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Learning from Agony: Objective Morality Without God


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!



I’m very grateful to Brandon Vogt and Strange Notions for hosting this debate and to Joe for engaging me in this discussion. I look forward to an interesting and enlightening exchange!

The resolution of this debate is stated as ‘Objective morality depends upon the existence of God’. Now, you may find this initially puzzling. As Michael Huemer states, “The most discussed metaethical question is that of whether value is ‘objective’.”1 And yet when you survey this extensive literature in search of arguments for the objectivity of values, you’ll be lucky to find any that mention God. In fact, when the resolution’s most public advocate—Dr. William Lane Craig—argues for objective morality, he just argues that in our experience we apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties and we’re justified in trusting our perceptions until we have good reason not to. This is about as untheistic a case as one can make.

But, then it’s no wonder why so many atheists believe in objective morality. The position has good arguments and they don’t seem to carry anything theistic commitments. This becomes a source of burden for the proponent of the resolution. She must explain why these arguments—which don’t even mention God—are only sound if God exists. And the atheist who believes in moral objectivism on their basis seems well within her rights to resist the resolution until this burden is met. While this is a perfectly legitimate strategy for the atheist who is not saying the resolution is false, I am taking the negative in this debate. As such, I must bear the burden my assertion carries and construct a case against the resolution.

So what will it take to show that the resolution is false? I suppose I could just argue that objective morality doesn’t depend upon God because there is no God for objective morality to depend upon. But, that would make God’s relation to morality peripheral when that’s really what this debate is about. I’d much rather argue that God’s existence simply makes no difference to whether morality is objective. Certainly, God’s existence would affect what objective moral truths there are, but it would not affect whether there are objective moral truths.

The Argument

Allow me to begin my case by taking inventory of some common ground between Joe and I, clarifying the resolution’s terms along the way.

Though Joe believes that God exists, and I do not—that is, even though we disagree on whether there is an essentially omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being—we share a good amount of moral beliefs in common. We both think, for instance, that some moral values and duties hold independent of our attitudes towards them. In other words, Joe and I believe that morality is objective. Moreover, we both believe that some things are unalterably good, bad, right and wrong, or put another way, that some moral propositions are necessarily true or false. And among these moral propositions, we recognize that some are more fundamental than others.

Now, this last statement might strike you as strange. If there really are necessarily true moral propositions, how can some be more fundamental than others? Wouldn’t that just make them contingent, at least upon the most fundamental moral truths?

But, there’s nothing obviously incoherent about necessary truths grounding or explaining other necessary truths. It may necessarily be the case, for example, that the second person of the Trinity takes the name “Jesus”. But, surely, it’d be even more fundamental that Jesus exists. He could hardly take a name if he didn’t!

So, let’s draw a distinction between necessary truths that are grounded or explained by propositions other than themselves and necessary truths that aren’t. We’ll call the first kind of necessity ‘non-fundamental’ and the second ‘fundamental’.

‘Fundamentality’ is typical of logically necessary claims, and as world renowned Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne explains:

“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.”2

And this is where our moral beliefs reach an impasse. In fact, I’d wager that this disagreement is so substantial that it all but determines how we view the resolution. Joe believes—and the resolution requires—that any and all fundamentally necessary moral truths involve God. These fundamental moral properties must be identical with or embedded in God’s nature, or be the result of some sort of causal activity on God’s part, like a command etc.

If there was even a single fundamental moral truth that didn’t involve God, objective morality would not depend upon God. Being fundamental, it wouldn’t depend upon anything it didn’t involve, and being moral, its truth would entail the objectivity of morality.

My position is that there are such facts. In the words of philosopher Erik Wielenberg:

“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.”3

I feel that this is where the debate should focus, and because it’d make no difference to the resolution, I’m even willing to assume for the sake of argument that God exists and grounds all sorts of contingent moral truths.

Now, I should say a word about the costs and benefits of endorsing my position before arguing for it.

First, there’s nothing at all atheistic about it. Richard Swinburne accepts it, and he’s Eastern Orthodox! Second, the existence of such independent, fundamental truths would not deplete God’s greatness. At least, any more so than the existence of independent, fundamental truths like the law of non-contradiction would.

With these preliminary comments in mind, let’s talk about whether there are any fundamental moral truths that don’t involve God.

