Thursday, December 31, 2009

God and Morality (Part 1): Is there a moral argument for God?

Welcome to my series on Nicholas Everitt's book The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

In the next few posts I will be looking at chapter 7 of Everitt's book, which has the deliberately ambiguous title "God and Morality". I say "ambiguous" because Everitt's book is supposed to deal with arguments for the existence of God. The problem is that it is not clear if there is a moral argument for God's existence. That said, people often speak of God and morality in the same breadth.

In this part, I want to explain why there is a problem with the idea of a moral argument, and why God and morality share the same air supply.

What is Morality Anyway?
Morality is primarily about behavioural restrictions; about telling us what we should and should not do. We are all familiar with moral prescriptions, e.g. "you should not profit from the misfortunes of others", "you should not treat others as a means to an end but as an end in themselves", "you should not steal, murder, lie etc.".

When confronted with such moral prescriptions, we have two concerns (see my post on moral realism):
  1. Are they objectively true? In other words, are they more than simply the subjective whim or bias of the individual prescribing them?
  2. Do they provide me with reasons-for-action? In other words, upon knowing them am I motivated to do otherwise than I might have done?
These two questions provide us with two criteria for moral truth: the objectivity criterion and the motivational criterion. Keep these in mind in the ensuing discussion.

How God and Morality are Usually Connected
Cosmological and teleological arguments usually start from some widely agreed-upon fact and use that to support the claim that God exists. So, for instance, cosmological arguments begin with some general structural feature of the universe (temporality, causality, contingency) that everyone agrees exists. They argue that there cannot be an infinite regress of this feature and that God is needed to halt the long unending march to oblivion.

When it comes to morality there is no such widely-agreed-upon fact with which to begin the argument. For it is not at all clear that there are genuine moral truths. When we look at the moral prescriptions that are accepted by others it is not clear that they are doing anything other than:
  • following whatever is congenial to their own subjectivity; 
  • uncritically accepting the morality of their family, tribe, sect, or state; or 
  • accepting restrictions imposed by others out of fear or some other form of self-interest. 
Furthermore, the diversity of moral opinion around the world should give us pause.

Now, it is certainly true that most people want there to be moral truths. It seems to be a popular craving. But because there are no widely agreed-upon moral truths to anchors our discussion, God's existence is most often used to solidify or justify moral beliefs. In other words, religious believers try to show how God provides us with the objectively morality that we crave. They do not usually argue that because morality exists, so too must God.

Craig's Moral Argument
Despite what has just been said, it is possible to imagine a formal moral argument for the existence of God. William Lane Craig provides one simple example of this (see his website for details). Craig's argument is the following:

P1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values exist.
C1. God exists.

As syllogisms go, this is perfectly valid, but that's not saying much. Craig is trying to make an appeal to everyone's craving for an objective morality in P2 and using this to switch the focus to arguments in favour of P1. It is interesting that he never supports P2 with anything beyond a mere appeal.

Still, we have to take the argument as we find it. Most of Everitt's discussion in Chapter 7 concerns P1 and is guided by two questions: (i) Does God's existence actually support an objective morality? and (ii) Is objective morality impossibe without God? Both questions must be answered in the affirmative if P1 is to survive.

Discussing P1 is edifying in itself but bear in mind that without P2 there can really be no moral argument for the existence of God.

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