Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Moral Objectivity and Disagreement

The moral argument is a wonderful tool for demonstrating the existence of an omnibenevolent God. It has found purchase with young and old, college students and the middle aged; most people resonate with its premises. A common formulation of the moral argument is as follows.

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

A common objection to this argument from the atheistic perspective is the somewhat surprising denial of (2). I typically have found most people unwilling to say that there is nothing actually evil or wrong in the world. The specific objection is that differing opinions among people as to what constitutes morally good and evil values (or what constitutes right and wrong in relation to moral obligation) indicates morality is subjective.

The force of the objection lies in the truth of its antecedent condition. That is, we do disagree as to what things count as good and evil, or which actions are right and wrong. However, this objection’s conclusion does not follow. There are a few fatal errors.

First, the disagreements supplied are not actually disagreements as to whether or not there are objective moral values, just their specified content. No one, externally to this debate, claims the Iraq War is not to be morally justified or condemned on account of the fact there is no objective morality. They present their case on why they believe the subject applies to one of the categories of moral value. So, far from supporting moral subjectivity, it seems we may regard disagreement as empirical evidence for objective morality!

Second, it conflates moral epistemology with moral ontology. William Lane Craig has remarked concerning this, “Over and over again in the debate I carefully distinguished between moral ontology (questions about the reality of moral values) and moral epistemology (questions about how we come to know moral values), and I said that my argument is solely about the objective reality of moral values, not how we come to know them.”[1]

No Christian theist who uses the moral argument supposes that our knowledge of moral values is what causes these moral values to be objective! Rather, we posit moral duties and obligations are discovered. But it simply doesn’t follow that if there is a certain method of epistemology then a certain ontological status is bestowed.

Finally, it does not acknowledge exceptions as such. By this I mean that the people who are actually unable to perceive there are moral values and duties do not really count as evidence that there are no such moral values and duties. An example is in order. My brother-in-law is color blind. Suppose I gave him a brand-new red tie for Christmas this year. He thanks me for it but he cannot perceive the redness of the tie. Does it follow that “color” does not exist objectively because he (and some others) cannot perceive it? Of course it does not. So it is with objective morality. Just because a few cannot perceive moral values and duties, it does nothing to the fact that we have objective experiences we are all rational to accept as veridical. Further, I suspect there are relatively few such people in the world. Most of the people who claim morality is subjective do not really believe such. The remainder are sociopathic/psychopathic, by definition.

In case one is still unsure, consider this: we have far more reason to accept objective morality is true than false. In fact, considering our experiences, the only sufficient evidence to count against objective morality’s existence is to posit that God does not exist. Without external reasons to believe such, the objector would be guilty of begging the question.

[1] William Lane Craig, #199 “Objections to the Moral Argument,” < >, accessed February 23, 2011.

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