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Answering the Tough Questions about Objective Morality


EDITOR'S NOTE: Today continues our eight-part debate on the resolution, "Does objective morality depend on the existence of God?" We'll hear from two sharp young thinkers. Joe Heschmeyer, a Catholic seminarian in Kansas City, Kansas, will argue the affirmative view. Steven Dillon, a gifted philosopher and a former Catholic seminarian, will argue the negative. The eight parts will run as follows:

Monday (11/4) - Joe's opening statement (affirmative)
Tuesday (11/5) - Steven's opening statement (negative)
Wednesday (11/6) - Joe's rebuttal (affirmative)
Thursday (11/7) - Steven's rebuttal (negative)
Friday (11/8) - Questions exchanged (three questions each)
Saturday (11/9) - Answers (Joe and Steven answer each other's questions)
Sunday (11/10) - Joe's closing statement (affirmative)
Monday (11/11) - Steven's closing statement (negative)

Both Joe and Steven have agreed to be present in the comment boxes, so if you have a specific question for them, ask away!


Today, each of our two participants answer the three questions submitted yesterday by his counterpart.

Joe's Answers to Steven's Questions


Question #1: I was a little surprised at how ambiguous you found the proposition "Agony is intrinsically bad". It seems to me that we all know what agony is and can recognize that experiences such as agony are bad. Furthermore, you linked to a Wikipedia page about intrinsic value in your opening statement, providing several standardized ways to interpret my proposition, but didn't make use of them. Be that as it may, I'm curious about what you think of the proposition on its more usual meaning. So, my first question is:
Q#1: Where it just means that agony is a bad thing because of what it involves, do you agree that agony is intrinsically bad?

Answer #1: Unfortunately, the background doesn’t clear up the ambiguity that I pointed out in my original response, so let me give two answers.

If, by “agony is intrinsically bad,” you mean that it’s intrinsically painful or unpleasant, then yes, I agree. That’s tautologically true: very painful things are painful. But that’s not a moral claim (any more than saying that scalding things are hot), and it’s not a particularly helpful claim.

If, by “agony is intrinsically bad,” you mean that it’s intrinsically evil, then no, I disagree. I gave the examples of childbirth and surgery for things that can be agonizingly painful that aren’t morally evil. For the world’s billion Christians, one of the things that we embrace is the Cross: “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), an event preceded by Jesus’ Agony in the Garden. The fact that Our Savior was willing to freely take on so much agony for us is something that endears us to Him.

Furthermore, there are contexts in which describing agony as morally evil wouldn’t seem to make sense. For example, Aron Ralston was trapped under a boulder for over five days, eventually having to cut off his own arm to get free. That sounds positively agonizing, but it seems strange to me to claim that either Ralston or the boulder was acting evilly.

If you mean something other than either painful/unpleasant or evil, then I’ll need more clarification.

Question #2: On your view, the moral fact that there is goodness is not grounded in or by anything because God is goodness and God is not grounded in or by anything.
Yet, in reaction to the position that there are moral facts so fundamental they're in no need of being grounded, you indicate that this is a cop out. To say there are such facts is to say they're there "just because."
This is a self-defeating argument unless you're not taking issue with the position that objective morality is ultimately ungrounded, but with the non-theist's adoption of it.
One may wonder why it’s a cop out for the non-theist to believe in ultimately ungrounded objective morality but not for the theist, and as best as I can tell, your answer is that while theists have good reasons to believe in such morality via arguments that God exists and is goodness, non-theists do not. So, my second question is as follows:
Q#2: Would you present an argument in premise/conclusion format for the conclusion that God is goodness?
I understand properly defending the premises would lead to exceeding the word count, but if we could just see the argument itself it’d give us a better idea of where you’re coming from.

Answer #2: First, a minor protest: I don’t think that this is necessary to resolve the debate. My point here isn’t that God, understood in the Thomistic sense, exists. It’s that if God, subsistent Goodness, exists, that provides a perfectly logical account for the existence of objective morality.

To prove the resolution, I must show two things: (1) a system of objective morality is possible with God; and (2) a system of objective morality is impossible without God. You just have to refute either of these, by showing either (1) objective morality is impossible, even if theism is correct; or (2) objective morality is possible without God.

Of course, if I’m right, this does mean that if objective morality exists, then God exists. But that argument requires a premise (objective goodness exists) that I didn’t prove. That said, you end up giving me that premise, and making arguments for it.

Second, your background mischaracterizes my position. I’m not claiming that goodness is ungrounded. What I’m claiming is the furthest thing from that: I’m claiming that goodness is grounded in pure Being. It is unimaginable for goodness to be more grounded.

Your characterization sounded like God was a branch on a Porphyrian tree below goodness. My argument is that God is the trunk of that tree, so to speak. Anselm rightly defined God as “that which nothing greater can be conceived.” If you’re imagining a god capable of doing evil things, you’re not imaging God, but something infinitely less than Him.


Having said that, let me modify Aquinas’ Fourth Way slightly into two distinct-but-related arguments:

Part A
Step 1: Diversity in perfections is found in things. Some things are more good, true, and beautiful than other things. The perfections we’re talking about here are what are called non-essential and non-material perfections.

Step 2: The intelligibility of diverse perfections depends on their approaching a maximum of that kind. Ex: “good” and “better” are only coherent terms in relation to some (perhaps implicit) “best.” I can say 80˚F is a hotter temperature than 30˚F with no further referent. But if I say 80˚F is a better temperature than 30˚F, you’d rightly ask, “better for what?”

