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The Argument From Morality

And Why It Doesn’t Work For Me

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.02.10, Updated 2017.07.24


Among many so-called proofs or arguments for the existence of gods is “The Moral Argument”, or “Argument From Morality”. Simply stated, this argument is: (1) moral obligation is a real thing (not a human construct), because (2) morality is absolute/objective (not relative/subjective); therefore (3) a god must have set these absolute morals and obligations.

Even those who use this argument admit it rests on the assumption that morals are absolute. And some opponents have conceded: “if objective moral truths exist, they would warrant a supernatural explanation.”



Introduction


I first heard this argument in C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity”, where he argued that since everyone agrees on the concept of right and wrong, there must be such a concept which is real and true — like mathematics — even if no one ever discovered or taught it.

At the time, it seemed reasonable enough to me (unlike many of the other arguments, which I found lacking even when I was an ardent believer). I thought: even if humans disagree on what’s right and wrong, we do agree that there are wrong things and right things.

But I eventually had to test the theory by playing Devil’s Advocate with myself. Supposing there wasn’t a god, and all of life came about by evolution via natural selection. Would this mean there would be zero morality, that no society would have any concept of right and wrong? It seemed reasonable to me that early humans would have taught their young (much as we do today) what to do and what not to do. For them, it would have been based on necessity, for survival. As societies grew more complex, those rules would become more complex, and some of these rules would evolve into what we know as morals. Early on, the cultures with the better set of rules and morals would be more likely to survive in the long term. Morals would be different in different societies (as they are, even to this day) because the societies had evolved differently.


Modern Version


The argument is still being used today. As an example, the founder of CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry), Matt Slick, says (here):
“...atheism offers a subjective moral system that is based on human experience, human conditions, and human reason. By its very nature, such moral evaluation is relativistic, dangerous, can change, can become self-contradictory and can lead to anarchy.”
Slick goes on to give a not-so-real-life example (global societal collapse) and asks whether a particular behavior (robbery at gunpoint) is “wrong”. If it’s not wrong — because it has become normal and because it might be necessary for survival — “then you affirm situational ethics and can’t complain when the situation suits somebody else’s fancy”. If it is wrong, then why? His point is to get the reader to admit that morals are absolute — a “moral standard outside yourself to which you must answer, and that would imply a Moral-Law Giver”, which of course is the particular god he already believes in.

Another example comes from Rick Henderson, a pastor in Utah:
“There is no morally good atheist, because [to an atheist] there really is no objective morality.”
Henderson then constructs what he feels is an airtight logical and philosophical argument, but in his conclusion belies that he doesn’t really understand what atheism is: “Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.”


Understanding Atheism In This Context


First, the atheist cannot “contend that atheism is true”, because atheism is defined as the absence of belief. You cannot contend that your novel is true if you never wrote a novel. It is the theist who makes a claim that must be backed up, not the atheist.

Remember, atheism (my own specific position) is not a belief system. It is the antonym of belief systems. This is difficult to understand for people who have spent their entire lives steeped in religion, or at least surrounded by a culture that assumes everyone has a religion of one sort or another. I know, because I spent much of my life there. I could not conceive of life without a belief system, without a God at the top of everything, without the structure of the church.

But non-believers are simply that: people who don’t believe in deities — much like most theists don’t believe in all the deities that aren’t theirs.
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

— Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain, 2004, pg. 150

Secondly, and more related to this discussion, many atheists do not recognize objective morality — at least not in the way that Henderson does. I certainly don’t.


Why Is The Argument Important To Theists?


Theists are traditionally very afraid of “moral relativism” — subjective morality. I know I was. It was a bad word like communism or liberal when I was growing up. Moral relativism, we knew, was responsible for the moral decay of our nation. I was convinced, as were many of my peers and church leaders, that our nation’s moral graph could be plotted on a graph from “pretty darn good” in the early days to “about to fall apart” in modern times.

I thought my own moral code was absolute and objective. It was written in the Bible, after all — I didn’t invent it myself. It had been the same since the beginning of Time. I mentioned this in my journal in October 1992, in two separate entries:
“What am I doing with a conscience? If there is really no God, and the Bible is not true, then why would my conscience bother me? This brought me back to the logic used by C. S. Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’. If there is really a standard of right & wrong, where did it come from? Well, obviously, it didn’t come from society, since our society (as it always has) goes completely against the standard of right & wrong found in my conscience...

I came to the conclusion previously that there is a God, because of the universal standard of right & wrong, and because of the existence of my conscience...

