Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

The Moral Argument - part 3

This is the manuscript from a talk that I gave to Ratio Christi at NCState. The slides and audio from the talk can be found on YouTube here.

This is part 3 of a five-part talk on the moral argument for God's existence. In the last section, I defended the first premise of the moral argument: if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. In this section, I'd like to examine the second premise: the claim that objective moral values and duties do in fact exist. How can we defend this premise? What evidence we have to support it? And what problems do we run into if we deny this claim? First, it's important to recognize that certain beliefs are properly basic, which means that they do not depend for their justification on other beliefs. For example, our belief that the external universe exists -that we're not just living in the Matrix-, our belief that other people have minds, our belief that our memory is reliable and that the universe wasn't created ten seconds ago, all of these beliefs are properly basic. We accept them as true without appealing to other more basic beliefs to justify them. A belief in the existence of objective moral facts is such a belief. Right and wrong and good and evil are basic categories immediately accessible to human beings. I need not justify this belief by an appeal to other yet more basic beliefs. However, I believe we can go further. Although the existence of moral facts is a properly basic belief, I want to present five pieces of empirical evidence supporting the claim that objective moral facts exist and are immediately perceptible to human beings. In this argument, we're using something called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation: we want to find the best explanation for these five pieces of evidence. My claim is the evidence is better explained by the hypothesis that objective moral facts exist than by any other hypothesis.

First, it is widely recognized that there are basic standards of human behavior that are ubiquitous across all cultures and across all of history. Actions like murder, theft, assault, neglect of one's family are generally recognized as wrong in all societies. Moreover, there exists true altruism across all cultures. True altruism is behavior which does not confer any reproductive benefit to the agent, either directly or indirectly. This is distinct from reciprocal altruism -where I do good to others in the hopes that they will do good to me- or from kin altruism -where I sacrifice myself for the benefit of my genetic relatives. True altruism involves acts of self-sacrifice that do not benefit me or my genetic relatives in any way. One explanation for the ubiquity of basic moral behavior and true altruism is that these are objectively good actions which we all intuitively recognize. But what is the best alternative explanation? Most people would suggest that evolution can explain moral behavior and true altruism. But here we run into a problem. There are two very sharply divided factions among evolutionary biologists trying to understand the origins of these phenomena. On the one hand, there are those like David Sloan-Wilson who claim that 'group selection' or 'multilevel selection' is definitely required to explain these phenomena; without group selection, moral behavior and altruism are inexplicable. On the other hand, there is a large group of evolutionary biologists including people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins who completely reject group selection. They claim that moral behavior is a 'misfiring', an 'accident' or a 'byproduct' but has no deeper explanation.

But think about that. You have one faction claiming vehemently that the evolution of moral behavior and altruism demands an explanation that requires group selection and another faction claiming equally vehemently that group selection is impossible and that there is no deeper explanation. Is it at least possible that we ought to consider a third alternative: that the explanation for moral behavior and altruism is the existence and perception of real moral facts?

Second, we have the moral behavior of moral relativists themselves. Many atheists, such as American Atheists president David Silverman, will claim that objective moral facts do not exist. Morality is just an illusion created in us by our evolutionary history. But these same individuals, after insisting that morality is an illusion, will generally lead fairly normal lives marked by moral behavior, even when they will not be held accountable for their actions. Sometimes, they will even make it a point to insist that they are just as good as theists. But isn't that a bit strange? Imagine that I insisted that gravity did not exist; that gravity was not an objective physical fact. But then imagine that we were visiting the Grand Canyon, and I carefully followed all the designated paths and clung desperately to the guardrails whenever I walked near the edge of a cliff. Wouldn't you conclude that there was something inconsistent between by professed beliefs and my actual practice? If morality is ultimately an illusion, why act morally, especially when no one is looking? If moral facts exist and are immediately perceived by all people, even moral relativists, then we can explain their behavior. But how do we explain it otherwise?

Third, all of us have an intuitive perception that there is a realm of objective moral facts. This is a picture of the Holocaust memorial in San Francisco, a symbol of the moral horrors that we are capable of inflicting on each other. When we look at it, I think we all feel tremendous revulsion, regardless of our philosophical views of metaethics. Now moral relativists might claim that this is an illusion. But they would admit that the illusion is there; we all intuitively feel that good and evil and right and wrong are real categories. Note that this is an independent piece of evidence from either of the first two. Even if evolution were wholly responsible for moral behavior, we need not have any intuition about good and evil. Moral behavior could be just as natural and involuntary as breathing or sneezing. Yet we all have this intuition that some things are really wrong. Where does it come from? What is the best explanation?

