April 28, 2009
Why the Argument from Morality (AfM) Fails
One of the most popular contemporary apologetics is the Argument from Morality (AfM); William Lane Craig uses it in every debate round, for example. Despite its near-ubiquity, I maintain that the AfM is, on balance, an argument against the command-morality of theism. Let’s dive in:
The first challenge is to spell out the AfM with precision. Usually, we atheists get assertions on the order of, “Well, if God doesn’t exist, how can you account for morality?” As best as I can tell, the AfM is generally expressed by the following syllogism:
1. Absolute morality exists; there are moral commands that are universal in scope and apply to all persons.
2. For absolute moral commands to have real moral force, there must be a moral lawgiver.
3. The best explanation of a moral lawgiver is that it is the God of the Bible.
4. Therefore, God exists.
A. Burdens. Structurally, remember that the Argument From Morality is an eliminative inference; it has as an essential element to the syllogism the premise that nothing other than a moral lawgiver can account for the existence of objective moral truths — that’s premise (2). Thus, to defend the AfM, the Christian must do more than simply assert that a God-ordained morality is possible; he must show that it is the only possible modality of moral thought.
I can’t stress this enough: the AfM is a response to the atheist’s commonsense objection that insufficient evidence exists to warrant a belief in God. The Christian replies, “Ah, but what about morality? That couldn’t have arisen from any other source, and thus, you must believe in God.” So this argument only works if there are no other sources for morality. If any exist, the AfM is false.
With that in mind, here’s how the AfM breaks down.
B. Premise (1) lacks sufficient justification. Typically, when I have encountered the AfM in the past, premise (1) that “absolute morality exists” is simply asserted as a given. Usually, it takes the form, “Well, you think what the Nazis did was wrong, don’t you?” (I call this the “AfM Axiom.”)
This jab, however, doesn’t seriously undermine a rigorous non-objective moral framework such as situational ethics or intuitionism, both of which are capable of generating moral thoughts that condemn Hitler. Indeed, before the Christian community got all up in arms over Peter Singer, situation ethics were considered explicitly Christian; probably the most well-known situational ethicists were the Christians Joseph Fletcher and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Bonhoeffer, you may recall, was the Lutheran pastor who participated in the “Officer’s Plot” to assassinate Adolf Hitler.) So the implication that situational ethics means cuddling up with the Nazis doesn’t carry much weight with me.
In other words: if non-objective moral schema such as intuitionism can generate the AfM Axiom and thus provide a philosophical justification for condemning Hitler, then premise (1) of the AfM is unwarranted and the AfM is therefore not justified.
C. Premises (1) and (2) are imprecise and lead to false conclusions because of the equivocation over what it means for an abstraction to “exist.”
Personally, I think that absolute morality “exists” in the same way that mathematics “exists” — as true modalities of propositions, but not as a manifestation of an abstraction. Any claim that goes beyond that seems to me to be unjustified. Morality is a methodology of evaluating claims, but it doesn’t have an independent existence in the same way that, say, mangoes or baby pandas do.
For example: we can say that there are twelve of an object, or that so-and-so is twelve years old, and those statements (a) have veridical content and (b) are objective across all observers. And yet it seems pretty straightforward that there doesn’t have to be a “twelve-giver” to make sure that when you count out 12 pebbles, it remains 12 and doesn’t spontaneously turn into 45,000 or zero or negative one billion.
I recognize that there are presuppositional apologetics that contend that God is necessary for basic mathematical propositions to be true, but so far I have not seen any solid justification for those sorts of arguments and they do not strike me as persuasive.
The impact of this imprecision in premises (1) and (2) is that abstractions can “exist” as the accurate description of the interaction between senses and the environment, and thus need not be transcendent.
For example: all human beings experience hunger; hunger thus “exists” as an abstraction. It doesn’t exist spatially, of course. Nor is hunger “created” by an independent entity; rather, it is how we describe the sensation caused by the interaction between our stomachs and our brains. And we can see “hunger” in other mammals, too.
Thus, “hunger” is objective. It means the same thing from person to person. It is “real.” It “exists.” But we do not posit a “hunger-giver” to explain why all people feel hunger.
