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God vs. ‘Just Because’: Two Explanations for 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!



With deep gratitude towards Steven Dillon (for an engaging and charitable debate), Strange Notions (for hosting it), and all of you (for reading and participating in the comments), here’s my response to Steven’s opening statement:

Is Agony Intrinsically Evil?

In my opening statement, I suggested that non-theistic moral systems cannot be the source of objective moral claims. In his opening statement, Steven proposed what he described as an “exceptionally good” candidate for a necessarily true moral proposition: that “agony is intrinsically bad.”

He defines “agony” as “an intense and extreme amount of pain.” But instead of defining what it means to call agony “intrinsically bad,” he simply gives “some paradigmatic examples of bad things.” For example: “It’s bad when parents have to live their lives in worry and stress because of inopportunity and an unfair society.”

So what does it mean to call agony “intrinsically bad,” exactly? Do we mean simply that agony is extremely unpleasant or, in some way, painful? If so, that seems tautological, like saying “extremely painful things are painful.” Besides being uninformative, that’s not even be a moral claim.

It’s possible that this tautology is all Stephen aims to prove with the proposition. His argument is that “we did not conclude that agony is intrinsically bad because some further necessary truth dictated as much. We didn’t even consider other propositions, after all. We just thought about what the proposition meant, and it seemed to us that it was true.” But if that is the case, then he hasn’t done the job of establishing a moral proposition at all. Even a torturer could readily and gleefully affirm, “agony is very painful!” That, I suspect, is the point.

So saying agony is painful doesn’t say it’s good or evil, that it should be pursued or avoided, etc. As G.E. Moore would say, these are “is” claims, not “ought” claims. Saying that agony is painful may describe reality, but it doesn’t tell us how we ought to behave (or not behave) without reference, at least implicitly, to some sort of moral code or system. And it’s that moral system that we’re looking for.

Let’s consider an alternative interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad.” Since Steven tells us that this is a moral proposition, he may mean that agony is a moral evil, never to be intentionally committed. If so, is that true?

At first glance, it certainly seems like good advice. But is it morally evil to intentionally suffer? Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth? Or what about the surgeon who performs an agonizing (but life-saving) operation? Are high-stress jobs immoral? If so, what makes these things evil? Again, we’re left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system.

So, understood in either sense, then, “agony is intrinsically bad” fails as an objective moral claim. It’s either a non-moral tautology, or a false (and non-objective) moral claim.

The Problem of Intuitionism

In the last section, we saw that under either interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad,” we were left looking for some sort of moral code or system. Instead, Steven advocates something akin to what the utilitarian R.M. Hare described as “pluralistic intuitionism”: namely, belief in “a plurality of moral principles, each established by intuition, and not related to one another in an ordered structure, but only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.” There are several problems with this pluralistic intuitionism.

First, it’s not an objective moral code. Intuitions differ. Steven takes it as self-evident that “Racism, animal cruelty, human trafficking, all of these things are bad.” For centuries, Europeans and white Americans assumed the opposite, at least about racism. As the Supreme Court noted in the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case:

"They [racist colonial laws] show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes, not only in the parties, but in the person who joined them in marriage. And no distinction in this respect was made between the free negro or mulatto and the slave, but this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race."

So the ordinary American today views racial equality as self-evident and racism as a morally intuitive evil. The ordinary (white) American of yesteryear viewed racial inequality as self-evident, believing it immoral to treat black and white people as equals. Upon what basis can we say that their moral intuition and judgment was wrong? Our own intuition? Or something more substantive?

Second, pluralistic intuitionism provides no basis for rational moral decision-making. Russ Shafer-Landau, as Steven notes, says, “It seems to me self-evident that, other things equal, it is wrong to take pleasure in another’s pain,” etc. In saying that it “seems to me” self-evident, Shafer-Landau seems to be conceding the subjectivity of intuitionism. But in saying “other things equal,” Shafer-Landau is revealing a second problem: what do we do when we have a clash of values?

Moral reasoning is simple when all other things are equal. What makes it so vexing is that this is rarely the case. Often, moral reasoning involves apparently-competing values, like justice v. mercy, private property v. equitable distribution of goods, etc. If your moral code is a hodgepodge of unsorted feelings, you have no tools other than gut feeling to decide these questions. As Hare said, these values are “only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.”

