The Axiological Argument (I)

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:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. 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.

27 thoughts on “The Axiological Argument (I)

    1. I mean that people act like morality is objective whether they believe it is or not. (Much like philosophical idealists act like the physical world really exists even though they believe it is merely a projection of consciousness.)
      This really circles back to our earlier conversation about how objectivity is inherent in the meaning of morality… if morality is only subjective, it reduces to a report of the mental states of various beings and loses all normative force. Which makes it not really morality.
      And that means that the options are belief in objective morality, or nihilism, and I don’t think nihilism is livable.


      1. In order to satisfy my hunger, I should eat. In order to satisfy my moral sense, I should behave accordingly. This seems to be normative and neither objective nor nihilistic.

        Is the issue that I cannot claim that behavior which satisfies my moral sense will satisfy another person’s moral sense? But what if I had reason to believe that our moral senses were in fact related in some way? Or if I had other reasons for seeing congruence between our moral sense?


      2. “In order to satisfy my moral sense, I should behave accordingly” isn’t normative at all. Why should you satisfy your moral sense? Why not ignore it?
        And if someone else decides to ignore their moral sense, what ground do you have to fault them for it if morality has no objective basis?


      3. We can ask why any meta-ethical theory should be followed (see Euthyphro and GE Moore’s open question). The framework in question draws the line at the point beyond which we do not have any epistemic access (and where we cannot say whether or not there even is a beyond). Why isn’t that a valid source of normativity?


      4. Yes, we can ask that question of any meta-ethical theory. That doesn’t mean they give equally good answers. The framework you suggest attempts to ground morality in something that is (at least from an atheistic perspective) highly contingent, purposeless, and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. None of those fit our intuitions about morality very well at all.
        (Also, again, the framework you suggest is merely pragmatic and not normative. For it to be normative, it would have to be phrased without the conditional: “You should act in such a way as to satisfy your moral sense.”)


      5. Setting aside any semantic disagreements regarding normativity, the thrust of the objection seems to be the claim of cosmic contingency, purposelessness and insignificance, which I presume is how you arrive at the conclusion that this leads to nihilism. I think contingency has negligible relevance, but I’ll agree that purpose (why it matters) and significance (how much it matters) impact our moral intuitions. So then the question is why those must have cosmic scope in order to carry any weight?


      6. Those semantic disagreements are important. “If I want to satisfy my moral sense, I should…” has no normative force, because there’s nothing saying that I _should_ fulfill the antecedent. (And that is important because, very often, people don’t want to satisfy their moral sense). On the other hand, “I should satisfy my moral sense,” without the condition, is a normative claim.
        It is also an objective claim. (If you remove the conditional, your suggested meta ethical theory mashes it objectively true that people should satisfy their moral sense.) Which means we’re not arguing about whether morality is objective, we’re just arguing about what the best explanation for objective morality is.
        And in that regard:
        – Contingency is not irrelevant. It’s a reasonably common and strong intuition about moral truths that some hold necessarily.
        – It isn’t about whether they have cosmic scope in terms of purpose and significance, but about whether they ultimately have any purpose or significance at all.


      7. I prefer to focus on one thing at a time, so let’s deal with the question of normativity. I’m working under the understanding that a normative ethic is one which prescribes an act (or non-act) which is required to achieve a particular moral outcome. If a meta-ethical framework defines moral outcomes in relation to our moral sense, then it is a tautology that adherence to the moral sense is the corresponding prescription.


      8. And I would counter that a normative ethic is one which prescribes an act (or non-act), period.
        (I.e. if a normative meta-ethical theory is true, it lays an obligation on the agent regardless of whether or not one of his goals is to follow that ethic.)


      9. I’m not sure I appreciate how you’ve changed anything from what I said. Are you implying that this prescription or obligation is not about what is required for a moral outcome? What is it about? What does it mean to say that there is an obligation?


      10. When you say “prescribes an act _which is required to achieve a particular moral outcome_”, to me it sounds again like “_if I want to satisfy moral sense_ then I should act in a certain way”. And what I’ve been trying to say is that, to me, that doesn’t come across as normative. It’s just a pragmatic decision theory. If you want a certain outcome, act in this way. If you don’t want that, then fine, don’t.
        The point is that morality doesn’t apply only if you want it to. (In other words, it is inherent in the meaning of morality that it is objective.)


      11. Ok, thanks. I think I see the misunderstanding. I did not intend that the moral status is conditional on whether one wants to satisfy their moral sense, but rather that the moral status is conditional on whether the act is actually aimed at satisfying the moral sense.


      12. Ah… well, whether the correct intent is required is going to depend on the meta-ethical theory. Isn’t it?
        I may have lost track of where we were going with this, sorry. I still don’t think your suggested moral sense satisfaction theory has normative force without objectivity.


      13. I think it’s possible that part of the disconnect is that we have to consider that when we evaluate the viability of a meta-ethical theory, we are conceptually granting the truth of its axioms for the sake of understanding the entailments of the theory if it were true. So there is an objective layer to the process, where we conceptually accept that “theory X is objectively true” as we consider its viability. Note the difference between “theory X is objectively true” and “theory X makes objective truth claims” – the theory itself may have subjective dependencies so that it does not make any objective claims. In that case, I can see how it would then be easy to interpret the lack of objective bindings within the theory as reflective of a lack of normative power in total. It is only upon granting the truth of the theory’s axioms (for the sake of the evaluation) that the normativity becomes apparent – but this applies to every meta-ethical theory (and maybe any theory, period). A theory can only be normative once we grant that the theory itself is true, otherwise you can always just eliminate the normativity of a theory by claiming that it rests on false axioms.

