Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 2: Why the Argument from Morality Fails

Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 2: Why the Argument from Morality Fails

In Part I it was argued the religious do not have the moral high ground. Not only is religion not a source of morality, its offer of moral absolutism and absolution is overtly immoral. It’s an offer you’d expect from the devil, given it essentially entails selling one’s soul for impunity, yet we’re told this offer is made by God. Even the best of the religious who reject this deal – that is to say those who are moderate enough to abandon absolutism, question the ethics of vicarious redemption, and engage in moral reasoning – still suffer from gross errors in reasoning that render the whole basis of their ethical foundation unsound. Here we will examine the argument from morality, how it is employed in debate, and why it fails to hold true.

The argument from morality is an argument for the existence of God. One simple interpretation would be the following:

1. Morality is an observable part of the human experience.
2. God is the best explanation for morality.
C. Therefore God exists.

The argument above is at least valid, because if the premises are true it follows the conclusion must also be true, but the problem is obvious — the second premise is false. It is not at all clear why God should be considered the best explanation for the existence of morality.

Qualifying the argument by saying God is the best explanation for the existence of objective morality falls short too, as morality is clearly relative, even though it can be studied objectively. Only the existence of an absolute morality would suggest the existence of God, and despite the religious pretence of moral absolutism, no religious text is without contradictions, and no religious individual or organisation has ever been so firmly resolute as to never change their stance on moral issues. Of course, it could be argued that just because human beings’ notions of morality are subject to change, and their interpretation of God’s will imperfect, that this does not mean an absolute morality mandated by God does not exist. And yet the argument that it does exist seems self-​​refuting, given God is held to be above the very standards he dictates, and double standards preclude absolute ones.

If morality is absolute, and the religious really believe this moral truth has been revealed to them, then they must desist from excusing the actions of their predecessors and start holding them to the same standards they would themselves. You can’t preach moral absolutism whilst exculpating your religious forebears for holding to a different moral truth, especially when you’re claiming that your absolute morality has been revealed through them! This isn’t just having it both ways, but every which way, in the most promiscuous manner.

When one asks why Jesus did not once condemn slavery or ritual genital mutilation, it is not good enough for one who believes in an absolute morality, and believes these practices to be wrong, to argue this oversight is excused by such barbarisms being culturally ubiquitous during the time Jesus lived. Omissions are one thing but what to make of contradictions? The modern moderate Muslim cannot condemn paedophilia and maintain that Mohammed (who was a paedophile) remains the epitome of morality to which we should all aspire. The implication is clear, assuming moral absolutism to be correct, the religious who claim to possess knowledge of it must accept that either their notions of morality are false or their prophets were.

The moment one accepts human beings have varying interpretations of morality, it becomes impossible to prove the existence of an absolute morality, so the whole argument reveals itself to be an exercise in wishful thinking.

Far more interesting is when the argument from morality is turned on its head. Having debated with bishops and theologians, morality has frequently been a subject of discussion. Reflecting on these debates I realised that although the purpose of the argument from morality is to support the existence of God, it is much more common to encounter the inverse of the argument. In this reversal of the argument, God’s existence is taken as the antecedent instead of the consequent, and the argument is restated to say something like:

1. God exists.
2. Morality comes from God.
C. Therefore without God there would be no morality.

Note the religious are no longer trying to convince you God exists. Instead, they’re merely scaring you into wanting to believe he does by arguing his non-​​existence would have unsavoury consequences. This is a conclusion that makes you more willing to accept the original premise out of fear than good reason. This argument isn’t new. It is essentially what Kant proposed in his Critique of Practical Reason, in which he argued that, owing to practical reason, all moral thought implies the assumption God exists. Far be it from me to criticize Kant, but since the point of an argument is to convince one of something by showing that it follows from something they already believe, the premises of an argument should be at least as likely to be believed as the conclusion. Kant would’ve known this, so he’s preaching to the choir here. But it’s not just those of us who believe the premise God exists is false who find this argument unconvincing. It is entirely possible to believe God exists but not necessarily believe morality comes from God, and to accept it as more of a biological and psychological phenomenon, rather than something handed out in tablet form by God on mountaintops. Indeed, I have spoken with bishops who believe as much.