There are a number of ways that one might go about doing this, but I’ve found it helpful to start with moral propositions that are commonly held to be necessarily true and go from there.

I think the following candidate is exceptionally good at this role: Agony is intrinsically bad.

It’s always good to stick close to what’s clearest to us in experience and, unfortunately, pain and badness are things we experience all too much in life.

To better understand why this proposition is true let’s reflect on the concepts it involves, beginning with agony.

We all know what this is: it’s an intense and extreme amount of pain. It could be anything from searing burns and shattered bones to a parent losing its child on a hospital bed in the ICU. We’re not talking about paper cuts here, this is the kind of pain that can ruin someone’s life.

What about badness? Here are some paradigmatic examples of bad things: it is bad when a young and vulnerable child is bullied until she commits suicide. It’s bad when parents have to live their lives in worry and stress because of inopportunity and an unfair society. Racism, animal cruelty, human trafficking, all of these things are bad.

With these concepts in mind, let’s return to the experience of agony. Is this harrowing level of pain in and of itself a bad thing? I hope you find the question a little ridiculous. Is a pain so consuming that it leads some to think their life isn’t worth living any more a bad thing? Of course! It’s horrible. I’m not asking whether agony is good for certain things. I’m asking about the experience itself. I think the answer has to be yes.

Asking why agony is intrinsically bad is like asking why we ought to do what we ought to do: the answer is that if it’s true that we ought to do something, then that’s why! Likewise, if something really is agonizing, then that’s why it’s bad! How could anything further explain the badness of agony? It’s not like you have these two things: agony and badness, and something has to add badness to agony.

Note, 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. This is how we come to believe claims such as that ‘Nothing is older than itself’, or that ‘Everything is identical to itself’.

As Michael Huemer explains:

“Reasoning sometimes changes how things seem to us. But there is also a way things seem to us prior to reasoning; otherwise, reasoning could not get started. The way things seem prior to reasoning we may call an ‘initial appearance’. An initial, intellectual appearance is an ‘intuition’. That is, an intuition that p is a state of its seeming to one that p that is not dependent on inference from other beliefs and that result from thinking about p, as opposed to perceiving, remembering, or introspecting. An ethical intuition is an intuition whose content is an evaluative proposition.”4

We know this proposition (and those like it) through intuition. Moreover, the proposition is self-evident. As Thomas Aquinas said, “A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject.”5 Clearly, badness is included in the essence of agony!

So, is the proposition ‘Agony is intrinsically bad’ explained or grounded by a different proposition? The answer has got to be no: once you grasp what agony is, you understand that it’s bad. I’ll tentatively conclude, therefore, that we’ve identified a fundamental moral truth.

The only question left to ask is whether this proposition involves God, and I think the answer is very clearly no. God is obviously neither agony nor badness. Moreover the badness of agony is entirely accounted for by the nature of agony: God is not needed to make agony a bad thing. If he were, agony wouldn’t be intrinsically bad. Finally, since agony can exist without God, and agony inherently involves badness, badness can exist without God.


We’ve identified a moral proposition that boasts of the following features: it’s (i) necessarily true, (ii) fundamental, and (iii) it does not involve God. As such, this proposition belongs with all those other propositions that would be true whether or not God exists. God may affect what objective moral truths there are, but he makes no difference to whether there are objective moral truths.
(Image credit: Photo Ready)


  1. Huemer, Michael. Ethical Intuitionism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. p. 2
  2. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004. p. 213
  3. Wielenberg, Erik. “In Defense of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral-Realism.” Faith and Philosophy 26.1 (2009): 23-41
  4. Ethical Intuitionism, pp. 101-102
  5. ST, P. 1, Q. 2, A. 1.

    From another perspective, moral philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau states: “A proposition p is self-evident = df. p is such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” - Shafer-Landau, Russ. Moral Realism: A Defence. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005. p. 247

    He goes on to say on the next page, “It seems to me self-evident that, other things equal, it is wrong to take pleasure in another’s pain, to taunt and threaten the vulnerable, to prosecute and punish those known to be innocent, and to sell another’s secrets solely for personal gain.”

Steven Dillon

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Steven Dillon is a nature loving hippy who enthusiastically supports the Philosophy of Religion, and the importance of good-willed dialogue between theists and atheists.

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