Fourth, this might be surprising, but the majority of professional philosophers are moral realists, who affirm that objective moral facts do indeed exist. That is not proof that they do. After all, experts in any field can be wrong. But it is interesting. Professional philosophers have obviously heard the evolutionary explanations of moral behavior. They have considered the possibility of moral relativism, moral non-conginitivism, and other antirealist theories of metaethics. But the majority are still moral realists. Why? What is the best explanation of this fact?

Finally, we have the moral realism of naturalists like Sam Harris. Harris utterly rejects moral relativism and has made the existence of objective moral values one of the central issues in his books. Yet if nature is all that exists, then to me and to many atheists, there is obviously no way to call one thing "good" and another thing "evil." There is no way of bridging the gap between "is" and "ought," as myriads of philosophers have pointed out throughout history. My question, then, is why some naturalistic philosophers like Harris so vehemently defend the existence of objective moral values, when their existence is so problematic for naturalism to explain. Why not simply be consistent and dismiss moral values as subjective preferences drilled into us by our society or programmed into us by our genes? The precarious position of many naturalists who are also moral realists is explained if moral facts exist and we have immediate knowledge of their existence, but is harder to explain otherwise.

Having given five pieces of empirical evidence that I think are best explained by the existence of moral facts, let me now present a few other problems with denying that objective moral facts exist.

First, we have the problem of moral criticism. If you visit the student center at Duke University, you'll see a lot of student groups gathered there. And some of them will probably be protesting grave injustices around the world like sex trafficking or female genital mutilation. But the first problem for the moral relativist is how he can be consistent in protesting these behaviors. If morality is an illusion or all moral judgments are relative to the individual or the culture, then by what authority do you censure the practices of other people or other cultures? What gives you the right to impose your modern, progressive, individualistic Western values which say that female genital mutilation is wrong on the traditional, tribal, communal values of an African tribe which say that female genital mutilation is acceptable? Nothing. Or look at these two quotes from Richard Dawkins. On the one hand, he says that there is no good and evil. On the other hand, he says that the God of the Old Testament is unremittingly evil. Well, which is it? So if you really want to be consistent and deny the existence of objective moral facts, you need to stop imposing your opinions on others or criticizing their moral beliefs, even on subjects as horrific as sex trafficking.

Second, let me give you a thought experiment that I call "Cipher's challenge," modeled after the choice made by the character Cipher in The Matrix. Imagine you were offered whatever life you most wanted: one with money, happiness, success, a loving family. In return, you had to perform one moral atrocity, say you had to push a button that would lead to the painful deaths of one hundred children in some distant country. But after you performed the action, your memory would be erased so that you would have no knowledge of the action and you could enjoy the rest of your perfect life in complete ignorance of what you had done. Would you accept the offer? Most people would say "no." But the problem moral relativists face is answering the question "why not?". After all, the reward of your action is whatever you most value: money, happiness, sex. And good and evil are merely illusions, so the action you are required to perform is not objectively evil. And you can't claim that it would make you unhappy, because your memory would be erased. So why would you reject the offer?

Third, let me give you another thought experiment. Imagine that I offered you an "amorality pill." This hypothetical pill would permanently destroy all of your capacity to experience negative moral emotions like guilt and remorse. But it would leave intact all of your capacity for positive emotions like love and happiness. To put it starkly, you would still be able to love your wife and children, to experience the vicarious joy of giving them gifts, to feel a rush of tenderness when you kiss them goodnight. However, if you decided one morning that killing them all with an axe would give you great happiness, you would be able to do so without a single twinge of regret or remorse. The amorality pill would set you free from the illusion of morality to pursue your own happiness, utterly indifferent to the pain and misery of others. Would you take the pill? If not, why not? If you really do maintain that objective moral facts do not exist and that our moral intuition is ultimately an illusion, then why not free yourself from this illusion by taking the pill? Why do we recoil at the idea of becoming amoral if morality is, after all, just an illusion?

So I hope I've demonstrated that the position that objective moral facts do not exist is extremely problematic, for multiple reasons. First, demanding that we justify our belief in objective moral facts ignores their position as properly basic beliefs. Second, I provide five empirical facts which I believe are better explained by the existence of objective moral facts than by their nonexistence. To deny their existence, you must provide a better explanation for these observations than the one I've provided. Third, I demonstrated that most moral relativists are inconsistent in their behavior. For all these reasons, I think we have good reason to believe that premise 2 of the moral argument is true: objective moral values and duties do exist.

But if we have reason to believe that both premises of the moral argument are true, then the conclusion logically follows: a morally perfect God who grounds moral values and who issues commands which constitute our moral obligations must exist. That ends the third section of my talk. In the next section, I'd like to sketch a variation of the moral argument, which I think is even more powerful than the moral argument in its standard form.


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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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