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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 IV


By David Baggett

Shafer-Landau (SL) is subjecting to scrutiny an argument that goes like this: ethics is objective only if God exists; God does not exist; so ethics isn’t objective. He has admitted that theists will reject the first premise, but he argues that atheists should reject the second premise. I agree that atheists should reject the second premise, for this reason: I don’t think the God question need be settled before one comes to a conclusion about whether or not objective morality obtains; if it did have to be settled first, there would be no room for moral apologetics.

Before proceeding, a word is in order. The idea that ethics is objective only if God exists is an incredibly ambitious metaphysical claim. An important distinction is in order. Consider the theses of objective morality and of God’s existence. For each thesis, there is a body of evidence for or against it. For nonskeptics about morality, they presumably take the evidence to be in favor of morality, and it’s reasonable to think that such evidence is available. Now, it’s obvious that among such nonskeptics are plenty of thoughtful atheists, who might consider the evidence against God’s existence to be strong, or at least the evidence for God’s existence to be weak, or not strong enough. Should such atheists accept the thesis that ethics is objective only if God exists? Clearly not.

Why? They think they have good reason to be moral objectivists, and lack good reasons to be theists, so there’s no particularly good reason they can see to think ethics is objective only if God exists. Of course, however, they might turn out to be wrong, having, for example, misjudged the evidential case for theism. Also, their rational belief in atheism and objective morality does little to show that it’s false that ethics is objective only if God exists; what it shows is that, on their view, they have no good reason to believe it to be true. They have a certain amount of reason to think it’s likely false, but their case is only as strong as their reasons to be both moral realists and atheists. And it’s crucial to remember that this formulation—that ethics is objective only if God exists—is not needed by a number of variants of the moral argument for God’s existence.

SL gives his own reason why atheists should reject the idea that moral objectivity requires God: because the reasoning that supports this premise is one that atheists will not accept. In his own words, here’s what he means: “Recall that the reasoning [in question] stipulated that laws require lawmakers, and that objective laws therefore required God. But atheists deny that God exists. So atheists must either reject the existence of any objective laws, or reject the claim that laws require lawmakers. Since they can easily accept the existence of at least some objective laws (e.g., of physics or chemistry) they should deny that laws require authors. But once we get rid of that view, then there is no reason at all to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

At first glance, this should raise a few questions. When we speak of nomological laws such as those found in physics or chemistry, there seem to be potentially relevant disanalogies between such laws, on the one hand, and moral laws, on the other. Philosophers of science have quite a bit to say about the laws governing the physical universe, and it’s by no means clear what the right analysis is. But supposing it’s fairly plausible to imagine that the nomological laws are contingent, the rate at which a body might fall to the earth might have been different. And even if so, the rate of falling wouldn’t happen because of the laws; the laws would simply describe what happens.

Image result for whatever happened to good and evilAlready we seem to have come across two disanalogies with moral laws. Take a nonnegotiable moral law that says it’s wrong to torture children for the fun of it. A moral objectivist would likely say this is objectively true, and perhaps for the modally minded even necessarily true. It’s hard if not impossible to envision such a law admitting of exceptions or as merely contingent. Since it’s plausible to think some such invariant moral laws exist—and this will prove relevant later to SL’s discussion—it’s worth pointing out that the laws of the physical world are less plausibly thought of as similarly necessary. The second disanalogy might be even more important: the physical laws arguably describe the behaviors of bodies falling through space and the like, whereas the moral laws prescribe how it is we are to behave.

Now, a fair question at this point is how relevant and telling such disanalogies are. Disanalogies don’t always rebut or undermine analogical arguments. What it depends on, of course, is what work SL thinks the analogies are doing. Recall that he’s trying to emphasize that atheists admit that they already reject the idea that all objective laws require God, since they believe in the laws of physics and chemistry without tracing such laws to God. To the extent that such laws are relevantly analogous to those of morality, SL’s point is that atheists who accept the former have reason to reject the idea that moral laws require a lawgiver—and thus, if accepting such a principle had led to their acceptance of the first premise in the argument from atheism, to choose now to reject it instead.

This is, needless to say, a painfully narrow point that SL is making, but thus delimited it has some value. Still, it strains credulity to think that many atheists would have so unrefined and unnuanced a reason for thinking that moral objectivity requires God. Call the reason ‘R’: “laws require lawmakers.” The narrowness of SL’s point makes surprising his further claim that dispensing with R leaves one with “no reason at all” to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence. It seems there may be ever so many potential (and better) reasons to think objective moral rules require God’s existence other than R, or at least that God somehow functions at the foundations of morality.

SL continues to direct his attention at undermining the notion that laws require authors by suggesting that, without it, the following train of thought collapses: Rules require authors, so objective rules require nonhuman authors, so objective moral rules require a nonhuman author, and that must be God.

Again, SL reminds atheists that they already believe that objective laws of the sort we find in mathematics or astronomy are not of our own creation. This shows, he asserts, that we have instances of laws without lawmakers. At issue here is not what role God might have played in creating the universe with its various operative laws, since SL is directing his argument to atheists, who don’t believe God was responsible for any of that. Since they believe in the laws of mathematics or physics and don’t believe that such laws had either a human or nonhuman author, they should, SL writes, reject the notion that laws require lawmakers, and this goes too for moral laws.

In our next installment, we’ll continue examining SL’s analysis and offer a reply.

See the rest of the series here.

Image: “Welcome rising sun” by A. Malhorta. CC License.

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