Some thoughts on the moral argument

I'm greatly looking forward to Jerry Walls and David Baggett's forthcoming book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. I have always thought that C.S. Lewis was right to center his apologetic in Mere Christianity on the moral argument, because the voice of conscience seems to be a particularly appropriate way for a personal God to reveal Himself. Here are just some of its strengths:

1. Obligation is a relationship that obtains between persons, so we would expect the Christian God to penetrate our awareness through our sense of moral duty.
2. Conscience is a divine communication channel that is widely accessible: even if people cannot appreciate the subtleties of a metaphysical argument for God's existence, they can certainly hear the still, small voice urging them to do right, to follow the way of life and wisdom.
3. The existence of a genuine, objective moral order in the universe would be very hard to square with atheistic naturalism. It is not the sort of thing that could come into existence by naturalistic methods. At best naturalistic methods could produce the kind of tentative, transient, spontaneous forms of social cooperation observed among primates and other mammals, but which are a far cry from the robust, universal moral order sensed by reflective human beings. That sort of thing could only arise by intention.

It is commonly objected that if there were some sort of moral law pushing people to act in certain ways, there should be more consensus on its content than we in fact observe. Isn't there a good case to be made for cultural relativism, in which case the moral argument would lose its force? If morality resembled the rules of football more than the force of gravity, atheists would have no cause to be uneasy about the pangs of conscience. C.S. Lewis thought that actually there is a lot of cross-cultural consensus on the content of the moral law, and he collected an impressive list of supporting testimony. But even granting the existence of genuine disagreement over the content of at least some aspects of the moral law, the force of the argument seems to derive mostly from the observation that there seems to be a moral order to the universe, whatever the actual contours of that order. Of course the most effective way to bring people to recognize the moral law is usually to challenge them with some paradigm instances of the law, such as 'It is wrong to torture babies for fun'. But we do not have to describe the law accurately in every detail or agree on all its components in order to recognize its existence, which is incompatible with atheistic naturalism.

Another, more recent challenge to the argument comes from evolutionary theory. Some authors suggest that human morality is no different from the kinds of tentative, transient, spontaneous forms of social cooperation (and antagonism), driven by what Adam Smith called the 'moral sentiments' (such as empathy, loyalty, reciprocity, etc.), that we also observe in various primate and other species. If the argument is to get off the ground, a case must be made that our experience of moral obligation goes beyond what can be accounted for by assuming that human morality is only primate morality augmented by our reflective capacities. However, the empirical finding that human beings are driven by evolutionarily sculpted moral sentiments does not challenge the moral argument in the slightest. That would only be the case if we were to assume a radical non-cognitive understanding of the emotions, in which the passions are always the antithesis of reason, or at least have nothing to do with it. But it is far more reasonable to think that emotions are always directed toward our beliefs and projects, and in fact put us in contact with reality in subtle, powerful ways. For example, the feeling of hunger alerts us to our need for food, while the disgust that we feel at the thought of child pornography signals a violation of the moral order. The truth is that human beings are passionate creatures. We are motivated by strong emotions and feelings, and feelings are 'natural signs' that put us in touch with the realities around us. In light of this, the fact that our moral sentiments evolved does not defeat our sense of the objectivity of the moral order. On the contrary, they put us in touch with that order.


Jason Pratt said…
I will be most curious to see whether they try to stay with 'mere' monotheism as the theistic ground, or whether they move to (or at least acknowledge) trinitarian theism as the uniquely superior variant.

My thesis for over 10 years on this (as I noted back in February) has been that mere monotheism fails to be categorically ethical (even when Christians attempt to deploy mere monotheism that way), so also fails as a ground for true morality.

Anonymous said…
Interesting. How do you mean that only trinitarian theism is 'categorically' ethical?
Ron said…
I would also be curious to hear more about that thesis of yours, Jason.

Sounds like an interesting book. I think I take a more natural law type approach to morality rather than a a divine command apporach. In other words, morality as being something that directs us to the goods common to men as a whole such as honesty, justice, courage, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. The real good of men as such given how we were created, our very essence and nature is paramount rather than divine commands which always raise the arbitariness objection. In any case, I'd like to give the idea a fair hearing some time.

