Thursday, December 30, 2010

Debunking the Moral Argument (Part 1 of 2)

In this blog, I will be posting rebuttals to the various arguments given for god’s existence by believers.  My intention here is to prove a single point:  There is no good reason to believe a god exists.  There are plenty of reasons, but there is not a single one that relies on premises that are true and/or logic that is not fallacious (see my previous post, “The Wrong Way to Argue” for details on logical fallacies.)   Today, I shall be addressing the Moral Argument for god’s existence.   

The Moral Argument relies upon the existence of objective moral values to prove that god exists.  Objective moral values are values that are consistent for all self-aware beings who live in the presence of other self-aware beings, regardless of whether or not those beings accept or are aware of those values.   The Moral Argument is constructed as follows:

Premise 1:  If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Premise 2:  Objective moral values do exist.
Conclusion:  God exists.

This argument is best constructed by theologian and philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig.  The argument as articulated by Dr. Craig (whose beautiful clarity of argument is unsurpassed amongst the apologists I am aware of) can be viewed in the links below.  

The conclusion of this argument is invalid because its first premise is untrue.  I will demonstrate that if a god exists, objective moral values exist independently of that god and would therefore exist in both a universe with a god and without a god.  I will do this with a thought experiment in Part 2 of this post, but before we engage in that, I need to make two points:  1) that Christian morality is not a good moral system and 2) that objective moral values can be derived secularly. 

Christian Immorality

First, I believe it is important to establish the fact that the moral codes found in Christian scripture can be judged by any sensible person to be deeply misanthropic.   The code of Yahweh, god of the Old Testament, gives a guide on how to be a ‘moral’ slave owner, and informs the reader that the correct ‘moral’ response to homosexuality, adultery, or disrespect to ones parents is execution.  The moral code of Yahweh’s corporal incarnation and polar opposite, Jesus, includes the rejection of all thrift and investment, the casting away of all wealth, a Chamberlinian response to one’s enemies (we are, after all, meant to turn the other cheek to the likes of Osama Bin Laden), and the throwing of all those who do not swear fealty to gentle Jesus meek and mild into eternal damnation, regardless of their age, ignorance or moral character. 

Although it is important to mention that Christians have no legitimate authority to discuss morality as long as they tie themselves to the deeply misanthropic teachings of their scripture, I do not want this post inundated with comments trying to justify slavery (interestingly, a place where most theists become moral relativists—‘it was a different time when that was written, obviously slavery is wrong now for us’) or other biblical teachings.  There will be forthcoming posts that address those topics in detail.   From here on, my argument here is not predicated upon the immorality of the teachings of Jesus or the dictates of Yahweh.  It is predicated solely on debunking the argument given above. 

Secular Objective Moral Values

Before continuing, I must hasten to make known that I do accept the second premise of the Moral Argument—objective moral values do exist.  They exist, though, as naturally emergent phenomenon in any situation where self-aware beings capable of positive and negative experiences are in the presence of other self-aware beings also capable of positive and negative experiences.  If, however, self-aware beings did not exist, or only one existed (not in the presence of other self-aware beings) objective moral values would not exist.  It is not, though, a contradiction to say they are objective.  Naturally emergent phenomenon require certain elements in order to exist—evolution by natural selection requires the existence of self-replicating molecules, erosion requires the existence of flowing liquid.  These phenomenon are objective—they exist whether we acknowledge them or not.  Morality should be viewed in the same light—something that will naturally exist whenever certain elements are in place, no matter what our opinions or views on it are. 

Certain beliefs that we hold are considered to be properly basic; they do not need justification.  These might be the existence of the past or the validity of logic; it is not a legitimate way to argue to contend premises that are properly basic.  One test of whether or not a belief is properly basic is called incorrigibility—a belief is true simply by virtue of being believed.  The classic example of this is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.”  For this argument, I will use the properly basic assumption that well-being is preferable to suffering for self-aware beings capable of both.  This meets the test of incorrigibility because if suffering were believed to be preferable, then suffering would be well-being and well-being would be suffering.  (This is not circular logic—look up the term “properly basic” in a philosophy book if you like.) 

Now, with the statement that ‘a state of well-being is preferable to a state of suffering’ as our starting point, we can determine what moral values are correct by determining which actions are conducive to human and animal well-being and which actions are conducive to human and animal suffering. 

Here, there are clearly right and wrong answers.   Questions of what actions are beneficial or detrimental to human and animal well-being (and therefore moral or immoral) can be answered definitively just like questions of what is beneficial or detrimental to plant growth.  The answers to these questions are not found in ancient texts or the study of non-subjects like theology but in the study of human and animal responses to various stimuli. This is an argument made so well by Sam Harris in his latest book “The Moral Landscape” that I fear I have little to add other than to reiterate his point.  The study of morality, like the study of any other subject, is one informed by data.  There are patterns of behavior that positively impact human and animal welfare and patterns of behavior that negatively impact human and animal welfare.      

Regardless of whether or not some or any individual people or any societies are aware of the answers to moral questions, definitive answers—that can be discovered through the right method—exist.  For instance, if scientific research shows us that humans are most fulfilled when they live in societies that allow them opportunities to accumulate wealth and status, it does not matter that people who lived in 14th century Feudal England believed people were more satisfied when a strict caste system was enforced.  The data disagrees.  The science says differently.  The science says the more moral system is one where people can freely move up based on merit.   Moral relativists who would deny this fact are no better than creationists who deny the science of evolution.  

Notice how this is a matter for science to solve.  We will, in gradual degrees, uncover more information about how well-being is achieved and suffering prevented by studying the natural world.  The supernatural world plays absolutely no role in this endeavor.  Everything we uncover in these studies will be valid whether the universe was brought into existence by a god or by zero-point energy.  There is no room for god talk in the subject of morality.

1 comment:

  1. Here is the construction of the Moral Argument: