Losing the Moral Argument
My last two posts established both premises of a moral argument for God’s existence. In “The Universe Doesn’t Care,” I argued that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. In “Why Moral Relativism is a Delusion,” I argued that moral values and duties do in fact exist. These two premises can thus form the following argument:
1. Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Conclusion: God Exists
This argument, if successful, turns our moral intuitions into very powerful experiential evidence for God. If it works, then the very core of who we are as humans testifies to the existence of God, and the atheist who claims that God is hidden does so while living a life that daily testifies to God’s existence. If the moral argument works, then we are all indeed without excuse; those who disbelieve only do so by actively resisting the moral evidence within.
Unsurprisingly, skeptics generally hate this argument. Recently, however, I have been surprised at the number of Christians who dislike the moral argument. The most common complaint I’ve gotten from theists is that if the atheist wants to escape the conclusion that God exists, then he just has to deny premise 2 (that moral values and duties do exist). And if the atheist is determined to be skeptical of moral values, then there is nothing that will logically force him to accept the existence of such values.
Now I think that the skeptic who denies moral values is being irrational (for reasons explained in “why moral relativism is a delusion”), and I have found that you can almost always show that the moral skeptic is being inconsistent when he trusts his sense experience but doubts his moral experience. Nevertheless, I agree with one general critique: If the person you are talking to refuses to accept the existence of moral values, then you cannot “win the argument.” When debating the existence of morality with a committed skeptic, you will almost always lose the debate.
But hang on a second; since when has the primary goal of apologetics been “to win arguments”? The “winner” of an argument is often determined by a combination of stubbornness and rhetorical skill, rather than by the soundness of the argument itself. Besides, you can always reject a conclusion by simply rejecting one of the premises. So, if Person A is determined to win a debate, then he will reject whatever premises he needs to reject in order to refute Person B’s argument. Such is the nature of debate – and it also is why those who engage in apologetics to win arguments so often become frustrated. If your goal is to beat the other person into intellectual submission and if you are not rhetorically gifted, then you will consistently lose arguments with others and quickly become frustrated. If you happen to be a skilled debater, with such a combative attitude you will strive to win at all costs, probably destroying any chance of actually changing the other person’s mind.
Of course, winning arguments should never be our primary goal. As the trite but true expression goes, we are to be winning people – not arguments. Winning a debate is absolutely useless if our mannerisms have completely closed off the other person from considering our view. So, in light of the proper goal of apologetics (the winning of people), how effective is the moral argument? - Incredibly effective!
The moral argument played a huge role in my own conversion, as it did for C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Leah Libresco, and many others. The argument’s power is primarily experiential, for while it may be a fun thought experiment to pretend that there are no objective morals, no one can actually live as though morality were an illusion. We all have issues that we care deeply about, issues that we are convinced “actually matter.” Nearly everyone has been a victim of some injustice – minor or otherwise – and we realize that blatant injustices really are wrong.
In fact, I don’t think that anyone actually disbelieves in moral values. Of course, many people say that morality is a subjective illusion. But saying that morality is subjective is a far thing from consistently thinking and acting as though morality were subjective. Let’s do a test of the readership here.
1. Do you think that it is morally wrong for a person to throw acid into someone’s face?
2. Think for a moment of someone you care about deeply, preferably someone who depends on you in some way: is there any moral difference between your loving, supporting, and caring for that person, and you beat him/her to death just for fun?
3. Would it be morally wrong to steal something from someone simply because you liked what they owned and desired it for yourself?
If you think that any one of those examples is actually wrong, rather than just socially unacceptable, then congratulations – you are a moral realist; you believe that there are at least some objective moral values.
Now, some people reading this post may just bite the bullet and say that they DON’T believe that my examples contain anything objectively wrong. Well sorry, but I just don’t believe these individuals. They may have deceived themselves into thinking that they don’t believe in moral values, but their actions toward people they care about, their excuses for bad behavior, and their anger at injustices that they experience all prove otherwise.
So yes, I use the moral argument. While other arguments may have more power to force intellectual assent, no other argument gets to the root of who we are as human beings. A person can disregard theories about the beginning of the universe, and he can dismiss the fine-tuning as just one more “gap” in our scientific knowledge, but he cannot ignore the innate value of the people he loves and interacts with every day. For we all bear the image of God Himself, and while we may resist the evidence written in the stars, we cannot ignore the law written on our hearts.