Moral Argument Objections

5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

By Paul Rezkalla

The Moral Argument for the existence of God has been graced with a long tradition of defense from theistic (and atheistic!) philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections by even some of the most brilliant minds. To be fair, the argument is not always as intuitive as theists like to think it is. Essentially, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the objective moral facts about the universe. One of the most popular formulations is as follows:

1. Objective morality cannot exist unless God exists.

2. Objective morality exists.

3. Therefore, God exists.

There are a host of common objections that are usually blown in the direction of this argument, but for the sake of brevity, I will only deal with five. 

Moral Argument Objections

1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument has nothing to do with belief in God. No proponent of the moral argument has ever argued that an individual cannot be moral unless they hold belief in God. Rather, the argument deals with grounding, or substantiating, objective morality. If God does not exist, then there can be no basis for objective morality. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! The issue of belief is not pertinent to the argument. The argument simply highlights the fact that there must be a basis– some kind of standard–that is outside of ourselves, in order for there to be objective morality. This objection makes a category error of confusing a question of moral ontology (Is there a moral reality?) with moral epistemology (How do we come to know or believe in the moral reality?).

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We’re not talking about absolute morality here. There is an important difference between absolute and objective. Absolutism requires that something will, or must, always be the case. Objectivity simply means ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgement-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I’m not arguing that it is always the case that lying or killing are wrong; the moral argument does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities. Let’s suppose that some nation today decreed that everyone of its homosexual citizens would be tortured to death simply for being homosexual; it would still be the case that, ‘It is wrong to torture homosexuals to death simply for being homosexual’.

The statement, ‘It is wrong to torture homosexuals to death simply for being homosexual’ is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.

3. ‘Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it.’

Well, in that case, you shouldn’t believe that I exist. You shouldn’t believe that your parents gave birth to you. You shouldn’t believe that your closest loved ones are real, actual persons who matter and have feelings. You shouldn’t believe that the external world around you is actually there. After all, how do you know that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, ‘I will not believe unless I have evidence for it’ leaves you with solipsism. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our experience of the external world, and we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we had good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove (empirically or otherwise) that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago with the appearance of age, and yet we all believe these to be true and are justified in doing so. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral intuition. Unless we have good reason to distrust our moral experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

4. ‘If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we, in the West, deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that we hold in the West- ”The elderly are valuable and must be taken care of”- is also accepted by these tribes, even though their facts are slightly (well, maybe more than slightly) off.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, etc. are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. When a man decides to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution, that is not a cultural or traditional difference that we should respect and uphold, rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of  multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation since they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite them thinking that they were right. Tim Keller summarizes this point succinctly:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths.

5. ‘But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites.’

For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument. It does not attack either premise of the argument. It is irrelevant, but let’s entertain this objection for a second. By making a judgment on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of him/herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, he/she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework.

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10 replies
  1. Luke says:

    At best only #3 is actually an objection to the argument. The answer to it, however, seems to severely confuse the difference between absence of proof and absence of supporting evidence.

    Reply
    • Gordon Carkner says:

      This is a good discussion but lacks some depth. I think we need to draw on the assistance of Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian philosopher of modernity, in his recovery of the moral good (especially in his book Sources of the Self, but also in A Secular Age). My approach would be to map late modernity and its view of morality, and then proceed like Taylor to recover some of the cultural fundamentals of moral discourse. He has an intriguing moral framework. This is what I do in my new book ‘The Great Escape from Nihilism’. This way, we draw out a dialogue that has more traction and depth. Gordon Carkner, Vancouver, Canada

      Reply
  2. Andy Ryan says:

    Your number five argument works against your number three argument. The only evidence you offer in number three for objective morality is what you call our ‘moral intuition’, which you say we have no reason to distrust. But then you dismiss people’s ‘moral intuitions’ agains Old Testament acts. The Tim Keller quote offers no evidence either, it just says he has an ‘eradicable belief’ that he’s right.

    “Denying the existence of something on the basis of, ‘I will not believe unless I have evidence for it’ leaves you with solipsism”

    One could equally say that solipsism is what you’re left with if you ACCEPT the existence of things without evidence. If you want to argue that we’re all brains in a vat, that is in itself something for which I’d like evidence. If it’s an unfalsifiable proposition for which no evidence COULD exist, then we can dismiss it on that basis alone. That leaves you back needing to justify your claim that objective morality exists. You’re begging the question with the term ‘moral intuitions’. How do you know that’s what it is, rather than just a mixture of internalised societal norms and inbuilt knee-jerk reactions, similar to our revulsion to rotting meat or aversion to damaging stimulus such as extreme heat or cold.

    “1. Objective morality cannot exist unless God exists.
    2. Objective morality exists.
    3. Therefore, God exists”

    You’ve not shown how or why the existence of God would create objective morality.
    You’ve not given compelling evidence that objective morality DOES exist.

    Reply
    • Kyle says:

      “You’ve not shown how or why the existence of God would create objective morality.”

      Stealing from their typical defense of the KCA, when it is argued that that doesn’t result in their god, they agree. The KCA only, in their opinion, confirms a timeless, spaceless, immaterial, immensely powerful, and personal creator of the universe. Now with the moral argument they want to avoid all that and go into their biblical definition of god and how objective morality proves it. They should instead relent that it could only prove an ultimate source of objective morality, not that it is necessarily their god. There is a huge disconnect that they openly acknowledge in one argument, yet side-step it in another. This all flies in the face of their lack of evidence for point 2 and other objections to that premise.