        To put that all in context, the central axiom of the proposed theory is that good = complying with the moral sense, and bad = not complying with the moral sense. Upon granting this axiom for the sake of evaluating the theory, it is definitional that for any given situation, moral goods require acting in compliance with one’s moral sense – otherwise they just aren’t moral goods. That is where the normativity is established.

        As you previously noted, we could still ask “why should one pursue moral goods?”, but this meta-meta-ethical question is equally applied to all theories and is how we got to this point in the first place. You suggested that theism offered a superior answer in part because it was claimed to have normative force while the moral sense satisfaction theory did not (in addition to being “highly contingent, purposeless, and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe”).


      14. Okay. I see the distinction you are making here. Another part of the disconnect may be in how we’re defining things like objective and subjective. To me, “subjective” means that it ultimately reduces to facts about someone’s perspective or mental state, and also, to me, the moral sense isn’t just a matter of perspective but is also rooted in one’s nature (being, roughly speaking, a product of evolution/environment on a naturalistic worldview, and a product of design on a theistic worldview).
        I’m still not completely sure, even granting the definition that good (bad) = complying (or not) with the moral sense, that that is enough to have normative force, but at this point it might just be that I am too used to thinking about morality as coming from an external standard that I am having difficulty with the concept.

        That still brings us back to the meta-theoretical question of whether your theory or mine better fits and explains our intuitions about morality. And even if I grant that you can indeed formulate a subjective basis for morality, that seems to me to be just another strike against that theory (in addition to the other ones that I mentioned).
        For example, you suggest that on your theory, the universalizability of moral duties just comes from the fact that other people (being human like ourselves) have the same or similar moral sense as we do. But suppose we came across someone who demonstrably did not have the same moral sense as you, or any moral sense at all: I at least would still have the strong intuition that certain actions would be wrong for that person. But your moral theory would just have to say that I was incorrect. (Immediately suggesting the question, well, if this fellow has no moral sense, why do I have one, and why do I have to follow it? To which your theory can only say, that’s just the way things are, which seems highly arbitrary on an atheistic worldview.)


      15. I am in fact including one’s nature under the umbrella of ‘subjective’, so that may also be a point of confusion.

        I grant that in your example of the person who’s moral sense is abnormal, our intuitions are better aligned with a theory in which there is an external standard, but I also think there are good explanations for why our intuitions are like that, and that we need to take many other factors into account in the overall evaluation of different theories.

        The “why do I have to follow it” question just seems to be a restatement of the normativity question, so I’m not sure whether there’s any new concern being raised there.


      16. Re “why do I have to follow it” being a restatement: I know. I’m just reiterating the motivation for asking the question, and emphasizing that I don’t see a satisfactory answer.


      17. On theism, the foundation and source of all reality is a perfect person, so it makes sense for there to be moral values judged in reference to that person, and moral duties owed towards that person. It is a natural part of the system, so to speak.
        But on atheism, moral values and duties, if there are any, are epiphenomena. They are just tacked on and bear no natural relation to the rest of reality, which is ultimately built up from valueless physics. Hence my claim that theism has a satisfactory answer to the question “why do I have to follow this ethic?” while atheism does not.


      18. What are persons, from an atheistic perspective? Aren’t we just accidental, ultimately meaningless configurations of matter, like everything else in the universe? Personhood isn’t the only important feature of the theistic ground of morality. God’s necessity and perfection play crucial roles as well.

        Stepping way back, the first premise of the moral argument, which is what I was defending in this post, says: “Objective moral values and duties exist.” Where I clarified in my post that by this premise, I mean “Moral evaluations and obligations apply objectively, i.e. independent of people’s opinion or independent of what people believe, in at least some circumstances.”
        Your moral sense satisfaction proposal does not counterexample this premise, as far as I can tell. As far as I understand, if we grant that “good=satisfying the moral sense” as you say, then if someone’s moral sense says they should do A, then they should do A, independently of whether they believe they should do A. (Note that while the moral sense that you should do A often causes the belief that you should do A, they are not the same: one is akin to a feeling or a perception, the other is a propositional attitude.)
        So to refocus the conversation, do you agree with the first premise or not? (We’ve been straying to considerations that have more to do with the second premise, which is the topic of posts 2 and 3 in this series.)


      19. I doubt that a disentanging of opinion and belief from the moral sense reflects their actual relationship, and in my experience most parties would find it confused to identify the moral sense satisfaction theory as objective. But if you want to count it as such for the purpose of discussion then I’m game (and to be clear, it is the 2nd premise as presented in the post that you’re asking about here).


      20. The disentangling comes from the fact that the moral sense vs opinion/belief are already conceptually distinct. I agree that the relationship is more complex than just “moral sense causes opinion/belief”, but they are distinct (you don’t have to believe what your moral sense tells you, for example), and the relationship often does go that way, so I maintain what I said.


      21. OK. For the sake of discussion let’s go ahead and say that this theory is objective. The description of the theory – as outlined in the comments thus far – does not appear to require God, so how does premise #1 apply to this theory?


      22. You’re right about that – which is why, though I present it as a deductive argument for simplicity, this is actually more of an abductive argument (the justification for the first premise is primarily abductive in nature). So the argument weighs the plausibility, explanatory power, degree of ad-hocness etc of the different available explanations against each other.
        See the second and third posts in this series for why I think the theistic explanation is the better one, but this is where the issues that I’ve mentioned (e.g. contingency) become relevant.


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