Common misconceptions about Moral Arguments

Common misconceptions about the statement “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

The idea of morality finding no 'grounding' without a transcendent reality (i.e. a reality that is more than just the natural, physical world, such as that which is postulated by theism) depends on what 'grounding' refers to. Defining it correctly changes the meaning of the statement drastically; I suggest that 'grounded' could be defined as 'made objectively true'. 'Objectively true' then refers to the idea that to say something like 'racism is wrong' is to make a statement about reality, which can be considered either 'true' or 'false' for all times and places, independent of what any contingent, physical mind believes about the matter. To say a moral maxim such as 'racism is wrong' is 'objectively true', is to say that it is true in the same way that the statement 'the moon exists' is true.

The statement above is frequently misunderstood. To clarify it, we shall explore some misconceptions about the idea; below are a few responses to these misconceptions about the meaning of the idea that truly objective morality cannot be grounded in a naturalistic worldview, which is one that denies the existence of a transcendent reality and hence any value independent of intelligent, physical minds. Looking at such misconceptions should help focus what the statement actually is referring to.

In short, this statement argues that, if morality is 'objective', this requires the existence of a reality that transcends physical reality, since physical reality itself is by nature indifferent about matters of morality. As has been observed from the time of Hume, one cannot arbitrarily move from a factual 'is' statement about an indifferent aspect of reality (such as the colour of a rock) to a prescriptive 'ought' statement pertaining to what a person 'ought' to do in a given situation. This is especially the case if we insist, as part of the definition of 'objectivity' (as has been done above), that such a statement must be independent of all human minds (or minds of any other species, for that matter). In other words, morality cannot be truly objective if this physical world is all there is.

The statement: “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

Misconception #1: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be moral.”

This is certainly not what this statement claims; non-theists certainly can, and do, perform countless highly virtuous, loving and compassionate acts. The statement is arguing philosophically about the nature of ethics itself (meta-ethics), and what this nature implies about reality itself. It is not judging the actual morality of any individual or any group of people; in fact, this is totally irrelevant to the statement.

Misconception #2: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be motivated to be moral”

Again, this is not what the statement claims. In a psychological sense, there are plenty of legitimate motivations for a non-theist individual to perform kind, compassionate and loving acts, as would be expected if the Christian conception of the creation of humankind in God's image is accurate. The statement is referring to the nature of ethics itself, not about psychology or motivation. It is not judging any person or group of people on their motivations or intentions.

Misconception #3: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot know what is moral”

This misconception assumes that 'grounding' refers to 'knowledge of moral values', where, again, this is not the claim of the statement. 'Grounding' refers to the nature of moral values themselves, how they are 'grounded' in reality (how they relate to reality, and in what sense they 'exist') not how we know what these moral values are. There is no denial that a non-theist can know what is moral and immoral to a full extent. Indeed, this would be expected on the Christian worldview. It is not a question of epistemology (knowing), but of ontology (existing, being).

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A more accurate understanding

'Grounding' in this sense refers to none of these misconceptions; it is not a question of epistemology (knowledge) of moral truths, or of motivation, or of how moral non-theists are, but of ontology (the existence of moral truths). We are considering the question: in what sense do moral truths 'exist'? In fact, what 'grounding' refers to here is whether moral facts are real or an illusion, objective or subjective; is there a standard by which a perfect moral code can be attained regardless of what everyone believes, or is morality subjective, so that one moral standard cannot be judged as objectively better than another?

For example, would it still be the case that the statement 'racism is immoral' is true even if (hypothetically) every individual human alive on the planet believes that racism is, to the contrary, commendable, and that to not be racist is immoral? Moral objectivism would answer a 'Yes' to this question, since it subscribes to a moral law, which transcends human opinion, by which moral standards can be compared to one another and the objectively 'better' standard discerned. After this, hence, 'grounded' can be defined as, 'made objective'. To 'ground' a moral truth in something is to base the moral truth on an objective fact about reality.

I would say that the majority of people are at least partially objectivist in this sense in relation to morality, and can thus judge the morality that we see prevalent in the past because of a subscription to the idea that some moral standards are objectively preferable to others. For example, the modern standard of definite shunning of racism can be objectively judged as superior to the racist attitudes of the past, based on the objective moral truth that 'racism is wrong'.

