April 28, 2009

Why the Argument from Morality (AfM) Fails

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Atheism and Morality tagged , , , , , at 11:59 am by Andrew

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:

[Kant 2]:

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:

[Kant 3]:

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.


  1. correctmyreligion said,

    I would be interested in your opinion on this post…


  2. Steven Carr said,

    ‘Similarly, every human being’s moral behavior deviates from the ideal of morality in some way; some more than others.’

    What is the ideal of morality? To be more specific with my question, what is the point of moral behaviour? What are people trying to achieve by acting morally?

    Is the point of moral behaviour to glorify God (or Allah)?

    ‘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.’

    If we knew even vaguely what Christians were trying to achieve by behaving morally, then we could see how to answer those questions.

    But I don’t see how we can evaluate what is moral or what is not moral until we know what we are trying to achieve by acting morally. It would be like trying to work out what are good or bad plays in football , without ever being told what the objective in football is. How would you do that?

    But Christians very rarely even attempt to say what the goal of moral behaviour is. Surely there must be more to life than trying to glorify God.

    • pelorix said,

      It depends on the “Christian”. The correct answer is not to glorify God, as that is an action in and of itself. The goal, or true purpose rather, is for man to strive for godliness or to strive to regain what he lost in the Fall of Man. It is all done through agape.

      Saint Athanasius states that Christ became man so that men could become gods (little “g” haha). I think this sums it up.

      God was not meant to be an idol idly worshiped, but a life lived. By being moral, we are achieving something of our intended nature. Many, like the author in this post, may argue that morality can be found in nature, but it cannot. It is only the nature of man to be moral; and why is that?

      I recommend reading up on a couple things if you are truly interested. “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis is a good start to the Argument from Morality. On the more philosophical side I’d recommend reading some works of Soren Keirkegaard and Christian Existentailism.

  3. Mmmm…. this is why I value the work of professional philosophers.
    You misunderstand what philosophers mean by “objective morality.” Objective morality means independent of what anyone believes, says, etc. It doesn’t mean any particular set of moral rules, or even type of moral rules. For this reason, both situational ethics and intuitionism are potentially compatible with objective morality.

    Also, Kant’s views are extremely controversial, and I don’t see that any of the quotes from him you provide provide clear arguments for those views of Kant’s which you invoke. For example, empiricists would say that while 7 +5 = 12 may not be an obvious case of an analytic statement at first glance, one we really understand the concepts involved we will see that it is analytic.

    • Andrew said,


      Not really sure what I’ve done to deserve your condescending tone here.

      1. I don’t think I’m “misunderstanding” anything here; feel free to provide a link if you think otherwise. I’m defining objective morality the way Christians define it when they advance the AfM; that is, as the opposite of “subjective morality”/ethical relativism, meaning that the moral rules exist a priori and do not vary with particular situations and/or experiences.

      Thus, situational ethics and intuitionism are not compatible with objective morals as that term is commonly deployed by Christians. Nevertheless, as I show above, those frameworks (and countless others; I don’t claim to be exhaustive) are capable of generating the AfM axiom.

      P.S.: I’ve got an undergraduate degree in philosophy, so I don’t think your “professional philosophers” potshot is particularly warranted. I freely admit when I’m out of my depth, but I don’t see a serious critique of my actual arguments here.

      2. Calling Kant “controversial” isn’t really an argument (nor, I think, is it a serious representation of his views in the larger philosophical community). Remember that under the AfM, so long as Kant’s epistemology is feasible, the argument is defeated.

      Your refutation, in my estimation, is wide of the mark. Of course empiricists would disagree with Kantian epistemology. How is that an internal critique?

      • Luke said,


        I think text-based communication leads to some confusion. Maybe if you’d heard Hallquist’s voice tonality as he was telling you the above, you wouldn’t think he meant any condescension. Maybe. Anyway, when I read Hallquist’s post above, I did not read any condescension. Then again, I wasn’t the target of his criticisms.

  4. kreitsauce said,

    I agree with Hallq on this one. Independent morality exists apart from anybody’s system. That’s what the apologists are arguing in their assertions. While I do find value in some of Kant’s writings, I’m not sure that I see the connection entirely with what you are saying.

    • Steven Carr said,

      Independent morality exists apart from anybody’s system.

