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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part II

By David Baggett

Shafer-Landau (subsequently SL) starts this chapter by saying that most people “think that if moral rules are objective, then they must have been authored by God.” He notes that this includes theists, many of whom believe in God precisely because they believe in ethical objectivity, and see no way of defending that idea without God. It also includes those atheistic moral skeptics who think skepticism can only be escaped via God, whom they reject.

I’m not sure if SL is right in suggesting that most theists believe in God because they believe in ethical objectivity. The suggestion seems to be that the essential insight of the moral argument plays a central role in the theistic convictions of most believers. Although I find myself fond of this notion, whether or not it’s true is an empirical question to which I don’t know the answer. I imagine that lots of people would adduce lots of different reasons for their religious convictions—from religious experience to other arguments for taking God seriously. Some, no doubt, though, would cite distinctively moral reasons as the best evidence of their religious views, and as a moral apologist I think they’re generally on solid ground in doing so.

The fact that there’s also that group of atheists who embrace moral skepticism shows that they, too, accept roughly half of the moral argument for God’s existence. Of course such arguments come in lots of varieties, and it’s something of a misnomer to refer to the moral argument, as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere before. But for present purposes, for the sake of convenience, I’m subsuming them all under a general penumbral phrase as “the moral argument.” Generally such an argument identifies some moral phenomena and then proceeds to argue that it somehow points to God—abductively, inductively, deductively, or in some less discursive fashion. SL’s point about atheists who are moral skeptics exactly because they’re atheists shows that such people are inclined to think that objective morals would indeed point to God, find their locus in God (or however we might put it), and as a result, absent God, we lose our reason to believe in objective morality.

Notice with respect to this group of moral skeptics they don’t consider themselves rationally justified to believe in objective ethics, but they would accept the other half of the moral argument: that morality is a sign of God. Since they have already rejected the conclusion of God, they become skeptical of the moral premise. As mentioned in Part I, though, I think atheists clearly have excellent reasons to take moral objectivity seriously, reasons and evidence that should be taken seriously. If such thinkers were to stop indulging their moral skepticism and accept the evidence for moral objectivity that seems so obvious, they would actually have the tools to construct the moral argument: Morality is real, it points to God, so morality provides reasons to believe that God exists. (Obviously, this is just a rudimentary sketch of the logic here.) But alas, as SL points out, though such skeptics agree that objective morality would provide evidence for God’s existence, perhaps it’s their very concern about the direction morality is taking them which leads to their embrace of moral skepticism instead. (Of course, some of them might simply have taken, say, naturalism as obvious or even axiomatic for what they consider independent reasons, and then see objective morality with its distinctive features as incongruous with such a picture. But what follows will be a response to the first type of atheists.)

SL expresses such reasoning in the form of the “argument from atheism”: Ethics is objective only if God exists. But God does not exist. Therefore ethics isn’t objective.

One small observation at this juncture: what leaves me skeptical of this argument, among other things, is that it’s predicated on God’s nonexistence, which leaves me wondering why someone would feel confident using this as an obvious piece of evidence. The matter of God’s existence is a notoriously challenging philosophical question, with plenty of very smart people on both sides of the question. The problem of evil is often cited as evidence against God’s existence, and sometimes the problem of divine hiddenness. But on the other side, all manner of arguments have been generated—teleological, moral, cosmological, historical. One can brush all such arguments beside in derision, but this question is far from a no-brainer. If someone is sincerely convinced God doesn’t exist, for various reasons, that’s fine, but the obviousness of objective morality shines no less brightly as a result. And if these folks are skeptical of morality just because of their atheism, yet can see that morality, if real, would point to God, one is left to wonder if the evidence for their atheism is nearly as strong as the evidence for moral objectivity. Even the problem of evil can’t get off the ground without substantive moral claims, so what is the reason for their atheism? Presumably they think objective morality generally points toward God, not away, so the problem of evil isn’t likely to be the main reason for their atheism. So what nonmoral reason would they cite?

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

Perhaps they use the problem of evil despite their moral skepticism by suggesting that theists believe in such moral objectivity, so they are susceptible to the problem of evil after all. But this still seems strange to me, because they are also of the view that objective morality, all things considered, is consistent with theism but inconsistent with atheism. So even if the problem of evil provides some evidence against theism, a full-fledged analysis of the range of objective moral phenomena (of which evil in the world is just one aspect) provides a case for God, not against God. At any rate, believers are within their rights, if the problem of evil is raised on their terms, to use the full panoply of resources at their disposal to provide a hope for its ultimate resolution.

Well, back to SL’s response to the argument from atheism. He defers discussion of God’s existence to another occasion, and then zeroes in on the other premise by suggesting that “we don’t have to settle whether God exists in order to decide on the merits of ethical objectivism.” That much is true, if the point is an epistemic one. We needn’t know whether or not God exists to consider ourselves, and properly so, eminently justified, warranted, and rational to be moral objectivists. In fact, the moral argument for God assumes exactly this. But then SL writes, “Ethical objectivism can be true even if God doesn’t exist.” If by “can” he means merely epistemic possibility, then the claim amounts to saying, “For all we know, ethical objectivism may be true even if God doesn’t exist.” That claim may be right, though it’s fairly innocuous and unambitious. Truth be told, though, he’s probably making a more substantive claim like this: “It’s metaphysically possible that ethical objectivity obtain even if God doesn’t exist.” Even if that were true, it wouldn’t undermine the moral argument for God’s existence, at least in some of its versions. In an abductive version, for example, God is argued to be the best explanation of objective morality, which is in principle consistent with there being another, less good explanation of moral phenomena.

But is the stronger claim true? That’s a hard question, an exceedingly hard question. Here’s an easier one: what’s the evidence for the claim he adduces? That we don’t have to settle whether God exists in order to decide on the merits of ethical objectivism. But as I’ve said, I think that’s entirely right. The evidence for objective morality stands on its own, which is what makes it such an effective premise in a moral argument for God. But in no way does it thus follow that “ethical objectivism can be true even if God doesn’t exist,” which is a strong metaphysical claim that goes well beyond the less ambitious and appropriate epistemic point. Perhaps he’s right in his more ambitious assertion, but up to this point we’ve been given no reason to think he is. In the next post we’ll start delving into his case in more detail.

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