Saturday, August 11, 2018

Should We Ditch the Moral Argument?

You do not have to look very far into the modern historical dialogue on religion to find some rendition of “all things are lawful without God.” We read this in Dostoyevsky, hear it in debates between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, and read it in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. The discussion I have in view is situated within the realm of moral arguments for the existence of God. My goal in this post is to sketch out some basic reasons why we should think about abandoning these arguments.

What I like about the moral argument is that it engenders debate across the spectrum, from the everyday person to the academic. If you want to connect with someone, the idea of good/bad, right/wrong is a great place to start. One of the major things I dislike about these arguments is they rely on background metaphysics that are rarely drawn out. For example, we often hear that the atheist confuses moral ontology with moral epistemology. Besides creating what I think is an unnecessary bifurcation (artificially separating the knowing subject from known object), the atheist can grant this misstep and still proceed in his/her critique. The ontology of the theist is often not very explicit, frequently relying on a nebulous notion of ‘good’ that seems it could find a home in Platonism. Moreover, how does this ‘good’ equate to God (or YHWH)? It seems like there is a big leap from ‘objective morality’ to God. At least the God Christians claim as revealed in the Bible.

Some theists try to close this gap, and avoid Platonism, by including moral duties in their argument. This is based on the idea that a Platonic entity or abstract object cannot make it a duty to act in a certain way. Yet it still seems to land at something lesser than the God of the Bible or a ‘maximally great being’. Arguments supporting why it must be God that grounds objective moral values and duties inevitably shift into metaphysics that need their own defense to avoid Euthyphro and retain coherence. And then it seems the moral argument has really been a cover for an altogether different argument for God. [For instance, to avoid Euthyphro on divine command theory, the appeal is often made to the nature of God as good to ground commands. But this is precisely what is at issue. The command is not what makes the action right or wrong, it is the nature of God. Yet, this introduces an additional wrinkle into the argument. How is God good without an external property to Him? Answering this question really becomes the argument for God’s existence, as the theist needs to lay out a more tightly argued, and ultimately comprehensive, metaphysical argument.

I think the moral argument should be abandoned because it is a type of Trojan Horse. Reflective skeptics pick up on the fact that there is just too much compressed into it; it tends burst at the seams, scattering over too broad of an area to be effective. We often see the argument digress into discussions of moral realism and philosophy of science. For example, should we think that evolution is a defeater for the moral argument? That depends on whether you are a realist or not about the scientific theory. Thus, we end up going farther afield from the natural theology we need for effective apologetics.

We are better served to keep the metaphysical within its own realm. I think this best done in the Aristotelian/Thomist (A/T) tradition, where natural/law ethics are baked into the same systematic framework that demonstrate the existence of God. This keeps the conversation more transparent and helps cut wheat from the chaff. Most of the disagreements between theist and atheist will be on the fundamental level of reality itself, from which morality would be downstream anyway. Why not keep the main thing the main thing? Act/potency, matter/form, essence/existence; these concepts found within the A/t tradition form a nice dividing line, as it were. Perhaps similarly in the analytic tradition, there would be certain things that would principally divide the theist and non-theist upstream from morality; perhaps what attaches meaning to a given sentence or proposition. 

Healthy dialogue on morality should have a prominent place. We should absolutely use this as a starting point in conversations. Questions about morality, evil, good, suffering, and the like place our thoughts in the correct realm of inquiry; we begin taking existential issues seriously. The attending quandaries and paradoxes stalk all of us, so the appeal is still there. The best way to proceed is from a foundational metaphysics. And we do arrive at a robust set of moral principles and precepts. It is how we arrive at them that makes all the difference. This is one reason why we must demonstrate God on other grounds before proceeding to moral discussion. The moral discussion is better situated within an already established theistic framework, giving proper context. A theistic framework also helps the Christian connect theology and philosophy. We can then introduce biblical ethics in a holistic manner. 

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