Step 3: No infinite regress. The maximum rules out the possibility of an infinite regress in more and more perfect beings.

Step 4: Preliminary conclusion. God as maximum being and therefore, being itself, as well as the exemplary and efficient cause of all other beings.

Part B
Step 1: Whatever is maximally such in any genus is the cause of all which are of that genus.
Whatever belongs to one thing less than to others belongs to it not by virtue of its own nature along but through some other cause. This cannot go on to infinity. Thus, the cause of a transcendental perfection in any genus must be that which is that perfection unlimitedly, wholly, and essentially—which is called here the maximum. If you take infinite regress off the table, you need to find something unlimited.

Step 2: The maximum being is the maximum in the genus of transcendental perfections. In other words, you can’t have a Perfect Good as the cause of all good things, and a separate Perfect Beauty as a cause of all beautiful things, and so on. That would give you multiple First Causes of the same set of beings (since the same being are good, true, beautiful, etc., in different respects).

Step 3: Therefore, there is something which is the cause of the being, goodness, and whatever perfections of every being. And this, we call “God.”

Question #3: Finally, you infer that Moral Intuitionism is not an objective moral code because intuitions differ. But, intuition would just be a means of coming to know objective moral codes. Other proposed means include ‘conscience’, inference to the best explanation, and revelation. My third question is as follows:
Q#3: Does your proposed means of coming to know objective moral codes not differ among anyone? (E.g. If it’s conscience or reason, do no one’s consciences or reasoning differ?)

Answer #3: If moral intuition is understood as a means to an end, I’m completely onboard with your argument. Yes, we have moral intuitions. And yes, this points to object moral truth outside of ourselves. And it’s no serious problem that, as a tool we use to grasp reality, it may perform better in some than others. After all, this is the case with eyesight, memory, intellect, etc. But if you and I disagree about something we see off in the distance, at least one of us is wrong, because there is an objective thing that we individually perceive.

What I reject is moral intuition as an end—that something is morally good or evil simply because I intuit that it’s morally good or evil. If our subjective moral intuition isn’t open to any correction, and if it doesn’t correspond to some objective system of moral truths (capable of resolving moral dilemmas or value-disputes), then it isn’t an objective morality at all.

We actually agree on quite a bit. We both agree that moral intuition exists, and that it’s of the nature that it calls out for objective moral truths (that is, we don’t feel “this is wrong for me,” but “this is wrong, period”). My argument is that this objective moral system can only exist if there’s a God, for all of the reasons that I cited in my rebuttal. I don’t see anything in either of your posts so far that would suggest otherwise.

Steven's Answers to Joe's Questions


Question #1: Why ought we to be opposed to the suffering of others?

Answer #1: In so far as suffering is intrinsically bad and we should be opposed to what is bad, we should be opposed to the suffering of others. That is, we should prefer that others not suffer because their suffering is a bad thing.

However, the badness of suffering only constitutes a prima facie reason for being opposed to the suffering of others because there could be greater goods at stake.

For example, if a woman has to endure the excruciating pain of child-birth so that the child may be born, we should permit the suffering, otherwise a child dies. By no means am I suggesting that we look upon the suffering of others with pleasure or apathy. Permitting the lesser of two evils does not require you to view either evil in a favorable light.

Question #2: In your rebuttal, you suggest that I leave the door open for “ungrounded” objective morality. What do you mean by this? If a moral system has no foundation, how is it objective?

Answer #2: You and I have stipulated that morality is objective on the condition that some things are good, bad, right or wrong regardless of what people think. We did not further stipulate that morality is objective on the condition that every moral value or duty is grounded in or by something. So, it is permissible within the parameters we’ve drawn for morality to be objective and yet not grounded in or by anything.

To say that objective morality is not grounded in or by anything is not to say that objective morality is arbitrary. Think of a tall skyscraper. What grounds it? Well, you might say its foundation. And what grounds its foundation? You could say the land in which it is built in or upon. And what grounds the land? You could continue asking of each proposed grounding structure what grounds it. Assuming this cannot continue on indefinitely, you’ll reach a point where there simply is no deeper grounding structure: you’ve struck rock bottom. I’m saying that moral facts are grounded by other moral facts, and so on until we reach moral facts so foundational there’s just no further to go. This is radically different from saying that there is no rock bottom, and moral facts just sort of...free-float.

Question #3: You defined normative theories of ethics as “theories which discuss what is good, bad, right and wrong.” Given that, what is your basis for your assertion that “you don't need to hold a normative theory in order to endorse moral objectivism”?

Answer #3: A discussion on whether morality is objective is primarily concerned with whether an existent morality satisfies an objectivity condition. It is not primarily concerned with whether morality exists.

And herein lays the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics. Normative ethics is primarily concerned with what is good, bad, right and wrong. But, metaethics takes it for granted that morality exists. It is primarily concerned with whether what is good, bad, right or wrong satisfy various conditions such as that for objectivity.

Moral objectivism is a metaethical thesis. While it presupposes that some things are moral or immoral, it doesn’t really commit you to any particular normative theory, it just rules out those that are incompatible with the objectivity condition.

Our debate has been about whether objective morality satisfies a dependence condition. Thus, the resolution takes it for granted that there is objective morality. To avoid conceding this, I think we’d have to state the resolution as ‘If morality were objective, then it would depend upon God’s existence’.

(Image credit: Venture Burn)

Brandon Vogt

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Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author and the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released ten books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) (Ave Maria Press, 2017). He works as the Senior Publishing Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their seven children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com.

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