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The Moral Argument for God

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I recently did another debate with my friend Ben.  We've been taking turns defending some of the most popular theistic arguments.  This month, he was defending William Lane Craig's version of the moral argument for the existence of God.  Here's the basic argument:

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

I think there are a lot of problems with this argument, but have been disappointed to see how poorly atheist debaters typically respond.  The argument is not saying that you need to believe in God to be good, just that in a world without God, there would be no such thing as goodness.  I think my opening statement provides a pretty good (though brief) summary of my views on the moral argument and morality overall.  Here it is:

Although riddled with flaws, I think that the moral argument is one of the most persuasive arguments for belief in God. We all want to say that Hitler was wrong, and for many of those raised in Christian homes, God seems like the most reasonable foundation for morality. But, if we care about truth, we need to see whether the argument actually works.

The first problem is that my opponent provided no evidence for his second premise, that objective moral values exist. We may really really want them to exist, but this doesn't prove that they do any more than really really wanting to have an eternity of bliss proves that heaven exists, or that really really wanting to have won the lottery proves that you did. But maybe my opponent is saying that our strong revulsion to the Holocaust is itself evidence that it is immoral. Even if we assume that icky feelings are good evidence of something's immorality, this evidence for objective moral values exists even if God does not exist, which undermines his first premise that objective moral values cannot exist without God. Either his first premise is clearly false, or he has provided no support whatsoever that his second premise is true. Thus his argument fails.

Another problem with his argument is that moral values do exist regardless of whether God exists. Morality is a very difficult word to define. If you look in a dictionary, you'll find that acting morally means acting ethically, doing what is good. But what do those words mean? If all we have is a group of synonyms that have no relation to anything else in the world, then obviously we can't show that morality exists. If a zivafil is defined as a fritibal and a fritibal is defined as a zivafil, we'd have no way to say whether either exists, and we also wouldn't have any reason to care about whether they do.

We care a lot more about whether morality exists than about whether a zivafil exists.  Yet what do we believe about morality that makes us care so much about it? Is it that we see morality as requiring that everyone who does evil be punished and want to think that Hitler is suffering for his evil deeds? I don't think so. I care about right and wrong, but don't care at all about exacting retribution for it's own sake. Also, many Christians believe that God forgives everyone for their sins, but we don't say this would prove that morality does not exist.

Do we think that morality means that merely telling someone what is moral will make them behave like angels? This would certainly be nice, but I don't think it's reasonable to think that morality can do this. Thinking that it's immoral to have sex with children certainly hasn't stopped Catholic priests or Protestant pastors from raping them. People who have evil desires will do evil, even if they know what is right and wrong.

I believe we care so much about morality because we want make the world a better place. We want to think we've made things better rather than worse. I think we can figure out what is good- not by asking God or Jiminy Cricket, but by using reason.

All of us have desires. Among other things, I want a tasty slice of pizza, fewer people starving to death in Africa, and to live a happy life. There's no halo of goodness around that slice of pizza, but getting it has value to me. This value is real. The fulfillment of my desires has real value. But if we want to know a more general good, and not just what is good for me, we need to look at all desires. A better world would be one where more people get what they desire. Some of our desires are bad and tend to make the world worse, while other desires are good and tend to make the world better. Knowing this, we should do what we can to change people's desires so they want to do good. We can punish people for rape, condemn people for lying, and praise people for generosity. The world will never be perfect, but we can all work to make it just a little bit better.

Now some people will say that my view of morality, known as desirism, is not true morality, because some people think that true morality must magically compel everyone who knows about it to be moral. Others may reject it because they think that morality is synonymous with God's commands and God's commands cannot exist without God. If there is nothing that satisfies everyone's beliefs about morality, does that mean that morality does not exist? I think not; people have a wide variety of incompatible definitions of God, but that alone does not prove that God does not exist. In the end, I don't care that much about how you define morality. What I care about is doing what I can to help others and making the world a better place. I'll still be doing this, even if you choose to define it as evil.

Not only is there morality without God, this morality is objective. William Lane Craig defines objective as “independent of people’s opinions.” Regardless of my opinion of it, slavery does a lot of harm. Even if everyone on earth believed that slavery was good, it would still be wrong because it deprives people of things they strongly desire, such as the freedom to make decisions for themselves, freedom from pain, and the ability to choose one’s spouse and protect one’s family.

But one question that rarely gets asked is whether objective morality is possible WITH God. If what is moral is grounded in what a personal God thinks is moral, then morality is not independent of people's opinions. A morality based on God's opinions seems just as subjective as a morality based on the opinions of some space alien that visits earth.

This gets to the biggest problem with theistic morality: the Euthyphro dilemma. It asks whether God commands things because they are good, or whether they are good merely because they are commanded by God. If things are only good because they are commanded by God, then morality is subjective. It also makes it meaningless to say that God is good, because he could have made love evil and rape good. Whatever God happened to choose, he could have made us think that those things are good or evil. If morality is nothing more than what God wills, then we can't even say that we're lucky that God ended up favoring good things, because there's nothing good about them other than that God happened to will them. If good is whatever God wants, then God being good means nothing more than that God does whatever he wants.

The other option is that God commands things because they are good. This seems much more reasonable, though believers who think that God is the creator of everything might have a problem with it. If God commands things because they are good, then theists still have to explain what the source of morality really is. However, if they are Christian, then they have the added problem or reconciling this view of morality with the God of the Old Testament. According to 1 Samuel 15, God commanded: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” At least when God commanded genocide in Numbers 31, he said that the virginal girls should be kept alive for the use of the soldiers, which I guess is slightly better than death. Genocide thwarts a hell of a lot of desires, such as the desire for people to live, and I don't see how it could be moral to promote genocide. Maybe Christians can disprove my moral theory and come up with their own theory of morality apart from God under which God's actions in the Old Testament happen to be morally perfect, but that seems absurdly unlikely.

The most common response to the Euthyphro dilemma is to say that morality is grounded in God's perfectly good nature. But this only pushes the problem back a step. You can then ask whether God is good because his nature has the properties of moral goodness, or whether those properties are good merely because God has them (See this excellent article by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston for a more detailed explanation of the problem). You still either have to either come up with a theory of morality apart from God and explain how promoting genocide and permitting the Holocaust are consistent with that theory, or accept that morality is somewhat arbitrary and that it is meaningless to call God good.

While emotionally powerful, the moral argument does not actually work. My opponent has not provided any evidence that objective morality exists which does not also undermine his first premise, that objective morality cannot exist if God does not exist. But the larger problem is that objective morality makes far more sense under atheism than under theism. I have shown that morality does exist even though God does not exist, and shown that if a meaningfully good God did exist, it's very difficult to see how objective morality could exist.