In this sense, “morality” could be the by-product of a brain capable of rational self-reflection. All beings with such a brain would experience morality; morality would exist objectively across all such beings, but not require any independent causation.
D. Premise (2) is empirically false. No external referent is necessary to generate absolutes of human thought. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics describes how pure human reason, operating without any external stimuli, can generate maxims that are true a priori. More specifically, Kant shows how our reason, unaided, can generate synthetic propositions — those that add to our body of knowledge — in addition to purely analytical ones.
An analytical proposition is one in which the conclusion is contained entirely within the predicate; for example, that “no four-sided triangles exist.” This statement is trivially true a priori, because triangles are defined as having three sides.
But Kant also shows that we can derive synthetic a priori maxims via our reason alone:
First of all, we must observe that all proper mathematical judgments are a priori, and not empirical, because they carry with them necessity, which cannot be obtained from experience. But if this be not conceded to me, very good; I shall confine my assertion pure Mathematics, the very notion of which implies that it contains pure a priori and not empirical cognitions.
It might at first be thought that the proposition 7 + 5 = 12 is a mere analytical judgment, following from the concept of the sum of seven and five, according to the law of contradiction. But on closer examination it appears that the concept of the sum of 7+5 contains merely their union in a single number, without its being at all thought what the particular number is that unites them. The concept of twelve is by no means thought by merely thinking of the combination of seven and five; and analyze this possible sum as we may, we shall not discover twelve in the concept. We must go beyond these concepts, by calling to our aid some concrete image [Anschauung], i.e., either our five fingers, or five points (as Segner has it in his Arithmetic), and we must add successively the units of the five, given in some concrete image [Anschauung], to the concept of seven. Hence our concept is really amplified by the proposition 7 + 5 = 12, and we add to the first a second, not thought in it. Arithmetical judgments are therefore synthetical, and the more plainly according as we take larger numbers; for in such cases it is clear that, however closely we analyze our concepts without calling visual images (Anscliauung) to our aid, we can never find the sum by such mere dissection.
The Prolegomena shows us that absolute mathematics can exist without an independent “math-giver.” Kant then extends this concept in his Groundwork For the Metaphysics of Morals to show us that absolute moral laws can exist without an independent moral lawgiver. Three citations from Kant should suffice, and I’ll try to explain each one:
1. First, Kant explains that moral principles are fully defined by the concept of synthetic a priori judgments, just as in mathematics:
[ Kant 1]:
[T]hese principles are to be found altogether a priori, free from everything empirical, in pure rational concepts only and nowhere else, not even in the smallest degree; then rather to adopt the method of making this a separate inquiry, as pure practical philosophy, or (if one may use a name so decried) as metaphysic of morals,(*) to bring it by itself to completeness, and to require the public, which wishes for popular treatment, to await the issue of this undertaking.
(*) Just as pure mathematics are distinguished from applied, pure logic from applied, so if we choose we may also distinguish pure philosophy of morals (metaphysic) from applied (viz., applied to human nature). By this designation we are also at once reminded that moral principles are not based on properties of human nature, but must subsist a priori of themselves, while from such principles practical rules must be capable of being deduced for every rational nature, and accordingly for that of man.
2. Moreover, later in the Groundwork, Kant demonstrates that both mathematical and moral synthetic a priori statements have the same prescriptive qualities:
Now arises the question, how are all these imperatives possible? This question does not seek to know how we can conceive the accomplishment of the action which the imperative ordains, but merely how we can conceive the obligation of the will which the imperative expresses. No special explanation is needed to show how an imperative of skill is possible. Whoever wills the end, wills also (so far as reason decides his conduct) the means in his power which are indispensably necessary thereto. This proposition is, as regards the volition, analytical; for, in willing an object as my effect, there is already thought the causality of myself as an acting cause, that is to say, the use of the means; and the imperative reduces from the conception of volition of an end the conception of actions necessary to this end. Synthetical propositions must no doubt be employed in defining the means to a proposed end; but they do not concern the principle, the act of the will, but the object and its realization. E.g., that in order to bisect a line on an unerring principle I must draw from its extremities two intersecting arcs; this no doubt is taught by mathematics only in synthetical propositions; but if I know that it is only by this process that the intended operation can be performed, then to say that, if I fully will the operation, I also will the action required for it, is an analytical proposition; for it is one and the same thing to conceive something as an effect which I can produce in a certain way, and to conceive myself as acting in this way.
