Friday, May 13, 2016

Countering the Moral Argument

Note: What follows is the script for my YouTube video on Countering the Moral Argument.  Keep reading below for the transcript!

The moral argument for god’s existence is extremely common, but it is entirely unconvincing to anyone who has studied moral philosophy. This video is here to give a quick overview of the counter arguments that decisively show why the moral argument is false.

First let’s present the actual argument:

1.)    If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2.)    Objective moral values exist.

3.)    Therefore god exists.

 Objection 1: What does god have to do with moral values?

It’s not immediately obvious what god has to do with morality and at first glance it appears that the moral argument is an example of a valid, yet unsound argument like this:

1.)    If 2+2=4, then leprechauns exist.

2.)    2+2=4

3.)    Therefore leprechauns exist.

The onus is on apologists to give a link between god and morality in order to justify Premise 1.   The problem is that once they do, the argument starts to lose a lot of its force.

Defenders of the moral argument hold to Modified Divine Command Theory, which states that “goodness is ontologically equivalent to the nature of a loving god”. 

If you’re like me before I started studying philosophy, you’re asking “What the hell does it mean to be “ontologically equivalent”?

The best example used by apologists is the relationship between water & H2O.  Water simply is two hydrogen atoms bonded with a single oxygen atom, but entire generations of people have lived and died not understanding the true nature of what water really is.  At the same time, we certainly wouldn’t say those people “didn’t know what water was” – of course they did. They just didn’t understand it at its most fundamental level.

That’s what apologists allege against atheists with the moral argument. They claim we can recognize morality for what it is, like an ancient person would recognize water – but we don’t understand that morality really is a reflection of god.

That said, here’s what the moral argument really ends up looking like:

1.       If god does not exist, then objective [god’s nature] does not exist

2.       Objective [god’s nature] exists.

3.       Therefore god exists.
The problem here is that why on earth would we have to accept that definition of morality as being equivalent to god’s nature? It’s certainly not like that can be shown like it can in the case with water and H2O.

Objection 2: Defining “Goodness” is the central issue in moral philosophy
Moral philosophy has debated the nature of goodness and what makes something good for millennia. Modified Divine Command Theory is literally one theory out of thousands, with the vast majority of those meta-ethical theories being completely compatible with atheism.

Apologists like to take a strong view about morality, stating that moral values must be their own distinct category of “fundamental reality”.  They’d also argue that “minds” are their own distinct fundamental category of reality, and that both of these things are distinct from “physical stuff” which is its own distinct category.  This is what I like to call the “Grand Metaphysical Object” view of morality. 

Apologists could be interpreted as saying that “objective” moral values means that they must be “object-like”, hence this view.

The problem is that even on this very inflated view of what moral values should be, the moral argument still fails – because an atheist could just as easily accept the philosophical view that Christian theology stole these concepts from a few thousand years ago – moral Platonism.
But do we even need to consider moral values to be this kind of grand metaphysical object in order to avoid the threat apologist’s load into the moral argument? That atheism leads to moral relativism or nihilism?  

Objection 3: Morality can be objective without being its own metaphysical object
The vast majority of meta-ethical theories in moral philosophy are actually compatible with atheism. There’s John Rawls’s Social Contract theory, various forms of consequentialism, Railton’s Reductive Naturalism, the Ideal Observer Theory, and a host of others.  Each of these theories provides a basis for moral agents to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong in an objective way.  Most of them don’t require viewing morality as any less real as “the economy”, and much like economics, there are objective facts that we can use to describe morality defined in this way.

Objection 4: Moral Intuitions
The problem with Premise 2 of the moral argument is that no one can actually show that objective moral values exist.  We can see this when we listen to apologists try to justify the second premise:

“But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it. There's no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.”

-William Lane Craig, Does God Exist?
(Emphasis added)

What’s done here is appeal to what philosophers call our deeply held moral intuitions.  The appeal works like this:

1.       Our intuitions strongly indicate that morality is objective.

2.       We should trust our intuitions enough to believe that morality is objective.

3.       Therefore morality is objective. 

The problem is that the meta-ethical theory that supports the moral argument will end up violating our deeply held moral intuitions.

Objection 5: Philosophical Primitives
If you’ve paid attention to the moral argument, you’ve probably heard about the Euthyphro Dilemma given by Socrates a couple thousand years ago:

“Is something good because god says it is, or does god say something is good because of some other quality it has?”

Both horns of the dilemma are bad for Divine Command Theory. Either something is good because god says so, in which case goodness is simply arbitrary. On the other hand if god says something is good because of some other quality, then god has nothing to do with what makes something good or evil. This is why theologians came up with “Modified Divine Command Theory” which attempts to split the horns of the dilemma by saying that: 

“The Euthyphro is a false dilemma because “goodness” is actually identical to “god’s nature”. As such when god gives a divine command, it is necessarily good because it’s impossible for god to go against his nature.  In this way, god’s commands are not arbitrary and goodness does not exist apart from god.” 

