By J.W. Wartick
The moral argument has experienced a resurgence of discussion and popularity of late. Some of this may be due to the increased popularity of apologetics. Philosophical discussions about metaethics also seem to have contributed to the discussions about the moral argument. Regardless, the argument, in its many and varied forms, has regained some of the spotlight in the arena of argumentation between theism and atheism. [See Glenn Peoples’ post on the topic for more historical background.]
That said, it is an unfortunate truth that many misunderstandings of the argument are perpetuated. Before turning to these, however, I’ll lay out a basic version of the argument:
P1: If there are objective moral values, then God exists.
P2: There are objective moral values.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
It is not my purpose here to offer a comprehensive defense of the argument. Instead, I seek to lay out some objections to it along with some responses. I also hope to caution my fellow theists against making certain errors as they put the argument forward.
Objection 1: Objective moral values can’t exist, because there are possible worlds in which there are no agents.
The objection has been raised by comments on my site (see the comment from “SERIOUSLY?” here), but I’ve also heard it in person. Basically, the objection goes: Imagine a world in which all that existed was a rock. There would clearly be no morality in such a universe, which means that P2 must be false. Why? Because in order for there to be objective moral values, those values must be true in all possible worlds. But the world we just imagined has no morality, therefore there are no objective moral values!
The objection as outlined in italics above is just a more nuanced form of this type of argument. What is wrong with it? At the most basic level, the theist could object to the thought experiment. According to classical theism, God is a necessary being, so in every possible world, God exists. Thus, for any possible world, God exists. Thus, to say “imagine a world in which just a rock exists” begs the question against theism from the start.
But there is a more fundamental problem with this objection. Namely, the one making this objection has confused the existence of objective morals with their obtaining in a universe. In other words, it may be true that moral truths are never “activated” or never used as a judgment in a world in which only a rock exists, but that doesn’t mean such truths do not exist in that universe.
To see how this is true, consider a parallel situation. The statement “2+2=4″ is a paradigm statement for a necessary truth. Whether in this world or in any other world, it will be the case that when we add two and two, we get four. Now consider again a world in which all that exists is a rock. In fact, take it back a step further and say that all that exists is the most basic particle possible–it is indivisible and as simple as physically possible. In this universe, just one thing exists. The truth, “2+2=4″ therefore never will obtain in such a world. But does that mean “2+2=4″ is false or doesn’t exist in this world? Absolutely not. The truth is a necessary truth, and so regardless of whether there are enough objects in existence to allow it to obtain does not effect its truth value.
Similarly, if objective moral values exist, then it does not matter whether or not they obtain. They are true in every possible world, regardless of whether or not there are agents.
To read on,