Third, all forms of intuitionism point to (and rely upon) God. Mind you, I don’t doubt that moral intuitions exist. But as we’ve seen, they’re incoherent without reference to God. If these really are objective and binding laws of human behavior, where is the law-giver? Given that these laws exist, why do they exist? Steven quotes Erik Wielenberg, who treats these laws as an effect without a cause:

"Such facts are the foundation of (the rest of) objective morality and rest on no foundation themselves. To ask of such facts, “where do they come from?” or “on what foundation do they rest?” is misguided in much the way that, according to many theists, it is misguided to ask of God, “where does He come from?” or “on what foundation does He rest”? The answer is the same in both cases: They come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths."

This is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”

That's not the case in the Christian answer that God is uncaused. We argue that God must exist, since you cannot just have an infinite series of conditional and created beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way proves the existence of a Being (who we call God) who must exist necessarily, and who relies only upon Himself for His Being. Without Him, there couldn’t be a universe. We don’t assumethat God must exist: we show that He must.

Further, this conclusion makes sense. After all, God is Subsistent Being (ipsum esse subsistens). Being could no more not-be than non-being could be. Asking who caused the Uncaused Cause is contradictory, and it makes sense to say that a necessarily-existing Being necessarily exists.

That's quite different when we're dealing with moral principles: there's no apparent reason or explanation why we would assume that they're uncaused (other than the alternative requires God).

And asking who or what causes these truths isn't contradictory. On the contrary, it’s a question that anyone who insists on the existence of objective morality should be able to answer. Do these various moral truths exist apart from us? Or did we bring them into existence somehow? It doesn’t make sense to simply assert the existence of myriad uncaused and unrelated moral truths, and claim that these are each necessarily-existing, particularly when no two intuitionist philosophers seem to agree on what these principles are.

Asserting that there are random incommensurable moral rules is no basis for establishing morality as binding. The origin of these laws is “just because.” Why follow these authorless laws? Apparently, just because. Needless to say, that’s hardly a sufficient reason to justify changing one’s lifestyle or moral behavior.

When we describe something as "pointless," we mean that it doesn't have a purpose. It's only in relation to a purpose that we can say whether something succeeds or fails. The most common atheistic cosmology is that the universe is an objectively meaningless accident, and therefore, pointless. But if the entire universe is devoid of inherent meaning, how can we possibly find meaning inherent in our moral behavior (or misbehavior)?

Is Morality Contingent Upon Knowledge of God?

Steven suggests in his opening statement that the person affirming objective morality’s dependence upon God “must explain why these arguments—which don’t even mention God—are only sound if God exists.” And he provides a fascinating quotation by the Christian apologist Richard Swinburne:

"An argument that claims that the best explanation of the existence of morality is the action of God who created it must claim that many moral truths are (logically) contingent. For the existence of the phenomena described by (logically) necessary truths need no explanation. It does not need explaining that all bachelors are unmarried, or that, if you add two to two, you get four. These things hold inevitably and necessarily, whether or not there is a God."

With all due respect to both Steven and Swinburne, this gets things backwards. God, as Aquinas’ Third Way shows, exists necessarily. We just saw as much in the last section. So to say that objective morality depends upon His Existence is to ground morality in something necessary, rather than in something subjective, like our shifting moral intuitions about the good. (Even if you’re not personally convinced of the necessity of God’s existence, hopefully you can see why Swinburne’s argument fails: it assumes the existence of a contingent God, which both Christians and atheists would reject.)

But does that mean that we need to know of God’s existence before we can know of morality? No.

Let me illustrate with an example. A thing falling to the ground depends upon gravity. But surely, we observed that things fall before we understood why they fell. The technical explanation for this is that there’s a difference between ontology and epistemology. In the order of being, gravity is prior to the fall: it’s because gravity exists that the thing falls, not the other way around. But in the order of knowing, we know that things fall long before we know why they fall. In fact, the question “Why did that thing fall?” should point us towards the truth of gravity. It would be a mistake to respond to this question, “The thing just fell, no need to probe any deeper.”

Likewise, both Steven and I have observed that objective morality exists. Now the question now is why it exists. Steven’s explanation amounts to “Just because.” I argue that we need to do better than this, and that objective morality cries out for the existence of God.


Objective morality is observable apart from knowledge of God, which is why atheists and agnostics can know right from wrong, and why philosophers can talk about self-evident moral propositions, and why everyone reading this knows what we mean by “moral” and “immoral.” Some things are just wrong, regardless of our philosophies, and even if we desperately want them to be right.

But objective morality isn’t explicable apart from knowledge of God: every attempt, including Steven’s most recent one, fails to explain why objective morality exists.

(Image credit: Young Aus Skeptics)

Joe Heschmeyer

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Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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