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A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Chapter 2

Summary by Robert Sloan Lee

Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Chapter Two: C. Stephen Layman, “A Moral Argument for the Existence of God”

In this chapter, Layman unfortunately ignores most of the debate between William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz, but he does present an interesting argument for the existence of God (or an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded) based on the idea that there are necessary moral truths which serve as reasons for our actions.  However, his moral argument addresses the issue from a different angle.  Specifically, while Layman argues that the existence of morality requires the existence of God or a certain sort of afterlife, he judiciously clarifies that he is not arguing that this is the case simply because morality is somehow dependent on God (even if that turns out to be the case).

Layman’s Overriding Reasons Argument

To motivate his argument, Layman makes two points concerning our reasons for doing or not doing something.

laymanFirst, Layman observes that many moral philosophers hold that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – and that that these reasons are more important than the non-moral reasons that a person may have for not doing that thing (where, for instance, those non-moral reasons are reasons of inconvenience or self-interest).  In short, moral reasons always override non-moral reasons.  For example, suppose one had promised to meet one’s friends at a specific time and was late for no good reason.  One has a moral obligation to be honest as to why one is late, and this obligation overrides the embarrassment that one might feel in admitting to one’s friends that there was no good reason for being late, even if lying would allow one to avoid the embarrassment.

Second, Layman introduces the claim that if there is no God and no life after death, then it is not true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are always the moral reasons for doing that thing.  In other words, if it is in one’s self-interest to do something immoral (and there is little chance of getting caught or little chance of greatly harming others in doing it), then the non-moral reasons for doing something wrong can override the moral reasons for not doing it – at least if there is no God and no afterlife.  However, that would mean that it is false to say that we always have overriding reasons for doing the right thing rather than doing the wrong thing.  The insight and force of Layman’s argument resides in pitting concerns about self-interests against concerns about morality.  If God does not exist and if there is no afterlife, then we face the possibility that “humans have overriding reasons to behave immorally.”  This is a suggestion that “people who take morality seriously” find “profoundly disturbing,” because it means that there can be cases in which “doing one’s duty would (at least sometimes) be irrational in the sense that it would involve acting on” what we normally take to be “the weaker reasons” – and this is supposed to be seriously problematic even if those cases are relatively rare.

The example that he gives to illustrate his argument involve a Ms. Poore who has lived many years in restrictive (but not life-threatening or health-threatening) poverty.  She has an opportunity to steal a large sum of money (without getting caught) that would permanently deliver her from poverty – and she knows that the persons from whom the money is stolen are wealthy enough that they will not be greatly harmed by the theft.  Further, if she does not steal the money she has reason to believe that she will remain in poverty for the rest of her life.  Layman says that stealing might not be wrong in every case, but if there is neither a God nor an afterlife, then Ms. Poore has stronger reasons for stealing the money than she does for doing the right (or moral) thing – and then it follows that moral reasons are not always overriding reasons that trump reasons of self-interest.

Further Considerations

Layman says that it is hard to see how we know that it is true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – he calls this the “overriding reasons thesis” or ORT.  However, he indicates that it is at least as reasonable to believe this claim as it is to believe other claims that we commonly accept (though we do not seem to know how it is that these others are true) – specifically:

(a)  The future will be like the past.

(b)  It is rational to trust one’s sense experience unless one has special circumstances showing them to be unreliable.

In the case of (a), any attempt to justify (a) by appealing to past experience to certify what our future experience will be like the past will simply assume the truth of (a) rather than proving it.  Again, with (b), any appeal to sensory experience to certify that (b) is true will just end up assuming the truth of (b) rather than demonstrating the truth of (b).  Most philosophers simply accept the truth of (a) and (b), and Layman thinks that something similar can be said about the principle of overriding reasons (or ORT).

To state Layman’s argument precisely, we get the following:

  1. If God does not exist and there is no afterlife in which virtue is rewarded, then it will not always be true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing.
  2. It is always true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing. (ORT)
  3. Therefore, either God does exist or there is an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded – or both. (from 1 and 2 by modus tollens and DeMorgan’s Law)

An Objection to Layman’s Argument

Layman then goes on to consider some objections to his argument and how he would reply to those objections.  One objection (and perhaps the most interesting objection) is that the argument does not establish that morality is dependent on God.  In this respect, it would seem that Layman’s conclusion may be more in line with Kurtz’s views than Craig’s (despite the former being an atheist and the latter being a theist).  Layman responds to this objection by agreeing that morality may not be dependent on God.  He writes:

I’ve not suggested that God by fiat (or otherwise) lends moral reasons their force.  Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that moral reasons have whatever force they have independent of God.  Nevertheless, what a good God can do is guarantee that moral reasons (requirements) are never trumped by other sorts of reasons.  Unfortunately, moral reasons can be trumped assuming naturalism is true.  [emphasis mine]

However, since Layman thinks that moral reasons can never be trumped by non-moral reasons, he believes that naturalism is false, and this leads to his conclusion that either God exists (in such a way as to connect self-interest and morality) or that there is some other sort of afterlife in which virtue is always rewarded.  So, whether or not morality can be grounded in God’s commands or God’s nature, the fact that there are necessary moral truths should (according to Layman) have certain consequences for what we believe about the existence of God or the afterlife.

Parting Thoughts

One aspect of moral truths that sometimes goes unmentioned is that such truths are necessary (if true at all), and one can appreciate that Layman does not overlook this intriguing feature of moral truths.  Given this, explanations of morality that appeal solely to contingent features of the world – features that could have been otherwise (such as our evolutionary history, our environment and education, or our genetic predispositions) – simply do not appear adequate to the task.  Further, if these necessary moral truths can exist independently of God (a possibility which Layman concedes – at least for the sake of argument), this would appear to run counter to Craig’s position that an objective morality must be dependent on God.  One hopes that Craig would address this issue in his response to these essays (as it constitutes a particularly interesting point on the relationship between the ontology of theism and the ontology of ethics).  So, while Layman does not analyze the debate between Craig and Kurtz, some of the issues he raises are pertinent to it, and his own variant of the moral argument is an intriguing one.

Image:By Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) –, Public Domain,





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