Monday, November 18, 2013

Bridging the Gap in Communicating about Morals

We have already studied the ideas of internal and external critique. These concepts are key to understanding the dialectic of a particular topic. The purpose of this article is to bridge a communication gap between the skeptic and the Christian. On the one side, the Christian is saying that there is an issue with a skeptic’s claiming that God is not really good, or the problem of evil eliminates (or renders extremely unlikely) God. The problem, she says, is that evil is an objective moral value, and the skeptic doesn’t (in these hypothetical cases, anyway) believe in objective moral values! On the other side, the skeptic is saying that, on their view, God is still bad. It’s my assessment of this issue that both sides are talking past each other, and that both sides are correct, in particularly relevant ways. I think the application of the distinction between internal and external critiques will be helpful here.

First, the atheist is correct when he claims that this kind of criticism (the problem of evil, or God’s not being good) does not thereby commit him to objective moral values, and hence, God. Why do I say that? Because the atheist’s critique can be said to be an internal one for Christianity. The most common type of criticism in this form is to assume the truth of the claim/proposition/worldview and reduce it to absurdity (or deduce from it a contradiction). This is what, typically, the skeptic is doing here. He is assuming that God is good, takes the conception of God and tries to show that what God is doing is not compatible with a good God. It can be said to be a critique examining what would be the case were certain premises taken as true (a counterfactual discussion, if you will). That alone no more commits the skeptic to the claim that there are objective moral values any more than it commits him to God’s existence (since in order for one to assume God is good, he must assume God exists, for God cannot be anything if he does not exist). We should not attempt to rebut the skeptic by insisting he has agreed to God’s existence, and we should not attempt to rebut the skeptic by insisting he has, in this critique, thereby committed himself to objective moral values.

Now we get to the fun part. Second, the Christian is correct when she claims that the skeptic is borrowing objective morality from the Christian worldview in order to condemn God. “Wait a minute!” I can hear you exclaim. “That totally contradicts what you just wrote!” True, if I mean the two situations to be in the same sense (which I don’t). For many, if not most, of these skeptics (and certainly the ones in the imaginary scenario I am devising) believe in objective moral values (and over 99% of them certainly behave as if they do). Therefore, they really should feel the force of the moral argument for God’s existence from evil. That is:

1.     Evil exists.
2.     If evil exists, objective moral values exist.
3.     If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
4.     Therefore, objective moral values exist (from [1-2]).
5.     Therefore, God exists (from [3, 4]).

Now under the current hypothetical dialectic, the skeptic is wanting to be a moral nihilist, at least on an objective scale, so he will have to deny (1). (2) is a matter of definition, and (3) can only be denied by the skeptic if he thinks God does not exist and objective moral values do exist, and that option is not open to him without revising his beliefs. Now what’s truly interesting is that this skeptic, unless he is psychopathic, perceives that there are objective moral facts about the world. He just so happens to think those perceptions are non-veridical. But why think that? And, what reason is available to the moral skeptic for rejecting intuitions regarding moral skepticism that does not also render his moral judgments moot? That is to say, if he thinks his moral intuitions lead him astray concerning moral facts, then why should we think anything of his moral intuitions regarding the consistency of God and moral facts about his actions? The major point to remember is that strong intuition counts greatly in one’s belief. It’s unlikely most people really disbelieve in objective morality. However, so long as they do believe it, they are thereby committed to just the sort of reasoning of which the theist accuses them. Only if they can show that God does not exist and objective moral values exist (or there is some metaphysically possible scenario in which that is true) do they escape the problem. If they affirm evil exists, they commit themselves to God's existence, and if they deny it, they undermine our reason for trusting their moral intuitions.

So, overall, and in most cases, the theist is correct against the skeptic. He is borrowing the Christian worldview in that there just doesn’t seem to be objective moral values truly grounded in anything objective—without God. Hopefully, this at least helps both sides to understand where the other is coming from.


  1. Hi Randy, I haven't read a whole lot on the Moral Argument but just wondered if the atheist could argue that morals values are objectively true in the same sense as, say, mathematical truths? That is, I presume the sum "2+2=4" is true whether God exists or not (and also whether or not creatures exists who are intelligent enough to figure out the answer to the sum) so couldn't the atheist say the statement "torturing babies for fun is wrong" is just necessarily true regardless of whether God exists or not?

    1. Hi James, I suppose they could. Though it is worth noting there are some interesting discussions going on right now about whether or not God is necessary for logical laws (and therefore, mathematical truths, because these are certainly alike). As one who believes in God's necessary being and as the foundation in every possible world, I actually don't think it's possible--that is to say, per impossible, if God were not to exist, then everything follows, including 2+2=4 being incorrect.

      However, I think there are a number of relevant differences between moral facts and facts about math. First, and perhaps most importantly, moral facts constitute perceived obligations that we owe in light of those facts, and those facts only. That is, the fact that we should love our brothers constitutes a prescriptive obligation on me to do so, whereas with math, no such mathematical truth constitutes an obligation on my part--not even to get it right.

      Even if we construe such an obligation (i.e., if you want to get the answer right, you should put "4" at the end of 2+2=), such an "ought" is not imperative, just essential to a specific activity. But no one wants to say that moral values are equally so described ("if you want to be moral, do this"); rather, we think that, whether or not you care, you are morally obligated to do such-and-such.

      Another difference is that, because of moral duties, it seems utterly bizarre that moral facts should exist in the absence of humans. Remember, on a naturalistic system, there were billions of years of moral values just being out there necessarily, constituting obligations on presumably no one--it's like the moral realm "knew we were coming" (as reported by Craig), which of course it could not!

    2. OK, thanks. Very helpful.

  2. I was just thinking a bit more about your reply....I suppose the atheist might at the most be able to say whilst they believe moral truths exist in the same way as mathematical truths do, the reason humans have - or at least feel they have - an obligation towards moral truths is because evolution has selected and conferred these feelings of obligation on us for survival purposes, whereas knowing mathematical truths doesn't help with survival (or maybe they do?) and therefore we don't feel obligated to allign ourselves with mathematical truths in the same way. D'you think the atheist could go that route?

    1. Not for moral ontology--it would work as a description of our moral epistemology. It just wouldn't tell us anything about the ontology (the grounds or lack thereof). :)


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!