      Is that like saying it is always correct to punt on 4th and 16, regardless of how the head coach prefers to play football or what the situation is regarding the clock, score and field position?

      Isn’t the argument from morality a bit like claiming that unless there is a Head Coach in the sky saying what the best play is in each situation, then people who do not believe in the Head Coach have no way of justifying their plays?

      Or is the problem with this analogy that there is a defined objective in football, while Christians refuse to say what the objective of moral behaviour is?

      Is the objective of moral behaviour to glorify God? Is it to help human beings hav better, more satisfying lives?

      Craig is fond of the Argument from Morality, but never explains just why people should be moral.

      Why do human beings have a moral obligation to glorify the being Craig worships? Craig just claims people do, but why do they have such an alleged moral obligation.

  5. Andrew said,


    1. How is that definition compatible with situational ethics? Maybe I’m just not understanding the argument here.

    2. I stand by my argument that I’ve used “objective morality” the same way Christians are using it; see:

    here; and

    just for starters.

    3. In any event, this is all just whistling past the graveyard. If intuitionism or situational ethics qualify as objective moral schema in the Christian’s eyes, then the AfM is false by default. That’s great for us as atheists, but I suspect that few Christians would be willing to concede that point!

    • The point about Kant’s ethics only needing to be feasible is a fair one–though it could have been clearer that that was the point you were making. The rest of your replies, though, make me think the condensation was warranted:

      (1) The phrase “exist a priori is gibberish: a priori is a term that applies to knowledge, not existence.

      (2) You seem unable to grasp my point that “objective morality” standardly refers only to not varying with beliefs, rather than not varying with beliefs OR situation.

      (3) The idea that morality does not vary with situation is so silly that it’s silly to have a philosophical term for it. Every moral system takes situation into account at some level. All non-pacifists, for example, think it is wrong to kill people in most situations, but not all situations. “Situational ethics” isn’t the claim that ethics varies with situation so much as a particular claim about HOW it varies with the situation.

      (4) None of the links you supply actually support your definition.

      (5) If the Christian arguments for morality requiring God were correct, it would follow that situational ethics could not be true unless God exists. Therefore, it is a mistake to think that the AfM would be invalid if situational ethics were compatible with objective morality.

      (6) I have no idea why it isn’t a “serious representation” to call Kant’s views controversial.

      (7) My point about empiricists was not just that they would disagree. It’s that they’ve presented a way of thinking about the issue that undermines Kant’s argument.

      • Andrew said,

        Once again, I find myself astonished by the unbelievably sarcastic nature of your reply. Did I run over your dog or something?

        I’m continuing to try and be polite here, but your responses make very little sense. First, let me remind you of the overall ridiculous nature of your objection. You’re contending that Christians would accept situational ethics as an “objective” moral schema. So in other words, you propose that the following exchange occur:

        Christian: The Argument from Morality proves that God exists!

        Hallquist: No, because situational ethics are also objective, and they don’t require God.

        Christian: Oh. You’re right!

        I submit that such an exchange is highly unlikely, backed up by citations to the first four relevant hits off of google to Christian apologetics; they say stuff like:

        Morality is of over-riding importance. If someone morally ought to do something, then this over-rules any other consideration that might come into play.

        [from the first citation]

        Do you see how the Christian definition would thus exclude situational ethics as qualifying as an “objective” moral schema? If not, I’m not sure we have much more to discuss.

        Now, on to your specifics:

        (1) The phrase “exist a priori is gibberish: a priori is a term that applies to knowledge, not existence.

        Look, if you want to be a pedant, at least be correct in your pedantry; I used the phrase “exist a priori to refer to the knowledge of particular moral rules. And, let’s see: a google search for “exist a priori” yields over 37,000 hits. If you’re looking for nits to pick, go back and highlight where I’ve split infinitives or left dangling participles or something.

        (2) You seem unable to grasp my point that “objective morality” standardly refers only to not varying with beliefs, rather than not varying with beliefs OR situation.

        I “grasp” it, you arrogant nitwit. My point — which I’ve now made on four separate occasions — is that Christians are not using objective morality in the way you’re using it when they advance the AfM; otherwise, it wouldn’t be an argument. I don’t know why you seem to have so much trouble “grasping” that.

