Where does goodness come from? How can there be properties such as “good” or “evil” that are attached to different states of affairs in the natural world? Moreover, where do right and wrong come from? Why are we obligated to choose some actions (loving and caring for others, for example) over others (such as rape or murder)?
What about beauty? Why are some things beautiful, and others ugly? Why do we even have these aesthetic concepts that transcend mere like or dislike of things?
What about the laws of logic? Where do those come from, and how do we know them? Why should we bother trying to think logically rather than illogically?
My answer to these questions is this: all objective values and duties, the standards for evaluating truth, goodness, and beauty, find their source and foundation in God. God himself is what the ancient Greek philosopher Plato called the Good, the ultimate standard and ideal of goodness. This is the answer at the heart of the axiological argument for God’s existence.
The axiological argument is multifaceted. Since there are three different kinds of objective values (rational, moral, and aesthetic) the axiological argument has those three aspects. But there are also two different questions we can ask about objective values. The first question is about where the objective values themselves come from: what is their foundation, or how are they grounded in reality? The second question searches in a slightly different direction: how is it that we are able to know these objective values?
These are the questions that I will be exploring in the next couple of posts.
The Moral Argument
The first axiological argument that I will consider is the moral argument, and it is the one that I feel has the most force. We can state it simply as follows:
- If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Here is a video presenting this formulation of the moral argument in brief. This argument only has two premises, and the conclusion follows logically from them. So the question now is whether the premises are true, or at least, more plausibly true than false. (And if they are, then so is the conclusion.)
I’ll look at the second premise first, then the first premise in the next post.
Objective Moral Values and Duties
To be clear on what I mean, moral values refers to good vs. bad: evaluating the moral worth of something. Moral duties on the other hand refers to right vs. wrong: whether something is obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. And objective means independent of people’s opinion about it, as opposed to subjective, meaning dependent on people’s opinion about it.
Also, when I say that objective moral values and duties exist, I am not intending to imply that they exist as platonic abstract objects. As I have written elsewhere, I do not see any need for believing in the existence of the abstract realm, so that would be a rather strong metaphysical claim. I simply mean that moral evaluations and obligations apply objectively in at least some circumstances.
So, the second premise of the moral argument here is saying that there are things which are good (or bad) and things which are right (or wrong), independently of what anyone believes about them. An easy example of an objective moral evaluation is the Holocaust: it was evil and wrong for the Nazis to carry out the Holocaust, and it would still have been evil and wrong even if everyone on earth were to believe it was good and right.
I believe it is obviously true that objective moral values and duties exist. My reason for this belief, as I discussed in an earlier post, is that we apprehend moral values and duties through our moral intuitions – and this justifies belief in moral values via the principle of critical trust. We have as much reason to believe in the existence of objective morality as we have to believe in the existence of the physical world – because we perceive it.
To put it another way, just as our subjective experiences of physical sensations justify belief in the objective reality of the physical world, so do our subjective experiences of moral intuitions justify belief in the objective reality of moral values and duties. This does not mean that our moral intuitions are infallible – after all, neither are our physical perceptions – it just means that the principle of critical trust lets us assign some weight to the face-value meaning of our moral intuitions.
Now, our apprehension of objective morality may not be a good reason to believe in it after all, if there were some overriding reason to disbelieve it, or to disbelieve that our moral intuitions have any connection to the truth. And in fact, the evolutionary account of human origins is often cited as undermining our justification for belief in objective moral values and duties. These beliefs, it is said, are just the product of evolutionary and social conditioning, and therefore we cannot take them to reflect any objective reality.
I discussed this in my earlier post as well, noting that i) we do not actually have any adequate account of how moral beliefs could have been produced by evolution, and ii) if we did, that account would most likely undermine not only our moral intuitions, but our rational intuitions as well – cutting the branch out from beneath itself, so to speak.
In the context of the moral argument, we can also note that this objection presupposes the truth of atheism. Only if atheism is true can we infer that evolution undermines our moral intuitions – if God exists, then he may have designed humans to have reliable moral intuitions even if he also used the evolutionary process to bring about our biological form. (He could have done this either by miraculous intervention, or by using his foreknowledge to create a world that he knew would produce by chance the kind of creatures he wanted.) So when used against the second premise of the moral argument, the evolutionary objection argues in a circle.
Therefore, I believe the second premise of the moral argument is well justified. Indeed, rejecting the second premise is a really extreme move. I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to reject the existence of objective morality and live consistently with that rejection.
Some things really are good; some things really are evil. The person who denies this has to accept that there is no good or evil, just personal desires and preferences. You might not like it if someone chose to beat you senseless and steal everything you own, but if there is no objective morality, then you really have no grounds to criticize their actions. Might makes right, and (pragmatically speaking) everyone should do whatever they please as long as they can get away with it.
You might recognize “there is no good or evil, only power” as the kind of thing villains in fantasy or sci-fi stories say. And that is because we intuitively recognize that it is a false and villainous thing to say. Our moral intuition is a powerful and integral part of human experience. It goes completely against reason to deny it.
So I hope that most everyone will agree that objective moral values and duties exist. (If you don’t, perhaps we can discuss it in the comments.) If that is the case, then the most contentious premise of the moral argument will be the first one. That is what I will discuss in the next post.