A Moral Argument for the Reasonableness of Theism

Consider a moral argument constructed like this:

1. The case for objective moral values is not as strong as it is for the existence of God.

2.  If case for objective moral values is not as strong as it is for the existence of God, and the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of objective moral values, then the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of God.

3.  The case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of objective moral values.

4.  Therefore, the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of God.

I think (1) is defensible, since most arguments for objective moral values tend to come down to moral intuitions.  Certainly there are theological intuitions that can be mustered in support of theism, e.g. the sensus divinitatis of Calvin, but there many other sorts of arguments for God for which there is no parallel proof for objective moral values.  There are cosmological arguments, arguments from fine-tuning, arguments from consciousness, the argument from desire, other varieties of moral arguments, various ontological arguments, the trademark argument, arguments from miracles, and so on.  Now one might say that these arguments, even in their strongest forms, are not successful.  Perhaps, but the case for God may still be stronger.

Now someone might object to (2) by saying that even if the case for objective moral values is weaker than the case for God, the strength of the case must be proportionate to the extraordinary nature of the claim.  Perhaps the existence of objective good and evil is less extraordinary than the existence of God, so even if the case for God were stronger than for objective moral values and the case for objective moral values were strong enough for someone to reasonably affirm them, one might not have a strong enough case for theism.  This depends on what we mean by “strong” or “weak”.  If we mean those terms to be some objective quantified assessment, I think this critique would be right.  But I mean something else, I think of “strong” or “weak” relative to the conclusion trying to be established.  So if I say that the case for God is stronger than the case for objective moral values, I am not saying that the case for objective morals is a “7” while the case for God is a “9”.  You could turn around and say that it is reasonable to accept moral values when the case is at a “7”, you need to have a “10” to make a reasonable case for belief in God.  Rather, I am saying that if the case is closer to being reasonably established for theism than it is for objective moral values, and the case for objective moral values is rationally defensible, then it must also be for theism.

Finally, I think (3) is going to be a hard one to defend to those who do not already take the existence of objective moral values to be rationally defensible.  Atheists who accept (1) are probably going to want to deny (3), and those who accept (3) are going to want to go after (1).  Nonetheless, as I said, there are not too many arguments for objective moral values beyond moral intuition.  The only other defense is to draw out some of the untoward consequences of denying the existence of objective moral values, e.g. the impossibility of assessing moral progress, the bizarre notion that, at any given moment when one has a moral opinion, that moral opinion is correct at that moment, the impossibility of moral discourse on shared objective values and principles, etc.  Now, these are not so much independent arguments, but ways to draw out our moral intuitions more sharply.  It is intuitive to me that the success of the civil rights movement was a step towards moral progress.  Furthermore, though I would say that I think my moral beliefs are true, I hardly think I am infallible at any given time.  I think I can make mistakes about moral assessments, so I think a subjective moral opinion isn’t right just because someone holds it.  Finally, I observe moral debate and discourse all around me, on television, in movies, in conversations with friends.  It could be that they are engaged in a meaningless exchange, like friends who are engaged in a heated debate over whether Jazz is better than Classical.  There is no right answer when it comes to questions of taste, but people can still have debates about them (especially at the pubs).  Perhaps that is what is going on in moral debates.  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.  My intuitions tell me otherwise.  I think it is rational to believe in objective morality, and a good percentage of philosophers seem to agree.

If so, I think that we can conclude that the case for God is strong enough to permit a reasonable belief in God.  Just a thought.

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Posted on May 7, 2014, in Arguments for God and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Consider this parody argument:

    1. The case for objective moral values is not as strong as it is for the existence of Paris.

    2. If case for objective moral values is not as strong as it is for the existence of Paris, and the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of objective moral values, then the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of Paris.

    3. The case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of objective moral values.

    4. Therefore, the case is strong enough that one can reasonably believe in the existence of Paris.

    it seems to me that this is really more of a “meta-argument” which just serves as a formal analysis of how strong cases for things are relative to each other. Does it really add anything to the “case for Paris”? Would your confidence in “Paris exists” increase because of this argument? I don’t think mine would.

    That’s not to say the argument isn’t useful, though. Just that it’s not going to motivate belief where there previously was none. The Paris argument could show that belief in Paris is reasonable – but again, will it convince anyone who doesn’t think belief in Paris is reasonable?

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    • Does it really add anything to the “case for Paris”? Would your confidence in “Paris exists” increase because of this argument? I don’t think mine would.

      I think the argument should cause the atheist who believes in objective morality to reassess the arguments and his reasoning. If such an atheist admits that the arguments for objective morality are weaker than the arguments for God’s existence it raises the question of whether he is behaving rationally.

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      • Well, maybe. But I think the case for God has a certain “level” of reasonableness (more than Scientology, less than atheism). And likewise for moral realism. I base these assessments on the arguments that are made for and against the propositions. My point is that this argument just points to those other arguments – this argument itself doesn’t change my assessment of the reasonableness of theism.

        Here’s another example. Imagine that I’m arguing for the existense of Floofies. I make three good arguments in favor of their existence. Then I make an additional argument that goes like this:

        1) If arguments 1, 2, and 3 are good arguments, then it is reasonable to believe in Floofies.
        2) Arguments 1, 2, and 3 are good arguments.
        3) Therefore, it is reasonable to believe in Floofies.

        Would this argument make you inclined to believe in Floofies more strongly, *beyond* how strongly arguments 1, 2, and 3 make you inclined to believe in them? Would you think that believing in Floofies, after this argument is made, is more reasonable than before it is made?

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    • Hey SF, you’re right that this is not an argument intended to increase confidence in the proposition “God exists.” Rather, it is intended to draw out whether we are consistent in how we approach the question of the rationality of morality and God belief. What I find interesting is that I’ve already had atheist defend the rationality of objective morality by hand waving to atheist philosophers who supposedly have very strong arguments for it. I’ve also had some atheists deny that belief in objective morality is rationally held. Now, it is possible that the case for objective morality is stronger than it is for theism and that, even still, it is not rational to believe in morality. But I have not seen anyone defend that particular position. At the end of the day, I am happy to see atheists advance strong arguments for objective morality to defeat my first premise. I’d like to consider the question of whether the case for objective morality can be made with any force. I am less interested in those who deny the rationality of objective morality. I find those arguments tired and unsatisfying. Yes, I get that there is moral disagreement. It just seems to me that objective morality explains more of the data of our moral experience, so I find it rational to accept.

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      • I may comment further on this later, but briefly, I think your (1) can be defeated like this:

        1′) Objective morality explains more of the data of our moral experience than the alternative(s).
        2′) Theism explains less of the data of our (moral/personal/empirical) experience than the alternative(s).
        3′) Therefore, the case for objective morality is stronger than the case for theism.

        The defense of (2′) is going to involve responses to the arguments for theism you list, as well as arguments for atheism and/or naturalism. Furthermore, the case for objective morality could be made even stronger by adding arguments in addition to the moral experience argument (which I plan on doing in a blog post at a later date*).

        Interestingly, a theist could respond to this argument by objecting to (1′). But if she does so, she’d not only be objecting to your original argument by proxy, she’d also be hurting the overall case for theism by proxy – since she’d also be objecting to a premise used in traditional moral arguments.

        So, theists can only object to (2′). But that’s just the theism vs. atheism debate. :)

        *I’m risking being accused of hand-waving to atheist philosophers for this, but I’ll be drawing primarily on the works of Shelley Kagan, Simon Caney, and Erik Wielenberg.

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  2. What are Floofies?

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