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6.1.07

The "Moral Argument" for God Fails

Joe Carter has done the service of reducing several versions of the "moral argument for God" (in essence, "morality can't exist without God") to propositional form. Unfortunately for Carter and other apologists, this only makes clear how little weight they carry.

First is a version by Elton Trueblood:

1. There must be an objective moral law; otherwise: (a) There would not be such great agreement on its meaning. (b) No real moral disagreements would ever have occurred, each person being right from his own moral perspective. (c) No moral judgment would ever have been wrong, each being subjectively right. (d) No ethical question could ever be discussed, there being no objective meaning to any ethical terms. (e) Contradictory views would both be right, since opposites could be equally correct.
2. This moral law is beyond individual persons and beyond humanity as a whole: (a) It is beyond individual persons, since they often sense a conflict with it. (b) It is beyond humanity as a whole, for they collectively fall short of it and even measure the progress of the whole race by it.
3. This moral law must come from a moral Legislator because: (a) A law has no meaning unless it comes from a mind; only minds emit meaning. (b) Disloyalty makes no sense unless it is to a person, yet people die in loyalty to what is morally right. (c) Truth is meaningless unless it is a meeting of mind with mind, yet people die for the truth. (d) Hence, discovery of and duty to the moral law make sense only if there is a Mind or Person behind it.
4. Therefore, there must be a moral, personal Mind behind this moral law.


As it happens, I accept point 1. Even so, Trueblood fails to justify it, so his arguments here would have no purchase against a relativist. Argument 1(a) can be easily attributed to evolution and egoism -- the disposition to condemn certain acts ultimately promotes one's survival and reproductive success (and/or is a side effect of mental capacities that do). Sub-points b through e of point 1 are all question-begging -- he gives no evidence that moral disputes actually do have substance behind them. And the history of philosophy is littered with vehement conflicts over non-issues (e.g. the nature of the Platonic Forms).

Point 2 amounts to an assertion that people *believe* the moral law is beyond any person, or beyond humanity as a whole. Belief in a moral law is necessary and sufficient to sense a conflict between it and their own, or humanity's, behavior. But of course the whole question is whether or not people who believe that are *correct.* In any event, even an actual contradiction between a moral law and the conduct of an individual or group does not prove that the law is "beyond" that individual or group. A few months ago I fell short of a rule that said I must write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November -- yet that rule was obviously entirely of my own making, not a command from God.

Point 3 is largely incoherent. Point a is sort of right, at least insofar as I can make sense of it, but with Point 2 collapsed it becomes irrelevant. Points b and c simply return to the confusion noted in the previous paragraph between what people believe to be true and what is actually true. We can all think of people who died in loyalty to falsehoods (Carter, Trueblood, and I could all agree on the 9/11 hijackers as an example). Finally, points 3d and 4 only follow if the preceding points were correct -- which they weren't.

Carter also offers Kant's rather different version of the moral argument, which fails for different reasons:

1. The greatest good of all persons is that they have happiness in harmony with duty.
2. All persons should strive for the greatest good.
3. What persons ought to do, they can do.
4. But persons are not able to realize the greatest good in this life or without God.
5. Therefore, we must postulate a God and a future life in which the greatest good can be achieved.


I'll leave point 1 alone, and I agree with points 2, 3, and 4. However, to claim that point 5 follows from the previous requires going back and editing point 2 such that it is false, and confusing "the greatest good that one is capable of bringing about" with "the greatest good that is capable of existing." Point 2 asserts that everyone should strive for the greatest good -- that is, they should bring about as much good as they are capable of. Point 3 is thus redundant, since point 2 explicitly demands only what people are able to do. Point 4, however, talks not about doing as much as you are capable of doing, but rather of doing as much as there is to be done. So yes, I on my own am not capable of achieving the highest level of good that is capable of existing, but I could achieve that if God were to exist and help me.

Point 5 assumes that the me-and-God level of achievement is the morally obligatory one. Yet that has not been established earlier in the argument. Kant seems to assume that point 2 said that we are obliged to achieve the highest, me-and-God, level of good. But that's not what point 2 said, and if it said that it would be false -- because if God does not exist, then point 2 would trim our level of obligation down to a more achievable level.

In short, an obligation to pursue something does not entail an obligation to achieve it (and therefore does not entail the possibility of achieving it). Kant's version of the ethical argument is thus of no help for apologetics.

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