      Reply
    • TGM says:

      All true, Kyle. And it gets worse still (as you certainly know)…

      The design argument, which tends to get packaged in between KCA and objective morality in the Universal Apologetic Playbook, implies a purposeful intelligence, but never really connects the dots to the personal ‘God’. Then they flank you, finally getting to the bible, trying to argue that a resurrection is evidence of God. Forget that we know nothing useful about ‘The Immaculate Resuscitation’; there is no necessary connection between such an event and God. A resurrection, even if legit, could have any number of causes, all unlikely, yet far more likely than a deity.

      Apologetics is like a Rorschach test. The arguments are the blobs. And through that fuzziness, we’re somehow supposed to imagine a creator.

      Reply
  3. Andy Ryan says:

    Another problem with your answer on point 3 is that it could pretty much apply to any claim.

    Imagine the following conversation:
    Guy: “Islam is true but I’m going to give you no evidence to support my claim”
    You: “If you’ve no evidence then why should I believe you?”
    Guy: “Well, in that case, you shouldn’t believe that I exist. You shouldn’t believe that your parents gave birth to you. You shouldn’t believe that your closest loved ones are real, actual persons who matter and have feelings. You shouldn’t believe that the external world around you is actually there. After all, how do you know that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real?”

    Would you find this a persuasive line of argument? Replace ‘Islam’ with anything else you want – Scientology, the existence of aliens etc. Imagine if Einstein had offered the Theory of Relativity and when asked for evidence simply replied “Accept it or accept solipsism!”.

    You go on to offer evidence, and I explain in my other post why I don’t see it as being sufficient, but that doesn’t make the ‘accept things without evidence or take solipsism’ argument any better.

    Reply
  4. Ed Vaessen says:

    Objective morality, mind-independent, is assumed to exist. The reason given is this:

    “I think we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral intuition. Unless we have good reason to distrust our moral experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.”

    But it simply doesn’t follow from human experience and intuition. It is nothing but projection.

    “The statement, ‘It is wrong to torture homosexuals to death simply for being homosexual’ is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.”

    Replace this with ‘It is good to send homosexuals to a doctor to be cured from their deviation’ and put it back 50 years in time. No doubt the writer would have called that objective, had he lived then.

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      If someone is going to say “X is true regardless of whether anyone else believes it is true” then they need a test to prove or at least demonstrate it. Otherwise, that ‘X is true regardless of opinion’ itself remains just an opinion.

      Reply
  5. KR says:

    It seems to me the ultimate test of objective moral standards is their capacity to resolve moral conflicts. There’s clearly no shortage of those and they’re causing all kinds of grief so it would be great to be able to put an end to them. If there are indeed objective moral standards which are independent of subjective opinions, then it should be possible to point to them as demonstrable facts.

    I’m not aware of a single moral conflict which has been resolved this way. In my experience, differences in moral positions are always worked out by a subjective process – either the old school method of “might makes right” or the more modern democratic process. Now, if these alleged objective moral standards are powerless to resolve moral conflicts – and this is what the evidence seems to point to – then they clearly cannot serve as a guide for human behaviour. This doesn’t prove that objective moral standards don’t exist but it does essentially make them irrelevant whether they exist or not. Either way, I don’t see that premise 2 of the moral argument has been justified.

    Reply
  6. Ben says:

    Paul Rezkalla,

    I agree that #1 and #2 are bad objections. However, the responses to #3,4,5 do not seem to me very satisfactory.

    #3. We don’t have credible evidence for objective morality.

    YOUR RESPONSE: You seem to think that we *do* have credible evidence in the form of some kind of moral perception or experience. Just like our experience is evidence for an external world, so too it is evidence, you argue, for an objective moral realm.

    COUNTER-RESPONSE: The problem is, we don’t actually experience an objective moral realm. The analogy I like to use is the Parisian meter bar. Back in the 1980s, scientists had the weird idea of defining a meter by an iridium bar housed in Paris, France. This was intended to objectively standardize scientific measurements. Now, does this meter bar still exist? Well, we aren’t going to find out by appealing to our experiences of taking length measurements. If I compare the lengths of objects, my measuring experience isn’t going to inform me as to the existence of an objective standard for meters in the form of the iridium bar in Paris. Heck, it isn’t even going to tell me whether there are *any* objective standards of measurement! Instead, I will have to actually go to Paris and see whether or not the bar is still there (or ask someone who has done so, etc.).

    #4. Different societies have different moral standards.

    YOUR RESPONSE: You claim that they have the same underlying moral values even though they misinterpret some of them. You also say that, regardless of whether they share the same underlying values, moral disagreement doesn’t nullify the existence of an objective moral realm.

    COUNTER-RESPONSE: It seems clear to me that not all cultures even share the same underlying moral values, such as we see with tribal cultures who value in-group lives more than human lives outside the group. As for moral disagreement, sure, I agree that moral disagreement doesn’t by itself disprove the existence of an objective moral realm. However, deep-running moral disagreement such as the aforementioned tribalism underscores the fact (see #3 above) that we don’t actually experience moral objectivity. So, we don’t have the evidence the apologist claims we have.

    #5. The God of Christianity is a monster.

    YOUR RESPONSE: First, this doesn’t specifically attack either premise of the moral argument. Second, to say that the God of Christianity is immoral is to concede the second premise, that objective morality exists.

    COUNTER-RESPONSE: First, we don’t need to identify which premise is false to know that at least one of the premises must be false. Second, it just isn’t true that it requires us to affirm *objective* morality to claim that the Christian God is immoral. And third, it doesn’t require us to affirm moral truths at all just to say that the Christian God is a monster. So, in this case, *if* morality exists *then* the Christian God, being a monster, would be immoral. But this does not require us to actually say that morality exists at all, much less that it exists in any objective sense.

    That said, I agree that #5 is not a response to the moral argument as an argument for a generic theism. However, it can be an effective dialectic tool for alerting the apologist to the fact that his view of moral objectivity is deeply flawed.

    Reply

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