        (3) The idea that morality does not vary with situation is so silly that it’s silly to have a philosophical term for it. Every moral system takes situation into account at some level. All non-pacifists, for example, think it is wrong to kill people in most situations, but not all situations. “Situational ethics” isn’t the claim that ethics varies with situation so much as a particular claim about HOW it varies with the situation.

        Er, actually, there is a philosophical term for it; it’s called deontology, and it’s kind of the whole point of the discussion about Kant. Anyone who’s not aware of that really has no business yammering on about “professional” philosophers.

        (4) None of the links you supply actually support your definition.

        They all do; see above.

        (5) If the Christian arguments for morality requiring God were correct, it would follow that situational ethics could not be true unless God exists. Therefore, it is a mistake to think that the AfM would be invalid if situational ethics were compatible with objective morality.

        I agree that the Christian could co-opt situational ethics as you’ve described. I do think that would require modification to the AfM as they typically argue it.

        See, this is a reasonable, well-thought out criticism to my post, and it’s the sort of thing I was hoping to encourage. Why you have to surround it with the pompous language, insults, and generally obnoxious behavior is beyond me.

        (6) I have no idea why it isn’t a “serious representation” to call Kant’s views controversial.

        Nice job cutting my quote in half and adding scare quotes to try and ridicule instead of answer. I said: “Calling Kant “controversial” isn’t really an argument (nor, I think, is it a serious representation of his views in the larger philosophical community).” I stand by that statement, and you haven’t responded to it.

        (7) My point about empiricists was not just that they would disagree. It’s that they’ve presented a way of thinking about the issue that undermines Kant’s argument.

        No, your point about empiricism was initially phrased as an internal critique. You said: “Also, Kant’s views are extremely controversial, and I don’t see that any of the quotes from him you provide provide clear arguments for those views of Kant’s which you invoke.”

        In other words: your argument was supposed to articulate how my citations to Kant did not “provide clear arguments” for “those views of Kant’s.” That’s an internal critique where I come from.

        Your example, however, is that empiricists disagree with Kant. To that I can only say, “well, duh.”

        I’m hoping that you got a good night’s sleep and can come back minus the attitude and the insults; I think you’ve hit upon one interesting area for discussion (#5) that could help each of us as atheists develop our understanding of and responses to the AfM. I can’t for the life of me figure out why you’ve come out guns-blazing hell-bent on raising false critiques of the rest of the argument, and I’m not particularly interested in keeping up a discussion if that’s all you’re about.


  6. Luke said,


    It’s a bit odd to criticize a 20th century argument with work from 300 years ago and 2500 years ago. Theists have responded to Kant and Socrates. They are still wrong, but the debate is not still with Kant and Socrates. It is with, for example, Railton and Shafer-Landau and Korsgaard, and Alston and R.M. Adams can serve as the new Euthyphro. Also, categorical imperatives do not exist, and that is a big problem for Kantian ethics.

    But these are just my views. I don’t have time to actually defend them right now. I’m preparing lots of posts on this topic on my own blog. I attacked one version of the moral argument (by philosopher Mark Linville) over here.

    Oh, and with Chris, I have no idea what “exist a priori” would mean.

    • Andrew said,


      I’m preparing a response to your Kant post, although it’s going to require some work, obviously. :)

      My sentence to Chris was that Christians contend that “moral rules exist a priori,” which is to say that for Christians, our knowledge of moral rules precedes any particular experience. I’m not really sure where the confusion comes from. Can you help me out here?

      Incidentally, I agree with you with respect to contemporary philosophers, but I think that it is a challenge to begin with William Alston for an audience that may not have experience with the basics of Kantian epistemology.

      • Luke said,


        Hmmm. You say Google shows 37,000 results for “exist a priori”, but I had never heard that phrase before. So you mean that Christians believe they have a priori knowledge of moral facts? That makes sense to me (and also is true), I just didn’t know what you meant the way you originally said it.

        Yeah, agreed, you can’t start with Alston and Adams.

        I made a Kant post?

  7. Shamelessly Atheist said,

    As an empiricist I am not swayed all that much by philosophical arguments. If philosophy is the extent of Craig’s platform, I’m unimpressed. This argument in particular can be addressed through experiment, and indeed evolutionary behavior (which the explanation for morality falls under) is a thriving and successful discipline, if in its infancy. Excellent explanations for the development of morality have been presented with supporting evidence from a number of fields, such as primatology and behavioral economics. Certainly, they are much better than claiming God did it. Craig and anyone else using this argument overlook the problem that the question of how God provided it goes unanswered. Without a plausible mechanism for the origin of morality, making the claim of God as an explanation is empty. Any explanation should stand on its own merits, not simply because one doesn’t like the other hypotheses.

