant to its status as a true proposition. So, I do not consider the argument from moral disagreement to be a defeater for the justification of our beliefs about moral realism. And so, if I am correct, then I continue to be justified in thinking that moral intuitions generate true moral beliefs.

If our belief in moral realism is justified, then we still have the remaining question of how the truth of these beliefs is best explained by Christian theism. You argue that the evidence is explained equally well by any religious perspective. But this simply is not the case. Some religions may not make any attempt to explain moral facts; they may say that ethics are ultimately illusory, as is the case in various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. One central doctrine of some forms of Buddhism is annata or “no self” doctrine. This is the view that the perception of ourselves and others as moral agents is an error. We simply do not exist as persons. Perhaps we could preserve some form of moral realism on this view, but it would not accommodate what most take to be the obvious moral facts, even by most people living in contexts where the no-self doctrine is promoted. There is a reason why the Buddha needed to achieve enlightenment in order to discover the truth; his doctrines are directly at odds with our most basic beliefs about ourselves and the only way to overcome them is through rigorous practice.  Further, at least some religions are intrinsically bad explanations for anything. Scientology seems obviously and inherently less likely to be a good explanation for any phenomena it might be summoned to explain.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, readily and naturally explains how many of our most deeply held moral beliefs are true. Suppose we think that human beings have dignity and value. The Christian worldview claims that ultimate reality is constituted by a being who is tri-personal. This being is the locus and ground of all value. It is natural to think that when we find the infinite good of the personal God mirrored in finite things, there we would find dignity and value. Many religions simply do not make the same claim about the nature of reality and the good. Polytheistic religions cannot claim the same thing without contradiction. The Christian worldview further confirms the value of human beings by telling us that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and, most dramatically, in the incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being himself. God thought it worthwhile to condescend to becoming a human being in order that he might redeem humankind.

So, in Christian theology and revelation, we find our moral intuitions about the value of human beings easily and logically explained. That is just one example, but there are many others.[3] I think this is enough to show that it is just not the case that all religions are equally equipped explain how our moral beliefs can be true. What objective morality can help do is adjudicate between conflicting accounts and help us decide the best explanation. Not every theology is equally well equipped to provide a good explanation of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation—from moral duties to moral freedom, from moral values to the dignity of people, from moral knowledge to an account of evil, from moral regret to moral transformation to moral rationality. This is much of what The Morals of the Story tries to explore and explicate, while respecting the mental freedom of those who remain unconvinced by the argument. Of course here in this short post I can’t make the full case; not even a whole book can. Philosophy is difficult, and takes a serious investment of time.

Heath, you have given us some important objections to consider and I hope that I have at least provided you with some idea of how a Christian might answer them, though I am also sure I have not convinced you to change your mind. We don’t even have the tip of the iceberg here! Maybe we have the tip of the tip and that is all. Still, I think you can at least see how one might argue that belief in moral realism is justified and how, at least possibly and perhaps somewhat plausibly, Christian theism may well be the best explanation of the truth of those moral beliefs.

If you are interested in exploring how Christians think about morality and how it might be evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism, The Morals of the Story is a good place to start. If you are interested in something a bit more rigorous and technical, you might try Good God or God and Cosmos. Baggett and Walls are wrapping up a new book on the history of the moral argument, which you might find of interest as well when it gets published eventually.

Thanks again for your comment,

Jonathan Pruitt

Managing Editor


[1] Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., accessed December 20, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/.

[2] According to a survey of professional philosophers, most believe in moral realism.

[3]For another, fuller perspective, you might see Baggett’s Seven Reasons Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity. If you are interested in how Christianity better explains our moral intuitions about love, you might be interested in this discussion I had with Brian Scalise.

I offer an explanation of how Christianity in particular best explains how we have moral knowledge elsewhere.