I was prompted by this post from S. J. Graham to return to the argument from morality.
The argument goes as follows:
P1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C. Therefore God exists.
I believe that P1 is erroneous in two respects. Firstly, God’s non-existence would not exclude the possibility of objective moral values and duties. Secondly, God’s existence could not of itself explain any objectivity that moral values and duties do possess.
Let’s take the question of whether it is possible that objective moral values and duties could exist without God. William Lane Craig, who favours the argument and often uses it will usually define “objective” as “existing independent of what any human believes.” Let me concede that most people will think that this is a good definition and will readily agree with it when it is put to them. Its attraction is that it presents us with a very simple and easily understood example of objectivity. But I think there’s a bait and switch going on here and that the definition should be challenged.
“Existing independently of any any human belief” is certainly a sufficient condition of objectivity. But is it a necessary condition? I think not and if I am right about that, then P1 is fatally undermined. Examples which do not lie on a spectrum, where there is a clear binary between truth and falsehood, are the most obvious cases of objective truths. But it is a mistake to assume that they are the only examples of objective truths.
Let me use a thought experiment which my friend Richard Morgan often refers to: the “pile” experiment. You put an apple on an otherwise empty table. Do you now have a pile of apples on the table? No of course not. One apple isn’t a pile. You put a second apple on the table. Now do you have a pile? No, that’s just a pair of apples. You put a third on. Is it a pile now? No, not really. Add a fourth. Still not exactly a pile, not even when you balance the fourth apple on top of the other three. So you go on adding apples and at some point you’ve got a pile. Hey! How did that happen?
It happened because we all share a language and the language includes a word which we use for our concept of a pile. The moment when its use becomes justified is a matter of judgment but that isn’t to say that it’s purely a matter of personal opinion. When WLC invites us to accept that objectivity requires that something be entirely independent of any human opinion he goes too far. The test which we apply in many areas is not so stringent and would be better expressed as “independent of an individual’s opinion.”
If your friend Suzy were to call two or three apples on the table “a pile” you would most likely think that she did not know the correct meaning of the word. Ditto if there were a quantity of apples on the table lying on top of each other like a small mountain and she insisted that it did not constitute “a pile.” In neither case would you say to yourself “That is Suzy’s world-view and it is as valid as mine, so I have no basis for questioning it.” Suzy is just objectively wrong because she has departed from the agreed criteria which govern the use of that particular word.
It doesn’t matter that the word was coined to meet human needs and reflect human priorities. That alone doesn’t make “pilehood” subjective.
Nor does it matter that you cannot identify the exact moment at which the apples became a pile. Many concepts are like this because language is like this, with a built-in fuzziness providing it with flexibility which makes it useful where precision would render it inoperable. For many concepts (“C”) you go from “definitely not C” at one extreme to “undeniably C” at the other, with some grey areas in between. But that’s no bar to some statements about “C” being objectively true where the agreed criteria are clearly met.
Now let me turn to the question of how the existence of God might relate to the existence of objective moral values and duties. The problem for the apologist is what is known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma.” In brief, does God command us to do good actions because they are good? Or are the actions good because God commands them? If the former, then God is judging them against a standard which is external to him and so their goodness is independent of God. If the latter, then goodness is arbitrary, simply the result of God’s fiat and ultimately not recognisably objective.
Theists have responded to this by claiming that God does not assign “good” and “bad” arbitrarily. The good is a reflection of God’s holy nature, which is inherently good.
But there are problems with this. Firstly, if “goodness” is defined by God’s nature then the statement “God is good” becomes a tautology, true but trivial. Only if God is evaluated against some other referent does the statement amount to a claim with some substance.
Secondly, the morality of an act is still reduced to a sort of brute fact and seems as bafflingly arbitrary as it would be if it were merely God’s fiat.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine that our friend Suzy has died and, as a good Christian, is now in heaven. She has spent her life trying to promote goodness and fight evil. With this in mind she has done all that she could to persuade the rest of the world that (say) the death penalty should be abolished. Suppose that that when she gets to heaven God looks at her quizzically. “The death penalty campaign, Suzy,” he says. “What was all that about? There’s nothing wrong with the death penalty! I’m all in favour!” Suzy might reasonably expect the next statement from God to start “Because…..” Isn’t it reasonable to expect an explanation of why she’s wrong? And isn’t also reasonable to expect that explanation to consist in something more than “Because that’s the way my holy nature rolls.”
But if there is any explanation in addition to what accords with God’s holy nature, then we are back to Euthyphro, because it’s the reasons by which God explains his position which are key to its moral rightness or wrongness, not the fact that it accords with God’s nature.
Whether you believe in God or not, moral statements are surely more like judgements about when a number of apples becomes a pile than they are like mathematical equations or scientific claims. There are other types of facts than mathematical scientific ones and maths and science should not be held up as a template which all other facts must meet to achieve the accolade of objectivity. Could God, if he existed, provide us with the definitive answer to the conundrums posed by trolleyology?
Nuanced, complex, multi-faceted, moral issues are not easy to resolve. But whatever the difficulties, I cannot see that God is provides a better answer than our own human understanding of what morality essentially is and the criteria by which we decide what is right or wrong.