    As for the first premise, that there is an absolute morality, I’m sure the Puritans felt they were acting morally when they burned witches, but most of us today would consider this behavior reprehensible. The idea of an absolute morality is rather silly, as morality clearly changes with time. Even our definition of murder has changed significantly over the millennia. Simply stating that an absolute morality exists does not make it so, especially when counterexamples abound.

  8. First: Don’t you see the irony of statements like “Once again, I find myself astonished by the unbelievably sarcastic nature of your reply. Did I run over your dog or something?” The second sentence is far more sarcastic than anything I’ve said. I could have used milder terms in place of “gibberish” and “silly,” (say: “incoherent,” and “…so obviously false that it’s strange to have a philosophical term…”) but most of the things I’ve said are simply claiming that you’ve made mistakes, without, so far as I can tell, unnecessary pejoratives.

    More significantly: Do you understand that here, I am criticizing you, not Christians? I can’t find anything I’ve said in my two comments that would make you think the latter, but you’re imagined story of how I would debate Christians, as well as the “you’ve come out guns-blazing hell-bent on raising false critiques of the rest of the argument” comment suggest this is what you do think.

    As for the rest of your post:

    (i) The suggestion is not that Christians would give up the AfM if they realized situational ethics were a form of objective morality. The suggestion is that they already acknowledge this, so pointing out the viability of situational ethics does not threaten the AfM

    (ii) If situational ethics were the correct moral system, it would simply follow from your quote from the Christian source that situational ethics trumps all other considerations. No contradiction would follow. Therefore, situational ethics is compatible with what your Christian source says about morality.

    (1) There are over a billion websites online. For this reason, finding thousands of instances of something does not make it correct. For comparison, there are 20 times as many instances of “known a priori,” which is the way of using the term normally recognized by philosophers.

    (2) See (ii).

    (3) Some deontologists are not pacifists, and therefore will think that situations matter for morality, for the reason given in my previous comment. Therefore, deontology is not an example of a moral system that ignores situations.

    (4) See (ii)

    (5) How would accepting situational ethics require modifying the argument? I don’t think it does, for reasons described under (i) (ii) and (3).

    (6) I don’t understand the difference between what you said and what I said you said. I must be parsing your grammar incorrectly.

    (7) How does:

    For example, empiricists would say that while 7 +5 = 12 may not be an obvious case of an analytic statement at first glance, one we really understand the concepts involved we will see that it is analytic.

    Just amount to saying “empiricists would disagree”? I’ve described a way empiricists would go about criticizing Kant. Admittedly I was brief, but being brief isn’t the same as doing nothing but pointing out that someone would disagree.

  9. toweltowel said,


    I agree with some of the other commenters that you are wrong to characterize intuitionism as a “non-objective moral framework”. But I wonder whether it might not be a merely terminological disagreement.

    The term ‘intuitionism’ in ethics pretty much invariably refers to a metaethical view defended in the early 20th century by the British philosophers G. E. Moore, W. D. Ross, C. D. Broad, H. A. Prichard, A. C. Ewing. The view goes back a little farther to Henry Sidgwick, and even to some of the British moralists (Cudworth, Clarke, Reid, Price). Today the view is defended by Robert Audi and Michael Huemer, among others.

    Is this what you have in mind when you say ‘intuitionism’? If not, then perhaps we are all talking past each other.

    But if so, then I’d point out that this view is probably the clearest example of absolute objective morality this side of Plato. Now you say that Christian apologists might not agree about this, and that we should look to their conception of absolute objective morality (as opposed to that of the philosophical community). But I seriously doubt even the crudest Christian apologists are so badly confused as to count intuitionism as a “non-objective moral framework”. For one thing, the British moralists who defended the view were all Christians (as is e.g. Robert Audi). But I also doubt that many Christian apologists have ever really weighed in on intuitionism: it takes a fair degree of philosophical education to ever encounter the view, much less deem it objective or non-objective.