But this response only pushes the problem back a step, and we can propose a Modified Euthyphro Dilemma as shown by philosopher Jeremey Koons: 

“Are the properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, and generosity good because god possesses them in his nature, or does god possess them in his nature because they are good?” 

Here we can see apologists like William Lane Craig embrace the first horn of the dilemma after all – they claim something is good only because it exists in god’s nature. 

They claim this isn’t a problem because moral values inevitably terminate in a kind of philosophical primitive.  That is something that can’t be broken down further into other concepts. 

The issue here is that this view ends up violating the same moral intuitions that apologists must appeal to in order to justify Premise 2 of the moral argument.  Consider the following:

Two humans express love for each other. This expression of love has the same basic motivations behind it, and the same effects on both parties.  According to Divine Command Theory if god exists, this can be called good. However if god does not exist, this exact same situation cannot be called good.

It simply is very counter intuitive to say that the motivations and consequences of an action have absolutely zero bearing on whether or not an act can count as good or bad. 

Objection 6: Brute Facts

Once we recognize that a meta-ethical theory will reduce goodness down into a philosophical primitive, we quickly run into the idea that this primitive will end up being a kind of moral brute fact.

A brute fact is simply a fact that is not logically necessary, but is simply a true fact that has no further explanation.

Erik Wielenberg defends an atheistic meta-ethical theory where moral values terminate in this kind of a brute fact, called “non-natural moral realism”.  On this view love “just is” good, with no further explanation required.

Apologists can’t really object here, because Modified Divine Command Theory has exactly the same problem.  The concept that “god has a loving nature” is itself a brute fact!

There is no explanation as to why god’s nature is loving instead of say hateful.  Appeals to gods definition as the “greatest conceivable being” doesn’t help here because you can’t say god’s nature includes love because it is better than hate without already having a concept of moral value that is external to god’s nature.   Neither can an apologist appeal to god’s nature as a necessary being. This is because even if Christians conceive of god as having a loving nature in every possible world, there’s no logical reason as to why we couldn’t say god has a hateful nature in every possible world instead.
Objection 7: Why Value That?
Once we’ve recognized that meta-ethical theories will reduce down to philosophical primitives that end up being a kind of brute fact, it becomes clear that the moral argument is simply a farce.

It all boils down to how we define “value”, which in turn comes down to what we accept as a satisfactory definition.

Consider this objection to Humanism, by apologist Michael Horner:

"Humanism – Whatever promotes human flourishing & survival is good and whatever weakens it is bad. If we want to promote human flourishing, then we ought to live co-operatively OR we ought to follow the Golden Rule. Some people have often said the Golden Rule is the objective foundation for morality.

     The naturalistic humanist has no access to the critical assumption - which is that human beings are objectively valuable.

Humans are merely more complex slime that have evolved certain complex features by a completely accidental, impersonal process (unless God was behind it). Therefore, they/we are no more valuable than slime.”

Just because "humans are evolved via an accidental, impersonal process" it does not follow that we are "no more valuable than slime".  This is because humans aren't only describable as things which evolved via an accidental, impersonal process. We have other qualities which provide a relevant difference between us and slime, or any other combination of atoms.  Namely, we have the ability to reason, do calculus, poetry, and philosophy. We have the ability to love and form relationships, and the ability to be happy or sad.

An atheist is perfectly justified in giving those attributes as the reason why humans are to be considered more valuable than other material objects. It’s our philosophical primitive, or at least it can be.

The apologist’s case fares no better. Why on their view are humans valuable? They say it is because “humans are created in the image of god.”  But why is being created in the image of god valuable?

The only answer apologists have is to say that god simply defines value. Or that god is somehow unique, as if uniqueness indicates value. An atheist can simply retort that consciousness, or the other qualities humans have are also unique, on an atheistic world view, and so can similarly serve as a basis for value.

In both cases, each side has given their definition of value in terms of a philosophical primitive, and it's up to an individual to decide whether or not they think that can account for it. 

Objection 8 – Modified Divine Command Theory entails an unworkable Moral Absolutism

Modified divine command theory entails that goodness is equivalent with god’s nature. As such, if we assume that if god’s nature is truthful, then we get the moral absolute that it always wrong to tell a lie. 

This is a form of deontological ethics, the idea that something is wrong “in principle”.

The problem with this kind of ethics is that what about moral situations where multiple moral absolutes conflict? The classic example would be lying to SS officers in Nazi Germany that you weren’t hiding Jews in your house, even if you were.

On Modified Divine Command Theory, there is no ethical way to solve this situation because it’s always immoral to lie to the SS officers!

