Do Objective Moral Truths Exist in Reality?

The moral argument for God’s existence is often presented as follows:

Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

As with any valid syllogism, the moral argument can be defeated by proving one of the supporting premises to be false. In many conversations with atheists, I’ve encountered several who agree with premise 1, but deny the truth of premise 2. Is this a rational position, or do we have good reason to believe that objective moral values and duties do in fact exist?

Before we look at the evidence, let’s define clearly the boundaries of the premise. The claim is that our universe contains moral categories of values (good and evil) and duties (right and wrong actions) that exist independently of the opinion of anyone and that apply to the actions and motivations of all persons. Therefore, the topic at hand is a question of ontology—whether these categories actually exist, and not epistemology—how we know these categories. How we come to knowledge of morality is irrelevant to the question; whether we know the speed limit on the streets of our city has no effect on the existence of such a limit. In my hometown, you will still be cited for speeding, even if the road is not posted with speed limit signs!

Secondly, the claim is not interested in whether one believes in objective morality. Belief in, or lack of belief in a truth claim does not make the claim true or false. You may not believe that our town has a speed limit; you can still be given a citation in spite of your lack of belief. What the claim addresses is whether these moral categories exist in reality, not in someone’s belief system.

So the question on the table presents us with two different types of realities; a moral universe in which objective moral categories exist, and an amoral universe that contains only subjective moral categories (where each person’s standard of right, wrong, good, and evil is defined by themselves and applies only to themselves). In order to determine which of these descriptions applies to our own universe, let’s take a look at what both of these realities would be like, and then see which most closely describes the features of our own universe.

In an Amoral Universe, objective moral categories do not exist. No action can be called objectively evil; while one might dislike another’s action, no external standard exists by which any action can be called good or evil. In the overall scheme of things, feeding your child is no better or worse than beheading your child, and any feelings one has to the contrary is simply opinion. In this universe, these moral opinions have no basis in reality; that is to say, nothing objective exists on which to base such a concept.

In a Moral Universe, objective moral categories do exist. Any action can fall into one of three categories:

  • Moral actions — actions that conform to the objective moral standard
  • Immoral actions — actions that violate the objective moral standard
  • Amoral actions — actions which are not addressed by the objective moral standard

While legality is not a synonym for morality, the two are somewhat analogous. It is legal in the United States to peacefully and publicly speak against an policy implemented by our government. It is illegal to murder the government official who is responsible for creating this policy. It is a-legal to read the public information related to the policy. Freedom of speech is expressly permitted by the law, murder is expressly forbidden by the law, and reading public documents is simply not addressed by the law.

As an objective feature of the universe, and not of an individual human, these categories apply to all humans, just as the law of gravity applies to all humans. Just as there’s no escaping the laws of physics for physical creatures, the laws of morality are just as binding on moral creatures. However, the moral categories are necessarily different from other laws of the universe in that they are prescriptive (describing how things ought to be) and not descriptive (describing how things are).

Having described these two universes, let us now consider our own. Which of these two descriptions best describes what we see in our own actual universe? I offer here two reasons why I contend that the description of the moral universe more accurately describes our universe.

The idea of an amoral universe is existentially self-refuting.

The concept of an amoral universe, thought not logically self-refuting, is existentially self-refuting. There is no logical incoherence in the statement “No objective moral values and duties exist.” The problem arises when one attempts to describe how one should live in such a universe… for the instant one makes such an attempt, they have invalidate the concept. In an amoral universe, “how one should live” is meaningless… no standard exists to describe how one should live.

Without considering the implications of such a universe deeply, it’s easy to claim, “Objective moral truths do not exist; I have the right to do as I please!” Yet, this statement makes a moral claim to a “right” while denying moral reality. If you believe that others ought to allow you to live according to the dictates of your own will and your own conscience, then you are appealing to objective morality to justify what others “ought” to do.

The logically correct view in an amoral universe is that everyone will do as they do with no moral implications at all. Yet, atheists commonly make moral demands; for example, that theists “stop imposing their morality”. This demand certainly assumes that theists “ought” to act in a particular way.  Yet, without objective morality, no such “ought” can exist.

Or think of it this way; we are beings who can conceive and consider many different possible courses of action. Does any course of action exist that should always happen, if possible? Does any course of action exist that ought never to happen? Ought theists to never torture atheists for fun? Ought atheists to rebut theists who claim that objective moral categories exist?

If one single course of action ought never to happen, then objective morality must exist. But let’s not get ahead of the evidence; whether it is immoral to torture atheists for fun (a question of epistemology) is irrelevant to the point—the only way that such a statement can logically be true is if there is an applicable objective standard by which we can judge the action in question.

The idea of moral categories would be unintelligible in an amoral universe.

In an amoral universe, one is hard-pressed to determine how the idea of moral categories would come to be. While in such a universe, any moral standard is necessarily subjective, such a subjective morality could have absolutely no basis in reality.

While we certainly conceive of ideas that are fictional, most, if not all of these fictional concepts have their roots in reality; unicorns are an extension of horses; werewolves are a blending of human and animal, a cyclops is an oversized human with a single eye. None of these concepts are completely manufactured out of nothingness.

Yet for the concept of subjective morality to appear in an amoral universe is similar to the idea of blue and green appearing in a colorless universe. It is impossible to convey the richness and experience of color to a man blind from birth, because such a man has no basis on which to relate to such a description. While you might explain that blue is a certain wavelength of light, that doesn’t convey to the blind man what light is, or the experience of seeing blue. To the blind man, color and light do not exist in his experience.

But in an amoral universe, moral categories have no basis of existence in reality. In a world where color had no basis of existence in reality, all would be as the blind man above, completely incapable of understanding the concept of color. Even if one conceived of such a thing as green or red in their imagination, they could never communicate this idea to others without a shared reference point. For purely subjective concepts, such shared reference points cannot exist.

It’s been argued that the fact that different cultures and religions have differing concepts of morality is evidence against objective morality. However, this is not the case. My wife and I frequently disagree on colors; I’ll say something is blue, while she insists that it is green. When it’s brought in to sunlight, we usually find that she’s right!

But notice that while we may disagree on the color of the object, neither of us is claiming that it has no color at all! In order for us to have a meaningful conversation about the object’s color, both of us must assume that color exists, and that the object does have a color. If color does not exist, then our conversation is meaningless, unexplainable, and could only be called delusional.

So the fact that every single person who has reached age two seems to have conversations about what men should and should not do seems to be strong evidence that they actually perceive something in the universe that actually exists. Whether politician, priest, parent, or protester, all make the claim that men should behave in a certain way. It seems remarkably myopic to consider all who hold such views to be sharing the same delusion!

For example, Christianity teaches that we should love our enemies, and as much as it is possible, we should live in peace with all men. Some branches of Islam believe that one should behead their enemies. Again, for this point, which view is correct is irrelevant; but in order for anyone to have a meaningful conversation about which view (if either) is correct, one must assume that a correct view does in fact exist. This requires an objective moral standard.

The implications of these two lines of evidence seem inescapable; unless objective moral categories of good, evil, right, and wrong actually exist in reality, our tendency to think in these terms is unexplainable. But to be fair, we’ve only looked at one side of the evidence. In a later post, I will address the arguments against this view.

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