Being, as implied above, the originator of the moral standard of right & wrong, this God must also Himself follow this code of law. Whether by choice, or by nature, He follows this code, and being in possession of all power, He is capable to completely meet the standard. In fact, if the ‘code’ is in His nature, He Himself may BE the code, or standard, rather than its originator.”
Had I believed any differently — that morals changed over time and were developed by humans and human society — it might mean that my Bible (and possibly my God) was irrelevant. So I learned to use the argument that Slick and Henderson repeat above, which is really just the reverse of the fear in the first sentence of this paragraph: God exists and the Bible isn’t irrelevant, because morals are absolute and don’t change over time.

And then I realized that morals do change over time. Whoops.
And then I realized that morals do change over time. Whoops.

Technically, it was three realizations: (1) the modern Christian moral code didn’t align with the Bible’s, (2) modern society’s morals were different than ancient society’s, and (3) there has never been, as far as I know, a time when the bulk of humanity agreed upon any moral code.


Morals Are Subjective


Even as my own religion was (and other religions were) being formed in ancient times, other cultures on Earth at the same time had different standards of morality. And all of them have changed and are still changing today — both on a societal level and on a personal level.

It’s much easier to describe a change in personal morality. “I once believed littering was just fine, but now I believe littering is immoral.” But that has little bearing on the argument of objective/absolute morality, since I could have been mistaken originally, or I could be mistaken now.

On a societal level — and within religions themselves — ideas about morality have changed as well.

Owning a human being was once considered normal, moral behavior and it’s now considered immoral. So it wasn’t absolute or objective.
For example, the Bible implicitly and explicitly endorses slavery. It was seen as normal at the time — definitely not considered immoral, even by the folks who wrote the Bible. Today, the great majority of Christians will quickly argue that slavery was and is immoral. Others will weakly argue that the slavery mentioned in the Bible wasn’t anything like the slavery that the U.S. saw during its first hundred years, but that’s irrelevant, isn’t it? Either way, owning a human being was once considered normal, moral behavior and it’s now considered immoral. So it wasn’t absolute or objective. Whether it was moral depended not upon some outside standard of morality, but on the changing ideas about morality.

As a second example, the practice of having multiple wives and/or concubines was perceived as normal in Old Testament times, and in fact was required in some cases. As late as the 16th Century CE, leaders like Martin Luther wrote that having “several wives” did not “contradict” scripture, though he recognized that “it is a scandal”, showing a change in attitudes. While some fringe groups continue to show support for the idea of men having multiple wives, it is by and large considered immoral by the church today. At the same time, the practice is considered just fine in other major world religions, though not always practiced.

In almost all cases throughout history and the development of moral ideas within religion, it was not acceptable for a woman to have multiple spouses, though plenty of instances are known in which women had multiple partners. Today, while there is still something of a double standard in regard to sex, for the most part societies allow women the same consideration as men — or are at least moving in that direction (with notable exceptions) — again due to changing ideas about morality. Many of these moral (and legal) standards in the U.S. have changed during my lifetime.

Another example is the corporal punishment of children by their parents. In the view of Henderson and Slick, where the Christian god YHWH (in practice, the Bible) determines the objective moral rules, it’s moral to spank a child, evidenced by well-known passages like Proverbs 13:24. This view held sway in non-Christian societies as well, for many centuries. By the mid-20th Century CE, however, attitudes began changing, especially in the western nations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legislation began reflecting this change in ideas: first Sweden, then Finland, Norway, and Austria began to prohibit the practice. By the date of this writing, 44 nations legally prohibit all forms of parental corporal punishment. Even in nations (like the U.S. and UK) where actions like spanking are still legal, strict rules and social stigmas have arisen around child abuse, often with no clear line — either in law or public consensus — delineating the difference between the two. Respected polling organizations like Gallup and Pew show a steady trend of decreasing support for spanking and increasing opposition to it, while a rising number of studies show its lack of benefit and likelihood of permanent psychological damage. It seems this tenet of morality, once considered absolute, is changing too.

On most of these subjects, there once was a consensus; today there is not; tomorrow the consensus might be on the other side of the scale.
Worldwide, there are many opinions on many moral questions, depending on culture, religion, and region, but they are all constantly in flux, constantly changing. Attitudes about homosexuality, torture, the death penalty, domestic abuse, gender equality, abortion, racism, euthanasia, and so many more hot button issues are being debated. On most of these subjects, there once was a consensus; today there is not; tomorrow the consensus might be on the other side of the scale.

My point (hopefully clear by now) is that morality isn’t static, absolute, or objective just because someone wants it to be or because someone once said it is.


A Theist’s Possible Rebuttal


One possible rebuttal to my assertion above (that morality is changing), is that such changes do not prove that the lack of an objective moral code.

This philosophical point is valid. Even if every person on Earth someday came to a consensus on a particular moral question, there could still be a metaphysical, absolute code somewhere that says differently.

