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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 III

By David Baggett 

As we continue to examine Shafer-Landau’s (SL) case that ethical objectivity doesn’t require God, we turn directly to what he has to say about why most people—mistakenly, on his view—find compelling the notion that ethics is objective only if God exists. Personally, as I’ve said, I would prefer to argue less ambitiously that God provides the best explanation, or at least solid evidence, for God’s existence. The more deductivist-sounding “ethics is objective only if God exists” is devilishly hard to show, and it’s likely false in real ways. By raising the bar so high for his interlocutors, SL is lowering the bar for himself. This means, though, that by puncturing a hole in a case one might try building for so ambitious a claim, SL won’t have shown that God doesn’t function at the foundation of ethics. (It’ll be interesting to observe whether he draws only minimal and judicious conclusions; warning: he won’t.) The effect of his case might be to lessen confidence in certain formulations of the moral argument, but less-than-deductive versions don’t seem so much as touched or even remotely threatened. At any rate, let’s see what he has to say.

SL claims that, in his experience, people tie objectivity to God because of a very specific line of thought, namely, “that all laws (rules, principles, standards, etc.) require a lawmaker.” If there are any objective moral laws, then the lawmaker can’t be any one of us. Why? “Objectivity implies an independence from human opinion.” If objective moral rules aren’t authored by any one of us, but still require an author, they require a nonhuman creator. Enter God.

A word about criteria involved in theory selection. Not to belabor it, but the logic just described by SL is one among other ways to infer to God as the foundation of morality. SL’s language tends to favor casting God as the “author” of morality, which I’ve noted is likely strategic and not, to my thinking, anywhere near the best way to approach this. Here’s another formulation, and one I think is considerably better: what explains the existence of objective morality? In light its features, its authority, the personal nature of morality, the guilt we experience for failing to comply, etc., what would the best explanation of morality be? Here’s yet another formulation: in light of the evidence of morality, does such evidence render theism more likely than not? And here’s another formulation: in light of the evidence of morality, does such evidence render theism more likely than it would otherwise be? How we cast the question reveals something about our criteria for theory selection. Are we expecting the evidence in question to provide a nail-tight case? Or good inductive evidence? Are we trying to provide the best explanation of the evidence? Are we trying to show the evidence shows a hypothesis to be true? More likely than not? More likely than it would otherwise be?

Note that SL’s formulation of the question under consideration assumes for a salient criterion that theism must provide the only possible explanation of objective morality. For God to be “required” for moral objectivity, no nontheistic hypothesis would be possibly true. This is a very high standard to satisfy, to say the least, and it’s altogether unclear to me how one would even go about trying to establish such a case. I assume, for example, that Platonism is a living possibility—brute moral facts in existence somehow on a par, in the minds of many, with mathematical facts. I don’t know how to argue that this is impossible, but I still think, as theories go, it leaves a great deal less explained than robust theism does. On my lights, therefore, I would give the nod to theism over Platonism. But that’s a far cry from insisting I have reason to say Platonism and every other nontheistic account of moral objectivity is impossible. I suspect that just about every effort to make such a case will fail. And the attempt that SL is critiquing is sure to fall prey to devastating criticisms, but this in no way gives us reason to think that God is ontologically irrelevant to morality. His criticism is predicated on an overly narrow criterion for theory selection.

Admittedly, at times SL doesn’t sound like he’s trying to give a definitive refutation of theistic ethics as he’s simply instead trying to show that believers and unbelievers alike have good reasons to be moral objectivists. I resonate with this goal, but when he subtly shifts his argument to suggest that “ethics doesn’t need God,” disambiguating between a less ambitious epistemic point that’s right and an extremely ambitious metaphysical point that’s weak is vitally important.

At any rate, SL argues that theists and atheists should reject the “argument from atheism,” which goes like this: Ethics is objective only if God exists. But God does not exist. Therefore ethics isn’t objective.

CoverTheists would reject the second premise, of course, but atheists, he claims, should reject the first premise—the premise that ethics is objective only if God exists. And I largely agree with him that atheists should indeed reject this premise, for this reason: the evidence for morality is strong in and of itself. We needn’t settle the God question first, and the morality question later. We all of us should affirm the existence of objective moral duties and values. Once we do, we can then explore whether or not morality suggests, points to, hints at, intimates at, or provides evidence for God, or if it doesn’t.

I suspect that SL is conflating two very different questions: (1) Must one first believe in God to be rational to believe in objective morality? & (2) Does morality provide evidence for God’s explanatory relevance to morality? He and I would agree that the answer to the first question is no, but I would completely reject any suggestion that this shows God’s ontological irrelevance to objective morality. This questions remains an altogether open one. For the answer to the first question might well be no, and yet God might still be the best explanation of morality. In light of the fact that epistemic and metaphysical matters are distinct in a certain way, an answer of no to the first question wouldn’t even preclude God’s being the only explanation of morality. But again, how to establish so ambitious a case is a task beyond most of us. But the main point is that an answer of no to the first question doesn’t so much as broach the issue of the evidential significance of morality on the question of theism.

In the next installment, we’ll consider the reason SL gives for why atheists should reject the idea that moral objectivity requires God.

 

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