The Subjectivity of The Moral Argument And Why It Is Popcorn

“Read CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity.” Throughout the years, young believers have received that recommendation and eagerly combed over Lewis’s most important work. While it was not a testimony or autobiographical akin to Surprised By Joy, he did share what brought the most reluctant convert in all of England to the breaking point. He wrote on page 38 of Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” This is perhaps one of the most eloquent summaries of the Moral Argument. It convinced Lewis, and I can see how it would convince others. But when presented as an academic argument, a syllogism, the subjectivity of the Moral Argument might make it a little more vulnerable than many think.

Among apologists, the Moral Argument is typically pitched a syllogism. The most forceful rendition of this argument looks like this: 1 – If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. 2 – But objective moral values and duties do exist. 3 – Therefore, God Exists. Worse yet, others apologists take a presuppositional approach, suggesting that one must assume that God exists to make sense of moral values and duties. Either way, the question is, how can we prove in an academic setting that there really are moral values and duties?

Grounding Properly Basic Beliefs

Intuition accounts for a lot more of our knowledge than many of us know or care to admit. As you read about intuitions, you might think of examples such as detecting when somebody is lying. But the power of intuition goes a little deeper. Philosophers have always fallen short of solving the brain-in-the-vat scenario. We cannot say with ontological certainty that the world we are experiencing is real. But as Dr Craig pointed out, unless we have an overriding defeater for what our senses are telling us, then we have a good basis for believing in them. The same sort of thing can be said for our moral intuitions. We know that some actions such as murder or child abuse are wrong, not because we can prove it, but because we have access to an intuitive moral realm, and can see plainly that it is wrong. Just like our observation of the external world, we are justified in believing these moral declaratives in the absence of some overriding defeater.

Well and good. I agree with and affirm all of that. But to illustrate my objection to using this to defend premise two of the moral argument, allow me to explain my religious epistemology, drawn heavily from Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief. I do think evidence plays a significant role, but at the same time, I also recognize that it can only take you so far. We are faithful people not necessarily because of evidence but because of our experience with Christ. When I read the Bible, I intuit that it is truly the word of God. That sensory experience is something that I can see plainly. For me to deny it would be akin to denying the existence of the external world. This is similar to Reformed Epistemology.

But an important detail is that I cannot give my sensory experience to another person. I cannot sit in an academic setting and write a syllogistic argument based on my experience. It is not an argument for God’s existence. It is an explanation for why my personal belief in God is warranted. Now, let’s shift back to the Moral Argument. If all I have to say in defense of premise two is that “I can see plainly that it is wrong, and I expect that you can as well,” then I have not made an argument. I have appealed to my own intuitions. It is a category error, conflating warrant with proof. I can and do have warrant for believing that murder is wrong, but my warrant is not proof that murder is wrong. Even if everybody in the world shares the intuition that some action is wrong, that intuition is still not presentable in defense of a syllogism.

The Subjectivity of Cultures

Scientists are optimists and philosophers are pessimists. This is because scientists look for answers to problems that can be solved while philosophers often look for answers to problems that cannot be solved. Philosophers will ask whether a person’s beliefs are the result of her genetics and environment, or does her will exist independently of these influences? Strictly empirically speaking, it certainly seems like culture very much defines one’s beliefs, morals and even intuitions.

In the excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics And Religion, Jonathan Haidt pointed out that for many cultures, moral intuition is quite different from that of the westerner. For example, we make the distinction between social taboos and ethical dilemmas. Is there a moral quality, for example, to using the wrong utensil? Certainly not. But on page 16 of his book, Haidt recounted several polls taken in which people from different backgrounds were asked whether certain actions had a moral quality. For example, Indians thought the following were not only taboo, but downright wrong:
– A 25 year old son calls his father by his first name
– A woman cooks rice and wishes to eat it with her husband and his older brother
– A widow eats fish two or three times weekly
– A woman does not change her clothing after using the bathroom

Westerners might think some of these are a little weird. A 25-year-old would not call his father by his first name, unless he were trying to be funny. But there is certainly no moral quality to it. Nonetheless, those polled suggested that these actions were not only taboo but also immoral.

However, that is not an attempt to falsify intuitions. As I said earlier, an individual is justified in believing her intuitions unless she encounters an overriding defeater of that intuition. She will enjoy warrant for her own personal beliefs. But the second she brings that into another setting and attempts to make an argument from her intuition, or an argument from somebody else’s intuition, she immediately collapses under the subjectivity of the moral argument.

Why?

There is no external reason to think intuition appeals to a universal standard. An intuition cannot be tested. This is the same reason that we cannot use ghost stories or experiences of the supernatural in an academic setting. Those stories cannot be tested or assessed. They are anecdotal. Our intuitions are as well. If somebody were having a debate about the Moral Argument, the best the apologist could do is convince the audience that they already believe the second premise. But there is no evidential route to prove that it is true, especially not if we are talking about grounding basic beliefs. The best we can do is hope that there are people out there who already believe it.

In fact, if you were to go the evidential route, the evidence would suggest that people are experiencing different moral realms. It would suggest that our intuitions were crafted by cultures and evolutionary biology. That does not mean there is no universal moral realm, but it could be an indicator that intuition is not what brings us there. At the very least, it cannot be used as an argument. It can be used as a personal justification, but not an external argument, because there is no logical connection.

The Best Way To Pitch The Moral Argument

The Moral Argument is probably one of the most compelling apologetic resources available. It is a shame that it is being invalidated on a strict technicality. But rules are rules, and they are objective. Although, I think there is some useful content remaining that can be salvaged, but I do not know that it can be called an argument. We might just call it an appeal or an approach to preaching the gospel.

The Moral Argument is effective (not sound) when the audience already believes that objective moral values and duties exist. But the reason that so many apologists are taken to it is that it has very personal and practical implications. For somebody to deny that their moral intuitions were real could cause them to rethink all of their moral decisions. It is not something you can escape from without seriously reworking your philosophical framework. Merely raising the question of whether moral intuitions actually point us to a universal standard could cause many people to realize that they really do believe in a universal standard of right and wrong.

So I think the way to pitch this argument is to point out the implications for theism and atheism and use that as an avenue to preach the gospel. Life would not be livable if there was no universal standard of right and wrong. If we could not say there is some moral quality to pedophilia, bigotry against homosexuals, or the persecution of minorities, when everything in us cries out to, there would be something wrong. We can appeal to moral intuitions, as long as we are not using those intuitions to justify a premise in an argument. Convincing the audience that they already believe something does not mean you have established that it is true. That is why I would not debate a nihilist. All I would have is my warrant for believing, and I cannot give that to somebody else. So if you want to defend the Moral Argument, you probably should not use the syllogism. Use the The Absurdity of Life Without God.

The Subjectivity of The Moral Argument And Why It Is Popcorn

Popcorn literature is a puffed up snack but it does not have any depth. That was a little tongue-in-cheek, since the Moral Argument does have depth. But I think a lot of people are willing to overlook the flaw in the Moral Argument just because it is a pretty fun and powerful argument. For a syllogism to work, the premises have to be more probably true than not. If one is to establish that, one has to be able to provide reasons. Intuition can provide personal warrant, but I cannot give personal warrant to somebody else. I cannot give you my experiences. At least when defended as I have summarized here, premise two of the moral argument is not proven to be more probably true than not. We can believe that it is, and we can have persona warrant for believing that it is, but personal warrant is not evidence.

Recommended Reading:
Can Goodness Exist If God Does Not Exist?
Can A Universe Emerge From Absolutely Nothing?

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