My problem with that, then, is that the code is invisible, unknown, and unknowable — much like the deity that theists assert. Further, even if I stipulate that such a code exists — and has been provided to humankind — there is no way to know which code it is.

Perhaps, compared to the full galactic consensus, we’re wrong about everything.
A second possible rebuttal is to use the cosmological scale. Earth is such a tiny place in our giant galaxy, which is just one of many billions of galaxies. It is possible that what I perceive as a global consensus here on Earth is such a tiny representation of all intelligent life in the Universe that it is not really a consensus at all. Perhaps, compared to the full galactic consensus, we’re wrong about everything.

Until proven otherwise, I would still assume that moral rules, and attitudes about them, have changed over time, even among the billions of possible groups of intelligent life in the Universe. I have nothing to base this on except our experience here on Earth.


Consequences Of Moral Relativism


Since morality is subjective, what then? Slick argues: “Of course, this would lead to anarchy.” Henderson states: “At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”

The former makes no sense, because morality is subjective and changing, yet this hasn’t led to anarchy. If anything, the world is more governed and ordered than ever before. The latter is closer to the truth, but stated in loaded terms to elicit an emotional reaction.

The problem is, both are guessing at supposed consequences, because both believe that morals are absolute and unchanging.

The true consequences of moral relativism, then, are all around us, because moral relativism has been reality from the get-go.
The true consequences of moral relativism, then, are all around us, because moral relativism has been reality from the get-go.

Those consequences include genocide, war on massive scales, observable strains on the environment, murder, rape, theft, child abuse, etc. Because even though I think those things are wrong, and presumably you do too, there are enough people alive who think they’re justifiable.

It is also pretty clear that most people do not engage in such behavior. Plenty of humans treat other people as they would want to be treated. In my life, I have met more good people than bad, more honest people than dishonest, more hard-working than lazy, and so on.

So, in my worldview, the consequences of subjective morality are exactly same as the consequences of objective morality in a theist’s worldview.


Where Then, Does Morality Come From?


If morality is not absolute or objective — because there is no deity to be the First Cause — but clearly there is in society today a sense of morality, then where did it come from? How did it arise? These are questions often immediately posed by the theist after someone claims morality is subjective.

The best answer, in my opinion, is simply: “I don’t know.”

I wasn’t around when morality began and don’t make any claims as to what gave rise to the sense of right and wrong that is currently so entrenched in society. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure.

Further, it’s not my job to know. Sure, I’d like to. I’m curious about things. I’m the type of person who questions everything and overthinks everything. But, because I am no longer making claims about the supernatural, I don’t feel a need to prove anything to anyone.

But, like many others, I can guess.


A Thought Experiment On Morality’s Origin


As mentioned near the top of this page, I stipulated to myself that humanity arose by evolution and natural selection, just to see where the thought experiment would take me. In that case, there was no great dividing line between humans and animals — it was a change that took many thousands of generations. There was never one generation that looked back at its parents and could clearly see the difference. So I thought of the most primitive humans I could conceive.

With low population numbers, certain moral ideas likely rose early: a prohibition on murder, for example. “Thou shalt not kill” might have been one of the very first edicts issued by mankind, probably pre-dating verbal language. Not for right or wrong reasons, but for survival of the species. In the same way, killing in self-defense might have been justified early as well. Certainly the people who did it thought they were right to do so, and they survived to pass on their genes and their ideas.

It is also probable that the first “property” owned by early humans included nothing more than food and shelter (clothes and tools came later, right?). If you steal my cave or my stockpile of berries, my family and I are in danger of not surviving the winter. So “Thou shalt not steal” could have easily arisen from just such a situation, at least within a tribe or group. The tribe from the next valley would have the same rule within its group, but would feel no compunction about stealing from your tribe.

And it makes sense that the strongest and most virile men would have taken multiple mates, though the concept of wife probably didn’t arise until much later. It ensured that more viable children would be born to the men most able to protect them and provide for them. It wasn’t until civilization was much more secure that polygyny began to fall out of favor.

When one group fought another, whether over food or shelter or some perceived slight, at some point in human history, one group had the bright idea to capture members of the other group and force them into labor — instead of merely chasing them away or killing them. The first groups to do this successfully and in great numbers suddenly had a much more efficient labor force than they’d had before. And thus slavery was born, helping to ensure one group’s supremacy over others.

Following the above train of thought, my guess is that rape wasn’t prohibited for quite some time. It wouldn’t surprise me if early man’s idea of marriage is very close to what we today consider to be rape.

My thoughts went on in this vein for a thousand more paragraphs, easily coming up with most of the moral ideas that are present in any early religion. None of this, I’m sure, is original to me. Just like I thought of it by envisioning a tribe or extended family of early humans, I am certain that others have covered it.