I think, JD, that you are right on about Lewis being correct to ground his apologetic on the moral argument. When I first read Lewis, it was that argument that most moved me. (The Arugment from Reason did so only later). A great book on the failure of Enlightenment moral theory that I read just recently is Alasdair MacIntrye's After Virtue. An excellent work that I think really strengthens the moral argument.
steve said…
Here's a good interview with a major Darwinian philosopher on the prospects for naturalistic evolutionary ethics:
Anonymous said…
"Obligation is a relationship that obtains between persons, so we would expect the Christian God to penetrate our awareness through our sense of moral duty."

I assume (though Jason can correct me if I am wrong) that the above is very relevant to grounding morality on the trinitarian nature of God. The eternal, loving, commited, relationship between the three persons of the trinity...
Joel said…
Let's grant for the sake of argument that all our moral instincts can be explained by evolution. At best it only gets us halfway to a coherent moral system, if even that far. The desire to forgive and reconcile would be just as much an evolved instinct as our desire to hate other groups or carry grudges and get revenge, and our revulsion to rape would be just as much an evolved instinct as the lust that leads to rape.

If we say that some of our instincts are "better", then all you've really done is push the argument back to another level. If there is one set of instincts we "should" follow as opposed to others, does that not mean there is some sort of actual standard for human behavior? At this point you must either deny that objective morality exists or appeal to a standard that goes beyond these scientific explanations (again, I'm granting the science for the sake of argument).

Lewis did briefly touch on this in his discussion of the "herd instinct." Mere Christianity has its flaws and is sometimes put on too high a pedestal, but it is not as easily refuted as some skeptics think.
Jason Pratt said…
Ana for the ding! {g}

The ethical problem with mere monotheism is the exact same problem we would recognize for any other theory of ethics as a rationally invented behavior. The only difference would be the power-scale of the one doing the assertion of the code to be followed. The active fulfillment of coherent interpersonal relationships would not be the fundamental ground of all reality if mere monotheism is true. Love and justice would only, at most, be something God whimsically did; they wouldn't be what God intrinsically is: God would not be "good".

But if trinitarianism (or at least binitarian) theism is true, then the single Independent Fact grounding all reality, including derivative persons like ourselves, is not only actively rational (theism vs. atheism), but is also a self-begetting, self-begotten interpersonal unity. That kind of God can be the reliably objective standard of our interpersonal relationships, because His own existence, as the ground and source of all reality, is itself an interPersonal relationship. The Father and the Son eternally act to fulfill fair-togetherness ("righteousness") between one another as Persons: love is the action, justice is the result.

(The 3rd Person, the Holy Spirit, acts to fulfill love and justice between persons, too, including most importantly among the Persons of the Trinity; but the Spirit's relationship to the other two Persons is not specifically that of the self-generation of fundamental reality. Rather the procession of the Spirit would be the first act of love between the Persons beyond coherent self-existence: the giving of that which is God between the Persons of God.)

Put shortly: trinitarian theism field-goals between the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. No other theism (much less any non-theism) can coherently make that claim. Mere monotheism does satisfy the criteria that an ultimately objective ethical standard must be both personal and the ground of all reality (so that it cannot be reductively explained in terms of something more fundamental); but it lands squarely on the horn of dictatorial whismy at best.

Jason Pratt said…
Steve's link to the interview with Michael Ruse is certainly illustrative of the difficulties involved (which MR is well aware of) in non-rational behavioristic ethics on the one hand and social construct ethics on the other. At the end of the day, the most he can do is ignore the Gordian knot and go dig in the garden.

Not great prospects, which I'm sure was Steve's point. (For visitors who don't know, that's Steve Hays, a Christian apologist from Triablogue.)


Popular posts from this blog

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

More evidence for the Historical Truth of David and Goliath

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

On the Significance of Simon of Cyrene, Father of Alexander and Rufus

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

A Simple Illustration of the Trinity

The Criteria of Embarrassment and Jesus' Baptism in the Gospel of Mark

Bread and Butter apologetics

The Genre of the Gospel of John (Part 1)

Do God's Omniscience and Omnipotence Contradict?