3. Thus, Kant concludes that the Categorical Imperative is a synthetic, a priori judgment:
We shall therefore have to investigate a priori the possibility of a categorical imperative, as we have not in this case the advantage of its reality being given in experience, so that [the elucidation of] its possibility should be requisite only for its explanation, not for its establishment. In the meantime it may be discerned beforehand that the categorical imperative alone has the purport of a practical law; all the rest may indeed be called principles of the will but not laws, since whatever is only necessary for the attainment of some arbitrary purpose may be considered as in itself contingent, and we can at any time be free from the precept if we give up the purpose; on the contrary, the unconditional command leaves the will no liberty to choose the opposite; consequently it alone carries with it that necessity which we require in a law.
Secondly, in the case of this categorical imperative or law of morality, the difficulty (of discerning its possibility) is a very profound one. It is an a priori synthetical practical proposition;(*) and as there is so much difficulty in discerning the possibility of speculative propositions of this kind, it may readily be supposed that the difficulty will be no less with the practical.
(*) I connect the act with the will without presupposing any condition resulting from any inclination, but a priori, and therefore necessarily (though only objectively, i.e., assuming the idea of a reason possessing full power over all subjective motives). This is accordingly a practical proposition which does not deduce the willing of an action by mere analysis from another already presupposed (for we have not such a perfect will), but connects it immediately with the conception of the will of a rational being, as something not contained in it.
To try and simplify: for Kant, all synthetic a priori judgments are “prescriptive,” because they are “unconditional commands” that give our minds “no liberty to choose the opposite.” I cannot will myself to believe that 7 + 5 = 238; it thus operates as a “command” equal in force to moral imperatives.
Applying those imperatives to particular situations is, as Kant suggests in the Kant 2 citation above, simply an operation of our contingent practical faculties; that’s what he means when he says that “whoever wills the end, wills also the means in his power which are indispensably necessary thereto.”
The bottom line is that the prerequisites to “objective morality” are simply: (a) the ability to ascertain moral truths a priori, which Kant shows is possible without any external referent, and (b) the subjective and contingent condition of the human brain to carry out the will. No third party is necessary.
For Kant, then, I recognize that lying is wrong in exactly the same way that I recognize that the proposition 7 + 5 = 238 is wrong. I may nonetheless choose to lie anyway for personal gain recognizing that my action contradicts my will. Similarly, I may choose to act on 7 + 5 = 238 for personal gain — e.g., in filling out my deductions on my income tax — and I similarly recognize that I have willed an internal contradiction. Thus, one of Kant’s major contributions to the world of metaphysics was the insight that both kinds of statements have equal force from the same source: pure human reason.
I have previously defended Kant from criticism on this thread; friend of EC Luke remains unconvinced, and I will tackle his objections in a separate post. For now, realize that prong (2) of the AfM fails so long as Kantianism is plausible, even if you are not convinced by it.
E. Premises (1) and (2) imply that external “authority” is intrinsically linked to moral behavior, whereas true morality comes from the internal moral will.
This is related to my (D) objection, but essentially, my argument (following Kant) is that if morality is just applying laws dictated by someone else (here, God), then our reason becomes subjectively contingent; i.e., non-objective. As Kant explains, “if reason of itself does not sufficiently determine the will… then the actions which objectively are recognized as necessary are subjectively contingent,” and hence, morality would not flow of necessity from human existence.
In practical terms, I think this observation is supported by the work of developmental psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, who show that for most adults, “obedience to authority” is an insufficient moral motivator; instead, morality consists of applying abstract principles of one’s own conscience.
F. Premises (2) and (3) discount the objective nature of intersubjective judgments.
On face, it seems trivially true that for any given yardstick to be “objective,” the stick itself must not change from object to object being measured. Think about it more closely, however, and you’ll see that this intuitive move is contrary to our everyday experience. For example: a medical textbook will display a “textbook” human body against which the doctor can measure diseases; the textbook will show what an ideal liver looks like, an ideal heart, an ideal brain, etc., etc. How do doctors derive the existence of the “perfect” liver? From aggregating numerous subjective a posteriori sources. That’s intersubjectivity.