The inverted argument from morality takes three subtly different forms, all of them regularly conflated by the religious and non-​​religious alike during debate. This conflation is a source of confusion, which further adds to the frustration felt from these arguments attacking the unbeliever in their deepest integrity. Indeed, taken in its various forms, the inverted argument from morality asserts we cannot be moral without either 1) believing in God, 2) living in a society with a religious heritage, or 3) God bestowing morality upon us. Even a cursory analysis of these three arguments finds them wanting.

First, it is argued non-​​religious people are immoral:

1. God exists.
2. Morality comes from [belief in] God.
C. Therefore without [belief in] God there would be no [individual comprehension of] morality.

This argument is not as common as it once was, as most people today have non-​​religious friends, and can see firsthand they’re good people with a moral compass as finely calibrated as anyone else. One also can’t fail to notice the irony, that historically this very argument was invoked by the religious when murdering non-​​believers, which even to this day still occurs in more religious, less civilised societies. And so when attention is drawn to the blindingly obvious – that there are many non-​​religious people who are outstanding moral citizens, and many religious people who aren’t – apologists quickly change their argument to one of the remaining two.

Second, it is argued non-​​religious people are only moral because of a religious (usually Judeo-​​Christian) heritage:

1. God exists.
2.1 God created a moral framework.
2.2 Morality is distilled by religion and inherited by future generations even if they aren’t religious.
2. Morality comes from God [via religion]
C. Therefore, without God [as revealed through religion] there would be no [individual comprehension or societal basis of] morality. 

Let’s not forget what the religious heritage actually is. A brief look at history reveals it is one of genocide, sectarian violence, witch-​​hunts, subordination of women, and persecution of minorities, to name a few. There’s more blood on the hands of the religious than there is holy water to wash it off. Even Moses upon returning from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments – one of which proscribes killing – is said to have immediately ordered the Levites to draw sword and slay their Jewish brothers and sisters for idolatry (Exodus 32:28). What is the moral of this story? To the civilised among us there would appear not to be one. But we can at least deduce that idolatry was considered a worse crime than butchering thousands of men, women and children by the very people the religious now claim we ought to derive our moral bearings from.

Third, it is argued people wouldn’t be moral creatures if God hadn’t given us the ability to engage in moral reasoning, and that we would have no point of reference by which to judge our actions as moral or immoral if God didn’t exist:

1. God exists.
2.1 God gave us the capacity for moral reasoning.
2.2 God sets the standard by which all actions are considered moral or immoral.
2. Morality comes from God.
C. Therefore without God there would be no morality.

Note how diluted the argument has now become. With the previous arguments dispelled, religious apologists now argue that although people need not believe in God, or have come from a society with a religious heritage to be good, that without God there could be no such thing as ‘good’ in the first place. Viewed in this form two important sub-​​premises are revealed (2.1 & 2.2). Having been revealed these premises can now be refuted. First, God did not give us the faculty of moral reasoning, we evolved that ability over time. Morality is biological and psychological, not divine. And if God did give us the ability to engage in moral reasoning then he also gave us those who seemingly lack the ability to do so. Second, one struggles to imagine standards of morality any lower than those set by God. Recall in Part I I outlined the many atrocities, including genocide no less, that are said to have been committed or condoned by God.

Religious apologists argue that without God we would be living in a universe for which there is no objective morality, no means by which to judge what is good or bad, because God (who as Sam Harris once put it, has committed genocide on a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath), is apparently the epitome of morality. Note this argument does not, as the previous argument does, attest to the enterprise of religion being a force for good. All it does it state that good exists because God made it, as it is argued he made everything else, presumably this includes evil. Readers averse to genocide and double standards would rightly conclude that if God exists he is in fact evil. The religious apologist who believes God is good must therefore provide a sufficient explanation for the problem of evil before it can reasonably be said that good cannot exist without God. No religious apologist has ever done so. In fact, they often dismiss the problem of evil out of hand and do their best to put it out of mind.

The atheist position is God does not exist, and that the moral questions and dilemmas we face are exactly as they would be if this were the case. The non-​​existence of God does not preclude the existence of an objective morality. Science can allow us to study morality objectively within the context of the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Before the religious can argue that we cannot be good without God, they first have to prove God exists. There remains no strong evidence to suggest he does. And it’s only when people believe God exists they find themselves seriously considering actions they would otherwise find morally repellent, such as owning slaves, or mutilating the genitals of a newborn. There’s nothing to fear if God doesn’t exist and there’s a lot to fear if he does, because if God is real the self-​​righteous would be right after all. Perish the thought.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Nietnagel]