Apologist Michael Horner attempts to solve this by proposing a controversial solution – Graded Absolutism.  The idea is that when multiple moral absolutes apply to a situation, we must apply the “greater” moral absolute.  In the Nazi example, Horner claims that he recognizes the absolute to protect human life trumps the absolute not to lie.

The problem is that this contradicts Modified Divine Command Theory because it would entail that parts of god’s nature are “greater” than other parts.  This is absurd theologically speaking, but it has an additional problem – Christians would need a metric apart from god in order to determine which parts of god’s nature entailed greater or lesser moral absolutes!

Objection 9 – Christianity + Modified Divine Command Theory Entails Moral Absurdities

Christian theology entails a number of situations where god explicitly commands that people commit what we would call moral abominations.

The prime example is in the Amalekite Genocide in 1 Samuel 15:1-3.  Here god commands that Saul destroy all Amalekites – “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”.

This is outright genocide, and regardless of what you think the adults or their ancestors would have done, it is as much a moral abomination to kill infants and children because of their race as it is to torture infants or children for fun.  If that is not a kind of moral absolute, then I don’t know what is.

The terrifying part of Modified Divine Command Theory is that it makes apologists like William Lane Craig defend these kinds of genocides as morally obligatory – because god commanded it!

Included here is a link to Craig’s defense of the Amalekite genocide, where he states that god had to kill the Amalekite infants because Israel couldn’t be allowed to assimilate pagan rituals or practices.

“God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.  The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.”
-William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Website:

This is of course absurd, because even if you could justify killing all the Amalekite adults, the infants and children would have no concept or attachment to the pagan beliefs and practices of their society – and so could have been adopted into Israel without issue.

I’ve not even mentioned other moral abominations like the slavery codes of the Old Testament which allow keeping non-Jewish people as slaves as personal property in perpetuity. Where one is allowed to beat their slave so severely that so long as they recover there is no punishment for the owner.  This is also in the Bible with god’s divine commands providing the rules in which these slaves were kept.  Christians who hold to MDCT must now accept that “owning another person as your property” is not absolutely morally wrong given their theology.

Objection 10 – Modified Divine Command Theory is Self-Defeating on Moral Obligations

A moral obligation is something that we “ought” to do – for instance if we see someone drowning and we have the ability to save them, we ought to go in and save the person. 

Modified Divine Command Theory claims that our moral obligations and prohibitions are directly constituted by a loving god’s commands. 

But this is self-defeating.  Because if our moral obligations are constituted by god’s commands, where does our moral obligation to follow god’s commands come from?

Does god issue a command to follow his commands? What about the obligation to follow that command? This quickly falls into an infinite regress problem.

William Lane Craig says that this isn’t a problem:

“So how does Divine Command Theory derive an “ought” from an “is”? Well, it says that we ought to do something because it is commanded by God. That is deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  Someone might demand, “Why are we obligated to do something just because it is commanded by God?” The answer to that question comes, I think, by reflecting on the nature of moral duty. Duty arises in response to an imperative from a competent authority.”

-William Lane Craig, “Does Theistic Ethics Derive an Ought from an Is?”

But this move doesn’t save the theory from being self-refuting, it reinforces it!

Notice how the obligation to follow god’s commands doesn’t come from god’s commands, it comes from the nature of authority.  So at least some moral duties aren’t constituted by god’s commands – specifically the obligation to follow god’s commands! 

This obligation to follow gods commands can’t be just any old kind of obligation, it must be a moral obligation, per Modified Divine Command Theory, because if we fail to follow god’s commands, then we are specifically “morally wrong”, not just “wrong” in general.

The final issue here is that Craig admits that his meta-ethical theory violates the famous “is/ought” problem in moral philosophy.

The issue isn’t that violating the “is/ought” problem means modified divine command theory is wrong. After all, the “is/ought” problem is debated in moral philosophy to this day and it remains controversial.

The issue is that much like moral values and philosophical primitives, we’re quickly reducing down to a moral brute fact as it relates to moral obligations.  Other atheist compatible meta-ethical theories define moral obligations in a different way than Craig will, and they are internally consistent.

Basically if Craig can solve the moral obligation problem by violating the is/ought problem in this way, then modified divine command theory has no advantages over other atheist compatible meta-ethical theories that can use the same method to solve the is/ought problem and give us objective moral duties.


These 10 objections are why we can conclude that the moral argument for god’s existence is false. I want to emphasize that these are fairly complex topics with a lot of detail that was covered pretty quickly.  As such I’m including a link to a much longer and more in depth paper that expands on each of these objections and includes a few new ones that you can view if you have any questions or objections to what I’ve said here.


  1. Thank you for this. You are certainly well read. I spend a lot of my time debating believers and your essays have helped clarify, and untangle some of their arguments.

  2. Human consent is what grants moral force. Absolute and objective morality does not have to be commanded by God. Morality can only be moral if it is done for one's own sake.