Theists argue then that (from Henderson’s article):
“...compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children. Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it's always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.”
Again, he forgets that in this worldview, morality is subjective and changing. At one time, it likely was not a part of culture to show compassion to the dying, except in the hope that they could be saved. Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals while crossing the continent that some native tribes left their elderly behind to die when they could no longer keep up or were useful. There was no compassion, just “you’re slowing us down; leave us alone”. It likely was just fine to rape — by today’s standards. It still is, in some countries and some religions, by western standards. (And, of course, it was condoned by biblical law in Deut. 22:28-29.)

I have no clue how an early, primitive society would handle a mentally or physically handicapped child. We know from the earliest literature that “the deformed” were sometimes considered expendable (Plato, The Republic, Book V): “...but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.” Christian leaders (including Martin Luther and John Calvin) believed that mentally retarded persons and others with disabilities were possessed by evil spirits and subjected them, including children, to painful “cleansing” processes. In the 20th Century, even in the U.S., some mentally ill persons were forcibly sterilized, while others were given lobotomies for behavioral problems, and subjected to a hundred other treatments that are now considered inhumane.

While Henderson argues that these behaviors were “always wrong”, he cannot deny that they were not always thought to be wrong, even by the Bible in many cases.

He also forgets, as do others who make this argument, that even if a moral rule first arose to promote the survival of the race or a group of individuals, today the survival of the species is not dependent on those same rules. During human population bottlenecks, an ultimate goal of “survival of the species” would have easily justified practices that could not be morally justified today, including forcible taking of wives, younger mothers, larger family sizes, putting children to work earlier in life, enslaving enemies rather than killing them, etc. In those days, the human population had fallen to less than 10,000 members and our species came precariously close to extinction — one more particular harsh winter, or severe drought, or insidious virus could have done the trick. If it had happened, perhaps some other species would have evolved into ruling this planet and would be discovering the last human fossils today. But today, more than 7 billion humans roam the world. More of us survive pregnancy and childbirth than ever before; more of us survive childhood than ever before; on average, we live longer lives than ever before. Today there is no survival justification for taking a spouse/mate without his or her consent, for forcing girls to give birth during adolescence, for forcing children to work in factories or fields, for forced work of any kind, or for very large families. Today, a virus or war could wipe out 90% of humanity and we would still have more than enough genetic stock to continue the species without reverting to prehistoric morality.

Also, we’ve learned more. Now we (not everyone, but many of us) recognize environmental harm that we have caused and are causing. It’s conceivable that it will someday be considered immoral to drive a gas-powered vehicle or use electricity that came from burning coal — because we will depend on those moral rules for our very survival. A growing number of people already feel this way. I predict other future changes in morality as well. Already during my lifetime, a good number of westerners have developed moral reasons for ceasing to eat meat; there is reason to believe this trend will continue. As more people begin to consider the sentience of certain animals (chimps, bonobos, and many other mammals, for example), it is conceivable that another generation or two will bring a consensus that these non-human animals deserve certain rights. No one should be completely surprised if a hundred years from now people look back on us in disdain for owning other creatures.


Conclusion


The Argument From Morality is based on the assumption that morals — the entirety of the moral code — is unchanging, set in stone outside of humanity. In other words, it attempts to prove the existence of a god by assuming that a god exists. This is a perfect example of circular reasoning, and is faulty because of it.

The question then becomes whether morals are objective/absolute or subjective/relative. If the former, then there is almost certainly a First Cause of some kind. If the latter, then there is no reason to suppose (from this argument) the existence of a god.

I can find no evidence that morality is absolute/objective, nor any reason to be persuaded in that direction. In fact, every consideration of morality throughout history makes it clear to me that morality and attitudes about it are constantly in flux. In our current world, as well as in the ancient one, morality differed from one culture to the next.

Having performed a thought experiment about morality developing over time by human society, I am satisfied that this is as good an answer as any. I do not know where morality came from, but it certainly is not absolute and unchanging.

This leaves only one question, for me personally, or for non-believers in general: What code shall I live by? I have devoted another page to answering that question.


This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version, click here. Known edits are listed below.


EDIT, 2016.01.22: Added link to original version of this page. Changed background formatting of headers (change is invisible to readers). Changed background formatting of in-page anchors (should be invisible to readers). Changed wording in second paragraph of Understanding section. Added link to this Edits section in the More menu. Moved in-page navigation to top of More menu. Corrected spelling of “whoops” in the Why section. Added text of scriptures to “tooltips” so they can be read by hovering cursor over the link.

EDIT, 2017.07.24: Added html meta headers for mobile (invisible to most readers of this page). Made minor clarifications and word changes.




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