    • Andrew said,


      I think I should have confined the Kant discussion in this post to simply say: “Even under the most restrictive definition of ‘objective morality’ as commonly used by Christians — with reference to the links I cited above — that is, as absolute moral rules, we have plausible philosophical accounts that are entirely secular; e.g., Kant.”

      I think that could have avoided a considerable amount of misunderstanding, and the fault there is mine for being imprecise.

      Your point regarding Platonic idealism is well founded.

  10. Julieta said,

    Your all wrong on this. Morality means that God is the Author of your conscience. He has written the moral law on your heart. Civil and ceremonial laws can change, the laws given to the Hebrews were a type and shadow of what was to come in Christ Jesus, but the moral law applies to all people at all times. Only a Divine Author could write that on our hearts.

    • toweltowel said,

      Julieta, we all agree that human beings typically have a conscience (though of course sociopaths do not). But why think this feature of human psychology is best explained by positing a supernatural being? What’s wrong with scientific explanations of human psychology?

      • Julieta said,

        Because science can’t explain how every person has a conscience regardless of how you grew up or what culture your in or anything. If it were just naturalism, it would be different from person to person.

        And sociopaths do have a conscience they just choose to ignore it.

  11. Julieta: How closely have you read the Bible? I’m willing to bet you’re a better person than the God of the Bible. You’ve never ordered the slaughter of an entire tribe, or killed of all the first-born children of an entire nation, or had people killed/tortured eternally for following the wrong religion. But give the Bible a good cover-to-cover reading, and you’ll find all of those things.

    Now, I don’t know whether or not you’re a Christian fundamentalist–I’d guess “yes,” but I don’t really know–so maybe you’d say that those parts of the Bible aren’t God’s word. But whether or not God did or commanded those things, my conscience tells me they’d be wrong regardless. This is the biggest reason why we no morality is not dependent upon God.

  12. […] just got into a rather frustrating discussion with Andrew of Evaluating Christianity over some of his criticisms of the argument from morality. I’m not going to do a complete re-hash of the debate here, rather, I want to see if I can […]

  13. Carl Blansfield said,

    I came over here from the link at Chris’s site, and I have to say: both you and Andrew should bury the hatchet! You’re obviously both smart, headstrong guys on the same side, and it pains me to see you sniping at each other.

    Chris, you came on and started your post with “Mmmm…. this is why I value the work of professional philosophers”, and then proceeded to use words like “misunderstand”, “seem unable to grasp”, and the like. I know that would have pissed me off had you done it on *my* blog!

    For Andrew’s point, I think he was too quick to take offense, and by focusing on your barbs he didn’t take seriously your substantive criticisms.

    You both have great sites, can’t we all just get along!

  14. […] of where I’ve done this: I did this in my post on debating William Lane Craig, as well as in the Evaluating Christianity discussion of the moral […]

  15. Jonathan said,

    Here is my take.

    Assume the affirmative position is that the Christian God exists. The conclusion of this argument is that a God exists, but the God that exists is restrained by the premises to be one that creates absolute morality. Essential to the definition of absolute morality is that morality is not dependent upon time, place or situation. Considering that the Christian God’s morality has changed considerably, ie. no Christian today believes that his or her God advocates capital punishment for working on the sabbath, eating shellfish, etc… the morality established by the Christian God is most certainly NOT absolute. Therefore, even IF premises 1 and 2 are true, the God resulting from them is most certainly NOT the Christian god, thus premise 3 is certainly false thus the conclusion is certainly false.

  16. Jonathan said,

    Hey, I think I’ve learned something about debating skills tonight, let me rephrase my previous statement, as if I were debating Dr. Craig.

    Dr. Craig has emphatically stated, just moments ago, that absolute moral values do exist. Inherent in the definition of absolute moral values is that they do not vary according to time, place, or culture. Considering that the Christian God prohibited the eating of specified animals in Leviticus 11, and then removed the restrictions on the eating of said animals in Acts 10, the morality of the Christian God is certainly dependent on either time or culture, therefore the Christian God did not construct a system of absolute morality.

    So the syllogism can be restated as thus.
    1. Craig affirms that absolute morality exists.
    2. The Christian God did not construct a system of absolute morality.
    3. Therefore the Christian God does not exist…according to Craig.

    I am interested in hearing your critique.

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