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Bronze-level article

Argument from morality

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One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.
Arthur C. Clarke

The argument from morality is the apologist argument that God is the source of all morality,[1] and therefore, if objective morality exists, God must exist.[2]

A particular form of it is St. Thomas Aquinas's argument that the moral part of the Mosaic Law could be deduced from natural law. A further extension is that all morality comes from scripture, which in turn is the word of God.

It is one of the seven arguments that William Lane Craig has built his originality-free public speaking career on - he has rehearsed it to death and uses it in almost literally every single public appearance.

Taking the implications of the argument from morality seriously notoriously causes a bluescreen in terms of both ethics and logic. Oops.

Criticisms of the argument[edit]

The argument's justification for proving God's existence is often countered by explaining or postulating naturalistic origins for morality. While there are various secular formulations of morality and ethics, such as humanism, it needs to be explained why we feel morality. Evolutionary advantages for certain behaviors that one could consider "moral" provide an alternative explanation that does not require a god. Evolutionary psychology, when it works properly, attempts to do this. For example, killing another person is detrimental to society at large; the tribe has one less person to help or defend it, and possibly a slew of extra strife between friends and family of the victim vs. those of his/her killer. Law enforcement is not perfectly efficient, and morality provides an additional barrier against criminal behavior. There are also several other specific refutations against the idea that morality comes from God and God alone, as well as logical flaws in using it as an argument for the existence of a divine deity:

  • The existence of God is assumed in defining something that already exists (morality); therefore it is circular reasoning by attempting to show the existence of God in this manner.
  • The assumption of an omnipotent God leads to problems communicating a moral code in a clear way to people in an authentic manner.[3]
  • The specification that morality is "hard-wired" by God (to circumvent the communication problem) implies that this argument from morality is dependent on direct creation actually happening, and that the Original sin didn't change/damage it.
  • There are explanations for the origin of morals other than "Goddidit".
  • When multiple religions/denominations each use this argument to justify their own version of deity, the credibility of the whole argument weakens. This is because the "objective" morality used for the premise is not exactly the same for each religion/denomination.
  • For Abrahamic religions, God's actions aren't exactly what most people can justify as "moral" when they are the ones performing such actions. Now you can say "It was ok then", or "It's ok for God to do that kind of thing, just not us", but at that point you've already thrown out moral absolutism.
  • Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that if all of Divine Morality can be derived from naturalistic morality (i.e., Divine Morality is morally equivalent to "whatever is best for humanity"), religion and the gods themselves aren't necessary for humans to have Divine Morality. If Divine Morality contradicts naturalistic morality, Divine Morality and thus the gods themselves are actually malevolent.

Omnimalevolence vs omnibenevolence[edit]

The proponent of this argument must present logical evidence explaining why their God must be omnibenevolent rather than omnimalevolent. This is related to the Euthyphro dilemma: asking if things are good because God says so, or God is good because there is a morality that God follows.

One can choose to have omnibenevolence as part of the definition of God, but this is not necessarily true when considering God as an hypothesis with necessary characteristics and inferred, or desirable, characteristics. Godly traits such as omnipotence and omniscience are substantiated because the God hypothesis necessitates them. For example, a God which grants arbitrary miracles would necessitate their omnipotence and a God which can determine things that will happen in the future would necessitate omniscience so we can safely assume those properties of that particular God. So ultimately, the theist must present similar logical evidence that necessitates an omnibenevolent God, rather than an omnimalevolent one, or at least not a morally disinterested one. To put it simply, the theist must explain why their god is 'good' rather than 'bad'.

A second possible answer proving God to be benevolent may be that it's obviously better for something to be all good than for it to be all bad. But this causes a few more problems. Effectively, the theist has created a morality outside of God (invalidating the argument that God is the source of morality), then assessed God's nature by this standard of morality to conclude that God is 'all good'. This response is patently incoherent as you can't affirm the objectivity of God by first assessing it with subjective standards. This is why any argument for an omnibenevolent God is fantastically idealistic; there is simply no reason why God must be omnibenevolent rather than omnimalevolent. Unless, of course, someone can think up a way out of this that doesn't contradict the above?

Demonstrating the existence of objective morality[edit]

The proponent of this argument must demonstrate the essentiality of an objective morality, and thus demonstrate the existence of an objective morality.

An obvious rebuttal would be 'we must have an objective morality to tell right from wrong' — an ostensibly reasonable statement, but sadly it holds no basis in reality. Arguing this line has one major shortcoming: it does not explain why we must distinguish right from wrong; there is no mechanism of essentiality outlined definitively requiring humans to be able to discern right from wrong. Of course, here the theist will object that 'this proves atheists are amoral', but again this holds no basis in reality. Just because something is not essential does not mean we don't still subscribe to it. In the case of murder, for example, an objective morality dictates that such an act is forbidden. However, humans have long come to know that such an act is reprehensible for purely secular reasons. So to recap, the theist must show that an objective morality is essential, and then establish the existence of an objective morality, and prove the existence of a objective-morality-generating entity, and finally link their version of God as the only possible objective morality generating entity.

Not so much an objection as it is an open question, but to the theist: Is it merely a coincidence that the well-being of sentient creatures, secular subjective morality, and the supposed objective morality of God (outside of His own actions in the Old Testament) correlate so strongly?

Using the stages of moral development proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg,[4] it could be suggested that fundamentalists claiming that morality comes from the Bible passes no more than the first, pre-conventional, level. This level cites self-interest and fear of punishment as the driving force for morality, and is most common in children. However, given that fundamentalists respect the authority of the Bible, it could be argued that they are in the second, conventional, level — in which morality is driven by a respect of authority and the social norms it provides.

An objective morality could not depend in any way on the identity of the actor. As an ironic consequence of this, since Christian morality invariably refuses to hold God to the same standard as men, it clearly isn't objective.

The inverse argument[edit]

The inverse argument states that since God is the only source of morality, not believing in God implies lack of morality. It suffers from the following problems similarly to the argument above:

  • The argument presupposes God without first establishing God's existence.
  • Even if God were the only source of morality, a lack of belief in God still doesn't automatically imply a lack of morality.
  • What morality: the assumption of an omnipotent God leads to problems communicating a moral code in a clear way to people in an authentic manner.[3]
  • There are explanations for the origin of morals other than "Goddidit".
  • For Abrahamic religions, God's actions aren't exactly what most people would classify as leading by example.

Examples[edit]

It has huge consequences for society and it's where we come from. Does man have a purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply, you know, the result of chance. If we're the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us that if, in fact, we are a creation of a being that has moral demands.
Rick Santorum[5]
You have to start asking questions: Well, if evolution is true, and it’s just all about the male propagating their DNA, we had to ask hard questions, like, well, is rape wrong?
—Darek Issacs[6]
Immoral atheists (which is a redundant phrase IMO) ...
—Michael Smit[7]
You are talking to a person, who don’t believe in God, what’s his moral barometer? Where’s it at? It’s nowhere.
—Steve Harvey[8]

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Argument from molarity.

External links[edit]

References[edit]