The implication is that there is the potential for morals to be objectively grounded in (based upon) God's nature, which is objective in that it is independent of all human minds (or any mind that is part of physical reality), and is not arbitrary in that God's nature of desiring compassionate love is unchanging, independent of time or place. To the contrary, on a naturalistic view, there is little way in which objective moral truths can exist. If they are grounded in human opinion or human consensus, then they are subjective rather then objective (since they are mind-dependent), and vary based on time and culture. If they are grounded on human intuition or on just 'what seems right', this can vary and is arbitrary, coming from the result of unpredictable influences and social bias. If they are grounded in emotion, this is again too variable. If one attempts to ground them in an indifferent aspect of the physical world (such as the colour of a rock), this is arbitrary and unjustified, moving improperly from an 'is' to an 'ought', and again more based on the human minds deciding to ground moral facts in such a way than on any aspect of objective reality. These views do not effectively allow one standard held by one group of people to be judged effectively against another standard held by another group of people, and so do not allow objectivism.

Therefore, the statement is not about motivation, or knowledge of morality, but about whether moral values are 'real' and 'objective', with the implication that such objectivism is difficult to ground (i.e. 'make objective') without some form of transcendent reality. This means that arbitrary standards independent of God cannot be legitimately used to judge God, since such standards are subjective, not being based in a transcendent, human mind-independent reality. In addition, if objective morality is acknowledged to exist, this provides a powerful argument for the necessity of God as a human mind-independent intelligent Being in whose nature this objective morality can be grounded.


Grundy said…
How can someone know that their stance on what is right and wrong for any particular moral is not just their opinion, but objectively true?

For example, you may think that homosexuality is wrong, but how can you know that homosexuality is wrong?
Hi Grundy,

Thanks - good question!

You seem to refer to moral epistemology (how we know moral truth) rather than moral ontology (in what sense moral statements are 'true', and in what sense 'moral truths' exist), where the latter is the one emphasised in moral arguments. I sought to stress the idea that both theist and non-theist, Christian and non-Christian alike, can most certainly have correct knowledge of moral truths, to hence counter the misconceptions about the moral argument such as that it accuses non-theists of not having morals.

If it is the case that morality is objective, it is plausible to suggest that it also rationally knowable, and that the most coherent theory which corresponds the most to reality is the objectively true theory rather than just another opinion. As for how we can come about this knowledge, we can find similarities between the techniques moral realists (i.e. those who believe moral statements can be in some way objectively true or false, and are not just opinions) of all backgrounds, atheist to agnostic to Christian, use for formulating normative ethical theories (i.e. formulating a systematic method for how they know what is 'right' and 'wrong'). This could be thought of as a 'quest' for discovering what the objectively true moral facts are; it can be found by evaluating different candidates (hypotheses) for the most accurate ethical theory, by various philosophical methods, to find which is most plausibly the best. Various methods for evaluating theories include the following (amongst others), where :

1) Evaluate its philosophical coherence – An objectively true theory should not contain internal contradictions, and it should stand together as a whole
2) Apply extreme cases ('moral conundrums') to the theory, and evaluate how coherently it reacts, noting if any extreme cases imply any contradictions
3) Take into account any points of reference in observable reality; these could include intuition, psychology, consensus, relevant exegesis etc., varying depending on the worldview, considering the explanatory power, scope, plausibility and degree of 'ad hoc-ness' of each theory for these points of reference
4) Amongst other methods...

This list, in its general form, can apply to ethical reasoning for all moral realists, from atheist to agnostic to Christian. This emphasises that access to moral truth is not limited to a single group of people; through the use of the faculties of reason and intuition, it is available to all of humankind, whatever worldview they hold.

Thanks very much for the feedback – it is helpful!

Best wishes,
Grundy said…
Can you apply any of that to the example of the morality of homosexuality?
JB Chappell said…
Confident Christian wrote:
"If it is the case that morality is objective, it is plausible to suggest that it also rationally knowable...

This may be somewhat of a deviation from the OP, but I think it's relevant to point out that Moral Arguments do not rely on a premise of "it is plausible that we *can* know moral truths", but that we DO know them. This, to me, is the weakness of moral arguments.

It is an effective argument in that atheists don't want to relinquish objective morality, and so get caught in an inconsistency, but it is weak in the sense that all a skeptic has to do is ask "How do you know?" and a major premise of the argument is undercut.
Metacrock said…
Moral axioms being objective doesn't mean we can work them out like math problems. Morality is will always be inherently contestable. That's the conclusion of the Great Evangelical Scholar (Ironically female--from Oxford--Dorothy Emmett) in the Moral Prism. I highly recommend that book if you want to understand Meta ethics.

It means the axioms themselves are grounded in ways that can be clearly demonstrated. The challenge of applying principles to context if part of the adventurer of being human.'

In Christian parlance, we are not saved becasue we keep the rules good.
Grundy said…, I guess?
Yes, I tried pointing out this fallacy over at DC. Unfortunately, there are Christians who paint atheists as moral monsters, so it is to those Christians that these responses are aimed.

That is, it isn't just atheists that are confused about this important distinction.
(Though there I talk about the epistemic grounding of moral claims, but the general point is the same: objecting grounding versus psychological predispositions)

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