What’s critical to understand here is that intersubjectivity is objective. When you go to the doctor, he is not a relativist! He does not say, “Well, what counts as a healthy liver depends upon the circumstances.” No; he says, “This is an idealized conception of what a healthy liver should look like,” and then uses that absolute yardstick as a touchstone for ascertaining where your particular liver diverges from the good.
Now, every actual human liver deviates from the ideal liver in some way; some more than others. Thus, no one liver is ideal to use as a yardstick. But from the intersubjective comparison of lots of livers, we can come up with an idealized liver to use when evaluating individual livers on a case-by-case basis.
Similarly, every human being’s moral behavior deviates from the ideal of morality in some way; some more than others. Thus, no one human being is ideal to use as a yardstick. But, from the intersubjective comparison of lots of humans, we can come up with an idealized moral code to use when evaluating human behavior on a case-by-case basis and that’s all we need to do in order to condemn the Holocaust. No “perfect morality” need exist phenemonally just as no “perfect liver” need exist in any one person.
(In a way, this is the antithesis of the ontological argument; one empirically valid method for deriving perfection is the aggregation of non-perfect things to develop an ideal from which those individual deviations can be measured.)
G. Even if objection (F) is false, a yardstick need not be a creator or lawgiver, and thus Premise (2) is unjustified.
An external referent capable of making a yardstick consistent from person to person need not be the source or Creator of that measuring device. For example, a meter is defined by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures as the distance travelled by light in absolute vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second; prior to that, it was defined by reference to a platinum-iridium bar kept at 0 degrees Celsius. In order for a meter to be constant from measured item to measured item, a separate thing must exist that is invariant of the two items. That’s all. Meters are not “made” or ordained by light or platinum-iridium.
Thus, at most, all the AfM would prove is that some non-human observer exists. It doesn’t prove that the external referent is the source or Creator of the moral law.
H. The Euthyphro Dilemma refutes divine command theory and thus Premises (2) and (3).
If morality is simply what God commands, then it is arbitrary; if God commanded us to slaughter virgins and eat their livers, doing so would be “moral.” This transforms the sentence “God is good” into an empty tautology. On the other hand, if God’s commands are verifiable by referent to some independent moral standard (“God would never command us to eat the livers of freshly-slaughtered virgins!”), then we can simply bypass God and go straight to the standard.
Some theists have tried to answer the Euthyphro Dilemma by asserting that morality isn’t what God commands but merely a reflection of his “nature” or “character.” This doesn’t answer the objection but simply moves it back one level of abstraction; now the question is whether God’s nature is arbitrary or can be evaluated by an independent standard. (This was beautifully and parsimoniously illustrated by the “Jesus and Mo” comic.)
I. Empirical observations suggest that Premise (3) is probably false.
Here, I want to highlight three particular empirical findings that would tend to disprove the notion that the Christian God is the source of revealed morality because secular moral norms are comparatively more robust:
(1) First, we have Biblical atrocities such as the slaughter of the Amalekites and the perpetual slavery of the Gibeonites, combined with the Bible’s odd omissions on key moral issues such as slavery. By contrast, secular standards universally condemn slavery and genocide (which is, after all, the point of the AfM Axiom).
(2) Second, we have Christian disgreement over virtually every ethical principle, even though such principles are basically settled by secular moral standards. Should consenting adults be free to have sodomy in the privacy of their bedrooms? Secular morality says yes; Christians are divided. Should unmarried couples be able to purchase condoms? Secular morality says yes; Christians aren’t sure. What about gay civil unions? Secular morality says yes (except for a few libertarian arguments that the government shouldn’t be in the marriage/union business at all); Christians aren’t sure. In fact, is homosexuality a sin? Some Christians say yes; others say no. And so on.
(3) Finally, we can observe that (in America, at least) Christians tend to commit violent crimes and engage in other forms of immoral behavior in greater percentages than do atheists.
Christians try to explain this finding away as the problem of sin in a fallen world, but that “explanation” discounts any probabilistic reasoning and so is of no utility.
For all of these reasons, I find the AfM unpersuasive; in fact, under propositions (H) and (I), the AfM provides us with greater reason to reject Christian theism.