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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 V

by David Baggett 

We’ve been considering Shafer-Landau (SL) and his effort to refute an argument from atheism for moral skepticism: Ethics is objective only if God exists, but God does not exist, so ethics isn’t objective. In replying to this argument from atheists, he doesn’t address the premise that says God doesn’t exist, but he tries to show atheists that they should reject the first premise. The main reason, he claims, that some atheists accept this premise is because they’re convinced that all laws require authors. He reminds them they believe in the laws of physics and mathematics without believing them to be divinely or humanly authored, so he suggests they do the same with respect to moral laws and reject the idea that they require, to be objective, a divine author.

In our last installment, we mentioned the possibility of important disanalogies between the descriptive laws of physics and the prescriptive laws of morality, which is in the vicinity of an objection that SL now anticipates. In his own words: “Here’s a reply you might be thinking of: while scientific laws may be authorless, normative laws—those that tell us what we ought to do, how we should behave—do require an author.” This would render the scientific laws relevantly disanalogous, definitely undermining the analogical argument he’s making.

SL is not convinced, doggedly insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author, which he thinks he has shown is wrong. He’s skeptical there’s any other reason, or at least any good one. But let’s pause for a moment. Note his claim here. Earlier he had said that, in his own experience, people tie moral objectivity to God because of a specific line of thought: that all laws, principles, standards, etc. require a lawmaker. Now he’s suggesting that the reason he’s witnessed most people adducing for their conviction that objective ethics needs God is also the best reason on offer, perhaps even the only one. This now makes more sense of why he would earlier conclude that dispensing with the notion that laws require lawmakers leaves one with no reason at all to think that objective moral rules require God’s existence.

Again, however, it strains credulity to think this is the only or best reason for an atheist to think that morality find its locus in God. Moral properties might simply strike some atheists as ontologically odd entities, and not likely to exist in a naturalistic world. Or perhaps they think that it’s likely, at the macroscopic level, that naturalism entails loss of meaningful agency, without which moral norms don’t make sense. How can we obligated to do actions we may well be physically determined not to do? Perhaps they consider moral convictions a vestige of a supernatural myth they have left behind. And there could be plenty of other reasons besides those. The likelihood is that they’re not necessarily thinking in a tight, carefully reasoned, airtight discursive format; it may be a more intuitive matter for them, an issue of probabilities and likelihoods rather than a deductive inference.

CoverA moment’s reflection, too, would seem to undo the course-grained analysis that dictates that no non-authored laws exist. Here SL’s point is good: there are mathematical laws, and the laws of physics, yet atheists don’t think those to be “authored.” So, yes, an unnuanced acceptance by an atheist of the claim that all laws—irrespective of disanalogies—have to be authored seems worthy of rejection and susceptible to refutation. Again, though, are there many atheists who make this mistake? It seems unlikely.

It bears repeating at this point, though, that SL’s point is a very small one. What he has accomplished is just this: for an atheist who makes no distinctions between laws—be they mathematical, physical, or moral—he shouldn’t accept the idea that all laws require authors. What he hasn’t accomplished, remotely, are the following things: Shown that morality doesn’t have its foundation in God; shown that atheists are right to think there are nonauthored laws; shown that morality is relevantly analogous to physics or mathematics; shown that atheists with other reasons for thinking morality finds its locus in God are mistaken. In short, he has yet to show, as he claims to have shown, that there is “no reason to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”

But he’s not through, so let’s continue to listen to what he has to say. Recall that he’s anticipated the objection that morality and physics are not relevantly analogous. He disagrees, insisting that the best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws do. He thinks this, presumably, because he must put quite a bit of stock in the analogy, which, we’ll see, is no doubt true. When it comes to the laws of physics, though, which merely seem to describe how the physical world operates, it seems to many of us that the disanalogy with the authoritative prescriptions of morality, which we egregiously violate on pain of deep guilt, is a large and relevant disanalogy that undermines his argument.

Physicists can explore how space and energy and matter can feature stable laws of operation; but where would authoritative moral dictates and deliverances come from in a purely natural world? SL himself doubts they do, for he’s not a naturalistic ethicist, but a nonnaturalistic one, thinking moral properties are sui generis, not reducible to aspects of the physical world. On that we’re agreed. But the question of which explanation is better—some version of Platonism or some version of theism—remains an important question. And it’s arguable that the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its guilt-inducement for violation, its universality, etc.—find a better explanation in supernaturalism than nonnaturalism. I’m not making that case here, but noting that so far he hasn’t done anything to undermine the supernatural case—in a chapter, recall, called “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?”

In the next installment, we’ll continue considering the import of relevant disanalogies between the laws of morality, on the one hand, and those of physics, mathematics, and rationality, on the other.

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